Texans are often recognized for the pride that they have in their home state. I get that. Not because I think Texas is that much better than other states in our country, but because I take great pride in my home state of Mississippi. Six years ago, I wrote an introduction to the book, “A Mississippi Palate.” In it I relayed a story of an epiphany I had a dozen or so years ago. It’s always struck me as odd that I had to travel halfway around the world to truly appreciate the entirety of my home state.
The state of Mississippi adopted the motto, “The birthplace of America’s music,” several years ago. It is catchy and clever. The PR department must have been working overtime when they came up with that phrase, I thought. Maybe it will help paint a positive light on our state in the eyes of the 21st Century the world. I get it.
It wasn’t until I was thousands of miles away from home that my love and appreciation for my home state grew into what it has become today. It happened one night in Italy working on An Italian Palate. Our Tuscan friends Annagloria and Enzo had just introduced us to a couple from Milan— Barbara and Alberto— who would eventually become great friends of ours, too. We were all having dinner in a small bed and breakfast in the Italian countryside. This was a special night because the B&B hired a live band. Live music is not as commonplace in the Italian countryside as it is in Mississippi.
You haven’t lived until you’ve heard a British cover band sing American rock and roll in Italian. I was seated across from my new friend Barbara. She was warm, sophisticated, and inquisitive. “Tell us about Mississippi,” she said, shouting over a Lynyrd Skynyrd cover.
“Well I come from a town called Hattiesburg,” I said. “It’s about an hour north of the Gulf of Mexico.” Her eyes lit up. She might not have been able to point out Mississippi on a map— The Weather Channel once referred to us as that “Land mass” between Louisiana and Alabama— but she knew where the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico were located. I began searching for more familiar landmarks to help her pinpoint my home state’s location.
“My hometown is just an hour and a half northeast of New Orleans,” I continued.
A brief glint of recognition hit her eyes. “Jazz!” she said.
“That’s right New Orleans is where jazz was invented. And in Mississippi, if you travel up Highway 49 which passes two blocks from my house, you’ll hit Highway 61 in the Delta, where blues music was invented.
“Ah the blues,” she said. “B.B. King.”
“Yep, he’s from Mississippi. And so is Muddy Waters, and if you believe Muddy Waters who said, ‘the blues had a baby and they named the baby rock and roll,’ and I do, then just an hour or two to the east of the Delta is Tupelo, Mississippi the birthplace of Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll.”
“Elvis Presley!” Barbara— a child of the Elvis era— squealed, as if I was talking about some far off, exotic land.
“And just two hours south of Tupelo is Meridian, Mississippi…” I was just about to go into my pitch for Jimmie Rogers, The Singing Brakeman, and “the inventor of country music,” when it hit me like a shot from a cannon— Mississippi, my home state, is truly the birthplace of America’s music, and ground zero for the most influential and popular art form of the 20th Century. It’s not just a PR slogan or marketing phrase, it’s true. Mississippi is the birthplace of the music that has changed the world for over 100 years. This IS an exotic land.
There is no question that we have scars and bruises from a rough, cruel, and many times inexcusable and unexplainable past, but those are the burdens of the entire country, too. All nations have scars. What defines us as a culture is how we move past those tragedies.
We are often cursed by the sins of our ancestors. It is unfortunate that almost every civilization in history was founded on the pain and conquest of others. Though what distinguishes civilizations, nations, and states within those nations, are the ones who rise above it. I believe Mississippi has risen above our past.
I believe I am a son of the new Mississippi.
When compiling the book “A Mississippi Palate,” I asked several friends and notable Mississippians to text me their feelings on our home state. I’ll let their words do the talking.
“In Mississippi, Friday and Saturday nights are filled with football. Sunday mornings are reserved for church. Though, no matter what time of the day, day of the week, or activity on the schedule, life in Mississippi is always centered around family.” — Archie Manning
There is something about our Southern palette. Maybe it’s the fresh produce, the long growing season, the cross cultural influences, or the abundance of seasoning on everything that equips someone from down here to travel with a sense of curiosity. To be curious not only about people or place but the food of other cultures. We will eat anything and can, more often than not figure out what they are doing, and incorporate it into what we do.” – Bill Dunlap
No other state in the union has contributed more to American culture than Mississippi, specifically in the areas of music, literature, art, history, food, architecture, and sports – you’re welcome! – Malcolm White
“One of the things that I’ve noticed when I cross paths with a Mississippian out in the world, after you shake hands and ask each other, ‘Which town are you from?’ you just start visiting. Most Mississippi people are at home anywhere on the planet. Wherever they are it’s basically the same as being on the front porch of somebody’s cabin at the Neshoba County Fair— everyone’s welcome.” – Marty Stuart
“I grew up on field peas and corn bread, and still consider it a necessity at least once a week. Of course, Mom’s coconut cake perched on the dessert table is mandatory to complete the meal.” – Gary Grubbs
“Whenever I get questions about Mississippi from those who haven’t had the good fortune to visit us, I’m reminded that it’s…complicated. Though financially we may be the poorest state, we are undeniably rich in culture, and while tensions remain in politics and race relations the generosity and graciousness that are our shared heritage shines through in our daily interactions with each other.” – Cary Hudson
“People ask me all the time how Mississippi has produced so many of the world’s greatest writers. It’s because we tell stories. That’s what Mississippians have done – and have done well – for as long as there has been a Mississippi. Per capita, Mississippi produces more writers, musicians, chefs, and athletes than any other place on earth. We entertain, it’s what we do.” – Rick Cleveland
“In one short drive down US Hwy 49 South out of Jackson, Mississippi, one can get barbecue, homegrown tomatoes, fried pies, catfish, Elvis clocks, and a metal chicken bigger than a Volkswagen. You can get baptized at least 38 times at different churches before you get past Florence, you can have your fortune told and see a neon yellow statue of a raging bull in a handstand, with “JESUS SAVES” inexplicably written on its flanks. Talk to me about ‘diversity.’” – Jill Conner Browne
“I carry Mississippi all over the world, and that’s the least I can do. It has blessed and charmed and informed all my days. With a fire that can only be fueled by the sum of what is right and what is and has been wrong I go forward with a mission. I hope to see you somewhere on the high road. Cause that would mean we’re both on it.” – Mac McAnally
Morgan Freeman once said, “The big question was, ‘My Lord, you can live anywhere in the world you want, why did you choose Mississippi?’ My glib answer was, because I CAN live anywhere. But the true answer is that of any place I’ve ever been, this feels most like home. When I come here, when I hit Mississippi, everything is right.”
I love my home state.
1 cup Sugar
6 Tbl. Flour
pinch of salt
4 Egg yolks (reserve whites for meringue)
2 cups Milk
2 tsp. Vanilla
6 Tbl. Butter
4 Bananas, ripe, peeled and sliced
4 Egg whites
1 /2 cup Sugar
1 /2 tsp. Cream of tartar
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Combine sugar, flour, salt, eggs, milk and vanilla in a small non-reactive saucepot. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly until the pudding thickens. Remove from heat and slowly add butter until incorporated.
Butter a two-quart baking dish. Arrange the vanilla wafers around the outside and across the bottom of the baking dish. Spread a layer of custard over the wafers. Place sliced bananas on top of custard and spoon the remaining custard over bananas, spreading evenly.
Using an electric mixer beat the egg whites until they are increase in volume. Add sugar and cream of tartar. Beat to stiff peaks. Spread meringue over pudding and bake 8-10 minutes. Yield: 8-10 servings
(Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur and published cookbook author who lives in Hattiesburg, Miss.)