On the road in Mississippi

By
Sarah Lavelle
Added
29 June, 2016

Quadrille's Publishing Director Sarah Lavelle went on the road with Brad McDonald to discover the inspiring people, places and culinary legacies behind his recipes.


When I first tasted Brad’s food, it knocked me off my feet. I’d never eaten anything like it – so richly complex, every mouthful so varied, every taste and texture subtle and well judged. One of the joys of my job as a publisher is that I get to learn something new every day, and if brilliant cooking comes my way, I sit up and take notice. I want to know all about it. I want to tell other people about it. Add to that the privilege of working with extraordinarily talented, knowledgeable people, and it’s pretty much a dream job. When I met Brad and heard his story, I knew we should get this into a book. And that’s where it began from a publishing perspective – for Brad, of course, it began many years earlier.




‘We’re going to have to go to Mississippi…’ he said. Of course we would. To capture the essence of Brad McDonald’s food in his book, there was never going to be any substitute for actually being there. We had to go to the place that had informed and shaped his cooking, to immerse ourselves in the culture that made him the cook he is. We had to go to the Deep South. So, given the opportunity to travel with the greatest exponent of Southern food that we have in the UK, to visit the town where he grew up, the restaurants where he learned to cook, a region I thought I knew on paper… well, it was a no-brainer. And I found I actually knew nothing – the trip was a revelation.


It was the last week of August 2015, and I wasn’t prepared for the 35 degrees of downtown Nola – or the smell, an intoxicating, inescapable mixture of Cajun spices and garbage. The city was in the midst of commemorating ten years since Hurricane Katrina, and wherever we went the effects were palpable – from neighbourhoods that were still devastated, to areas that had undergone an astonishing rebirth.


Brad had planned a road trip that took me and our photographer, Andy Sewell, from New Orleans up to Oxford via Jackson, Mississippi, over the course of five days and a lot of driving (the latter thanks to Tim Hayward, also there to record interviews and write an account of the shoot). The brief was to hit as many significant places as possible (significant in terms of Brad’s ‘food life’) and to sample the best food we could find. This included picking up fresh shrimp from a guy who’s been out on his small fishing boat every day for 60 years, and a trip to the Mayflower café in Jackson, Mississippi, one of Brad’s favourite places to eat in the world (their broiled oysters with sauce Colbert is one of his desert island dishes). Arriving in downtown Jackson mid-afternoon, my head was filled with thoughts of the role the city had played in the civil rights story and, somewhat less nobly, with the lyrics to Uptown Funk. The Mayflower café doors were firmly shut until 4pm, but it was worth the wait – the interior is pure diner heaven.




Then we were back on the road to Oxford, Mississippi, home to Brad’s alma mater, Ole’ Miss University, with a gorgeous central square that at night was overflowing with college parties. (Curiously they went quiet by 10 pm, just the time English pub crowds would be getting rowdy.) In Oxford we met up with James Beard Award-winning chef John Currence at his all-day brunch spot, Big Bad Breakfast. John’s a local star and gave Brad his first restaurant job at the City Grocery in central Oxford. While Brad and John caught up, I tucked into an awesome soft shell crab BLT, so fierce and alien-looking that I thought it might fight back when I bit into it. Quite simply the biggest, baddest breakfast ever.


Via the farmer’s market and Water Valley, we had a quick jaunt to Brad’s mom’s, where we picked fresh muscadines from the garden and ate Debbie’s homemade caramel cake. Our haste was prompted by the need to get to Po’ Monkeys in time for sunset. Po’ Monkeys is one of the last remaining Mississippi juke joints and is accessed far, far down a dusty track. Once we arrived, I made the mistake of winding down the car window: I was deafened by the sound of cicadas and frogs, and then I realised what was swarming through the window – mosquitos. Andy realised too late that sandals and no socks, while practically mandatory in Hackney, are near-fatal in rural Mississippi. They bit him. They bit him bad. But he got some great shots and sometimes you have to suffer for your art. The next couple of days were spent shooting around Brad’s dad’s farm, just beyond Holly Bluff and near to Yazoo City, Brad’s home town. 




We also spent a morning at Simmons’ Catfish – an awesome, vast swathe of ponds containing thousands and thousands of catfish at various stages of development. They’re one of the most sustainable food products in the United States and a staple food in the South. Their dorsal fin is also lethally sharp, capable of puncturing a car tyre, so we had a rather hair-raising (and brief) photoshoot of Brad holding an obliging, whiskery catfish.


Back at Mac’s farm we had the great privilege of watching local farmer Ruben frying up pork rinds in the traditional way. He and his wife buy the rinds locally, head home and cook batch after batch in a big old pot, stirring as the rinds puff up like magic, then season them with two different mixtures: a barbecue spice mix and a salt and vinegar version. Then they load them into ziplock bags and take them back into town to sell them to the local mom ‘n’ pop stores. I fear this is the only time in my life I will ever taste freshly cooked pork rinds and they are reason enough to journey halfway across the world to that little farm outside Holly Bluff.




Brad and Mac were planning a ‘Hog Roast and Pot Luck’, a party involving a whole roast pig and a crowd of friends and family, each of whom brought a dish for the buffet table. This was true Southern hospitality in action, with copious food, fabulous company and a spectacular live band playing country music classics. It gave true context to Brad’s food and in a single evening encapsulated everything he’d told me about the South, its food and its people.


Once back in the UK, I found it hard to acclimatise. I could go on about my ensuing addiction to Pimiento cheese, about my hankering after slow-roast pork mixed with vinegar rather than the treacly syrup of what passes for ‘barbecue’ in the UK, about my longing for the wide vistas and little fluffy clouds of the southern skies, about the laid-back cool of New Orleans, the lush greenery of Mississippi and the warmth of its people… I shall content myself with the fact that we have Brad’s food on our doorstep in London – and we have his recipes in the form of Deep South. And that, for now, will have to do.


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