Juanita Emily Caldwell
who recently turned 98 years of age, has published her first book, a collection of recipes she has gathered over her years of living in Mississippi Delta towns and cities such as Greenville, Drew, Greenwood, and Hollandale. Her recipes, which she spent a lifetime collecting, represent Delta cuisine at its finest.
Miss Juanita’s Delta Cuisine
By Juanita Emily Caldwell
Sartoris Literary Group
Reviewed by Kristen Hillman
Below the title, “Miss Juanita’s Delta Cuisine,” the book’s cover is adorned with a picture of Miss Juanita Emily Caldwell in her younger days. Much like the cover, Miss Juanita’s life, loves, and family are the focal point of this work, and she comes across as a lady who knows that good food is one of the greatest displays of affection there is.
The book opens with a forward written by her son, James, himself an accomplished writer, who provides a brief summary of her life. We learn of her time growing up in Itawamba County, Mississippi, her father’s many ventures, including running a department store and serving as the warden at Parchman prison, and of her romances, among other things. The pages from this point forward treat the reader to a gallery of photographs, some including her father, his aforementioned department store, her various family members, such as James enjoying a nice plate of “Hot Tamale Pie”, a dish she claims to be his favorite (and yes, the recipe is included), and, of course, a plethora of images of the food itself can be found throughout.
The recipes included are broken up into seven categories: casseroles, side dishes, bread, walk on the wild side (What does this category entail, you ask? You’ll have to read the book to find out), meat, salads, and desserts. No recipe is a simple list of ingredients with basic instructions following. No, that is not Miss Juanita’s style. She’s far too clever and fun for that. Every recipe instead comes across as if Miss Juanita were there herself, guiding your hand. She warns us to slowly (and she “stress[es] the word slowly because it can burn before you know it”) brown the sugar for her “Favorite Caramel Pie,” implying to the reader that she may have messed up a batch or two in her time, and wants us to learn from her mistakes.
Luckily, she does go into more detail than a typical southern grandmother might, providing more help than simply referring to measurements in terms of “heaps”, “a little bit”, and “a mess of”, and giving better instructions than telling the reader to do something until it “looks right.” Those not from the southern United States may not realize how much those of us who are appreciate this extra bit of effort.
Up to this point, I’ve said much about Miss Juanita herself, but I don’t wish to lead anyone into believing that a pictorial biography with a few (okay, more than a few) recipes is all there is to gain from this book. Serving as more than the story of a single woman and her culinary adventures, it’s also the tale of a specific group of people in a particular place in time. Perusing through the pages of this book, I have developed a greater appreciation for people trying to make a living and raise families in areas such as the Mississippi Delta, the hardships they faced, and the things that they did to get by and make life worth living. Yes, food is one of those things, but things like faith and family play a key role, too. Miss Juanita is representative of many women of her era, and a kind of soul that will never die. Miss Juanita’s favorite caramel pie is now my favorite as well, and, in that regard, a little piece of the Delta will live on.
Kristen M. Hillman is Youth Services Supervisor at Central Mississippi Regional Library System.