As we age our vocabulary grows deeper and more advanced. There are words I use today that were never in my lexicon in my youth. “Lexicon” would be a prime example.
My vocabulary is nothing that I have consciously sought to improve. I am a former B- student who had very little use for school and even less interest in writing. I have never signed up for a word-of-the-day club, and mainly use a dictionary for definitions instead of synonyms. Life just gives us words. We use them as needed, until we reach a certain age when we begin to forget things and our vocabulary begins to shrink.
A word that I have used more in the last five weeks than I have in the previous 50 years is “quintessential.” My friend Wyatt Waters and I are writing a new book, our fourth collaborative project titled, “A Mississippi Palate.” We are covering the state of Mississippi from the tip of the Delta to the Coast and compiling what we believe is “quintessential Mississippi” along the way. Waters is capturing the beauty and quirkiness of our home state through his watercolor brush, and I am doing what I do best— eating.
During the process a television project has developed, and we are in the middle of filming a six-episode season of “A Mississippi Palate.” The show covers our process in how we work on a book project, but we are also visiting with chef and restaurateur friends throughout the state and gaining their opinions on what each thinks might be the quintessential Mississippi dish.
It’s a tougher question than one might imagine. Many states are easy to peg— lobsters are associated with Maine, clams are tops in Massachusetts, crawfish and strawberries are prolific in Louisiana, and the debate still rages between Georgia and South Carolina over peaches. It’s fairly easy to go one or two quintessential foods deep in a given state, but trying to delve deeper and create a list of five definite entries sparks lengthy disputes and genuine brain racking.
As of late, one question has kept me up past midnight, awakened me early, and sparred heated debate among my friends and acquaintances— “What are the five quintessential Mississippi foods?”
Many people have knee-jerk reactions to the question. “Grits” are frequently suggested, but I think people are thinking “Southern” instead of quintessentially Mississippi. Fried chicken, turnip greens, and corn are often offered up as options, but those foodstuffs— though very popular in Mississippi— aren’t archetypal victuals.
To be a quintessential food, it should not only be consumed in large quantities in this state, but it should be preferred over other foodstuffs in its category. The quintessential Mississippi food should also be prolific in this part of the world and be one of our main crops— grown and consumed.
My top four came quickly. It’s that fifth entry that has created so much consternation. I originally thought it should be some type of seafood from the Gulf. In my world, I could easily rank all five of my personal choices from the Gulf. We have world-class shrimp, but they are also being netted in Alabama and Texas waters, too. Several species of fish are more prevalent in our part of the Gulf, but the farther one travels north through Mississippi, the less fresh seafood is a factor. I was on the verge of choosing the blue crab— our crabs are world-class, and are so good that a majority of them are shipped to Maryland in the winter months— but the north-of-I-20 rule applies there, too.
Trying to decide which seafood, if any, would make the list gave me a headache, so I skipped it all together.
After much wailing and gnashing of teeth, here is my list of the Top Five Quintessential Mississippi Foods:
5. ???: I seriously couldn’t decide on what the #5 pick should be. I could (and maybe should) have made it a list of four, but that just didn’t seem right. I’ll leave this one up to the people of Mississippi. What do you think is the #5 quintessential Mississippi food? Fill in the blank, folks.
4. Watermelon: Sure this could fall into that “it’s just Southern” category, but all one needs to do is drive five miles in any direction on a Mississippi highway in the middle of summer and try not to run into someone selling a load of watermelons out of the back of a pickup truck. We grow them well. We love the way they taste. We eat them a lot. Your honor, I rest my case.
3. Sweet Potatoes: This one was easy, and a solid #3 pick. The Vardaman area in the northern part of our state has the perfect soil and climate to grow sweet potatoes en masse. They not only have a festival celebrating that particular tuber, the main street that runs through the town is named Sweet Potato Avenue. I’ll bet Massachusetts doesn’t have a road named after clam chowder. Sweet potatoes are statewide, they are healthy, and deserve to be #3.
2. Catfish: Again, a slam-dunk pick, and one in which I debated for the top slot. Had I compiled this list 15 years ago, there is no doubt that catfish would be leading the pack, but these days, due to the invasion of subpar Asian import knockoffs, and cost factors it is safely in the respectable #2 spot. Catfish houses aren’t unique to Mississippi, but I would argue that there are more in this state than any other.
We lead the country in the harvesting of catfish, too. Even with the recent slowdown in the market, Mississippi doubles our closest competitor (Alabama) and dwarfs #3 Arkansas in catfish production.
Before we move to #1, let me add this: DO NOT EVER SUPPORT A RESTAURANT THAT SERVES ANYTHING OTHER THAN FARM-RAISED MISSISSIPPI CATFISH. Period.
1. Blueberries: It makes me proud that a foodstuff that continually makes lists of the most-healthy foods is one that is so plentiful here at home. Like Vardaman and its sweet potatoes, the soil and climate in the southern part of the state are as perfect for growing blueberries as Napa Valley’s soil and cool nights are for growing grapes.
In the list of by-state rankings of blueberry production, Mississippi barely makes the top 10, coming in at number nine. Washington state produces 10 times more blueberries than Mississippi, but this is my list and, to my thinking, blueberries are #1.
What are your Top Five Quintessential Mississippi Foods?
View today’s recipe: Blueberry-Peach Shortcake