Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Robert’s Top Ten 2006

As is the tradition in this column, each year 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 I have listed only meals eaten away from home. As loyal readers know, I would choose eating my wife’s spaghetti with my children at my dining room table— or any meal eaten as a family— over a dinner at any of the world’s finest restaurants.

10. Breakfast at John Besh’s Home, Slidell, LA— While filming the pilot to a television show I am developing, Besh— in a true act of culinary improvisation— prepared a crawfish etouffee using heirloom tomatoes served over stone-ground grits and topped with a fried egg. It was accompanied by Allan Benton’s bacon, Besh-made andouille sausage, biscuits, and fig preserves from. Beautiful.

9. Ina’s, Chicago— Breakfast at two in the afternoon with my friend Art Smith. We arrived as the restaurant was closing (a no-no in the restaurant business). Nevertheless, Ina insisted we stay, sent the chefs back into the kitchen, and served us a dozen of her best breakfast offerings, the most memorable being whole wheat oatmeal pancakes. Afterwards Art, Oprah’s personal chef, threw in a behind-the-scenes tour of Harpo Studios just down the street.

8. Nobu, New York— Sushi perfection.

7. Asiate, Mandarin Oriental Hotel, New York— Lunch with my publisher, editor, and agent at a restaurant of my publisher’s choosing. The highlight being a non-sushi filled Bento Box.

6. Tie: Bouchon, Las Vegas; Aureole, Las Vegas— Vegas is quickly becoming a major food destination.

5. Gary Danko, San Francisco— I am still amazed by a fine-dining restaurant that will allow customers to select their own tasting menu from an offering of 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.

4. Geronimo, Santa Fe— The multi-course lunch began with sautéed morel mushrooms served with an English sweet-pea potato cake finished with first press New Zealand olive oil. A second course of macaroni and cheese, was the highlight of the meal, it consisted of Eliche semolina pasta, aged Asiago, Sage Derby, and Fontal cheeses, a julienne of smoked country ham, white truffle essence, English peas, and fresh herbs. A mesquite-grilled flat-iron steak with New Mexico roasted chilies, pommes frites, and veal sauce was the main course, and a banana tart ended the meal.

3. August, New Orleans— Just my wife and me. Nine courses, all dictated by John Besh. The top three being: 1.) I will forever call this dish “Death by Foie Gras.” On one plate I received four unique and inventive treatments— seared, grilled, smoked, and wrapped in the thinnest of five-layered pastries. 2.) Gnocchi with lump crabmeat and black truffle. 3.) Agnolotti filled with a crawfish reduction and tossed with fresh peas, sweetbreads, morels, and a small dice of smoked bacon. The pasta was tossed in a delicate cream-infused fish fumet.

2. Per Se, New York, NY— Eleven courses featuring jet-fresh foods flown in from all over the world. The most memorable offering being a pan-roasted sirloin of Australian Wagyu beef that was served alongside a Wagyu brisket that had been braised for 48 hours, a roasted potato gratin that was 16 layers thick but less than one-inch tall, a forest mushroom duxelles, crisp haricots verts and sauce bordelaise.

1. The French Laundry, Yountville, CA— A humbling, 32-course culinary bacchanalia at the hands of Thomas Keller. It is the only meal I have ever eaten that needed a halftime break. We started with salmon crème fraiche in a tuille cone, moved to oysters from Greece, poached in butter and served over a savory sabayon of pearl tapioca with Russian Sevruga caviar and it only went up from there. In conclusion, 32 courses, five hours and 15 minutes from start to finish, brilliant food, excellent service, good friends, and the country’s greatest culinary institution made for a most memorable evening.

Snookie’s Chicken Salad

Next to my grandmother’s chicken salad, Snookie Foote’s recipe is the best. Snookie was my surrogate grandmother, so I guess that’s fitting.

