Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Robert’s Top Ten 2005

As is the tradition in this column, every December I compile a list of the top ten dining experiences I enjoyed over the past year. The list is never based on price or atmosphere. I believe that good food can be served in a fine-dining environment or in a run-down diner. The only considerations are good food and good friends, which always lead to a good time.

This year’s culinary experiences took me from dining in the top restaurants of New York and San Francisco to eating pressed meat sandwiches in the heat and the dark of the immediate aftermath of the worst natural disaster to hit American soil.

10.) Oysters on the Half Shell— Wintzell’s Oyster House, Mobile. My friend Bill Kirby and I drove 90 miles South with a single mission— to eat oysters. After slurping four dozen each, we skipped dessert, ate another dozen, and drove home. The Apalachicola oysters were cold and salty, not too big and not too small. I could eat another five dozen right now.

9. tie) BBQ Ribs— Leatha’s BBQ Inn, Hattiesburg, Miss. Typically, I cook Christmas dinner for my restaurant managers every year. This year we invited spouses and significant others and let the Queen of BBQ, Leatha Jackson, do the work. We won’t be going back to my house anytime soon.

9. tie) Blackbird restaurant— Chicago. Braised pork belly and seared hanger steak never tasted better.

8.) Watershed restaurant— Decatur, GA. Chef Scott Peacock has created one of the hippest Southern eateries in existence. I have extensive notes on all of the dishes we enjoyed, but the mashed potatoes stick with me to this day. Achieving culinary perfection by cooking the “perfect mashed potato” is not as easy as one would think.

7.) Breakfast in a friend’s remote cabin— Franklin, Tenn. We feasted on country ham, red-eye gravy, scrambled eggs with extra-sharp cheddar cheese, garlic grits, two versions of beaten biscuits, sautéed apples, cream cheese pound cake, banana-nut bread, orange juice topped with a scoop of orange sherbet, and the absolute best sausage I have ever— or will ever— put in my mouth.

6.) Lunch with my wife and children— K-Paul’s, New Orleans. The shrimp creole, jambalaya, and seafood gumbo, produced daily in the K-Paul’s kitchens are the finest examples of those dishes ever created. Period. Prudhomme is the most underestimated and underappreciated chef in America. Make no mistake, he is still the king. He packs more flavor and boldness into a dish that anyone. This meal turned out to be my last dining experience in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina changed the city forever.

5.) Anchovy Pasta— Trigiani residence, Jackson, Miss. My friend, and resident Italophile, David Trigiani, is an accomplished architect-turned-amateur-Italian cook, though his cooking is anything but amateurish. This evening he prepared a beautifully straightforward pasta dish by sautéing minced garlic in the finest quality extra virgin olive oil, he then added imported anchovies, and angel hair pasta. Simple, flavorful, beautiful.

4.) Seafood Luncheon— Puckett Home, Pass Christian, Miss. The Pucketts owned one of those century-old majestic homes on Scenic Highway 90 in Pass Christian. They prepared a beautiful meal of crabmeat au gratin, fresh fruit, and a cold shrimp salad. A row of brick steps— and memories— are all that remain of their home as Katrina tore through the coast two weeks later.

3.) Aureole— New York. A celebratory dinner with my agent after a successful day with book publishers. No one coddles foie gras like Charlie Palmer.

2.) Restaurant Gary Danko— San Francisco. Danko’s menu includes a five-course tasting menu and an unbelievably large selection of ala carte offerings including eight appetizers, caviar service, nine fish and seafood choices, seven meat and game-bird selections, a cheese course, and nine dessert options with one prepared tableside.

The most amazing feature of the menu was that all 34 of the ala carte items could be compiled into a personal tasting menu with a three-course, four-course, and five-course option. I opted for a four-course personally selected menu. First course: Seared foie gras with caramelized red onions and roasted peaches. Second course: Risotto with lobster, rock shrimp, roasted porcinis, tomato, fennel, and tomato oil. Third course: Branzini (farm-raised Mediterranean Sea Bass) with red pepper succotash, wilted arugula, and harissa. Fourth course: Herb-crusted loin of lamb with Israeli cous cous, yellow zucchini, and garam masala. The final course will rank as one of the top three lamb dishes I have ever eaten.

1.) Date with my daughter— Purple Parrot Café, Hattiesburg. No mom, no wife, no brother, no son, just my daughter and me. It wasn’t the five-course tasting menu that made it special, but the company. I may never top this one.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

A Tale of Two Letters.

These are the letters to Santa that my children dictated to me last night (Holleman 8-year old, Harrison 4-year old). I wrote down everything they said as they said it. I then forwarded the letters to Santa. We’re keeping our fingers crossed for Harrison!


Dear Santa,

How are the elves doing? They made a new movie, you know, called "The Happy Elf."

What kind of cookies do you want for Christmas?

It's Holleman talking, here. I'm loving school this year. I'm in the third grade now. I live on 222 Arlington Loop in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

I've been trying to be good all year.

If you don't mind for Christmas may I have a skateboard? How's a lava lamp feeling to ya?

Dear Santa, I've gotta explain this one to you. I would like a bubble chair. One that hangs from the ceiling, that is light pink and fuzzy. I've seen it on a commercial, so you know I'm not making it up.

This is late notice, but is there a chance of you coming to our house? I don't really NEED anything, what I've listed before is just what I would LIKE.

Would you like organic milk, or regular? Which is the one that Mrs. Claus gives you?

Please write back.

Do the reindeer still have energy in them?

Is Rudolph's nose still glowing like a flashlight? A red one, that is.

I'm so glad to be actually talking to you.

Once again, that's it.

Best wishes, and good luck.



P.S. May I please have the Chloe Bratz winter doll? Thank you

Dear Santa,

Yo Santa, I've been bad and I apologize. I want a flying suit so I can fly up in the air, where you go up and down and sideways.

Now Santa, I gotta tell ya, that I want a jet-propelled skateboard that goes really fast with fire on it that's really cool.

And Santa, I've got to tell you something that you really might like, guess what, I want an alien saucer that could fly higher than the moon!

I want an "Easy" button that locks the door, maybe even closes it, maybe even opens it.

What was it like when you were a kid?

How is Mrs. Claus doing. I hope she's not getting too old.

I want something awesome... all the Batman stuff you see in your bag.

I want a four-wheeler that can go on the wall and the ceiling. I want a trick phone that when you talk on it all you hear is "huuh, huuh, huuh (heavy breathing)."

Guess what I want next? A jingle bell that is so loud it knocks you Down!

The four wheeler is going to be a Batmobile!

I want a light that when you turn it on, it shines in your eyes and knocks you out!

Hey Santa, I'm going to leave you some chocolate chip ones that are really tasty.

Santa, you know what? My typing's over right now, already.

My name is Harrison St.John

(Several times during the letter, I asked if he wanted to tell Santa how he has acted this year, he replied, "I've already told him that.")

Monday, December 19, 2005

Christmas 2005

Christmas is a season for reflection. As I look back over 44 years, I am humbled by the joys and blessings that I have received, and I am in awe of all of the warm Christmas memories that have been created.

It took me almost 40 years to realize the aspects of life that matter the most. For me, they are: Faith family, friends, food, and fun. I call them the Five Fs and they are listed in that precise order for a reason.

Faith is the foundation. It is first. It is foremost, and it is the basis for the following four Fs. Without a strong foundation, it’s hard to build a fulfilling life. Faith comes in many forms and many denominations, you know best what “faith” means to you, and so I’ll leave it at that.

