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.