2 pounds chicken breasts2 tsp poultry seasoning 1 onion, quartered 2 celery stalks 1 cup chopped celery
1 bay leaf
1 1 /2 quarts water
4 eggs, hard-boiled, chopped 2 teaspoons Creole seasoning
1 tsp Lawry’s Seasoning Salt3 /4 cup mayonnaise
2 Tbl creole mustard
1 can water chestnuts, roughly chopped
1 /2 cup pecans, toasted
1 /2 cup minced celery
1 /4 cup red onion, minced1 Tbl lemon juice, freshly squeezed 1 /4 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground 2 to 3 tablespoons chicken stock

Place the chicken poultry seasoning, onion, celery, bay leaf and water in a large stock pot and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer until the chicken is cooked through. Remove chicken from pot, reserve broth and cool.

Dice the cooked chicken and place in a large bowl to cool.

Add the remaining ingredients and mix well.
Yield: 1 1 /2 quarts

Monday, December 18, 2006

Ravioli and Sweet Tea in NYC

I bit the bullet. Actually, I bit the Big Apple and took the kids to New York.

Over the last 18 years, my visits to the island of Manhattan have focused on one thing: eating. Each year my schedule is dictated by restaurants, business meetings and theatre, in that order. Every detail of every minute of every visit is planned, plotted, mapped out, and determined by restaurant reservations.

I spend hours devising my restaurant strategy so as to squeeze in every possible dining experience available. I eat for a living. I love food and I love restaurants, they’re my hobby, so when one is in the top restaurant city in the world he must make every meal and every moment count.

This visit my wife and I had three extra passengers on board: my daughter, son, and mother-in law (actually, the boy should be counted as two people). Priorities change, restaurants change, and theatre schedules change. Change is good, right?

I have now seen New York restaurants through the eyes of a nine and five year old (make that two— very active and energetic— five year olds rolled into one).

Theatre, not restaurants, was the main focus of this visit. Our hotel was in Times Square; therefore all of the restaurants surrounding Times Square were fair game.

Twice we ate fairly good Chinese food at a restaurant named Ollie’s on 44th and Broadway where my daughter— a devout sweet tea drinker— had her first experience with hot tea. On the second visit, a late night meal after a show, there was no iced tea available and the waiter poured hot tea over ice and watched intensely as my daughter tried to choke the watery liquid down with the addition of several sugar packets. A spicy orange flavored chicken dish was the highlight of that meal. It was a dish that could hold its own in any joint in Chinatown.

My daughter never gave up on her quest for sweetened tea in Manhattan. At every meal at every restaurant, deli, and café, she asked the server for “sweet tea” only to have the request denied each time.

More than anything else this visit will be known as the trip my son learned about ravioli and gnocchi. In Carmine’s, a bustling, tourist-laden, family-style Italian restaurant (also on 44th), my son ate a platter of ravioli large enough to feed a family of four. He talked about it for the rest of the trip. Whether we were in a deli, bakery, or toy store, he asked whoever would listen, “Do you have ravioli here?”

In Danny Meyer’s Union Square Café, he fell in love with gnocchi. Union Square was the one “nice” restaurant we braved with the kids. I had two business meetings away from the family that mostly satisfied my craving for fine dining: Meyer’s Eleven Madison Park; and Asiate on the 35th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel where I ate from the most creative and stunning bento box I have ever seen.

Every time I visit the city I like to sneak away one morning and walk the streets. I’ll usually have breakfast at a locals-only joint and “take in” the city. I feel like a New Yorker for a brief moment, and then it’s out of my system until the next visit. This trip I took the subway to SoHo where I ate breakfast at Balthazar. I have spent several late-night dinners at that French bistro on Spring Street. Some of the city’s top chefs dine there after their restaurants have closed. However, I had never eaten breakfast there.

I enjoyed a breakfast of brioche French toast, apple wood smoked bacon, freshly baked croissants, and scrambled eggs with mushrooms and asparagus in puff pastry. The latter being the culinary highlight of the trip.

Was it fun? Was this trip worse than others due to the limitations? In the end, I learned a lesson that should have known from the outset. I would much rather eat in New York tourist joints with my children than alone in any of that city’s finest restaurants.