No other time throughout the year offers as much opportunity to appreciate and enjoy family. Even when we think we’ve had all of the “family” we can stand, the holidays keep giving us more. My fondest Christmas memories have strong ties to family: My daughter’s first Christmas, my son’s first Christmas, the first Christmas in a new home with my newlywed wife, my crazy Aunt Virginia— three sheets to the wind on Christmas
Eve— singing Mele Kalikimaka on top of the coffee table.

The things— the toys and junk— aren’t what make a memorable Christmas. Sure, I remember the Christmas I received my first bike and the morning I unwrapped the Easy Bake Oven Santa brought, but I don’t remember many other material gifts. I do remember the last Christmas afternoon I spent with my grandfather. I remember the last Thanksgiving meal I ate with my grandmother. I remember the stupid-looking matching pajamas my mother made my brother and me wear every Christmas Eve.

Today’s quirky Christmas event is tomorrow’s fond Christmas memory.

Friends are vital at Christmas. Being a friend during this first Christmas following Hurricane Katrina might be more important than ever. Everyone in our area was affected. Most of us lost something; many lost too much, some lost everything. Friends came to the rescue— friends next door, friends from other towns, friends from other states. New friendships were created and lasting relationships were cemented. Never in my lifetime have friends— new and old— been more important.

Christmas is synonymous with food, and food has such strong connections with our memories. Christmas is the only time of year that friends stop by the house throughout the day bearing gifts of food. For generations my family has eaten a huge formal meal on Christmas Eve and I can remember each and every one that I have attended or hosted. Christmas morning wouldn’t be complete without a batch of my neighbor Mary Virginia McKenzie’s sweet rolls and my mother’s garlic-cheese grits.

For many years I chased fun. I looked under every nook and cranny in search of fun, I tried to create fun. In retrospect, my fondest memories have occurred when I wasn’t trying to make fond memories, and certainly when I wasn’t trying to create fun. Most of my fondest remembrances were unintentional memories that were created by accident or happenstance, most happened when the other Fs were in play.

When three or more of the Five Fs are present, fun happens. It doesn’t have to be created. Relatively late in life I have found that true fun and sheer joy come from the unintentional implementation of the Five Fs.

This Christmas enjoy all of the joys the season unintentionally offers, for they will surely become fond memories in years to come. Pray for those who need help and guidance. Give to those in need like you’ve never given before. Give food, give clothing, give time, and give your friendship. Spend time with your family, spend time with your friends, make new friends, and make sure to do everything you can to assure that everyone who needs to eat is able to eat.

In the meantime, my children will be wearing matching pajamas and I’ll be singing Mele Kalikimaka.

Monday, December 12, 2005

The Great Christmas Compromise

Christmas is full of compromises.

When couples wed they bring many things into the union. I’m not talking about bachelor-apartment wire-bale coffee tables, milk-carton two-by-four college-dorm shelving, or great-grandmother’s tacky faux-antique tea set. I’m talking about family traditions and ideas about how things are done within the family unit.

Nowhere are family traditions and longstanding practices more evident— or volatile— than during the holidays.

Christmas has such fond memories attached to our youth. We like to celebrate the holidays exactly how we used to do it, and that is the way we want to keep celebrating for ever, and ever, and ever, ad nauseam, ad infinitum, and a partridge in a pear tree, or a partridge on a wire-bale coffee table depending on who wins the argument.

The granddaddy of all Christmas quandaries is whether to open presents on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning. My wife would open presents on September 28th if they were available. She came from a family that opened presents on Christmas Eve. Actually, she came from a family that had to take drastic measures in hiding presents from her so she wouldn’t break into them as soon as they were placed under the tree. My wife can open and re-wrap a present with the stealth and precision of an international secret agent.

The dilemma of living with a Christmas-present peeker is that all gifts must be locked down in a bank vault until Christmas morning. Either that, or all presents must be completely bound by layers of duct tape before being stashed under the tree.

The first Christmas compromise that took place in our marriage was the icicles-no icicles debate. I am a direct descendant of a long line of icicles-on-the-tree Yuletide decorators. We take our tinsel seriously. We throw icicles on the tree in heavy clumps. As a matter of fact, children from all over the neighborhood used to come to my house to throw tinsel with abandon.

My wife’s family views icicles with a contempt normally reserved for dog beaters. In the St.John house, the weeks leading to Christmas are filled with the constant placing and removing of icicles from the tree.

The children are on my side and will thankfully carry on the longstanding St.John icicle tradition. When tree-decorating time rolls around the three of us hurl tinsel on the finished product with the agility and accuracy of an Olympic discus thrower. For the next three weeks, my wife comes behind us and removes most of the icicles from the tree, which, in turn, leads me to wake up at 3 a.m. to add more tinsel to the tree. I have spare boxes stashed all over the house.

White-lights vs. colored lights is another predicament. We used to alternate years. My year we would use colored lights on the tree and during her year we used white. Finally we compromised eight years ago and place both white, and colored, lights on the tree. Our children each have a small Christmas tree in their respective bedrooms. Amazingly enough, the tree-light debate has fallen along gender lines— my son likes colored lights and my daughter sides with her momma.

Some families eat their “big meal” on Christmas Eve, others opt for Christmas day. My family always ate a formal dinner on Christmas Eve. We still do. Chalk up one for my team.

Luckily, the other typical Christmas food compromises have not had to be made within our union. When it comes to the ham vs. turkey quandary we both prefer poultry over pork. When adorning the aforementioned bird, we both prefer dressing baked separately instead of giving the bird a celery and breading spiked enema. No stuffing in the St.John house. Stuffing is for Yankees.

And when it comes to dressing, we both came into the marriage with a strong appreciation for cornbread dressing. My soon-to-be brother-in-law once brought an oyster dressing to our Christmas Eve dinner. It was shaded in a freaky green hue and had a pudding like consistency that could curl your toes backwards after one bite. No thank you. My family eats cornbread dressing, it is yellowish tan, it doesn’t jiggle, and that’s that.

Our marriage has seen a few disagreements through the years, but I will be eternally grateful to my Creator for placing a woman in my life who hates marshmallows on her sweet potatoes as much as me. Marshmallows do not— I repeat— do not belong anywhere in the vicinity of a sweet potato.

My holiday advice to newlyweds is: Hide the marshmallows, keep oysters out of the dressing, install non-tamper security features on all under-the-tree gifts, no matter how tacky her grandmother’s tea set looks— don’t comment on it, colored lights or white— it doesn’t really matter as long as you decorate the tree together, and finally, throw icicles with your children, throw them hard, throw them long, and throw them with abandon.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Small-Town Pancakes

I love living in the South.

As far as my literary agent in New York is concerned, I live in a small Southern town. In reality, I live in a medium-to-large-sized town by Southern standards.

Whether my metropolitan area is large, medium, or small, there are two events each year that make me feel as if I am living in the smallest of the small-town South: My local Christmas parade and the annual Kiwanis Club pancake breakfast.

Both events occurred on the same day this year. The Hattiesburg Mississippi Christmas Parade is small, even by small-town standards. There are no large Macy’s-style helium-filled balloons, Broadway lip-syncers, or elaborately decorated floats, but there is a spirit to the event that evokes a comforting sense of community.

There is something about small-town Southern Christmas parades that transports me to the innocence of a Norman Rockwell painted America. I try to never miss a local parade.

The Kiwanis Club pancake breakfast has been a local event for as long as I can remember. The pancakes are O.K. The syrup is an inexpensive generic variety, and the sausage is passable. But it’s not the food, or the quality of the food, that make the event memorable. It’s the people. It is citizens from all walks of the community that gather together to share a meal, and a morning meal at that. Young, old, black, white, Protestant, Catholic, rich, poor, the only link connecting all of the people in the room is that they all bought a $5 ticket from a Kiwanis Club member. Nevertheless, there is a common bond that is shared during a meal that breaks down all barriers.

