The Down Home Issue

Mississippi Pot Roast

Browse any cooking gear website or flip on the television during a 2:30 a.m. infomercial block and you’ll immediately be shown a range of the newest, shiniest, latest-and-greatest kitchen tools that the modern dinner-maker must have. There’s a knife specifically designed for spreading butter and a special brush made to clean mushrooms. There’s an electric breakfast sandwich maker and a griddle exclusively for whipping up quesadillas. When it comes to kitchen gadgets, it seems, the parade of newfangled stuff is endless.

And then there’s the tried-and-true devices that have stuck with us for years: the cast iron skillets that have been passed down through generations, or the salad spinner that’s moved with you from apartment to apartment since you were 19. These are the kind of allies in the kitchen trenches we tend to turn to in a pinch and that have never let us down—something that most of us can’t say about the likes of a mushroom-cleaning brush.

With its squat, unassuming body, easy-going attitude and—if you’ve had one for a couple of decades—funky color, the Crock Pot (known more generically as a slow cooker) is chief among these old-guard cooking contraptions that are as reliable as the sunrise. Sometimes unfairly maligned as a device built only for suburban moms and potluck dinners, a closer look reveals that Crock Pots are the kind of egalitarian gadget that appeals to people at practically every level of cooking confidence and allows skeptical individuals to try out recipes in the kitchen with relative ease.

The Crock Pot—originally named the Naxon Beanery—was patented in 1940 by Irving Nachumsohn, the same man who brought us the electric frying pan, the lava lamp and even a prototype version of the scrolling stock ticker (known as “the zipper”) that flashes bright in Times Square. His signature culinary invention, though, had somewhat slow-cooking sales until the early 1970s, when a major rebrand turned up the heat.

“At Chicago’s 1971 National Housewares Show…the newly rebranded version of the Naxon Beanery [was unveiled]. Dubbed the Crock Pot, the appliance received a new name, refreshed appearance and a booklet of professionally tested recipes,” writes Michelle Delgado in a 2019 Smithsonian Magazine article about Crock Pots. “Home cooks eagerly brought their Crock Pots home, in distinctly ‘70s hues like Harvest Gold and Avocado. Advertising campaigns, along with word of mouth, drove sales from $2 million in 1971 to an astounding $93 million four years later.”

Today, you can purchase a Crock Pot with your favorite football team’s logo on it or one specifically branded with a shabby-chic flower pattern by Food Network star Ree Drummond (aka The Pioneer Woman). You can buy them in a variety of sizes and with plenty of accessories like thermal travel bags, silicon roasting racks and “meat claws” for shredding proteins as the slowly baste away. A 1974 avocado green Crock Pot is even on display in the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

“It’s a simple device,” Paul Johnson, curator for the Division of Work & Industry at the National Museum of American History, says in the same Smithsonian article. “It’s hard to go wrong. People who don’t have a lot of culinary training can figure it out.”

In recent years, Crock Pot sales have held steady in the tens of millions—$12.8 million in 2018 alone—and the easy-to-use, time-is-on-your-side tool is a mainstay for a large swath of Americans, thanks in no small part to its unique adaptability. Sure, you can make a loaded baked potato soup or warm up nacho cheese in your slow cooker, but you can also make vegetables fresh from your summer garden into a ratatouille, or create pennies-on-the-dollar, taco-night-ready ropa vieja with half the effort. It’s the kind of secret weapon that’s, well, not so secret.

It’s also a way to get creative with mealtime for those who don’t have the energy to chop, sous vide, and deglaze a dish to get dinner on the table seven nights a week. (Read: pretty much everyone.) Sometimes, feeling this artistically emboldened with a Crock Pot can lead to disaster, like the time I attempted to make Dr. Pepper-glazed pork chops in my slow cooker, decided to leave the setting on high all day instead of low to speed things up, and ended up with a goopy, burnt mess. (Whoops!) Other times, though, a novel Crock Pot recipe resonates so deeply with the tastebuds of everyone who sinks their teeth into it that the dish enters new classic territory. And that’s exactly what happened to Robin Chapman of Ripley, Mississippi, when she introduced her Mississippi Roast to the world over a decade ago.

A dish with an ingredient list that might seem somewhat curious to the uninitiated—beef chuck roast, a package of ranch dressing mix, a package of turkey gravy mix, butter, and (yes) those neon-yellow pepperoncini—Mississippi Roast belongs to a category of meals known among Crock Pot aficionados as “dump dinners.” The term refers to the ease with which the meals are assembled, as in, “dump all the ingredients you’re using in the slow cooker, leave it alone and—voila!—in 6 to 8 hours you’ll have a delicious meal.” Beloved by busy moms everywhere and those who want to come home in the evening to a prepared meal, dump dinner by way of the Crock Pot would seem futuristic if it weren’t so retro. There’s no browning of the meat or whisking anything together ahead of time; you’re truly letting the machine do every bit of the heavy culinary lifting.

