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On Cooking Southern: Easy Sunday Pot Roast Takes Center Stage, Mississippi Style

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SOUTHERNISM OF THE WEEK
Gravy: The wonderful bonus a person enjoys at little or no personal cost. From a family of idioms such as The Rest is Gravy, Riding (or falling off) the Gravy Train, It’s all Gravy… referring to the extras on top of the paid-in-full basics — extras that enrich, enlighten, educate and entertain, thus, making the experience delicious…. Tweaked constantly in 19th and 20th century American slang, especially with regard to railroads and hobos. Incorporated frequently into blues songs of the early 20th century.

Pot Roast, that venerable Sunday Dinner main dish, is back in favor among foodies all across America. And it’s not just any ol’ pot roast. It’s a version concocted in nearby Ripley, known to millions of fans as Mississippi Roast.

We can thank Robin Chapman for developing this easiest of one-pot roasts “about 15 years ago” as a less spicy variation of her aunt’s Picante Roast recipe. And we can thank Ms. Chapman’s best friend, Karen Farese for sharing the slow cooker pot roast recipe about 10 years ago in the Beech Hill Church of Christ cookbook, “Sharing our Best.”

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Like other popular church cookbook recipes, Ms. Chapman’s pot roast jumped from community to community, shared by enthusiastic church women. It came to national attention between 2010 and 2011 when posted by bloggers Laurie Ormon of Bentonville, AR, niece of a Beech Hill church parishioner; and Midwestern blogger Candis Berge, who picked it up from Ormon. Almost magically, the recipe — by that time tagged “Mississippi” pot roast — began appearing on Pinterest, Twitter and Reddit. Since 2014, it’s been pinned more than one million times on Pinterest.

New York Times writer Sam Sifton noticed the numbers. He labeled it “The Roast that Owns the Internet” in his two-page above-the-fold food section feature published on January 26 of this year. Sifton can be credited with tracing the entire evolution of the recipe’s popularity all the way back to Ms. Chapman and that Beech Hill cookbook.

Sifton’s feature struck a chord with foodies nationwide. By January 29, Mississippian Robin Roberts and her ABC network team for Good Morning America hosted Ms. Chapman and Ms. Farese in a segment featuring the roast. And within a week, food columnists across America were writing about the recipe.

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To understand the genius of Ms. Chapman’s Mississippi Roast, one must first grasp the perpetual appeal of Sunday Pot Roast and its evolutionary history connected to packaged mixes.

There was a time, not so long ago, when Sunday household activities were framed by extended family attendance at local morning church services and evening church-related youth activities. Frazzled homemakers were charged with providing breakfast before Sunday school, Sunday dinner after church, and Sunday supper either before or after the Sunday evening church activities. That’s a lot of cooking on a busy day.

Accomplishing all that cooking required military-like organization, timed to the minute. The sit-down Sunday dinner could only be ready for a hungry horde if the cook prepped the main dishes and rolls before heading off to Sunday School. Roasts became the go-to meat because they could simmer in the oven or on stove-top while the family was in church.

During the 1960s and early 1970s, numerous dump-style pot roast recipes became popular. The recipes featured packaged seasoning ingredients such as French Onion Soup Mix, Italian Seasoning mix, brown gravy mix, Coca Cola, or Rotel. They were aptly named: Coca-Cola Roast, 3 Envelope Pot Roast, Italian Pot Roast, Picante Pot Roast. The slow cooker appliance, developed in 1974 by Rival, was a dump-mix roast marriage made in Heaven for those harried housewives trying to negotiate family, Sunday church and mealtimes.

Then along came Ms. Chapman. She tweaked her aunt’s picante roast to make it more appealing to her young children.

The rest is 21st Century American food history.

ROBIN CHAPMAN’S MISSISSIPPI ROAST
This has to be the easiest roast in modern recipe history. Even a child can make it. The chuck cut is best if shredded roast is the goal. The trade-off: Chuck is fatty, generating a lot of grease once cooked with an entire stick of butter. I prefer to use a bottom round cut and chop the slices once cooked. Either way, the roast is fantastic for hot Sunday Supper sandwiches.