Late at night, driving home from the airport after a grueling day of travel, the car was quiet. Separately, we were all reflecting on the previous six days. As we passed a highway sign that stated the remaining mileage to Hattiesburg, my hometown, an excited voice broke the silence. It was my daughter. “Sweet tea, hallelujah, thank you, Lord!”

Breakfast Casserole with Spinach and Bacon

1 lb Bacon, thick-sliced, diced
2 cups Onion, diced
1 cup Red bell pepper, diced
1 Tbl Garlic, minced
5 ounces Spinach, frozen, thawed and dried well
10 Eggs
1 cup Half and half
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp Dry mustard
1 tsp Salt
1 tsp Creole Seasoning
1 tsp Black pepper
6 slices White bread, crusts removed
6 slices Wheat bread, crusts removed
1 /2 cup Butter, softened
2 cups Swiss cheese, shredded

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

In a large skillet, cook bacon until it begins to brown, drain excess fat. Add onion and continue to cook until onion begins to brown. Add red pepper, spinach and garlic and cook two more minutes. Set aside.

In a mixing bowl, combine, eggs, half and half and seasoning. Spread the softened butter on both sides of each slice of bread. Cut the buttered bread into small cubes. Combine all ingredients and mix well.

Place in a buttered two-quart baking dish. Bake for 40-50 minutes. Remove from oven and let rest 15 minutes before serving. Yield: eight servings
Of Fires, Dogs, and Fruitcakes

Every year we close the restaurant early one Sunday before Christmas and host a large party for all 150 of our employees. Each employee brings a guest and we open the bar, hire a band, and prepare a feast from the kitchen. I host a dinner for all of the managers in the immediate hours before the party. This is where we get a chance to visit with each other outside of the restaurant, share a meal together, and I give them their Christmas bonus checks.

For years I served the managers at my home. When we outgrew my house we began visiting various independent restaurants. When we made that move, we also included the manager’s significant other. Last year we ate at my favorite barbeque place. This year we planned to eat at one of my favorite steakhouses.

We reserved the entire restaurant. The 30 of us were gathered around a large table ready to eat our salads when the room filled with smoke. As we evacuated into the parking lot we saw flames shooting out of the exhaust fan on top of the roof.

The entire management team immediately shifted from festive and jolly into professional crisis prevention mode. Luckily the steakhouse’s grill man was thinking quickly on his feet and grabbed a water hose, scaled an exterior building, and doused the fire on his own.

The restaurant had filled with smoke, the hood system was broken, and the dinner was called off. I passed out bonus checks in the gravel parking lot and we all headed to the company Christmas party with empty stomachs and grateful hearts. Grateful that the steakhouse— after enduring a restaurateur’s worst nightmare— was still standing, grateful that we have a management team that works so well together, and grateful for Christmas bonuses.

In the end I learned it doesn’t matter if I pass out bonus checks in my home, in another restaurant, or in a gravel parking lot. In high school I worked for a company that passed out fruitcakes to their employees for Christmas. I can’t think of a less grateful statement or more clichéd gesture than to hand out a fruitcake to your employees. It’s a big collective holiday up yours.

Never— I repeat never— visit Santa on pet night.

The local mall in my hometown has a great Santa this year (well, actually it’s one of Santa’s helpers) who works hard day and night posing for pictures with children. My wife and I decided to take the children so they could sit in his lap, tell him what they want this year (we needed to listen to that part), and have a photograph made. Unfortunately we went on pet night.

Pet night is the weekly occasion when anyone who so desires can bring one or all of their pets into the mall to have Santa pose with Fluffy, Fido, or Spot. Folks, it’s a little piece of holiday hell on earth. Some in line were normal family people with children and pets, others were typical pet owners, but some were those freaky pet people. You know the type. They speak baby talk to their animals, assign them human characteristics and personality traits, and probably have 300 cats climbing on their furniture at home.

