By GWEN SISSON
Her favorite cookbooks are lined with handwritten recipes, saying "Pa's favorite," "Linda's favorite," and "Aunt Lena's Chocolate Pie."
Opal Austin swears by the Forest Cook Book from 1953. Splatters and fingerprints line the pages of the well-used book, as well as scraps of paper with handwritten recipes from friends and family.
Austin grew up with a house full of sisters and each of them loved to be in the kitchen. She and her four sisters would experiment with new recipes and get creative with old favorites.
Even today, Austin and her one remaining sister from Birmingham, Ala., share family news and recipes, almost daily.
And when Austin's grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, come to visit, one of their favorite activities is cooking together.
"It is how I entertain the grandkids," Austin said. "We will cook something together and have a tea party."
For those who know and love her, "Momma O" is an "amazing cook" who makes every guest feel at home. For many children in the neighborhood, she is their "Mississippi grandmother" and hot biscuits or a slice of pound cake are always ready to be served.
And when the family gets together, "Momma O" makes sure no one leaves her table hungry.
Sunday dinner usually consists of hot cornbread, made in muffin tins or a black skillet, baked chicken or roast, a potato soup thick enough to be eaten as soup or as a side dish, baked sweet potatoes, a variety of vegetables such as peas, butterbeans and creamed corn and a green salad. Pound cake is a family favorite with a cup of coffee, as well as coconut pie and egg custard.
"This is 'old timey' cooking," Austin said.
Austin said it is important to her that her family get together and stay connected. And if they are going to get together, they have to eat.
"If I'm cookin' they are here," Austin said. "You have to keep your family together. Who else will make the time and what else do I have to do but to try to make them feel special. If you don't watch out, your family gets too busy and they lose touch with one another. Families need time to sit and talk and laugh together."
And her family agrees. Austin has two daughters and two sons, and a host of friends who enjoy dinner with "Mamma O."
"Everything Mamma O cooks is delicious," said Austin's daughter, Judy Webb of Starkville. "I could not say that one dish is best."
Webb said one of the best things about eating at her mother's house is her genuine, warm hospitality.
"As children my brothers and sister and I never had to ask if we could have friends or even strangers come to eat," Webb said. "There is always enough for everyone, whoever you are. And always lots of leftovers. Her pound cakes are divine also. I am very fortunate to have such a fabulous mother."
Austin's daughter, Sue Thigpen of West Point, loves "Momma O's" soft chicken, with sour cream, celery and bacon. Sue's husband loves "Momma O's" Strawberry Jell-O Salad.
"And we all love her pound cake," Thigpen said. "Eating at Momma's is always a good time for family and friends. There is always a lot of great food and room for one more at the table."