It’s not the food, it’s the fellowship. Sharing a meal together is a very biblical thing. Food is used throughout the bible. Whenever two or more are gathered in His name, there is usually a loaf of bread, a few fishes, and some wine. Food is the common link we all share it is the catalyst that brings us together.

Pancakes were a common link in bringing my family together on many occasions. My grandmother made excellent pancakes. We never woke up in her home without eating pancakes. Her pancake recipe was one of the components that defined her place in the family structure— my grandfather was the avid sportsman who could fix anything, my grandmother made great pancakes. Of course their personalities and talents were deeper and more complex than that, but when broken down into their simplest forms, those were the roles and labels. We all lived up to them. I was the hyper wild kid, my mother was the single-mom art teacher, and my grandmother cooked great pancakes.

Whenever the family gathered on vacation and breakfast was served, my grandmother— Muz we called her— prepared pancakes. She cooked them at her home, at our home, and away from home. Muz showed her love for us through the simple act of cooking pancakes.

A few years ago, while eating pancakes with my daughter, it struck me that no one had ever cooked pancakes for Muz. Every time we were together she did all of the cooking. At the time she was living in an assisted living home. We called her and made arrangements for a pancake breakfast the next morning. I cooked the pancakes this time and it was one of the more memorable breakfasts I can remember.

I have never joined a civic club. Most of them meet at lunch which is the height of my workday. And I don’t know a whole lot about what they do other than cook pancakes once a year. However, one has to be a fan of any organization whose motto is “Serving the children of the world.” In addition to serving the children of the world, once a year, they are feeding the citizens of my town.

Here’s some unsolicited advice from a formerly jaded southerner: Never let a small-town parade, a pancake-breakfast fundraiser, or a chance to cook for your grandmother pass you by, ever.

Muz’s Pancakes – The World’s Best (and good for the soul)

1 cup All Purpose Flour
2 tsp Baking Powder
1 tsp Baking Soda
1 /2 tsp Salt
1 Tbl Sugar
1 Egg
1 cup Buttermilk
1 /2 cup Melted Butter, divided

Mix dry ingredients thoroughly. Gently add liquid ingredients including 1 /4 cup of butter, and stir until just incorporated. Do not overwork the batter. The batter is thick, if you like it can be thinned with a small amount of water or a little more buttermilk.

Cook pancakes on a lightly greased griddle. Pancakes should be turned only once. They are ready to be turned when bubbles form in the middle and the edges appear cooked. Once pancakes are turned, use a pastry brush to spread the additional 1 /4 cup of melted butter on top of the pancakes while the other side is cooking. This will keep you from having to spread cold butter on them, which will tear them. The pancakes will already be buttered once they reach the table. Serve with real maple syrup.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Unsung Heroes

Mississippi is full of unsung heroes. The problem with unsung heroes is inherent in the name. they mostly go unsung. The high-profile types get a lot of credit- all deserved- for helping others. There are tens of thousands of unrewarded heroes out there who fall between the cracks. Not as long as I have these 750 words available to me each week.

There are also many unsung heroes in the culinary world. Hattiesburg's Yvonne Owen is most definitely one of those heroes. While her children were in school Owen began baking cakes "for therapy." After her husband died, she went into the catering business full time, "With a vengeance," her friend Sharon Walker explained. With all of her children grown and out of the house, she expanded her tiny kitchen into a full-scale commercial operation and the cakes began flying out the door. Eventually she began catering parties, teas, and weddings. She catered my wedding in 1993.

However, business has always come in a distant second with Owen. What makes Yvonne Owen special is all of the unselfish ways she helps others. Her daughter stated, "I can't remember a time when she wasn't helping someone, or giving something away." Always a loyal member of Court Street United Methodist Church, this busy grandmother took on the job as hostess for the church, feeding the membership every Wednesday night. Before long she added another Methodist church, and a few months later, as if it were predestined, she added a Presbyterian church, too. Three churches, hundreds of meals, every Wednesday night, out of her home kitchen- all this, and the cake and catering business, too.

In addition to her everyday duties she has worked tirelessly with the Mississippi Diabetes Association and other charities, helping anytime anyone anywhere held out their hand. A few years ago, seeing a need to feed shut-ins and under-resourced citizens in the community, she began cooking 10 meals every Monday through Friday for a Meals-On-Wheels program. "I'm only going to do 10 a week," she told Dora Sue Ferrell, her longtime assistant. Before long, 10 became 20, and 20 became 60. Day in, day out, five days a week, 52 weeks a year, rain or shine, Yvonne Owen prepared salad, entrée, two vegetables, bread, and dessert using her own money and resources. And when no one was available to deliver, she became the wheels that delivered the meals.

Owen contracted a rare form of cancer in 2003 and underwent a rigorous chemotherapy program. The day she finished her chemotherapy she traveled to her daughter's house to begin a five-week babysitting stint with her newborn grandson.

Today, the cancer is in remission. Fortunately for the citizens of Hattiesburg her cooking is not in remission. She has dropped down to feeding only two churches on Wednesday nights, and others have taken on the Meals-for-Wheels responsibilities, but not a funeral or open house goes by at Court Street Church without Yvonne's culinary touch.

A few years ago Owen began traveling through under-resourced neighborhoods picking up children and taking them to church for Wednesday night and Sunday morning services. Sometimes it is the only balanced meal the children will eat all week. The kids call her "Sugarmama," she calls them "her fish" referring to a line in a sermon she once heard that taught the lesson of feeding and nourishing the spirit of the needy. It is a lesson that we should all learn. It is one Yvonne Owen is living by example in her everyday life.

The Mississippi Conference of the United Methodist Church recently awarded Owen with the Denham Evangelism Award. It seems that the children she was bringing to church soon began bringing their parents. In addition to being a cook, hostess, caterer, mom, grandmom, and great-grandmom, she became a one-woman evangelism team.

Owen, along with her longtime assistants Ida and Dora Sue, is making the world a better place one meal at a time. "She's always doing for somebody else, wearing herself out," Ferrell stated. "She has planned her retirement four times, but she keeps pushing the date back. I don't think she'll ever stop." Let's hope she doesn't.

The world needs more Yvonne Owens.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Butterball Hotline

True story: A woman once called the Butterball Hotline to find out how long it would take to roast her turkey. The hotline worker asked how much the bird weighed. The woman responded, "I don't know, it's still running around outside."

The holidays offer no respite for idiots.

The following are actual questions asked of Butterball Hotline personnel:
"I lost a bet on a football game and now I have to fix Thanksgiving dinner for 20 people. How does a guy do that?"

"I know you're all about turkeys, but can you help me make cookies?"

"How do you prepare a turkey for people who don't eat meat?"

"The doorbell is ringing, everybody's here, but the turkey is still frozen solid. Can I serve it anyway?"

"I buried my turkey in a snow bank and now I can't find it. What should I do?"

"I'm calling from a cell phone and I'm walking up and down the aisles in the grocery store. I don't know what to get for Thanksgiving dinner. Will you walk with me and tell me what to buy?"
“What are you wearing?”

I have never called the Butterball Hotline. I have no problem cooking turkeys. I cook my turkey at an extremely high heat, never stuff, and never baste and it comes out flawless every time. However, I do have a few questions I would like to ask the experts at the Butterball Hotline:

Does anyone eat mincemeat anymore?

Why in the world would anyone place a marshmallow on top of a sweet-potato casserole?

Who was braver— the first man to milk a cow or the first man to eat an egg?

Why do Yankees insist on calling dressing “stuffing”?

Can you explain the offside rule in soccer?

Is the hokey pokey truly “what it’s all about?”

Why don’t psychics ever win the lottery?

Giblets… come on, what’s the real story?

How did Chuck Norris ever get into the movie business?

