Catfish Row Museum announces Summer Cooking Series beginning with Dr. Kathy Starr

Published 10:18 am Tuesday, June 20, 2023

By Sherry Lucas | Guest Contributor

Dr. Kathy Starr grew up in the Mississippi Delta cafe run by the only mother she knew — her grandmother Frances Fleming Hunter, “Miz Bob” to the community and “Mom” to her. There, Starr absorbed the recipes for a good life, right along with those for greens and butter beans. 

“At the age of 5, I wasn’t tall enough to reach the stove,” she said, but the kitchen’s big pots gave her a leg up to watch the steady stream of soul food production at the Fair Deal Cafe in Hollandale, and hear stories about generations past that weaved together history, struggle and perseverance. Starr preserved plenty of both — recipes and stories — in her 1989 cookbook “The Soul of Southern Cooking.”

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Another cookbook, “Miz Bob’s Second Batch,” due out in 2024, will share the remaining 211 recipes passed down from her mom and mentor, plus more than 100 recipes from the original cookbook, converted for healthier meal preparations.

Starr’s presentation at the Catfish Row Museum on June 24 at 2 p.m. will mark the opening of the museum’s new demonstration kitchen, where she will share stories and foodways that defined a region, as well as a few recipes that put a nutritious spin on soul food staples. Starr’s talk is the first in a series celebrating Mississippi foodways, with a full schedule of summer cooking demonstrations, workshops and programs announced soon.

Catfish Row Museum Executive Director Linda Fondren described the museum’s new space as an interactive, state-of-the-art ventless demonstration/teaching kitchen designed to provide learning opportunities and share life stories of the people and places that have shaped food experiences in the Mississippi Delta.

“At the heart of our Foodways program are rich stories like Dr. Kathy Starr’s return home to Vicksburg to share her soulful, healthful cooking talents and work to preserve her mother’s heritage and cooking knowledge,” Fondren said. 

Starr called it “a beautiful reason to come home.” She’ll demonstrate low-calorie preparations for Baked Catfish and Potato Salad, as well as share samples of Miz Bob’s Sweet Potato Pie, a favorite from her kitchen.

“We won’t be using butter and all that other stuff,” Starr said. “But I’ll teach them how to use lemon and herbs, and they will just be amazed at how delicious it is. It’s so good, even a baby would eat it.

“I don’t even like baked fish,” she added. “But my mom could fix it, and I can fix it like she taught me and I can enjoy it as good as if it were fried. So, I know people would appreciate knowing how to make it tasty, but keep it nutritious. You can make anything nutritious, as long as you eliminate the things that are not good for you, based on your health condition, and eat it in moderation.”

Starr, who now lives in Lawrenceville, Ga., draws on early lessons in the cafe kitchen, her nursing background, a doctorate in health administration and personal experience to navigate a nutritious path. Her mom always talked about nutrition, even at a time when most folks didn’t, and she worked hard to get the most out of every scrap, Starr said. She’d take the hull off a peach to make peach brandy, turn the flesh into peach preserves or peach pie, then plant the seed in the backyard.

“I would peel the sweet potatoes and the potatoes for her. Of course, I was a kid, you know I wanted to hurry up and get through,” Starr said. “So I would peel deep into the potato. … And, she’d tell me, ‘Gal, uh-uh. Stop peeling so deep into that sweet potato and that potato. Don’t you understand, that’s where all the good vitamins and all you want to get out of the potato are — right in the hull.’ I always thought she was just trying to not throw things away, but after I thought about it, she talked to me a lot about nutrition.”

Such lessons stuck with Starr.

“I always loved to cook and I loved to eat my own food better than going out to get somebody else’s,” she said.

Dietary concerns sometimes called for adjustments. By using ingredients such as Truvia, low-calorie and low-fat substitutes, smoked turkey necks and chicken broth, “You can get your food to taste as close to the same, as if it were Southern.”

Starr’s “The Soul of Southern Cooking,” originally put together as a gift to her mom and designed to be a local/regional cookbook, became a surprise success. It was lauded for its trove of stories about Southern Black foodways that traced all the way back to Starr’s great-grandparents, who grew up during Reconstruction. Big families in poor rural communities made the most of the land and the food it provided, often turning simple ingredients into delicious dinners. Starr had no plans for the book to make money or launch her into the limelight, she said, and yet it received a Congressional honor and multiple printings, including in other languages.

“I just believe it was blessed.”

Even now, when Starr pictures her late mom and mentor, “She’s talking to me. Just talking about life, about cooking, about how to do things, what’s the right thing to do … what happened to her in her childhood and how she managed to accomplish what she accomplished in life — those are the things she drilled into me.”

That’s another legacy Starr carries forward, in stories served up as generously as the greens and cornbread at the Fair Deal Cafe of her youth.