Home in the Delta
by Deborah Boykin
The Mississippi Delta is a region that depends, first and last, on growing things. Most of
the land, and much of the time and energy of the people, are given over to crops, whether
cotton or catfish. Mile after mile of fields stretch between small towns with names like
Panther Burn, Alligator, and Louise. Interminable plant rows or flat, shimmering catfish
ponds extend from road to horizon. Turnrows - the lanes of hard-packed dirt where drivers
turn cultivators or cotton pickers - are all that separate one field from another. The
landscape is vast, symmetrical, and hypnotic. From the deep greens of summer to the browns
and greys of harvest time, the fields change only with the seasons.
In Southern Black Folklore, the bottle tree was a means of protecting the
home by trapping evil spirits within the colorful bottles. Though scarce today, bottle
trees are still created for their artistic appeal. Photo by William Ferris,
University of Mississippi Special Collections
While the fields of the Delta offer little contrast, the same cannot be said of the
lives and homes of its people. Wealth and poverty exist side by side, with very little
middle ground. Planters whose elegant homes are surrounded by formal gardens may have
neighbors who live in weathered frame houses with swept yards and tire planters. Still,
there are similarities across class and race lines, and nowhere are these similarities
more evident than in the gardens, homes, and kitchens of the Delta.
There are some distinctions to be drawn between the gardens in town and those in the
country, as well as between the spaces created by Black gardeners and those of their White
counterparts. Flower gardens in town are more likely to be formal, for instance, and
confined to back yards. These gardeners plant flowers to use in arrangements indoors as
well as for enjoyment outdoors. Rural gardens more often have flowering plants in the
front yard and vegetables in the back. Rural Black gardeners are more apt to extend their
garden space to the front porch, using a variety of containers. These are stylistic
variations for the most part, though. The function of gardens in the Delta is much the
same whoever plants them.
For most people in the Delta, the garden is an extension of living space. Summer heat is
completely democratic, sending planters, field workers, and merchants in search of shade
and a cool breeze. In the days before air conditioning, they would all seek refuge from
the heat in their gardens and on their porches. Even now, the warmer months find many
Delta families taking meals, sitting and visiting, or entertaining guests in their
Yard decor in the Delta often shows creative inprovisation with mundane
objects to break the monotony of the landscape. Photo by Felder Rushing
Gardens in the Delta tend to be lush, tightly planted, and enclosed. Sometimes the
enclosure is a clipped privet hedge. Formal gardens may be surrounded by hairpin wire
fencing or homemade picket. Sometimes the homemade fencing is more eccentric,
incorporating a variety of found materials. In any case, the purpose of the fencing is to
enclose the space while allowing air to circulate. Gardenias, four o'clocks, honeysuckle,
and magnolias provide fragrance in the late afternoon and evening. Broad-leafed plants
like elephant ears, cannas, and ginger may grow in beds alongside ferns and castor beans.
Other plants are placed in containers, perhaps as a nod to the unpredictable weather of
the region: a container can be moved under cover when there's too much rain or closer to a
hose during a summer dry spell. More than likely, though, Delta gardeners use containers
and other items - functional, decorative, or both - to create a space that reflects a
The more formal the garden, the more common are matching containers, such as urns made of
molded concrete or purchased half-barrels. Decorative pieces may include concrete
statuary, often figures of small animals. Lawn furniture usually consists of a matched set
and is made from wrought iron and painted.
Other gardeners like to improvise. They create planters from old enamelware, paint
buckets, or tires. They decorate their gardens with painted plywood figures, whirligigs,
or painted rocks. In rural yards and gardens, larger, freestanding decorations such as
bottle trees break the monotony of the landscape. For example, travelers on Highway 61
approaching Ergemont, Mississippi, are sometimes surprised to see several large,
welded-metal dinosaurs on the horizon. They are the work of a local resident who made them
- to give people driving through something to look at.
Many Delta gardeners give as much thought to the aesthetics of their yard and garden space
as they do to their homes, probably because the two are inextricable. Wedding receptions,
barbecues, family reunions, parties, and other social events in the Delta are very likely
to take place outside. And there is no shortage of social life in the Delta. Entertaining
is considered an art form, and Delta women, both Black and White, absorb a complicated set
of customs and recipes from their relatives and neighbors as they grow up. Delta
homemakers take pride in a tradition of hospitality that many see as having roots in
Three Delta cookbooks provide some insights. Gourmet of the Delta, first
published in 1958, is a collection of recipes prepared by the Women's Auxiliaries of St.
