“Your blog reminds me of Julia Reed’s books,” a friend said to me a year or so ago. “Really?” I answered, pretending I knew what she was talking about. “Yes,” she said, “The one I really think about is Ham Biscuits and Hostess Gowns, but all of her books are great. They’re about the new way of being Southern, kind of like what you write about.”
I did not know this was what anyone thought I was writing about, so I bought a secondhand copy of Ham Biscuits as well as a copy of The House on First Street, and I started reading. As I read I was very flattered that my friend would have thought of me in this same general context. And when I started reading I was completely, totally, absolutely unaware that the Julia Reed who wrote these books was the same Julia Reed whose columns in Vogue I had once admired (back when I had time to read Vogue), because the Vogue columnist was a cosmopolitan jet-setting New Yorker, not a Southerner. When I finally did make the connection, I was surprised in the way one might be surprised to know a cousin, third-removed, married into royalty.
There is a part of me, sometimes tiny, sometimes large, that wishes I had used my Ivy League credentials and connections to catapult out of an ordinary Southern orbit and into something grander. Usually when I have regrets along these lines, I’ll reconnect with someone who does live in New York and who does live the Big Life, and I’ll realize how deeply thankful I am not to have the obligations and burdens that accompany that lifestyle. Choices have consequences, even at the high end of the choice spectrum.
And then there’s Julia Reed, green pepper jelly bookends on a Prada suit: Southerner-New York sophisticate-Southerner.
Saturday morning, instead of editing, revising, and finishing one of my many drafts and meeting my self-imposed 10:30 Saturday morning jenny’s lark deadline, I went to the Mid-South Book Fest to hear Reed talk about Ham Biscuits, Hostess Gowns, and Other Southern Specialties. I stayed for the signing so she could autograph my copy of the book, a copy acquired through alibris thanks to the Fresno County Library’s stamping it OBSOLETE and putting it up for resale. Those poor deprived Californians do not know what they are missing.
I did not have time to go to this event because the weekend is my only catch-up time, and I am overwhelmed with chores and obligations. My pantry and refrigerator are almost empty (seriously). And we’re out of dog food. And my half-finished book, the one I have no idea what to do with next, is collecting dust on my work table. And the cat has vomited hairballs on my daughter’s bed once a week for the last three weeks, and all three weeks’ worth of linens are in a pile at the top of the stairs because I don’t feel like going to the laundromat to use the big industrial washer. And I need to work on my Sunday school room, the room that really isn’t my room but to which I am now assigned. And I really, really need to get a grip on the school wrapping paper sale that starts Friday and that I volunteered to run again for one last time since this is my daughter’s last year at our beloved elementary school. And raising a 7th grade boy is, and really there is no other way to put this, kicking my ass. And the world is an absolute heart-breaking mess; clearly, there’s that.
So, logically, I abandoned all of these worries and went to the book signing.
This was my impression: like most writers and artists I know, Julia Reed would probably rather be part of a roundtable discussion or dinner party (Southern, of course) or even working kitchen crew than speaking to an audience in an auditorium. Addressing the (unfortunately tiny) group of faithful readers, Reed was as charming, gracious and funny as I expected her to be. But I don’t see a Ted Talk in her future, at least not (I’m guessing here) by her choice.
What I did hear clearly, though, was the honest reflection of a Southerner who reconnected with her Southern roots thanks to food and her mother’s wisdom. As she writes and as she affirms in her talk, while preparing for a party in New York Reed consulted her mother, a consummate Southern hostess, for menu advice. Reed’s mother’s food mantra, identical to my own mother’s, was this:
“Serve food that tastes good.”
Good food is the love connection that brings us closer to other people, to our roots, and to ourselves. Even in the big life of New York City.
Food | Week of September 29, 2014
Some Southern comfort food seems in order this week. If you’re nervous about the cholesterol, eat oatmeal with walnuts for breakfast and go for a walk during your lunch break. Actually, do those things anyway; they’ll make you feel better.