Why doesn’t glue stick to the inside of the bottle?

Do you know anyone that actually eats fruitcake?

Why are hot dogs sold in packages of 10 and buns only come in packages of eight?

Why does everyone fight over the white meat, when we all know dark meat tastes best?
The Mississippi Culinary Hall of Fame

Mississippi’s literary history is well documented and recognized nationwide, from Mr. Faulkner to Walker Percy, Willie Morris, Eudora Welty, and John Grisham.

The blues were invented here and musicians from Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Willie Dixon, and Robert Johnson have called Mississippi home. The father of Country music, Jimmy Rogers, along with Faith Hill, Charlie Pride, Conway Twitty, and Tammy Wynette were all born in the Magnolia state. Artists from the classical and jazz disciplines such as Leontyne Price, Mose Allison, and Cassandra Wilson, were born here. There’s Jimmy Buffett, Jerry Lee Lewis, and a small-town kid from Tupelo named Elvis.

Mississippi is fertile ground for creativity. Legendary radio commentator, Paul Harvey, once said of Mississippi, “No state can point to a richer per capita contribution to the arts and letters.” That, Mr. Harvey, is truly the rest of the story.

However, I think the Academy Award-winning actor and Mississippi resident, Morgan Freeman, said it best. While singing Mississippi’s praises on a recent national television broadcast, Freeman stated, “I’d live here for the food, alone.”

Mississippi has two music halls of fame, a blues museum, and three world-class art museums. It’s time our cuisine got its due. The time is right for a Mississippi Culinary Hall of Fame.

Therefore, I submit for you approval, one man’s list. The 2005 Inductees into the Mississippi Culinary Hall of Fame:

Culinary Innovator Award— Fred Carl, manufacturer, philanthropist, Viking Range Corporation, Greenwood— Carl invented the commercial cooking-equipment-for-the-home segment. He owns the majority of that market and his ventures deeper in the hospitality industry add up with each passing year. His tireless work in helping to save downtown Greenwood is representative of what is best about Mississippi— we take care of our own.

Best Chef Award- North Mississippi— John Currence, City Grocery, Oxford— Thirteen years manning the stove at what has consistently become one of Mississippi’s finest and most recognized restaurants.

Best Chef Award- Central Mississippi— Nick Apostle, Nick’s restaurant, Jackson— No one works harder or longer displaying such outstanding commitment to consistency and quality. Apostle still works restaurant hours that would kill a 22-year old.

Best Chef Award- South Mississippi— Linda Nance, Purple Parrot Café, Hattiesburg— If this were a real Hall of Fame I would have to bow out of this vote with a conflict of interest. Nevertheless, I am confident that the jury would unanimously vote Chef Nance in— if not for the excellence shown in her weekly five-course tasting menu, alone.

Humanitarian Award— Cat Cora, Food Network Iron Chef, Jackson native— The network’s first and only female Iron Chef, Cora founded the charitable organization Chef’s For Humanity to aid with Tsunami relief. Since Hurricane Katrina, Cora has worked tirelessly to raise money to help aid victims in her home state.

Restaurateur of the Year— Bill Latham, Amerigo restaurant, Char restaurant, Jackson— Latham is the embodiment of a true food-service professional. His 25-year track record of excellence and success speaks for itself.

Food Awareness Award— Carol Daily, The Everyday Gourmet, Jackson— In addition to The Everyday Gourmet— the culinary epicenter of Mississippi— Daily runs the Viking Hospitality Group, and consults with hotels and inns. Mississippians have been eating better home-cooked meals since 1981 thanks to Daily.

Food Writer Award— John T. Edge, Oxford, food writer, author, culinary historian— A multiple James Beard Award finalist with six books under his belt and more on the way, Not to mention he single handedly gave the country The Southern Foodways Alliance, an organization where he also serves as director.

Lifetime Achievement Award— Leatha Jackson, Leatha’s BBQ Inn, Hattiesburg— This humble, gracious, and charitable lady’s 70 years in the kitchen and fall-off-of-the-bone ribs are a living testament to all that is good in Mississippi.

Culinary Heritage Memorial Award— Craig Claiborne (September 4, 1920 – January 22, 2000), New York Times food editor and critic, cookbook author, Sunflower— Even in death, he’s the best-known and most respected food writer in America, Claiborne encouraged Americans to broaden their tastes and experiment in the kitchen. Over the course of his career, he wrote more than 20 books, including brilliant The New York Times Cookbook.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Go On A Diet….

It’s cookbook testing time, again.

Last week I started a new diet. This week I started the recipe-testing phase for a new cookbook. Testing recipes and watching calories go together like the New Orleans Saints and the Super Bowl, never the twain shall meet.

Last spring I signed a three-book deal with Hyperion books in New York. In addition to the Hyperion contract, Wyatt Waters, the noted watercolorist, and I are publishing another book, “Southern Seasons,” which will be released next fall. Over the next 18 months I will have conceptualized, developed, written, and recipe-tested three new cookbooks, and re-released another cookbook in the backlog. Sure, that’s a lot of writing, but mostly that’s a lot of eating.

Recipe testing for cookbooks is a blast. In the heat of the development phase, four to six recipes are created and tested every day. The finished recipes are tasted, critiqued, and rated. The next day, changes are made to the written recipes, and the process starts all over again until the final products are the perfect result of what was envisioned at the recipe’s conception. Sometimes one specific recipe can be prepared and tested every day for two weeks until the final recipe has been perfected. Occasionally, we nail it on the first try.

The three deciding factors of a winning recipe are: First and foremost, does it taste good. Secondly, can it be easily replicated at home with everyday ingredients found at the local grocery store. And finally, does it fit the theme of the book. The savvy reader will notice that the terms low-fat, low-carb, and low-calorie are not listed anywhere in the preceding sentence.

Recipe testing is fun, but it wreaks havoc on a diet.

Actually, I am writing this column in between bites of Lamb Kabobs with Mediterranean Spice Rub and Raspberry-Mint Dipping Sauce; Cheddar-Rice Crackers; Corn, Crab, and Avocado Dip; Mushroom-Stuffed Pastry Purses; Smoked Beef Tenderloin with Chive and Tarragon Sauce, and Horseradish Mustard; and Chicken and Andouille Empanadas. Note: It is 6:24 a.m. and these items make for an unusual breakfast.

I have 30 pounds to lose and three book deadlines to meet in the next 10 months— January 15th, April 15th, and September 1st. Seeing as none of the books are diet manuals and that most of my recipes are NOT developed with health-conscious calorie counters in mind, I am going to have to develop a system. I don’t yet know what that system is going to be, but, unfortunately, a gym and a treadmill will probably be major components in the final plan.

And in case you were wondering, the Lamb Kabobs were nailed on the first try although the sauce is a little too sweet. The Cheddar-Rice Crackers need more cheddar. The Corn, Crab, and Avocado dip needs something; I’m just not quite sure what that something is. Maybe sour cream. The Smoked Beef Tenderloin is perfect, but I have doubts that it can be easily replicated at home. The Mushroom-Stuffed Pastry Purses had been in the freezer for two days to see if they could be made in advance, frozen, and then baked. They can be. And the Chicken and Andouille Empanadas might need a name change.

Gotta go, the treadmill is calling.

Cheddar-Rice Crackers (Second Revision)

1 cup Butter, softened
2 cups All Purpose Flour
2 cups Rice Krispies
1 /2 lb Sharp Cheddar Cheese
1 /2 tsp Dehydrated Onion (Onion Flakes)
1 /2 tsp Hot Sauce
1 /4 tsp Creole Seasoning
1 /4 tsp Salt
1 /8 tsp Black Pepper, freshly ground

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Combine all ingredients on slow speed using the paddle attachment of an electric mixer until a small ball forms. Do not over mix. Form into small 1 /2 ounce balls and place on an un-greased cookie sheet. Using a fork, press down dough in a crisscross pattern. Bake for 20 minutes.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

A Different Kind of Date

Last week I invited my eight-year old daughter on a date.

