I’ll be picky when choosing gumbo for Willie Morris, author of My Dog Skip and former Harper’s editor, simply because he was a picky eater. This Mississippian didn’t write much about food. In fact, his son photographer David Rae Morris told authors Jack and Carolyn Fleming that Willie Morris was more interested in talking and socializing at the table than eating. That holds true in his books and essays. They’re about place and people.
Morris, who looked like a round-faced, good ol’ country boy, was a brilliant wit and thinker. A Rhodes Scholar, he never won a Pulitzer or Nobel, but held court in New York literary circles and encouraged authors the likes of Norman Mailer and William Styron.
In My Mississippi he lists his favorite restaurants around the state, including the now-shuttered Roundtable in Mendenhall, where diners sat family style around revolving tables and shared home cooking and conversation. After all, you can get to know someone with an opener as simple as “pass the butter beans.”
Willie Morris rarely cooked, except maybe his favorite recipe – John Birch Society Beans, which he described as causing a violent internal reaction. (That’s a 1960’s political joke). The recipe is featured in Great American Writers’ Cookbook published in Oxford, Mississippi, where Morris lived for a decade as writer-in-residence at Ole Miss.
Though Morris lived in Mississippi, Texas, California, New York and England, his ancestral soul was Mississippi. Two of his books in particular, North Toward Home and My Mississippi, capture the essence of the state. Both books evoke roots, remembrance, belonging in his own stories. When it comes to spinning tales like these, he said “Nostalgia is mere saccharin to the Southerner’s power of memory – for memory is everything.”
It stands to reason, he’ll want gumbo that reflects Mississippi. So I’ll share nostalgia with him over a bowl of my grandmother’s Kreole, Mississippi chicken gumbo – simple, easy to eat, with homemade filé and plenty of time to tell my stories from as far south as the Mississippi roads will take you.