October 20, 2017  

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Son Honors Mother, a 1920 USM Graduate, with Donation of Extensive Cookbook Collection

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Anderson Orr, center, donated more than 2,500 cookbooks to a culinary research project at Southern Miss in honor of his mother, Lessie Amsler, a 1920 graduate of the university when it was known as Mississippi Normal College. Pictured with Orr is Dr. Andrew Haley, associate professor of history at USM and director of the Mississippi Community Cookbook Project; and Jennifer Brannock, curator of Rare Books and Mississippiana at USM. Haley and Brannock traveled to Orr's home in Virginia to transport the books back to USM.

A remarkable donation to a culinary research project at the University of Southern Mississippi has been made in honor of a 1920 alumna of the school.

Anderson Orr, a resident of Norfolk, Va. and native of Carthage, Miss. recently gave more than 2,500 cookbooks he has collected to the McCain Library and Archives at USM. The donation is a tribute to his mother, the late Lessie Katherine Amsler of Leakesville, Miss., who graduated from Southern Miss when it was known as Mississippi Normal College (MNC).

Since 2014, Jennifer Brannock, curator of Rare Books and Mississippiana for USM University Libraries Special Collections, has worked with Dr. Andrew Haley, an associate professor of history at the university, to collect and preserve cookbooks reflecting the culinary, social, and cultural history of Mississippi. Dr. Haley is director of the Mississippi Community Cookbook Project, and uses cookbooks as tools to research food, local communities, and those who created the cookbooks.

“This donation from Anderson Orr expands the Mississippi Community Cookbook Project by looking at regional, national, and international cookbooks that influence local cooking,” said Brannock. “We’re extremely fortunate to receive this collection, and proud to bring the cookbooks of Anderson and his mother back to Mississippi.” 

Orr is retired from Virginia Wesleyan University, where he was a member of the faculty for 32 years after earning his Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Virginia. Although cooking was always a passion for Orr, it was while pursuing his doctorate that he started entertaining for friends and began collecting cookbooks.

Orr learned about Dr. Haley’s research project through a colleague and mutual friend, Dr. Kathy Merlock Jackson, who arranged for the two to get in touch. 

McCain Library and Archives has built the largest collection of regional cookbooks in Mississippi, largely through donations from Mississippians, and the addition of the Orr Collection will make USM the place to study food in the state, Dr. Haley said.

“There are first editions of major works (in the Orr donation) by James Beard, Julia Child, and Richard Olney, canonical works on French and American cuisine, especially Southern cooking, and a nearly complete collection of cookbooks on bread,” Haley said. “Historians of cooking will, of course, want to use this collection but so will chefs, nutritionists, and, honestly, anyone who loves to eat.”

In reflecting on early inspirations for his interest in cooking, Orr noted his mother's subscription to House and Garden and Gourmet, and later, from reading renowned food writer M.F.K. Fisher’s essays on the art of eating, and “her sense that all communal meals were sacramental; although I didn’t realize her importance to me until much later, rereading her, and there it was.”

“Growing up in a small town, you are used to learning from books how to do things, and I suppose I started buying cookbooks to help me toward becoming a good cook,” Orr said.  “In the beginning the focus was French food, but toward the end, there was no focus at all, driven, I suppose, by a feeling that the next purchase would bring me mastery.”

Among the titles in the collection that stand out for Orr include “a rather battered copy in French of Mme. St. Ange” that was in the library of an American ocean liner, “found at Goodwill by a friend who gave it to me as a birthday surprise.” Others, he said, include some small French cookbooks from a rare book dealer in France, which the English food writer Elizabeth David sent to him.

At MNC, Amsler was active in campus life, including as a member of the Honor Council, Mississippi Literary Society, and the YWCA, the latter for which she served as treasurer.

“It makes me very happy to give this collection in memory of my mother, who would be very happy for it to be going to Mississippi, for which she had a great and unwavering love,” Orr said. “Although she spent her last years in Virginia, she never thought it really measured up.”

For more information about Dr. Halley’s research and the Mississippi Community Cookbook Project, visit http://mscommunitycookbooks.usm.edu/index.html; or contact Brannock at jennifer.brannock@usm.edu or Dr. Haley at andrew.haley@usm.edu.