It was the first in what I hope will become a quarterly event. No mom, no wife, no brother, no son, just my daughter and me.

Earlier in the day I made a reservation at the Purple Parrot Café. I told them to give me the best table in the house. They did— not because I own the restaurant— but because they knew how important this night was to me.

After coming in from soccer practice, and finishing her homework, she was ready. I got in my car, pulled around to the front door, rang the doorbell, and opened the car door exactly how a gentleman is supposed to.

We ordered the five-course tasting menu at the Purple Parrot Café.

The meal started with an amuse bouche tart of spinach, blue cheese, and bacon. She loved it. This is going to be great, I thought to myself. She’ll breeze through these menu items with no problem. I refuse to be a parent that raises one of these children who eats nothing but chicken strips and soda. She has always had a rather sophisticated palate, so the prospects looked good for a new and positive learning experience.

Butternut squash soup was the first official course. She swallowed a couple of spoonfuls and, when asked, said it was good. I could tell that she didn’t care for it, but she didn’t want to let me know. When the waiter came to check on us, I had him remove the soup and told him that we were pacing ourselves. I want her to have a refined palate, but I don’t want to force any foods on her that aren’t “her thing.” To this day, there are still foods that I don’t eat and no one forces them on me.

The second course was a warm duck confit salad with a wild mushroom vinaigrette. It was great. Again, she wasn’t thrilled with it. She took a few bites, and politely laid her fork on the plate. At this point and time I thought about forcing her to eat more, but held back. Instead, we talked about the proper way to transfer butter to the bread-and-butter plate and how to butter a piece of bread.

The third course was a petit filet mignon with fingerling potatoes, wilted spinach, lobster, and brie. Bingo! She cleaned her plate. I patted myself on the back for not commenting on her lack of enthusiasm for the first two courses. If I had, this course might have had a different end result.

The fourth course was a cumin-dusted rack of lamb with cous cous and an ancho-chile demi glace. “Lamb, as in Mary Had A Little?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said, and took the opportunity to tell her the story of how I never ate lamb as a child until my mother told me that it was roast beef. The story didn’t work. Six weeks earlier, my daughter had decided to become a vegetarian. Though she was only herbivorous for a few days, this jump from “I’m not going to eat anything with a face” to slicing into the medium-rare flesh of an animal whose “Fleece is white as snow,” was going to be a huge step.

“But they’re so cute,” she said.

“Just try one bite. If you don’t like it you won’t have to eat another.”

On the night of October 20 th, 2005 another lamb lover was born.

Our fifth course was a pecan-praline bread pudding. She loved it.

After the meal was over, I asked which had been her favorite course. She said that she liked the amuse bouche best, followed by the tenderloin, the lamb, and the bread pudding. Squash soup and duck confit will have to wait for another meal. The final tally was four out of six. Not bad for foods that I didn’t eat until I was in my twenties.

I want my daughter to set her goals high. I want her to know exactly how a man is supposed to treat her. Investing this sort of time in our relationship now is going to help with all of the relationships that follow in her life. Especially when it comes to one of the most important steps she’ll ever make: choosing a man.

When my children are grown and gone and I am left to sit and remember, there is no doubt in my mind that one of my fondest memories will be of that first date with my daughter. It just might be one of hers, too.

Fathers, do yourself a favor; make a date with your daughter, tonight.

Monday, October 17, 2005

A Formal Afternoon at the Triple-L Ranch

Last week I was the featured speaker at a ladies luncheon club.

A nice-sized group of 50 ladies were in attendance. The meeting was held in the formal living room of a stately 100-year old home in Brookhaven. Before the speech, the ladies were served tea, cheese straws, and finger sandwiches.

It was a Triple L lunch if I ever saw one: Ladies Lap Luncheon. All in attendance were dressed to the nines. However, the women in my life would be quick to tell me that it wasn’t a luncheon at all. The event was held at 3 p.m.; therefore it was a formal afternoon tea.

As I was signing books afterward the hostess asked if I would like a plate for the road. Being one who has never turned down food, I said, “Yes, thank you.” She went on to say that today’s menu consisted of “Cheese straws, grapes, petit fours, and chicken salad sandwiches.” At that moment another lady chimed in and said, “And the chicken salad has apples and pecans in it!”

On the drive home I began thinking of how chicken salad is dressed up or dressed down depending on the occasion. It was the 100 th anniversary meeting of the organization, which obviously explains the apples and pecans. Chicken salad is just “salad” until a hostess puts some fruit or nuts into the mix.

I love chicken salad. My grandmother’s chicken salad is still the gold standard by which all other chicken salads will be judged. On special occasions, or when an out-of-town guest was coming to her house, she added grapes to her recipe. On very special occasions she added chopped walnuts, too.

A few months after I opened my first restaurant I asked my grandmother for her chicken salad recipe. She said that she had never followed a recipe, but if I would like to come over she would prepare it and I could write down the steps and measurements.

She didn’t have to twist my arm. As a child I had spent many hours in her kitchen, sitting on a stool by the window-unit air conditioner watching her cook or helping to shell peas. That day I observed and notated as she went through the effortless steps that had been repeated hundreds of times in her 90-plus years of preparing chicken salad.

Typically she only used Hellmann’s mayonnaise when cooking. But for her chicken salad recipe she used Miracle Whip. I never thought to ask her why.

I returned to the restaurant and multiplied her recipe by a factor of ten and served the finished chicken salad in a cantaloupe half. That chicken-salad offering stayed on the menu for many years and we bring it back as a featured item on occasion. I also published the recipe in my second cookbook (sans grapes)

Some of my greatest memories are of lunches served in my grandmother’s breakfast room, just the two of us. No grapes, no walnuts, no cantaloupe, just chicken salad, white bread, sweet tea, and conversation.

That day turned out to be the last time I ever sat with my grandmother and watched her cook. Unfortunately, I became too busy with the restaurant business and she became too infirmed to work in the kitchen.

My grandmother was one of the most kind and gracious ladies I have ever known, and ten times the cook I’ll ever be. A competent hostess with an overly-generous spirit, she was one the finest examples of how to live a caring, productive and fruitful life that I will ever have. I would trade all of the upscale New York restaurant meals and all of the cookbook sales in the world to eat one more chicken salad sandwich with my grandmother, or to sit on that stool in her kitchen and watch her cook.

Today I eat chicken salad, often. But I never eat it without thinking of my grandmother and her kitchen.

And to the Climber’s Club of Brookhaven, happy 100 th anniversary, thanks for stirring up some great memories, thanks for the chicken salad, and don’t tell my wife, my mother, or Emily Post that I wore sandals to give a speech at a formal tea.

Mam-Maw’s Chicken Salad

1 3-5 lb Chicken
2 Carrots, peeled and quartered
1 Onion, peeled and quartered
3 stalks Celery
2 /3 cup Sweet pickle relish, drained
1 1 /4 cups Miracle Whip
1 /2 tsp. White pepper
1 tsp. Salt
3 Eggs, boiled and chopped
1 /2 tsp. Garlic powder
1 /2 tsp. Onion powder
1 cup Celery, chopped fine

Fill a stockpot one-half full with cold water and add carrots, onion and celery. Bring to a boil and add chicken. Return to a slow boil and cook until chicken is cooked through. Remove chicken, let cool and chop or shred. Combine with remaining ingredients. Yield: 1 1 /2 quarts

On special occasions add: chopped grapes, walnuts, pecans, or apples. Capers can also be added in small amounts. However, if capers are used, do not add fruit or nuts.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Bathroomitis and the Joys of Lavender Soap

My four-year old son used to be an extremely rowdy restaurant customer.

