Haley to speak at Catfish Row Museum’s ‘Food For Thought’ program

The debate over what defines authentic Southern cooking is largely moot, according to University of Southern Mississippi professor Dr. Andrew Haley. 

A trip to a typical bookstore, he says, would likely turn up cookbooks labeled “Southern cooking”—meaning white—and “soul cooking,” meaning Black. Yet, for much of U.S. history, that distinction would have been meaningless.

“We have a sense that Black cooking in America is something distinct from white, Southern cooking, and that is not exactly true,” says Haley, the Moorman distinguished professor in humanities and associate professor of American cultural history at USM. “That is a story that began in the early twentieth century and persists to this day.”

Haley, who has studied more than 200 cookbooks published between the 1890s and the 1970s, will dig into the roots of Southern cooking in a presentation titled “Home Town Recipes” as part of Catfish Row Museum’s Food For Thought series on April 23. 

Based on a Vicksburg cookbook of the same name—Home Town Recipes, published in the 1980s by the Esquirettes, an African American civic and social club that began in segregated schools—Haley’s talk will explore how over time, Anglo and African American foodways intersected and integrated as Black cooks worked in white homes to help prepare meals for those families. 

Examples of this commingling are found throughout Home Town Recipes, Haley says. The cookbook’s “Meat, Fish, and Poultry” section lists 20 entrée and sauce recipes for shish-kabobs, oyster stew, stuffed crabs, barbecued chicken, raspberry glazed ham, roast duck with apple stuffing, roast beef, pizza dogs and meatloaf, while a section titled “Casseroles and Miscellaneous” includes Creole dishes such as seafood okra gumbo and crawfish étouffée, as well as more than a dozen casserole recipes. 

But Haley’s research took him deeper into American culinary history to early American cookbooks that reflected their authors’ European ancestries. Recipes from these books largely represent England and France, with modifications to include venison and other local game, as well as pumpkins, which were unique to North America. Eventually, ingredients and cooking techniques with African origins made their way into these recipes, as well.

“During the post-Civil War [era], African American cooks were employed in white homes, and as a result, the recipes were developed by Black and white cooks working together,” Haley explains. “There was this intermingling of recipes where you can trace an ingredient here or a recipe there, but for the most part, what you’re actually seeing is a cooperative effort.”

Over time, African culinary staples like okra, yams and black-eyed peas influenced American cookery, while local ingredients were also adapted—sweet potatoes subbed for yams, while corn was used to make grits and hoe cakes.

“In the twentieth century, interviews with Black cooks who worked in white households talk about this exchange,” he says. “They talk about what they brought and their expertise, but they also talked about what they took from the white cooks that they worked with, [and] how it changed their culinary experiences.”

Cookbooks published in this era reflect the results of these collaborations, but not necessarily the origins. Haley says cultural politics influenced how these distinctions were made. “White Americans were attempting to show that this culinary legacy that they had was their own and didn’t want to credit Black cooks with any thoughts, and Black Americans were looking to establish a cultural presence,” he says. “There emerges this divide between Black and white cooking.”

Haley’s research centers on what these community cookbooks can reveal about our past and how these communities ate, as well as the roles of Black Americans in Mississippi. Around the same time as Home Town Recipes surfaced in the 1980s, the local Junior Auxiliary published the popular cookbook Vintage Vicksburg, a glossy hardcover that represents the wealthier, white parts of Vicksburg society. But most distinctions between the two end there, Haley says. 

“Once you get past the fact that there are a few recipes that are kind of signaling membership in the social elite, the recipes aren’t all that distinct,” he says. “There’s a lot of overlap between the Junior Auxiliary cookbook and the Esquirette’s cookbook.”

The most noticeable differences between these two types of Southern cookbooks are rooted in economics. “When this cookbook is published in Vicksburg, the average household income of a Black family was half the average household income of white family,” he says. “There’s more canned ingredients [and] more frozen ingredients used in the Black cookbook than equivalent white cookbooks.”

The “Home Town Recipes” program will be held at 2 p.m. on April 23 at Catfish Row Museum, located at 913 Washington Street in Vicksburg.

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Jim Beaugez

Jim Beaugez is a Mississippi-based writer whose work has been published by Rolling Stone, Smithsonian, Oxford American, Garden & Gun, Guitar World and other publications. He also created and produced "My Life in Five Riffs," a documentary series for Guitar Player that traces contemporary musicians back to their sources of inspiration.

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