Fried Chicken | Parslied Potatoes
My mother did not often make fried chicken, but when she did she had one consistent rule: Crisco. Do not break this rule. I do not know why. For the batter my mother used a buttermilk/paprika/cayenne/salt concoction that she never actually wrote down, but that’s awfully similar to this recipe from Alton Brown. For the potatoes, boil some small new potatoes (smallest you can find – or halve larger ones) until they are just tender. Drain and pat dry. Melt a copious amount of butter in a skillet or sauté pan; when the butter is hot but not browning, add the potatoes and sauté until they begin to brown. Toss with finely chopped fresh parsley and kosher salt.
Macaroni & Cheese | Braised Field Greens
Mama’s macaroni & cheese, likewise never transcribed in detail, was a stovetop affair: cook and drain the pasta; stir in butter, cream cheese, milk, grated cheese, a dash of Worcestershire, a dash of cayenne and salt to taste. If you feel like spreading all that in a casserole, smothering it in buttered Ritz cracker crumbs and baking for a bit, then that will work, too. If you are in the South and have access to greens (turnip, mustard, collard), then triple wash those greens, cut out the stems, and braise the greens in chicken broth, onion, ham hock (or salt pork) and a pinch of sugar for at least 90 minutes, adding more liquid as needed. Season with pepper vinegar at serving. If you are not in the South, or if you don’t feel like making from scratch, look for the Glory Foods brand turnip greens in your grocer’s canned foods section.
Sour Cream Chicken | Green Rice (Adapted from Party Potpourri)
For the chicken: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large shallow bowl, mix together and let come to room temperature: sour cream (1 16 oz. container), paprika, celery salt, lemon juice, salt, Worcestershire and 1-2 cloves garlic, pressed. In a separate bowl crush 1 sleeve of Ritz crackers (or you could use saltines or matzo). Pound 6 chicken breast halves until they are 1/2 inch thick; cut into strips, if desired. Coat the chicken thickly with the sour cream mix, then coat with cracker crumbs on each side. Place on a baking sheet lined with foil and bake for about 50-60 minutes, until cooked through. For the rice: Cook 2 c. jasmine rice (or other rice) while you’re preparing the chicken to go in the oven; when rice is cooked, and while it is hot, stir in 1/2 stick butter; add 1 package thawed frozen chopped spinach (drained), 1 c. chicken stock, 1 c. grated cheese (sharp cheddar is good), a dash or two of onion powder (don’t judge), and some finely chopped fresh parsley (up to 1/2 c.). Salt to taste. Beat 3 eggs in a separate bowl, then stir into the rice mixture. Spread in a buttered casserole dish and place in the oven with the chicken for about 30-40 minutes.
My mother made corn soufflé mostly the way she made cheese soufflé – in fact, her corn soufflé was basically her cheese soufflé (2 c. white sauce, 1 c. grated cheese, dash of cayenne, dash of Worcestershire, 4 egg yolks, 4 egg whites beaten until stiff and folded in) with the addition of frozen corn kernels (thawed and drained, added with the egg yolks) and maybe some minced chives, baked in a rectangular Pyrex instead of a soufflé dish. I do not expect anyone of French origin to understand this. If you need more direction and structure, this recipe from Food & Wine is pretty good, if not remotely Southern. Serve with steamed green beans (or broccoli), tossed with butter and kosher salt, and some warm Sister Schubert rolls.
Cheese Grits | Maple Sausage Links | Biscuits
Let grits cook in a mix of chicken broth and milk. I use coarse grind grits (Delta Grind brand) and use 3 parts liquid to 1 part grits. Toss in butter and cheese at the end and stir to mix until the cheese is melted. Serve with maple-flavored sausage links and Marshall’s biscuits. If you want to make biscuits, then this recipe from Gourmandistan is excellent (as are their other recipes).