Early on, he screamed like a banshee while eating in restaurants. Later, during his terrible twos, he graduated to holding conversations with customers seated at surrounding tables while they were hopelessly trying to finish their meal. Today, in terms of enjoying a peaceful meal away from home, we are miles ahead of where we were in his early years. He no longer yells and screams at the table and rarely, if ever, disturbs neighboring patrons.

Nowadays he has a strange new affliction. I call it Bathroomitis. He has traded in his large voice for a small bladder.

For some strange reason, restaurants make him want to go to the bathroom. I can’t explain this phenomenon but it’s real. Five minutes after we are seated in a restaurant, something clicks in his brain, then travels southward, and out of his mouth comes, “Daddy, I have to go to the bathroom.”

“But you just went five minutes ago, before we left the house.”

“I know, but I have to go again.” And he does.

Early on, I assumed his multiple restroom visits were a crafty ploy he had devised to keep us away from the table allowing him to wander through restaurants. But every time I took him to the restroom, he did, in fact, need to go.

One trip to the lavatory per restaurant visit wouldn’t be bad. But, as with everything in our family, nothing is done in moderation. He often makes four trips in one restaurant stay.

I began to think that it might be a medical problem, but this strange phenomenon only occurs in restaurants. At home he’s a camel. He can go hours without ever stepping foot in a bathroom. In a restaurant he develops a bladder the size of an English pea.

Consequently, I have become an expert on restaurant bathrooms. I know what every restaurant lavatory looks like from Jackson to New Orleans. I know which eatery offers the best soap, who mops their floor regularly, and who never restocks the paper towels.

“How was your meal today, sir?”

“The meal was fine. However, that mint-green hue you chose when painting your bathroom walls makes one look a little peaked when washing their hands for the fourth time. Also, you soap is a little fruity. Try something with lavender or herbs.”

“Will you be having dessert today, Mr. St.John?”

“Yes, I’ll take mine in stall number three. And could you please restock the paper towels.”

These days, at the end of a meal, I have visited the bathroom sink so often that, by the time dessert arrives, my overly washed hands have morphed into that I’ve-been-swimming-for-hours prune look.

I’ve tried everything. I talked to a pediatrician friend who assured me that nothing was out of order. I had him checked for diabetes, I even changed my son’s restaurant beverage of choice— Sprite— to water, thinking that the lemon-lime combination acted as a diuretic in his system. To no avail, I still heard those four familiar words multiple times during a restaurant visit: “Daddy I gotta go!”

I have become quite the connoisseur when it comes to paper towels. I know a three-ply from a pseudo-two-ply, and can spot a single-ply towel from a mile away. I have developed a deep hatred for those old-fashioned pull-the-towel-down-from-inside-the-machine-while the-used-cloth-loops-back-into-the-machine gas-station-style towel dispensers. As luck would have it, my son loves those contraptions. I turned around once and found that he had crawled up into the towel loop and was hanging by his feet, upside down in the bathroom. “Look daddy, no hands!”

Having a son with a chronic case of Bathroomitis makes one appreciate the little things in life such as adequate restroom ventilation, distance from the dining room to the washroom, and low-to-the-ground child-friendly urinals.

Ultimately, I have come to believe that his Bathroomitis is nothing more than a Pavlovian response directly related to the excitement of visiting a restaurant and the sheer anticipation of enjoying a restaurant meal. In the end, he’s just like his old man, he loves food and he gets excited when he’s about to eat a mess of it.

Monday, October 03, 2005

The Loss of A Legend

Last week Austin Leslie, the creator of Creole-Soul food and a true New Orleans culinary journeyman, died in Atlanta. He was 71.

Leslie, who most recently manned the stoves at Pampy’s Creole Kitchen, was best known for his groundbreaking Creole Soul-food restaurant Chez Helene and his world-class fried chicken.

I met Leslie while he was working the deep fryer at Jacques-Imo’s on Oak Street in the Carrolton district of New Orleans. At that point in his life he had seen all of the highs and lows of the restaurant business over the course of a 50-year career in which he began as a fried-chicken delivery boy, rising to the pinnacle of multi-restaurant proprietor— including one property that inspired a CBS television series.

While in high school, Leslie delivered chicken via bicycle from the kitchens of Portia’s restaurant on Rampart Street. Years later, Leslie would credit Portia owner Bill Turner as the man who taught him how to fry chicken After a brief military stint, he began his lifelong culinary tour of duty with a job as an assistant chef in the kitchen of the D. H. Holmes department store on Canal Street.

In 1964 he joined his aunt Helen at her restaurant Chez Helene in the Seventh Ward. It was there that he perfected his version of the Portia’s fried chicken recipe.

After purchasing the restaurant from his aunt in the mid 1970s Leslie’s fame and popularity grew. In short order, a string of fried chicken franchises opened and satellite Chez Helene restaurants opened in Chicago and the French Quarter. He was on top of the world and being touted as the next Prudhomme— the African-American Prudhomme. His Creole Soul food was the hit of one of the nation’s most prominent food cities and was on track to becoming a nationwide phenomenon.

In the mid 1980s CBS aired the television show Frank’s Place inspired by— and based loosely on— Leslie and his restaurant. The show tackled dramatic inner-city social issues in a sitcom format, and though critically acclaimed, failed to reach an audience, and was cancelled after one season.

By the early 1990s urban decay, lack of management, and poor business decisions led to the closing of Leslie’s restaurants including the flagship on North Robertson Street. He spent the next few years picking up odd kitchen jobs in locales as far away as Copenhagen, Denmark.

In 1996 Leslie wound up back in New Orleans manning the fry station at Jacques-Imo’s. It was there, one evening before a concert, that I met the man who first fused Creole and soul into what would become a much copied culinary style in a city known for its culinary style. He was humble and gracious and jovial. The restaurant business had beaten him down but the scars weren’t visible.

The Leslie signature on a perfectly cooked chicken thigh was a sprinkling of chopped parsley and garlic. Those simple ingredients, along with an evaporated milk marinade, are what took the man from neighborhood delivery boy, to the heights of Hollywood, to the fry station at a neighborhood joint.

Recently, Leslie was hired on as the new executive chef at Pampy’s Creole Kitchen in the Seventh Ward. It would be his last stop.

Austin Leslie spent two days in the attic of his home after Hurricane Katrina. The septuagenarian was finally rescued from the sweltering 98-degree heat and stifling humidity and relocated to the chaos and horror of the New Orleans Convention Center. He remained there, lost in a sea of distress, until he was relocated to Atlanta. On September 28 th he was admitted into an Atlanta hospital with a high fever. He died the next day.

New Orleans was Leslie’s lifeline. Over a fifty year period he had survived all of the blows that the brutal restaurant business could deliver and was still enduring. The man who helped put New Orleans cuisine on the map died homeless, in a city that had no clue of his culinary pedigree. In the end, the storm that continues to take lives even a month after its landfall, struck one of its most monumental blows in a city far removed from the one that care forgot.

There will be no shrines erected for Austin Leslie. No publisher will ever issue a tribute to his legacy. Two hard-to-find and out-of-print cookbooks are all that remain as a testament to his career— that and the memories of the hundreds of thousands who enjoyed his fried chicken, Creole-stuffed peppers, and etouffee.