MS pot roast before cooking
MS pot roast before cooking

3 to 5 lb chuck, rump or bottom round roast
1 (2 oz) pkg Buttermilk Ranch Dressing mix
1 (2 oz) pkg Au Jus or low-sodium brown gravy mix
5 to 8 pepperoncini peppers
1/4 c pepperoncini pepper juice
1 stick (1/2 c) unsalted butter

Rinse and pat dry a good cut of chuck, bottom round or rum roast with minimal veins of cartilaginous fat. Pour a fourth-cup of pepperoncini jar juice into a 6-qt slow cooker. (A smaller cooker with basic low and high settings may be used for a smaller roast.) No need to sear the roast — place raw meat into the cooker. Sprinkle top of roast evenly with the buttermilk dressing mix, followed by the au jus or brown gravy mix. Position 5 to 8 pepperoncini peppers over the roast. Place the stick of butter in the center of the roast. Cover and set cooker to 4, 6 or 8 hours, depending on when you need it finished.

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Allow cooked roast to sit on warm setting for about 30 minutes. Skim or drain off grease. Remove roast to a platter and shred with two forks.

If gravy is desired, combine pot drippings and juices with melted butter mixed with a small amount of flour in a hot skillet. Stir until evenly browned. Pour over the roast. Serve garnished with the cooked peppers.

BUTTERMILK-SAUCED MISSISSIPPI ROAST SANDWICHES
New York Times writer Sam Sifton rejected packaged buttermilk dressing mix in his January 2016 interpretation of Ms. Chapman’s Mississippi Roast. I modified his homemade buttermilk-dressing recipe, and used it as a zingy sandwich topping suitable for our heat-loving Mississippi taste.

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6 T good mayonnaise (I use Duke’s)
4 T Bulgarian-style buttermilk
2-3 tsp apple cider vinegar (replaces salt)
1/2 tsp dried dill
1/2 tsp fine-chopped fresh parsley
1/2 tsp paprika (not smoked)
1/2 to 3/4 tsp Tabasco
Black pepper to taste
Sliced pepperoncini or banana peppers
Thin-sliced sweet onion

Whisk all ingredients together and chill for about 2 hours. For the sandwiches: Use a good crusty type of bread such as warmed bolillo or kaiser rolls. Pile high with hot, chopped roast. Drizzle with the buttermilk dressing sauce. Top with slices of pepperoncini peppers or sweet banana peppers and thin slices of sweet onion.

TRADITIONAL SLOW COOKER POT ROAST
Variations of this roast have been around as long as cooks have been braising meat. This late 20th-century version was homemakers’ attempt to add flavor without slaving all day over a stove. The recipe works equally well in a Dutch oven or covered skillet, or wrapped in foil and oven-baked. The key to out-of-this-world flavor and great gravy is to sear the meat before braising in the slow cooker.

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3- to 5-lb bottom round roast
Salt and pepper
Garlic powder
1/2 stick (1/4 c) salted butter
1 to 1-1/2 (2-oz) pkgs French onion soup mix
1 can heart-healthy cream of mushroom soup
1 soup can of water
Splash of Worcestershire sauce

Rinse the roast and pat dry. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and garlic powder on all exposed surfaces. Heat butter in a skillet on medium-high.

While butter is heating, combine remaining ingredients in a non-reactive bowl, mixing until blended.

Sear the roast in the skillet, covered, about 5 minutes. Flip and repeat on other side. Using a meat fork, sear all edges about a minute so that all exposed surfaces have been browned.

Remove roast temporarily to a platter. Whisk the liquid into the pan drippings, scraping fond off the pan bottom and sides. You are making the roast gravy BEFORE THE ROAST!

Place seared roast into slow cooker. Top with pan gravy. Set cooker to high or to 6-hour setting. When finished, drain excess grease, or sop surface with a slice of white bread to soak off grease. Keep in cooker on warm setting until ready to serve with mashed potatoes, butter noodles or rice (platforms for that delicious gravy). NOTE: Leftovers are perfect for starting homemade veggie soup or for concocting a beef and rice casserole.


Laurie Triplette is a writer, historian and accredited appraiser of fine arts, dedicated to preserving Southern culture and foodways. Author of the award-winning community family cookbook GIMME SOME SUGAR, DARLIN’, and editor of ZEBRA TALES (Tailgating Recipes from the Ladies of the NFLRA), Triplette is a member of the Association of Food Journalists, Southern Foodways Alliance and the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. Check out the GIMME SOME SUGAR, DARLIN’ website and follow Laurie’s food adventures on Facebook and Twitter.

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