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Delta Debutante Elizabeth Heiskell Is Planter's Daughter

Screen Shot 2014-01-30 at 12.16.58 PMA Delta debutante, a planter’s daughter from Rosedale who married a farmer – Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus (Luke) Lamar II from Sumner, great-great-great grandson of L.Q.C Lamar. She wrote “Somebody Stole The Cornbread From My Dressing” and became lead instructor at the Viking Cooking School in Greenwood. She lives near Oxford at Woodson Ridge Farms, where she caters parties and provides fresh produce to restaurants from Oxford to Memphis.

Tell me a little about your childhood.
If you didn’t cook in the Delta you were incredibly bored. If you didn’t have people over to your home then you didn’t get invited to their home and so I grew up with my great grandmother, my grandmother, my mother, my father all being incredible cooks and entertaining. It didn’t matter what event it was, the first thing we were thinking of was, and still to this day is, ‘What are we gonna eat?’ ‘‘What are we gonna cook?’ So that was ingrained in me since I was born. Growing up in the Delta is probably one of the best experiences anyone could ever have, especially in Rosedale. There is something about living that close to the river that changes you. We were completely free, we could run and play and go. It never even occurred to us that there would be any danger or anything to worry about, so it’s a pretty amazing place.
Where else have you lived besides Rosedale? 

I grew up in Rosedale and then my parents divorced and we moved to Memphis, but I would always go back to Rosedale. And then I lived in New York for a few years and then I came back and lived in Memphis and met my husband there, and we moved back to the Delta 11 years ago. We lived in Memphis for a long time but my dad has never left Rosedale so we always came back to Rosedale. We moved to Oxford a year and a half ago.
What is the Delta food you most crave today?
It’s always tamales.
Do you think the combination of blues and food can turn the Delta around?
As far as helping the economy? Absolutely. I think it’s what we are most known for but then once we get them there, they see all the other amazing things that have to do with the Delta. It’s a big calling card, the blues and food.

Have you always been interested in food? What triggered that interest?
It’s just how I grew up so it was very natural for me to turn my love of food and my ability to cook into a career. Which is what I do with catering. It’s what we do every day. By cooking, hopefully our guests or our clients feel like they have been invited into our homes even though we are really in their homes.
How is it that so many different ethnic groups have such successful restaurants in the Delta? 

They have all adapted their cooking even though it’s a Lebanese recipe, because it’s here in the Delta and they can’t get the things that they would get in their home country.
So all of them have a bit of a Delta twist on them so that is a little more familiar and more powerful to people of the Delta. I also think that because you don’t have a whole lot of choices, anything that is new and different is exciting. So if someone is bringing a Lebanese dish or an Italian dish you definitely are going to try it.
What do you think is the chief cause of obesity in the Delta?
I think one of the main issues in the Delta is the fact that the Delta used to be a place where every grandmother, mom, aunt, uncle somebody in your immediate family had a huge garden and you had tons of fabulous vegetables from spring all the way into the fall and then that overage and what was harvested was frozen or canned and then you had that to last you through the winter. Unfortunately, that has completely stopped. In small towns you are lucky if you have a grocery store that has produce. The towns that do have it, like Rosedale for example, not only are the vegetables incredibly expensive but the quality is really, really poor. We are losing an entire generation that cooks and so a lot of people are depending on the fried chicken at the Double Quick to eat. I mean they are literally eating out of gas stations. When I lived in Rosedale and would take the kid to school in the morning I would stop by the gas station to get gas and there would be kids lined up out the door, and I mean little kids— first, second, third grade, who were buying what they called “junk” and it was junk. They would buy chips and candy and gum and that was their breakfast and their lunch. The food in the cafeteria was so horrible that they couldn’t even think about eating that, even though it was free. There is an entire generation that has no idea how to cook and the things that they do know how to cook are very, very unhealthy.
You won't see anything growing at the Heiskell's Woodson Ridge Farms on the of a syco truck.
You won’t see anything grown at the Heiskell’s Woodson Ridge Farms on the back of a Sysco truck.