Austin Leslie’s Fried Chicken Recipe

1 Chicken fryer cut into 8 pieces
1 /2 cup Peanut oil
Salt and black pepper to taste
1 Egg
1 cup Evaporated milk
1 cup Water
½ cup Flour
4 Tbl Fresh minced garlic
4 Tbl Fresh minced parsley

Heat oil in a cast iron skillet to 350°F. NOTE: Oil should come about halfway up sides of skillet. Adjust amount in accordance with skillet size. Combine garlic and parsley in small mixing bowl and set aside.

Wash chicken pieces in cool water, pat dry with paper towels and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Set aside.

In a medium mixing bowl, whisk egg, evaporated milk and water. Season with salt and pepper. Place flour in a separate bowl. One piece at a time, starting with heaviest pieces, dip chicken into egg wash, squeeze, dip into flour and place gently in skillet. Do not overcrowd skillet. Maintain temperature of 350°F. Use tongs and long fork to turn chicken often for 7–8 minutes. Remove chicken from oil with tongs, pierce with fork and squeeze. Place chicken back in oil approximately 7–8 minutes. Chicken is done when no longer hissing and juices run clear. Remove from oil and place on paper towels to drain. Immediately top with a sprinkle of garlic and parsley mixture. Continue until all the chicken is cooked.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The Elementary Vegan

The other day my eight-year old daughter told me she had become a vegetarian.

A vegetarian? Oh, the betrayal. What hath my sins wrought? She comes from a long line of devout carnivores, what have I done to make God so angry?

She might as well have told me that she had just enlisted in the Symbionese Liberation Army. It was a skewer to the heart, a gut shot. I felt exactly how Ronald Regan must have felt when his daughter told him that she was a democrat.

In a flash I saw my precious little daughter as a future member of PETA, splashing paint on her mother’s fur coats, protesting on the streets dressed in nothing more than leopard-skin body paint, and driving around in a broken down Volkswagen van. In an instant she traded in her frilly dresses and pigtails to become a holistic healer in dirty jeans and dreadlocks.

I did what any carnivorously supportive father would do and said, “That’s great, honey.”

For a moment I thought about throwing the yes-but-Hitler-was-a-vegetarian jab, but my eight-year old has no idea who Hitler was. Then I started thinking about Paul McCartney. He’s a vegetarian. He’s done O.K. for himself. Maybe this isn’t the end of the world.

Her four-year old little brother is nearly a vegetarian by accident. He almost exclusively eats yogurt, bananas, and snack crackers. His eating patterns have never bothered me. Maybe it’s the label.

Later that day I asked, “But sweetie, your favorite food is cheeseburgers. Vegetarians don’t get to eat cheeseburgers.”

“I know,” she said, and that was that.

I began to think of my family’s future. No more bacon in the morning. No more ham and cheese sandwiches on Saturday afternoons. Thanksgiving is coming. Would I have to cook a tofu turkey to go along with the roasted turkey? And what about summer? When cooking steaks on the grill will my daughter ask for soy burgers and veggie dogs?

Two days later, I noticed her eating chicken strips. “I thought you were a vegetarian,” I said.

“I am a modified vegetarian.”

“What is that?”

“The only meat I eat is fish or chicken.”

“I don’t think Paul McCartney gets to eat chicken strips, sweetie. Anyway, I thought the whole vegetarian thing was about not eating anything with a face.”

“Yes, but fish and chickens have ugly faces.”

I see. We only eat the ugly animals. You are THAT type of vegetarian. A glimmer of hope emerged. Now, with the aforementioned and ugly-faced fish and chicken back in the diet, I thought I would take a shot at the potential future inclusion of cows and pigs.

Looking forward to a weekend cookout in the backyard, I spent the next few days trying to point out how unsightly cows are. “Look at that Holstein, honey. Don’t you think that’s about the ugliest animal you’ve ever seen?” I searched for a rodeo on television, figuring that seeing bulls violently buck poor defenseless cowboys would conjure up visions of ribeyes and t-bones, but there was nothing on but SpongeBob reruns and NASCAR.

Next I looked for a video of the running of the bulls in Pamplona, hoping that the sight of mad and charging bulls chasing thousands of panicked Spaniards down the street would warrant, at least, a cheeseburger. To no avail.

Next on my agenda were pigs. I love bacon and sausage, and she used to. I knew that Wilbur the pig from the book Charlotte’s Web was going to be my biggest obstacle, so I rummaged through all of her shelves looking for books with ugly and mean pigs in them. Did you know that it is almost impossible to find a children‘s book with an evil pig in it? All of the pigs in fairytales are innocent victims who get their houses blown down and lay around sleeping all the time.

“Look here, sweetie, Jack Spratt’s wife ate nothing but fat. Do you think that was pig fat or beef fat?”

“Eating fat is gross,” she said.

A slight miscalculation on my part, but I recovered with: “Yes, but it’s the ‘lean’ that’s so tasty, especially with a baked potato.”

She didn’t budge. She obviously inherited her mother’s will.

Feeling defeated, I left the subject alone, choosing to let sleeping pigs lie. Eventually I came to the realization that she might be healthier in the long run if she never again ate meat.

And then, just as quickly as it came, it went away. One day she was watching her brother eat a cheeseburger (in between bites of yogurt and bananas) and asked for a bite.

I will have to admit that I was actually a little disappointed. My daughter’s two week bout with vegetarianism had added a worldly sophistication— along with a streak of thoughtful independence— to her personality. I was growing accustomed to it.

I sort of miss my little vegan and her independent thinking. Maybe I’ll cook a tofu turkey for Thanksgiving after all… Nah

Monday, September 19, 2005

The New Orleans Culinary Resurrection

In the September issue of Bon Appetite magazine, New Orleans was listed as one of America’s top five restaurant cities

The ill-timed edition— which hit newsstands two weeks prior to Hurricane Katrina’s landfall— serves as a tangible reminder of what the nation’s restaurant customers have lost.

The other four cities— San Francisco, Chicago, Las Vegas, and, of course, New York— are worthy cohorts, but none hold the charm, culture, and history that the Crescent City offers. The citizens of New Orleans— and those of us who have been lucky enough to live around the periphery— worship food. It is a religion. It is a devotion that runs deeper than that of any other city, including New York.

The restaurant business in New Orleans has been temporarily eliminated, and one wonders if it will ever be able to return to the glory days of its past.

Watching the post-storm, post-flood news coverage on a battery-operated television in the days following the hurricane, I thought of the tens of thousands of restaurant employees who clocked out after a busy Saturday night on August 27th and haven’t worked since. If one subtracts an entire city from the Bon Appetite thesis, twenty percent of the nations top dining was wiped out in one windy day.

The road to restaurant revival on the banks of the Mississippi River will be long and arduous. The clean up will take months. Perishable food is involved so the job will be neither hygienic nor easy. We must remember that the restaurants, too, closed for business that Saturday night, and haven’t been reopened since. Toxic flood waters rose to as high as 15 feet in certain sections of the city. Electricity has been off for weeks and coolers and freezers are still full of abandoned and rotting food.

In a recent Associated Press article, Donald Link, co-owner of restaurant Herbsaint (one of the properties featured in the Bon Appetite piece), said, "I looked at the lost food– the pig heads in brine were the worst and I thought I can't do this. I can't take it."

Nevertheless, Link summoned the will and used a commercial gas mask borrowed from an oil refinery to empty Herbsaint’s five coolers and freezers that were crammed with spoiling inventory. Before the job was finished he had filled 70 large trash bags.

Link plans to reopen sometime in October, but first the restaurant will have to be decontaminated and all new equipment will have to be purchased.

In New Orleans, millions of dollars of inventory— some of the world’s best tasting inventory— was wasted. It is hard to get a grip on the scale of this disaster as it relates to the New Orleans and Gulf Coast restaurant business. One can take Donald Link’s story and multiply it by thousands. From the little po-boy shops to the convention hotels, the job of clean up and decontamination will be grueling, problematic, and nauseating.