John's Episcopal Church in Leland, Mississippi, and St. Paul's in nearby Hollandale. The
introduction describes the Delta as a region settled by the sons of wealthy planters of
Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and South Carolina. They came "to further their
fortunes in new land. From these landed, cultured people descend many of the present Delta
inhabitants... Many have known the hospitality and graciousness of Delta hostesses... It
is our hope.. in compiling the recipes of our own and those of our many friends for
discriminating hostesses everywhere that we, in our small way, will be the means of help
to preserve one of the traditions of the 'Delta Way of Life.'"
In 1972, the Junior Charity League of Monroe, Louisiana, looked to similar roots in the
introduction to The Cotton Country Collection.
The plantations along the river and the bayous were almost entirely self-sustaining,
raising their own food, making their own clothes, building their homes from the materials
in the forests. Plantation chatelaines and their cooks using the unusually lavish gifts of
nature and the ideas of many root sources developed a style of cooking distinctive in its
heritage and delicious in its nature.
This tradition of hospitality transcends stereotypes of planter aristocracy and the
"Old South." Kathy Starr's Soul of Southern Cooking, published in the
late 1980s, offers the perspective of an African-American homemaker in the Delta.
It was a must that simple foods make a delicious meal. My grandmama, even today, can
tell you stories of how proud she felt of her sister, Malinda, who could walk up out of
the cotton field, find company sitting on her steps, take a shelf of nothing and make the
best meal you ever tasted. There's a long tradition of making good food out of nothing in
my family, who have lived in the Mississippi Delta since it was first settled and cleared
for growing cotton in the mid-1800s.
The kitchens of the Delta, like the gardens, are similar in many respects. Women in the
Delta take pride in setting a generous table and have definite ideas about what is
appropriate for a given type of meal. Table settings may vary according to custom and
income, but whether a table is set with heirloom silver or an assortment of plastic
containers, there will be an abundance of food. Kathy Starr writes about her grandmother's
Christmas dinners in Hollandale:
The holiday table is never considered complete if you can't fill up at least one
separate table with food [including] baked turkey, baked duck, baked ham, dressing with
giblet gravy, potato salad, cranberry sauce, chow-chow, mustard and turnip greens, corn
bread, yeast rolls, coconut cake, jelly cake, caramel cake, pecan pies, sweet potato pies,
ambrosia and fruit cake.
The women from St. Paul's Episcopal would agree. Their menu for a Christmas dinner
includes "baked turkey with oyster dressing, rice with giblet gravy, eggplant
casserole, English peas, candied sweet potatoes, cranberry jelly, a tray of homemade
pickles and relishes, hot rolls, ambrosia, pecan pie and white fruit cake."
These Delta women of different generations and different races share similar attitudes
toward homemaking. Their gardens and kitchens are characterized by abundance. Flower beds
and planters are crowded with blooms, tables are loaded with food, decorative elements
range from flower arrangements in formal living rooms to bottle trees in rural yards. Much
of the social life in the Delta, from garden receptions to house parties to fish fries, is
centered in the home. Many of the traditions associated with homemaking in the Delta may
appear to have their roots in plantation stereotypes, but when foodways, gardening
traditions, and the aesthetics of homemaking are compared across class and race lines,
common traits emerge. The lush gardens and highly decorated homes in the Delta embody a
need to create a personal space in an impersonal landscape. Traditions and conventions
related to homemaking offer a predictable framework for a society in which much depends on
the unpredictability of nature.
Deborah Boykin has been the Mississippi Arts
Commission's Folk Arts Director since
1990. She has worked for the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, serving as Curriculum
Specialist for the Choctaw Culture Early Education and Adult Education programs and as
Director for the Upward Bound program. She also has done documentary fieldwork with
Choctaw basket makers and traditional dancers. Boykin holds a B.A. in folklore from the
University of Alabama and has completed course work for an M.A. in political science from
Mississippi State University.
Works Cited & Suggested Reading:
Ayers, Edward L. 1992. The Promise of the New South - Life After Reconstruction.
New York: Oxford University Press.
Hemphill, Marie. 1980. Fevers, Floods and Faith: A History of Sunflower County,
Mississippi, 1844-1976. Indianola, Mississippi: Sunflower County Historical Society.
Junior Charity League. 1972. The Cotton Country Collection. Monroe, Louisiana.
Rushing, Felder, and Steve Bender. 1994. Pass Along Plants. Chapel Hill:
University of North Carolina Press.
St. John's Women's Auxiliary, Leland, Mississippi, and St. Paul's Women's Auxiliary,
Hollandale, Mississippi. 1958. Gourmet of the Delta. N.p.
Starr, Kathy. 1989. The Soul of Southern Cooking. Jackson: University Press of