A chuck roast becomes a viral star with packages of dry ranch-dressing mix and “au jus” gravy, a stick of butter and a few pepperoncini.
Fifteen or so years ago, by her recollection, a woman named Robin Chapman made a pot roast in her slow cooker. Now known as Mississippi Roast, it would eventually become one of the most popular recipes on the Web, an unlikely star with unlikely ingredients, a favorite of the mom-blog set.
Chapman lives in Ripley, Miss., but she did not call her pot roast Mississippi Roast, not then and not now. She just calls it “roast.” She used beef chuck to make the dish that first time and put a packet of dry ranch-dressing mix on top of the meat, along with a packet of dry “au jus” gravy, a stick of butter and a few pepperoncini. It was an on-the-spot variation of a recipe she had learned from her aunt, which called for packaged Italian dressing. Chapman wanted something “milder,” she said, so she swapped out the Italian for the ranch.
She set the slow cooker to low and walked away. Some hours later, her family dived into their meal with glee. She has made the roast ever since. And largely unnoticed by food writers and scholars, the recipe has slowly taken on a life of its own.
The story of that twisting road to fame began a few months after the dish’s creation, when Chapman prepared the roast for Karen Farese, a friend “since we were diapers,” Chapman said. Farese loved her dinner and eventually contributed a recipe for it to a cookbook put together by her congregation, the Beech Hill Church of Christ, also in Ripley. Farese did not call the dish Mississippi Roast either. She called it “roast beef.”
“Oh, goodness,” she said. “I’m going to say that was over 10 years ago.”
One Beech Hill congregant, Judy Ward, started making Farese’s recipe for Sunday lunch at her family’s home near Ripley, in Hickory Flat. Laurie Ormon of Bentonville, Ark., is Ward’s niece by marriage, and she told me she ate the dish when she and her husband were visiting the area in 2010. She wrote about it soon after on her blog, Laurie’s Life.
“The best roast in the world,” she called it in her post. While admitting that “the recipe sounded awful” and that she hated ranch dressing, she stood strong on the deliciousness of the meal. “You have got to make this if you like a good roast,” she wrote. “Trust me on this.”
Some did. And a few months later, at the start of 2011, another blogger, Candis Berge, published the recipe on her site, A Perfectly Lovely Ordinary Day, writing that she got the recipe “from a blogger named Laurie. She got it from her husband’s aunt and lots of her blog followers are now sold on this roast. So am I. So is hubby.”
Then Berge switched to italics: “That’s the important test in this house … the hubby test.”
Berge called Ormon’s recipe Mississippi Roast. And in August 2011, according to Christine Schirmer, a spokeswoman for Pinterest, a “pinner” called the Prairie Cottage posted a link to the recipe, saving the image to her “beef/pork” board.
By fits and starts at first, and more recently in droves, people began sharing the image and the recipe on Pinterest and Reddit, on Facebook and Twitter. Schirmer said that since the start of 2014, the recipe for Mississippi Roast has been pinned more than 1 million times.
A search for the term on Google yields tens of thousands of recipe links, many of them leading back to Berge or mentioning a sighting on Pinterest. “Oh heavens me,” reads one introduction, on the Hungry Housewife blog. “I cannot even begin to explain to you how delicious and easy this dinner is.”
Outside the blogosphere, however, the success of Mississippi Roast has been a quiet one. It has gone widely unnoticed by the journalists and academics who document the food culture of the American South, perhaps because it sounds so unappetizing.
John Edge, the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi, who has contributed to The Times, said he had never heard of Mississippi Roast. I described it to him. “Could it be that it was associated with Mississippi in a dismissive way,” he asked, “à la Ernie Mickler and his ‘White Trash Cooking’ book? As in, this is the kind of food those folks eat? That would be my best guess.”
Frederick Douglass Opie, a professor of history and foodways at Babson College and a fount of knowledge about cooking across the South, was likewise stumped. “That’s a new one for me,” he said.
Even Kathleen Purvis, the food editor of The Charlotte Observer in North Carolina and one of the world’s best sources of information on Southern cooking, professed ignorance. “Not me, Sugar,” she said. “I’d have called it Tar Heel Roast.”
Looking for the zing
To see what the fuss was about, I set out to make Mississippi Roast myself. An initial run at the recipe, strictly as written, yielded a tangle of soft and luscious beef, richly flavored with butter and salt, with a low vinegar zip from the pickled peppers. There was a faint chemical bite, yes, from the packaged dressing and gravy, but the dish was objectively good, even delicious.
Still: packaged dry ranch-dressing mix? Packaged dry gravy mix? These are built on foundations of salt and monosodium glutamate, artificial flavors, artificial colors, polysyllabic ingredients that are difficult to pronounce much less identify. Surely they could be replaced without increasing by much the prep time for the roast.
As for the full stick of butter Chapman used, I reckoned I could go with less. There is plenty of fat in a chuck roast. And Farese called for using “2 or more pepperoncini” in her recipe in the church cookbook. I thought many more — eight to 10 — would answer more clearly, providing some zing against the richness of the sauce.
I seared the roast before placing it in the slow cooker, browning it aggressively beneath a shower of salt and pepper and a coating of all-purpose flour that I hoped would create a fond, or base of flavor, to replace the gravy mix, and give some structure to the sauce. I placed it in the slow cooker with a half-stick of unsalted butter and all my pepperoncini.
While that started to heat, I made a small portion of ranch dressing: some mayonnaise and dried dill, cider vinegar and a splash of buttermilk, just a few tablespoons in all, seasoned with a dash of paprika. And I dumped that over the top of the meat.
Eight hours later, my family dived into their meal with glee. It was exactly the same as the original effort and took about the same amount of time to make.
Farese has twins, Katherine and Michael, both seniors at the University of Mississippi. Recently, she said, a friend of theirs served them the roast for dinner. “Where did you get this recipe?” Katherine asked. “It’s a Mississippi Roast,” the host replied. “I found the recipe on Pinterest.”
Farese laughed at the children’s response. “No,” Michael said, “this is my mama’s roast.”
MISSISSIPPI ROAST BY SAM SIFTON
Makes 6 to 8 servings
1 boneless chuck roast or top or bottom round roast, 3 to 4 pounds
2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
1½ teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
¼ cup all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons neutral oil, like canola
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
8 to 12 pepperoncini
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
½ teaspoon dried dill
¼ teaspoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon buttermilk, optional
Chopped parsley, for garnish
1. Place roast on a cutting board and rub the salt and pepper all over it. Sprinkle the flour all over the seasoned meat and massage it into the flesh.
2. Heat the oil in a large sauté pan set over high heat until it is shimmering and about to smoke. Place the roast in the pan and brown on all sides, four to five minutes a side, to create a crust. Remove roast from pan and place it in the bowl of a slow cooker. Add the butter and the pepperoncini to the meat. Put the lid on the slow cooker, and set the machine to low.
3. As the roast heats, make a ranch dressing. Combine the mayonnaise, vinegar, dill and paprika in a small bowl and whisk to emulsify. Add the buttermilk if using, then whisk again. Remove the lid from the slow cooker and add the dressing. Replace the top and allow to continue cooking, undisturbed, for six to eight hours, or until you can shred the meat easily using two forks. Mix the meat with the gravy surrounding it. Garnish with parsley and serve with egg noodles or roast potatoes, or pile on sandwich rolls, however you like.