On the second day after the storm, I collected a few of my managers and cleaned the six coolers and two freezers at my Hattiesburg restaurants. Although the food had been held without electricity for two days, some had remained under forty degrees, and most was still cool to the touch. As I began to stack boxes of produce on the sidewalk, an amazing thing happened. Residents and evacuees, who had been wandering through the parking lot in a state of post-disaster shock, looking for food, water, batteries, or an opened drug store, began forming a spontaneous line. We were able to give all of the safe and usable food to those in need.

The restaurateurs of New Orleans weren’t able to give away their inventory and a lot of them haven’t even been able to return to their properties. Some will reopen; others are rumored to be closing permanently. My guess is that the city’s thriving restaurant trade will return, and quicker than expected.

Before long, the French Quarter will be filled with tourists. The aroma of fried-seafood poboys and gumbo will fill the air. The Uptown and River Bend eateries will open their doors and welcome the world with open arms. I’ll be there with an empty stomach and a hearty appetite.

Tomorrow, if Bon Appetite were to compile an updated list of the nation’s top five restaurants— even with all of its eating establishments closed— New Orleans would still make the list. The ranking wouldn’t be for sentimental reasons, or for being the cause celebre, but because New Orleans’ food is just that good.

Hurry back, guys. We’re hungry.

For those interested:

New Orleans Hospitality Workers Relief Fund
4550 Post Oak Place, Ste. 100
Houston, TX 77027

New Orleans Rebirth Fund
1051 N. Third Street, 5th floor
Baton Rouge

Monday, September 12, 2005

My Coast

Down around Biloxi
Pretty girls are dancin' in the sea
They all look like sisters in the ocean
The boy will fill his pail with salty water
And the storms will blow from off towards New Orleans

-- Jimmy Buffett

The Gulf Coast is my second home. I grew up one hour due North; in the Piney Woods of Hattiesburg, Miss. But my childhood summers were spent on the Gulf.

In my youth, I spent countless hours fishing, shrimping, and crabbing in the Mississippi Sound— usually more interested in catching the saltwater bounty than eating it. My adult years have been filled cooking the plenteousness the warm, Gulf waters has to offer.

Cooking and eating on the Mississippi Gulf Coast is unlike that in any other place. There is a certain reverence attached to the process. A definite pride is taken in the simple practice of boiling shrimp or picking crabmeat. Sharing a meal of fresh out-of-the-water seafood is a pleasure many in this country, especially those who are landlocked, never enjoy. It is one, I am sad to say, I have taken for granted.

Today, the coast, as I knew it, is gone.

Hurricane Camille, the gold standard for storms in this area, swept through in ’69 and made a clean sweep of the Coast. Long-standing restaurants and cafes were instantly wiped out. Many were rebuilt. The casinos blew in 20 years later, and bellwether institutions such as Baricev’s and Fisherman’s Warf gave way to behemoth structures filled with blue hairs flown up on junkets from Tampa, playing nickel slots and smoking Salem Lights. Through it all, the food remained.

Food is the common bond.

My Jackson friends, Ben and Dero Puckett, owned one of those century-old majestic homes on Scenic Highway 90 in Pass Christian. For the last 35 summers the Puckett’s have spent Memorial Day through Labor Day in that beautiful and stately home. It was purchased just a few months before Camille blew in. Ben rode out that storm in a second floor closet. Just weeks ago I ate my first lunch in that house. The Pucketts prepared a beautiful meal of crabmeat au gratin, fresh fruit, and a cold shrimp salad— a true Gulf Coast feast.

Seafood is the lifeblood of the area.

Today, more than 50 percent of the restaurants in the three-county stretch, from the Louisiana state line to the Alabama border, are gone. Another 15-20 percent of restaurants in that area sustained major damage and may be out of business for up to six months. All of the other dining establishments on the Coast received, at the least, minor damage.

Upon returning from a three-day trip to the hurricane-ravaged area, Mike Cashion, executive director of the Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association, stated, “There were two things that made a lasting impression on me. The first was the absolute vicious power and enormous size of the storm. The Mississippi Gulf Coast was devastated. The second was the incredible attitude of our restaurant brothers and sisters. In the midst of death, destruction and despair, the restaurant industry, TO A PERSON, showed nothing but compassion for their community and fellow human beings.”

It’s not just restaurateurs, it is everyone. It has been said that only in times of crisis do we discover the true strength of a community.

While eating what would turn out to be my last meal in the Puckett house, I thought back to all of the summer lunches that must have been shared in that dining room, all of the shrimp that had been boiled in the kitchen, children, and later, grandchildren who splashed in the salt water just across the street. A row of brick steps— and memories— are all that remain.

My coast is now a world of brick steps without porches, concrete slabs without houses, fishermen without boats, and restaurateurs without buildings.

However, Mississippians are a resilient people. Our forefathers came to this area— machete in hand— and fought mosquitoes, tics, horseflies, rabid animals, malaria, encephalitis, Lyme disease, stifling clouds of pine pollen and scorching heat. We have endured war and occupation, floods, storms, depression, recession, tornadoes, hurricanes, all manner of natural and manmade disasters, and we are still here. We have taken the worst of what life and nature has given us and we have prevailed.

In the not too distant future, we will once again share a meal of fresh-from-the-water seafood. Restaurateurs are a hearty lot. The next Baricev’s or McElroy’s will open their doors ready to feed the world. Mary Mahoney’s is still standing, others will rise.

We will prevail.

Sun shines on Biloxi
Air is filled with vapors from the sea
Boy will dig a pool beside the ocean
He sees creatures from his dream underwater
And the sun will set from off towards New Orleans

Saturday, September 10, 2005

The link below is an excellent site to view an insiders digital diary of the days leading up to, and after, hurricane Katrina http://www.kodakgallery.com/Slideshow.jsp?mode=fromshare&Uc=14ewb3ap.b147fdut&Uy=nyvoby&Ux=1

Stay tuned
Notes, Thoughts, Hurricane Fatigue, and Hope

Living one hour north of the Gulf of Mexico has its advantages. Then again…

I hope to never again take electricity and running water for granted.

After seeing hours of bad news on television— people shooting rescue workers and doom-and-gloom talking heads— it’s good to know that there are people out there getting the job done. It’s good to know that the Red Cross, the National Guard, and hundreds of other agencies are working tirelessly to save and restore lives.

Tens of thousands of electric power workers are working day and night throughout the region, praise the Lord for the power workers.

There are thousands of heart-moving stories out there. Stories like the Kensington Woods Church of Christ in my hometown where members from all across the country went to work immediately sending tractor trailers to the area filled with water, food, baby supplies, chain saws, generators, cash, and gas. The members of the church then distributed all of those items throughout the community without care to church affiliation. Just one requirement was needed: being in need.

Neighbors are helping neighbors. Strangers are helping strangers. All with one common goal: the attempt to restore normalcy.

Sometimes it is not until you lose something that you appreciate it.

Two days after the storm, I was sitting in the dark eating a sandwich. It was a sandwich made of cheap, pressed luncheon meat, Bunny bread, and Creole mustard. That simple meal might as well have been Prime aged New York Strip and a two-pound lobster tail. Actually it might have tasted better than any steak and lobster meal has ever tasted. It was at that precise moment that it struck me… Creole mustard is a beautiful thing.

Creole mustard, unadorned. No special seasoning on the meat, nothing extraordinary about the bread, nothing complicated at all, just plain old Creole mustard. Simple, easy, uncomplicated— like life should be. Maybe as life will be, again.

A week after hurricane Katrina my house is still without electricity. Yet, I have a house.

Tens of thousands have lost everything. Everything. Everything is too much.

Nevertheless, there is still good news out there. There is still hope.