When I first moved from New York to Mississippi, I was familiar with iconic southern foods like Memphis barbecue and New Orleans po’boys, but my Yankee upbringing failed to teach me anything about the cuisine found along the stretch of I-55 that connects the two cities. My nescient idea of a typical Mississippi plate was rather beige: fried catfish, fried okra, fried pickles, and fried, well, anything. Two years of taste testing taught me that there are many (non-fried) Mississippian edibles.Â While the Fondren neighborhood remains a haven for all that is trendy and eclectic, especially in food culture, several restaurants and groceries still can’t resist offering their favorite Deep South classics.
Though pimento cheese isn’t exactly exclusive to Jackson, it’s certainly a game changer for anyone new to the region. Sure, the recipe ingredients don’t look terribly appetizing on paper: shredded cheese, mayonnaise, and peppers. But once you’ve savored your cracker covered in the chunky, neon-orange conglomeration, you are too busy chowing down on seconds to ask questions. The restaurant and wine bar, Caet, manages to elevate the processed cheese spread by melting it on artisanal toast with a dab of sweet-and-salty bacon jam.
Prefer your pimento the old-fashioned way at home, globbed on thick between two slices of white bread? McDade’s Market’s “Famous Homemade Pimento Cheese” has withstood the test of time, serving happy lactose-tolerant customers since stores were known as the Jitney Jungle. Bill McCarty, descendent of the owners of the first Jitney Jungle stores, credits the original pimento cheese recipe to a woman named Mrs. Pitts, who was the deli manager at the Belhaven Jitney Jungle back in the 1950s. Ever notice that the pimento cheese in Fondren’s McDade’s tastes slightly different than other McDade’s Markets in town? McCarty recalls that in the 1970s, then-owner Henry Holman requested that the Fondren Jitney add more onion to the recipe. They obliged, and today’s McDade’s continues to serve the same recipe.
Comeback sauce is certainly more condiment than food, and its tangy, garlicky flavor and salmon hue makes you wonder if it’s the long lost brother of Louisiana remoulade. That said, comeback sauce also happens to be the most authentically “Jackson” food, with heated debated over who actually created it first. “Some say it was at Crechales, some say The Mayflower,” says Saltine owner and executive chef, Jesse Houston, of the sauce’s origin. While each restaurant’s recipe varies slightly, Houston notes the main components remain the same: mayonnaise, garlic, Worcestershire sauce, paprika, onion, and olive oil. Saltine offers comeback sauce as a salad dressing and Walker’s Drive-In serves as a dipping sauce to it’s portobello french fry appetizer.
No southern meal is complete without dessert. “The Mississippi palate just loves sweet,” says Campbell’s Bakery owner, Mitchell Moore, “And I mean, overwhelmingly sweet!” So it’s not a shocker that the cloying chess squares are a huge seller at the bakery. While the original recipe was actually a pie, and not squares, Moore believes the dessert really took off in the middle of the last century, thanks to grocery store shelves becoming stocked with newly-boxed cake mix.
“What I think happened,” Moore speculates, “is that so many housewives, moms, whoever, couldn’t make a good pie crust and started making chess squares with cake mix.” As for where the name “chess squares” came from Moore believes it was originally called “Chest Pie,” due to its ability to be stored in a pantry chest, rather than the icebox, but a southern drawl eventually nixed the last consonant.
The beautiful thing all of these foods have in common, apart from being delicious, is that they connect us to Jackson’s history and culture. In Fondren, they draw both homegrown Mississippians and “transplants” from other parts of the country to the same table. As much as Fondren and its inhabitants continue to evolve with the times,Â we can always count on these true Mississippi staples to bring us together and continue to share our stories.