The line for Santa was long. Dogs and cats were everywhere. My son, who at times can be classified as having animal behavior, was restless. There was barking, and howling, and meowing, and all manner of mayhem. One family with two large dogs spent 15 minutes getting the animals to pose correctly. An Airedale left a steaming pile of presents for Santa’s elves, and a Tabby cat got stuck in Santa’s beard and almost clawed the big man’s eyes out. All this in the first few minutes.

On second thought, it was actually an event I might like to attend— for observations sake— without my two impatient kids in tow.

In the end we have learned that a healthy hood system is vital to a restaurant’s success, receiving bonus checks in a gravel parking lot is better than not receiving checks at all, and fruitcakes suck, period.See you next week on pet night; I’ll bring the popcorn.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

A few weeks ago I wrote a column about dining in joints. In the column I asked readers to e-mail their favorite joint. Before I publish the reader’s submissions and comments, I would like to revisit the definition of a joint.

At first glance, a joint might not look like a restaurant one wouldn’t even want to step into, much less dine in. The atmosphere has accidentally evolved over the years. Nothing is contrived. The food is above average and mostly consistent. The wait staff is efficient enough to take care of your needs. A joint is clean in all of the places the count and is usually run by a family, or co-workers who have worked together so long that they consider themselves family. A joint is usually located in what a realtor would consider a B or C location, but it wouldn’t have the charm if it were located anywhere else.

There is nothing corporate about a joint. It is full of character and is usually operated by characters. Most specialize in one particular food item. It is usually that particular food that has put them on the map. It might be one individual dish or it could be a broad category of food such as steak or barbeque. A joint might even specialize in a particular meal period such as breakfast or late-night dining. The one universal characteristic of a joint is that it is casual. A joint wears its casualness as a badge of honor.

There are joints with good food, bad food, and excellent food. They key is to find the ones with excellent food and put them into your dining rotation.

Note: The following list is listed in no particular order and is comprised of reader’s submissions along with selected comments from their submissions. The author has not visited any of these establishments (but looks forward to checking them out in the near future) and can make no claims as to their authenticity or excellence.

Jacques’ Café, Vicksburg— “I have eaten there wearing everything from ripped jeans to a formal dress.” Hopefully this was sent in by a woman.

Ol’ Hickory, Columbus— “Cindy is always my waitress. Everyone is ‘baby’ or ‘honey’ to her.” A true joint waitress.

Doe’s Eat Place, Greenville— “Doe's has the best steak, cut and grilled right in front of you when you order and hot tamales that are out of this world!”

Edd’s Drive Inn, Pascagoula— “Not exactly organic, tasty burgers and dogs, same location for 50 years.” I received multiple submissions on this one.

Tate’s, Clinton, MS— Try the “Shamburger, a smoked hamburger served only when there's some smokin' goin' on.”

Davey's Restaurant, Montrose, MS— “Miss Earline serves everything: steak, ribs, fried chicken and pork chops, spaghetti, peas, green beans, okra, cabbage, collard greens, turnips, rutabagas, rice and gravy, and potato salad...as well as numerous desserts.”

Stonewall’s BBQ, Picayune— “…the most tender and juicy baby-back ribs… but it is only open two days a week.” Again, multiple submissions.

The Mexican Kitchen, Columbus— “Robert, be sure to get a couple of the homemade coconut candies on the way out the door. They take care of the after effects of the hot sauce very nicely.” I’ll try to remember that.

Shady's New World Cuisine, Biloxi— “Where else can you go at midnight and get Thai curry, gumbo, charbroiled steaks, fried pork chops with grits and gravy, Pad Thai noodles, homemade pasta Bolognese, Creole crawfish pasta? On Thursdays its $1 Margaritas for Ladies and free Belly Dance Lessons.” They haven’t seen my belly.

Beatty Street Grocery, Jackson— “Every governor since Ross Barnett has eaten at Beatty Street. Governor William Winter is still an occasional client.”

The Shed, Vancleve— “I have never had a bad rib there.”

Home Town, Inverness— “Frog legs, steaks, seafood, veal cutlets, fun.”

Port au Prince, Monroe, LA— “The best bean soup ever, hushpuppies, and a great ribeye steak.”

