Maybe we all believe our home turf is the most fascinating, unusual, complex place on earth. But Susan Puckett makes a compelling case that her beloved Mississippi Delta actually is. Eat Drink Delta: A Hungry Traveler’s Journey Through the Soul of the South—equal parts travelogue, cookbook, memoir, and photo gallery—captures the modern-day realities of a confounding region most often in the news for persistent poverty, racial tension, and low literacy rates. Despite all that, the Delta has become a tourist destination in recent years, luring people who want to experience the music, art, and food—and perhaps play the slot machines in Tunica.
For nearly two decades, Puckett was the food editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she crafted award-winning stories about food not simply as a practical matter but as sustenance for the soul. Now a free agent (and regular Atlanta magazine contributor), she explores her native Mississippi through that same lens.
Puckett grew up in Jackson, less than an hour’s drive from the southern tip of the Delta—a fat tamale-shaped area that stretches from Memphis, Tennessee, to Vicksburg. From the first pages of the introduction, it’s clear she is the perfect driver for this road trip. “You know when you’ve arrived,” she writes. “The highways narrow, billboards and streetlights disappear, and the gently rolling hills dissolve into tracts of farmland as flat and wide as a calm, dark sea. Flocks of blackbirds swoop in ribbonlike formation across the expansive sky. Snowy-white egrets dot the edges of shimmering man-made catfish ponds and sinuous, swampy bayous. At times these are the only visible signs of life for miles.”
Though Puckett includes plenty of recipes, you don’t have to be a cook (or a Mississippian) to appreciate the beauty of this book, published by the University of Georgia Press. The language is stunning and the photographs—by Langdon Clay—are frame-worthy. Puckett pays proper homage to the standards: barbecue, meat-and-three specials, mile-high meringue pies. But she also dishes out catfish pâté, Lebanese kibbeh, dill pickles marinated in Kool-Aid, and chicken brined in sweet tea. At the beginning of this mesmerizing journey, Puckett cites Faulkner: “To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.” To which she adds her own invaluable tip: “Enter with an empty stomach and an open mind.” Even beyond the Delta, it’s the only way to travel.
Photograph by Joann Vitelli. This review originally appeared in our February 2013 issue.