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The Mississippi Cookbook—Still...

The Mississippi Cookbook—Still Selling After 50 Years

By: NK Wessman - December 6, 2023

Publishers and booksellers report that cookbooks “are piping hot” and “flying off the shelves.” The Mississippi Cookbook is one of those collections that remains a great gift idea after fifty years in print.

The two Mississippians who authorized and designed the first of thirty-one “cooking and foodways” titles published by University Press of Mississippi died in 2014 and 2018, but the cookbook continues to sell and get great reviews in its fifty-first year.

The Mississippi Cookbook launched in 1972, an imprint of University and College Press of Mississippi, then headquartered in Hattiesburg and later moved to Jackson and renamed University Press of Mississippi. That first hardback edition sold for $7.50 plus five percent sales tax of thirty-five cents, a total investment of $7.88. Available at University Press, Amazon, and from other booksellers, the current paperback book lists for $25.

Today’s version contains most of the vintage version’s content: 475 pages of 1,200 recipes that weigh more than three pounds.

Dr. W. M. Bost, then director of the Mississippi Cooperative Extension Service, authorized that first edition; he died in 2014 at age 90. The book designer, J. Barney McKee, died in 2018 at age 80; director of the University Press, he and his wife Gwen later founded Quail Ridge Press publishing company. 

Then and now, the publisher expressed “grateful appreciation to Dr. Marilyn Purdie, State Leader, Home Economics Programs; to Mrs. Ina G. Kimbrough, Extension Specialist in Foods and Nutrition, who compiled the book; to the Extension Home   Economists in each of the counties who gathered the recipes; and to the many other persons who contributed and assisted in the preparation of this book, particularly Miss Lucille Parker for the illustrations on the heading of each chapter.” 

Those visionaries aimed to “collect, make available, and, in the process, preserve the favorite recipes of fine cooks throughout Mississippi.” Cooks themselves submitted more than 7,000 recipes, “each a time-proven favorite.” Published recipes list the name and town address of the individual who submitted the recipe.

Martha Hall Foose, who wrote a new introduction in 2009, said that reading the cookbook “is like going visiting. Shortly after I began flipping through the pages, I had to run out to the car and get my Mississippi Atlas & Gazetteer … I found myself referencing the map for towns like Roxie and Pheba, Rienzi and Skene. The recipe for Flying Chicken Salad had me searching for Grace.”

Foose herself authored the James Beard Foundation Award-winning Screen Doors and Sweet Tea: Recipes and Tales from a Southern Cook. Born in the Delta and former executive chef of the Viking Cooking School, Foose and her husband, talented baker Donald Bender, have teamed with Hattiesburg restaurateur Robert St. John to create what they call “the sweetest spot in Mississippi, Loblolly Bakery.”

Missing from today’s version of The Mississippi Cookbook is “a special section [that] includes favorite recipes of the wives of former governors;” still included are “tables and charts that provide such valuable technical information as substitutions and equivalents, measuring ingredients, time and temperature guides, definitions, and servings.”

Seven former governor’s wives, “all outstanding cooks,” contributed to “Mansion Favorites,” including vegetable and fruit casseroles, salads, and pies plus beef, poultry, and seafood dishes and both pound and fruit cakes. Notably, in the “Cakes and Icings” section, the first edition’s nine-ingredient Sugarless Cake recipe on page 352 is interestingly replaced today by Plum Cake with just eight components.

In her introduction to this “comprehensive collection of Mississippi’s most popular recipes [that] records the state’s culinary heritage and its mastery of home cooking,” Foose revealed that she enjoyed “reminiscing about great meals and epic parties and remembering friends who have passed … All from reading a recipe …”

Readers who reviewed the book on Amazon affirm that “this book has not disappointed me yet. Everything I make from the recipes turns out good and delicious. The desserts are great!!” and also proclaim that it is “a great book to grab when you need almost anything… has all the Basics!”

Another wrote, “I so love this book. My mom had this book when I was a child and I tried to take it from her when I became an adult. She would only allow me to copy her pages so I went on Amazon and lo and behold it was here so I purchased it. My kids are enjoying all the good home cooked meals. The recipes are so easy to follow. This book was so good to me I am thinking of purchasing another to give as a gift.”

And one gift recipient recalled her big error in judgment: “I was given this cookbook years ago as a wedding present, then gave it away. Big mistake! There are certain down-home, truly-Southern, Mississippi-loved recipes in this cookbook that simply cannot be found anywhere except in my mother and grandmother’s minds.”

Still a great gift idea with a 4.7-of-5-points rating after fifty years, The Mississippi Cookbook differs from most similar compilations that have only up to 200 pages and about 150 recipes. In the United States alone, consumers buy some twenty million cookbooks a year. Publishers and booksellers report that cookbooks “are piping hot” and “flying off the shelves.”

An International Association of Culinary Professionals survey reveals that “most people buy two or three cookbooks each year, and twelve percent of buyers buy four or more. Seventy percent buy for themselves, and the remaining thirty percent buy cookbooks as gifts.” Buyers look for recipes that are easy, their family would like, have step-by-step instructions, and offer easy-to-find ingredients. Collectors seek books with stories and themes—for example, University Press’s 2020 Vintage Postcards from the African World: In the Dignity of Their Work and the Joy of Their Play, the upcoming 2024 The Delta in the Rearview Mirror: The Life and Death of Mississippi’s First Winery, and The Catfish Book, published in 2009.

The most popular cookbook of all time? Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer. With over twenty million copies in print and nearly 200,000 ratings on Goodreads, Joy of Cooking is a most popular cookbook. Google reveals that the first recorded cookbook still in print today is Of Culinary Matters (originally, De Re Coquinaria), written by Apicius, in fourth century AD Rome. It contains more than 500 recipes, including many with Indian spices. A writer on Quora reveals that the oldest known recipes “exist on three cuneiform tablets from ancient Mesopotamia. They date from around 1600 BCE and contain recipes for cooking grain, and for something that sounds very much like a pie, made by boiling a bird and encasing it between two layers of dough. Not a cookbook, precisely, but an interesting look at what people ate and how they thought about food. It makes for fascinating reading.”

Whether the earliest or the most recent, every cookbook likely will attract buyers. Even though an internet search can reveal tens or hundreds of recipes for specific ingredients, sales show that people still prefer the touch, the feel, the smell of printed cookbooks. And The Mississippi Cookbook continues to sell.

About the Author(s)
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NK Wessman

NK Wessman authored Katrina, Mississippi: Voices from Ground Zero, the compelling story of first responders who stayed behind when the worst natural disaster in our history slammed the Gulf Coast. She co-wrote You Can Fix The Fat From Childhood—And Other Heart Risks, Too in collaboration with Dr. Gerald Berenson, founder and senior researcher of the Bogalusa Heart Study. Wessman also has worked as a journalist, public relations practitioner/consultant, and now as a book coach and editor.