Lonnie and Pat's Cafe, Meridian— “They are famous for their cheeseburgers.”

Red Door Barbecue, Meehan, MS— “(owner) Ms. Jean McWashington does not advertise and does not need to.”

Far Away Places in Marion, MS— “The building is actually a double-wide trailer with a porch that runs the length of it. They feature live entertainment (everything from a guy with an acoustic guitar to the Queen City Gypsies belly dancers, of which I'm one). If they're not too busy Tim (the lady who owns the joint) will come out of the kitchen to visit with her guests, discussing everything from shopping to quantum physics.” Belly dancing, I see a future trend developing.

Liuzza’s,New Orleans— “The BBQ Shrimp Po-Boy is to die for.” But I want to live.

Elizabeth’s in the Bywater, New Orleans— “The breakfast po-boy is awesome.”

The Tune Inn, Washington, D.C. — “It is honestly the only place that I can remember routinely eating an omelet with a beer.” Enough said.

Garlic Cheese Spread

Garlic is listed first for a reason. Store in the refrigerator, serve at room temperature.

1 /2 pound sharp cheddar cheese, grated
1 /2 pound cream cheese, softened
1 /4 tsp salt
1 1 /2 tsp finely minced garlic
1 1 /2 tsp hot sauce
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
2 tsp mayonnaise
1 /4 tsp dry mustard
1 1 /2 tsp paprika

In a food processor or mixing bowl with a paddle attachment, blend all ingredients together.

Wrap and refrigerate for 3-4 hours before serving.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Déjà vu

I was driving to Tupelo for a book signing last week and was struck with the strong sense of déjà vu. It was late November and I was traveling North on US 45. It is a route I traveled often as a child, usually around this time of year.

My earliest Thanksgiving memories are set in Brooksville Mississippi. My grandfather’s family, or at least what was left of them, lived there. Early on Thanksgiving morning my family would drive from Hattiesburg to Brooksville.

What struck me most in those early trips out of town were the leaves of North Mississippi. Somewhere around Electric Mills and Shuqualak the pines gave way to hardwoods. As a kid, growing up in the Piney Woods, my life was filled with pine straw. In Brooksville there were thousands of leaves of all shapes, sizes, and colors. I spent most of my time outside on those Thanksgiving trips crunching in the fallen leaves and playing football with my cousins. Only journeying inside to eat lunch or to catch the score of the Mississippi State-Ole Miss game on the radio.

Thanksgiving 1968, I was seven-years old. Charlie Shira’s Bulldogs were playing Johnny Vaught’s Manning-led Rebels in Starkville, just a few miles up the road from Brooksville. We listened to the static-filled AM-radio transmission as Jack Cristal called the game. Avenging a 17-17 tie in Oxford the previous year, the Rebels beat the Bullies 48-22. Déjà vu, part two.

As my Brooksville relatives died off, we began spending Thanksgiving at my grandmother’s house in Hattiesburg. It is the house in which most of my early food memories are located. My grandmother served a very formal Thanksgiving dinner. She also made the best rolls I have ever eaten. In 22 years of professional cooking I have not been able to duplicate those rolls.

To this day, when I walk through the Purple Parrot Café kitchen and smell the aroma of a roux being made, it takes me back to my grandmother’s kitchen and her turkey gravy. The toasty smell of oil and flour being combined in a cast-iron skillet has strong connections to my youth and those early Thanksgivings.

My grandmother was big on congealed salads. The biggest collective Wet Willie ever given to the nation of kiddom was the dreaded congealed-salad hoax. It was a dreadful scam. It looked like Jell-O, it shook like Jell-O but it had vegetables inside. Great aunts and grandmothers all over the world spent years devising this deception. They disguised their creations with names like “aspic” and “molds”, but we knew them for what they really were: tomato-flavored gelatin with carrots inside, a lettuce leaf on the bottom and a dollop of mayonnaise on top.

In those days, my grandmother’s post-church Sunday lunch rotation always included a turkey and dressing dinner. One Sunday a month we ate turkey. Her Sunday turkey lunch was exactly like her Thanksgiving meal. It is not until this moment that I realize how lucky I was that, as a kid, I had an entire Thanksgiving meal once a month.