“Dump dinners—the concept doesn’t sound very appetizing, does it? Well, don’t be deceived, for if it’s not already, it’s about to become your favorite type of cooking,” explains the 2015 book, Dump Dinners: The Absolute Best Dump Dinners Cookbook. “In today’s overscheduled world, we crave, but lack the time, to cook the comforting meals we grew up eating. It’s usually a miracle just getting the family around the table at the same time! With dump dinners, you can make those delicious meals, have them on the table with very little fuss, and continue the dinnertime memory-making tradition.”

Dump dinners, technically, can be “dumped” into a single pot, skillet, or casserole dish; even the increasingly popular sheet pan dinner could be considered a dump dish of sorts. But it’s the Crock Pot that real devotees know is the easiest dump dinner vehicle of all.

“The slow cooker has to be one of the most valuable kitchen appliances in the known universe. You just add ingredients, set the heat and time, and go about your business. When you’re ready, dinner is, too,” the authors of Dump Dinners proclaim.

And while there’s a slow-cooker dump dinner for pretty much every occasion—smothered pork chops, Hawaiian chicken, even cakes that are baked in the slow cooker, dump-dinner style—it takes a really special recipe to go viral in such a crowded, easy-to-make field. That’s why the blogosphere omnipresence of Mississippi Roast is a remarkable testament to a recipe truly done right.

Like so many great recipes, Mississippi Roast, which Chapman simply refers to as “roast” according to a 2016 feature by the New York Times’ Sam Sifton, began with tweaking something tried-and-true. Chapman, while making a roast recipe she learned from her aunt, swapped out the called-for packet of Italian seasoning for a Ranch version, resulting in a dinnertime favorite that was a little less traditionally zesty, and a whole lot more crowd-pleasing.

“When Ms. Chapman prepared the roast for Karen Farese … [she] loved her dinner, and eventually contributed a recipe for it to a cookbook put together by her congregation, the Beech Hill Church of Christ,” writes Sifton. “Ms. Farese did not call the dish Mississippi Roast either. She called it ‘roast beef.’”

From humble church cookbook beginnings, Mississippi Roast soon began its journey from almost-a-fluke Crock Pot favorite to online set-it-and-forget-it recipe darling.

Just like any juicy piece of news (or gossip) inside a church community, word about Chapman’s delicious roast began to spread. It made its way to the niece of a congregant who had eaten it during a visit to Mississippi from Arkansas. The woman in question, Laurie Ormon, wrote about devouring her aunt’s version of Chapman’s dish on her blog, Laurie’s Life—knocking over the first domino in the viral, virtual chain reaction that launched the Mississippi Roast to slow cooker recipe stardom.

“Ever since Steve and I started dating, when we would go to Mississippi, his aunt would make the BEST ROAST IN THE WORLD!!!!!!!!!!!” Orman wrote—caps, exclamation points and all—on her blog in November 2010. “I have always taken a liking to his Aunt Judy’s roast. It really is the best roast I have ever had. When we were there on Labor Day weekend, my sister-in-law asked Aunt Judy for the recipe. Aunt Judy began naming all the ingredients. She said ranch dressing mix, and I bugged my eyes out and nearly choked. I HATE RANCH DRESSING. I don’t even like to be in the room with it. The recipe sounded awful as she rattled off the ingredients, but I promise, you have to make this if you like a good roast. Trust me on this.”

And trust her, the Internet did. In a game of culinary blogosphere telephone, the recipe was passed and recreated from website-to-website, with a blogger named Candis Berge finally coining Chapman’s recipe “Mississippi Roast.”

“I got this wonderful Crock Pot roast 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. That’s the important test in this house … the hubby test,” Berge wrote in January 2011.

From there—thanks to not only digital word-of-mouth, but to a little tool called Pinterest, as well—Mississippi Roast has become a new classic in the world of Crock Pot recipes, and has also evolved thanks to various bloggers to do a little tweaking of their own to the dish. Sifton’s recipe in the New York Times bumped up the number of pepperoncini considerably, while a recipe from Tasty omits the packet of ranch dressing in favor of a blend of mayonnaise, paprika, dried dill, and apple cider vinegar. A blog known as The Country Kitchen uses onion soup mix in lieu of turkey gravy mix, and over on Recipes that Crock, there’s a spin on the dish that uses cream cheese to make the dish velvety.

Mississippi Roast is a now-timeless example of how home cooks more often gravitate toward cozy, easy-to-please creations than aspirational recipes from fine dining chefs, or elaborately decorated, Instagram-worthy desserts from professionals—despite what the perception might be. And while the Crock Pot has already proven itself to be a kitchen tool that’s both hand-me-down and museum-worthy, it’s not hard to imagine that, if there were ever a Museum of Comforting Recipes created, Mississippi Roast would be a shoo-in for entry.