Long before Shelby Foote became a television hit in Ken Burns’ Civil War PBS documentary, he was hard at work writing novels by hand with an ink pen. It took TV to make this Southern novelist, with his charming, mellow accent, a millionaire and a household name.
Growing up in Greenville, Mississippi, he and writer Walker Percy were lifelong friends. They even once took a road trip to see William Faulkner, but only Foote had the courage to knock on Faulkner’s door, introduce himself and go in for a visit.
Foote eventually settled in Memphis, a city he felt fit him well. Before then, he had spent several years in Northern Ireland with the Mississippi National Guard, awaiting a World War II combat assignment. There he met the Irish lass, Tess Lavery, his first wife. I suspect she cooked Shepherd’s Pie for Shelby.
In the kitchen of his Memphis home, Foote created his own Mississippi Cornbread recipe. After all, it was a popular Civil War food and a staple in the Mississippi Delta. His recipe is featured in Susan Puckett’s Eat Drink Delta: A Hungry Travelers Journey through the Soul of the South (2013).
So, when it comes to a gumbo recommendation for Shelby Foote, I’m blending Ireland with the South and the Civil War. This Paula Deen Shrimp Gumbo Casserole reminds me of Shepherd’s Pie made with seafood (a nod to his 4th and 5th grade years in Pensacola, Florida) and topped with cornbread, plus it’s baked in a cast iron skillet, Civil War style. Instead of the corn muffin mix, however, I’m bold enough to use Shelby Foote’s cornbread recipe on top.
MISSISSIPPI CORNBREAD BY SHELBY FOOTE
- 1 cup stone-ground cornmeal
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 2 large eggs
- 3 tablespoons bacon grease, lard or vegetable shortening
Preheat over to 450 degrees. In a large bowl, stir together the cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. In a small bowl, beat together the buttermilk and eggs. Make a well in the center of the cornmeal mixture and pour in the buttermilk mixture. Stir with a wooden spoon only until mixed. In a small bowl, beat together the buttermilk and eggs. Make a well in the center of the cornmeal mixture and pour in the buttermilk mixture. Stir with a wooden spoon only until mixed. Meanwhile, place a 9-inch cast-iron skillet on a stovetop burner and let it get hot. (“Hot as frying an egg? Hotter. If you put an egg in this skillet, it’d jump back at you.”) Place the grease in the skillet. When it starts to smoke, pour about 2 tablespoons of the melted grease into the batter, stir quickly to combine, then pour the batter into the skillet. As soon as a crust starts to form around the edge, place the skillet in the oven. Bake until golden brown on top, 12 to 15 minutes. Let cool for a few minutes before serving. MAKES 6 SERVINGS. From Susan Puckett’s Eat Drink Delta: A Hungry Travelers Journey through the Soul of the South (2013).
HISTORY SEARCH IN HONOR OF SHELBY FOOTE
Shelby Foote lived in Pensacola Florida, home of great seafood, during his fourth and fifth grade years. If you can spot him in this P.K. Yonge Elementary School photo, circa 1926, please leave a comment.