What are some of the steps you have taken to fight obesity?
I am on the board of a new grant that was awarded to the Oxford School district. It’s a Farm to School grant so we are trying to work to get new recipes that the kids will like. Training the cafeteria workers to cook from scratch rather than cook from the Sysco truck. Pulling the fryers out of the kitchen so that’s not an option anymore. Also educating the children and getting them excited; if we can get them when they are young then we have got them for the rest of their lives. But when you try to go into middle school and high school it is incredibly tough.

Oxford was the only school district to get this grant in Mississippi, and all hopefully will create a model that can be taken to the Delta and then to the coast, to Jackson, to Brookhaven.
How would you describe the food of the Delta?
“One of the main things is the fact that there is food that is completely rooted and 100 percent Delta. I don’t know that there is any other place like that. Curry dip, pimento cheese which I still believe was founded, started, made, originated in the Mississippi Delta, the best cheese straws in the whole wide world — that’s 100 percent the Delta. Fried pickles, really? No one else, no other place in the state of Mississippi came up with the fried pickle. A lot of it is using what you have in order to make it work. Oh and the tamales. I mean, that’s a whole ‘nother ball game when we start talking about the tamales.

What were your favorite foods growing up?
All the O’s. In the Delta we have about 6 really fabulous restaurants and they all end in O’s. We’ve got Doe’s, Lusco’s, Lillo’s anyway.

The south has specific food ways. In your career, have you tried to keep those food traditions alive?
Absolutely. I mean I don’t try to push menus on anyone, but I certainly suggest strongly menus that are place-oriented. When I was in the Delta it was so easy. We would have so many people coming in from out of town that we would have ‘standard Delta’ menus. We would do fried chicken, turnip green dip, little moon pies, pimento cheese dip, and Delta tamales, of course.
Is there one dish that you most enjoy describing in your books?
Jezebel sauce. Just because the name is so hysterical. I don’t know where the name came from but we always say it’s obviously because whenever people leave a party it’s all they’re talking about. There are lots of different recipes but the one that we use is apple jelly, orange marmalade, horseradish and mustard. And so it’s great for hams or pork tenderloins.

Tell me a little bit about Woodson Ridge Farms. What does the farm do? What is your role in the farm?
We moved to Oxford two years ago to start this farm. We grow chef quality vegetables for 40 restaurants in Memphis and 20 restaurants here in Oxford so we grow things that they can’t purchase anywhere else. You certainly won’t see it on the back of a Sysco truck. Luke was a cotton farmer from the delta and I am a chef so he was building houses and we were approached by our partner Sandy who wanted us to come over here and grow vegetables. He was servicing all the

restaurants in New Orleans and wanted us to do the same thing here. He had already bought this property so we partnered with him. We also do our CSA community supported agriculture so we can get all of our vegetables into the hands of the public.”
Do you think the Delta’s dying?
The economy is…pitiful. There are hardly any really good, really strong companies that employ across the board at all levels of skill sets. Yeah, I think tourism is amazing in the Delta and I think it’s growing and I think that anything that is southern is incredibly hot and very fascinating to the rest of the United States, and anything that we can do to build that is certainly going to help the economic level of the Delta.
You say that southern is incredibly hot and very fascinating for the rest of the United States. What’s so special or different about the South or the Delta?
The Delta is like no other place on earth. It has more soul than any place I have ever been in my entire life. The people are the thing that makes the Delta what it is and they are absolutely the craziest, most real, unpretentious, down-to-earth, and loving people that I have ever been around. Everyone has a very strong sense of place and strong sense of their roots and their past. There is a huge sense of pride with the people that do live there and that love it. Everybody is in it and you’re in it together. No, it may not be the best place in the entire world. There isn’t a Target on every corner and you give up a lot to live in the Delta but the reward is huge.
Heiskell grows chef quality vegetables for 40 restaurants in Memphis and Oxford.
Heiskell grows chef quality vegetables for 40 restaurants in Memphis and Oxford.

–Story by Camille Mullins and Photos by Jared Burleson / Meek School of Journalism and New Media/ Land of Plenty Magazine

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