Category Archives: Southern Food

Mississippi Burning

Everyone comes from somewhere. Their “roots” home, if you will.  People have settled in their “some places” for all sorts of reasons: money, fame, dreams, love, vice – or just plain “…that’s it!  I’m not going any further!”  And let’s not forget God Almighty!  The Lord, it seems, has always directed folk to plop down somewhere off the beaten path and spread his gospel.  No disrespect intended, mind you.  But you know it’s the truth.

Once settled, years go by. Generations are born and die in that place.  Many times the “how and why” a family’s roots came to be in a particular location becomes lost in the dust of space and time.  Sheer indifference plays a role. Hard luck or deep-pain stories passed on to succeeding generations can make it easy to bury the idea of being from a town you wouldn’t want people to know that’s where you grew up.

The place of my birth is a perfect example.  I used to tell folk I was born in a city nearly 200 miles away from where I actually drew my first breath.  That town’s name just sounded better.  It was a “big” city by comparison.  It wasn’t New York, Chicago, or LA, but at the time I thought telling this lie would make me appear more sophisticated. (Ha!)  I found out that wasn’t the case because this “big city” was thought of as a country bumpkin town in a backwater state by most everyone else except people living in other country bumpkin towns in backwater states. (No offense meant to anyone.)  So I didn’t really do myself any favors. I still “got no respect” as that comedian used to wail to anybody who would listen.

So I got on with my life.  I finally started telling the truth about where I was born; defiantly writing in that dreaded name on official forms and joined in the fun when everybody would laugh their heads off at the name of my birthplace. I guess I kind of knew that would be the reaction, so in a way, I felt okay about lying about it in the first place. After a while, I began thinking about how my family ended  up digging and planting deep roots in a small Indiana town known for two things (at least as far as I know): a lynching and the actor James Dean.  Yep, “that” James Dean – the one who was headed for Hollywood superstardom but was taken from us too soon in that horrific accident.  But what’s even more remarkable is how this little town became my family’s homestead. It was nothing grandiose like doing God’s work. And, no, vice nor fame were the culprits.  Money certainly played a role – the Great Depression still had a stranglehold on large chunks of the population; especially on my family, and especially in Mississippi.

Four years ago, my cousins and I were planning a reunion celebrating “100 Hundred Years of Family” -1911 to 2011 – the year our grandparents got married and the hundred year anniversary of that event.  As you might expect, it was decided to have it at the family homestead; in that small Indiana town no bigger than a minute.  Once we were all accounted for ( it turned out that our six generations and nearly 600 descendants were scattered over 12 states, in Great Britain, and on an Aircraft Carrier in the Atlantic ocean; location unknown at the time for security reasons); the subject  of why our elders settled in Indiana; in this very small, very, very White town was a family mystery.

That’s when the pork chops hit the skillet.  It seemed that love was the answer.

Her name was Zadie.  Aunt Zadie to me.  She’s the one who started it all. The story begins with the fact that for years she had worked for a White family in Mississippi – cooking, some light cleaning, taking care of their kids. But her main job was to cook.  And Lord have mercy did she ever. (I enjoyed countless Sunday dinners at her house, so I can vouch for her working those pots ‘n pans and skillets.) Seriously, her cooking was legendary in our family. You would stuff yourself, fall out on the floor or couch – wherever, and roll around moaning like someone was beating you with a stick and all you could do was ask for a third or fourth helping of Aunt Zadie’s whatever.

None of our elders knew why the family Aunt Zadie worked for had to move – to leave Mississippi; but they obviously made her an offer she couldn’t refuse.  She had to move with them; just had to. And she did.

Thus began a nearly 80-year journey; an odyssey, if you will of my family settling in and establishing ourselves in a state that had the highest Ku Klux Klan membership of any state outside the Deep South.  But also a state that integrated an elementary school three years before the famous Brown v Board of Education ruling that outlawed segregation in America’s public schools. Ironic, but true. Incredibly, the school was named after President Lincoln. And this “Negro” child (me) did not even warrant a picket line, nasty shouts – and nary a brick or bottle was thrown; nor was one White kid withdrawn from that school when I enrolled.  Yet, this was the same very small; very, very White town that lynched two Black men and a third barely surviving the same fate.

We’re Hoosiers ( that’s the Indiana state nickname) through and through because of my Aunt Zadie’s cooking. Her pot roast, collard, turnip and mustard greens seasoned to perfection; her sweet potato pie, BBQ ribs, succulent smothered chicken, peach cobbler – oh, and her pork chops drowning in rich spicy gravy; and I never will forget her meatloaf: lord, lord, lord!  She cooked “Soul” food as its called.  This is the cooking her Mississippi family obviously loved; loved so much that Indiana became Aunt Zadie’s home, too.  All because she could (as we say in Black families): “throw down!”  She could “burn!”

I know you are probably wondering about the name of the town where I was born.  Why I didn’t mention it earlier.  I’ll bet you thought it couldn’t be that bad; or strange.  As I said, I’m okay with it now. But back then, well, how would you feel if you were born in a place named Marked Tree, and had to let the world know it.

Go ahead. Let it out. Laugh all you want. I CAN’T HER YOU!  nananananan!!!!

Copyright (c) 2015, Roads, Paths & Trails – “Glimpses of a Memoir #1 – “80 years a Hoosier.” All Rights Reserved.

Note:  In his award-winning book: “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine,” author Adrian Miller was asked by Pop South ( a website reflecting on Southern Pop Culture), where Southern food ends and Soul food begins.  He said, “Inside the South, the distinction between the two is so subtle that it’s almost meaningless. That said, I find Soul food tends to have more intensity…sweeter, more highly spiced; a bit higher fat content, more bone in meat (neck bones, smothered chicken, and meaty soups) dishes than Southern food.”