I think of crunching leaves, heated rivalries, and turkey and gravy. I think next year I’ll go back to my grandmother’s rotation and eat a Thanksgiving meal once a month. I might even make a congealed salad.

Asparagus Amandine

2 lbs Asparagus, fresh
1 /4 cup Olive oil
1 1 /2 tsp Salt
1 tsp Pepper
1 /4 cup Almonds, sliced and blanched

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Toss the asparagus with olive oil, salt and pepper. Place on baking sheet lined with wax paper. Bake 12 minutes. Remove from oven and sprinkle the almonds over the asparagus. Return to the oven for an additional five minutes. Remove and serve immediately. Yield: eight servings

Monday, November 20, 2006

Holiday Disasters

During the holidays we reflect on the kindnesses that have been shown to us over the years. We give. We receive. And we remember.

Memories are clearer around this time of year. We remember the Christmas we received our first bicycle and a few others when we received milestone presents. We remember bits and pieces of various Thanksgiving dinners through the years, but what we remember most are the holiday disasters. It’s the bonehead mistakes that we all make that create the most lasting holiday memories.

My grandmother prepared dozens of flawless Thanksgiving dinners, yet the Thanksgiving meal that is Gorilla glued to the forefront of my brain is the first Thanksgiving my newlywed wife cooked a turkey to the point of carbon dust with the giblets, liver, and neck still inside the turkey. The resulting odor remained in the house until after Christmas.

Of course, this is the same woman who, after being told she must “season” her new cast iron skillet, asked, “Do I use salt and pepper?”

The holidays are rife with opportunities for cooking disasters. Anytime someone gives a turkey a cornbread enema, calamity is always waiting around the corner.

My favorite three questions asked of help-desk operators who answer the Butterball Hotline are (these are actual questions):

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

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

3. "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 would have loved to been a fly on the wall at each of those Thanksgiving dinners— the stories we could tell.

I once spent a Thanksgiving in the apartment of my recently divorced father-in-law in which he decided to prepare what is now legendarily referred to as Rick’s Mexican Thanksgiving Dinner. Not caring that the citizens of Mexico have no use for Thanksgiving— and being a newcomer to the culinary arts— he dumped a can of every product that Old El Paso sells into a casserole dish and baked it for a couple of hours, dubbing it “Chili-Enchilada Surprise.” It was not enchilada-like but it was very surprising. Later we learned that it was a dish he had invented while being cooped up in a small, cramped sailboat for months— not the usual prerequisite for adding a Thanksgiving entrée to the repertoire.

My brother-in-law once prepared an oyster dressing that looked more like lime Jell-O than a savory side dish. While getting ready for a Christmas party, my brother’s wife touched the tip of her tongue to an iron to see if it was hot enough to press her dress. It was.

I get some of my best material during the holidays. Last week my daughter did something that we all thought was funny. She even thought it was funny, yet before we could finish laughing she said, “Daddy, you’re not going to write about that are you?” I told her that I wouldn’t, but I’m hoping that the statute of limitations will run out by next Thanksgiving.

Actually I might have a personal holiday disaster in the making. At a recent book signing a woman told me about a cranberry recipe she serves at Thanksgiving: A bag of cranberries cooked down with one box of Red Hot candies. I’m going to give it a shot. I figure it’s a win-win. If it works I’ve got a new recipe to add to the file. If not, I’ll have a story to tell for years to come.

Jill’s Holiday Cranberry Sauce

This time-proven Thanksgiving staple will be used as a standby cranberry dish to be served alongside the aforementioned Red Hot Cranberry experiment

12 oz. bag Fresh Cranberries
1 cup Port Wine
1 /2 cup White sugar
1 /2 cup Brown Sugar
1 /2 cup Orange Juice
2 tsp Cornstarch
2 Tbl Cold Water

Combine cranberries, port, sugars and orange juice in a sauté pan and simmer over medium heat for 20-30 minutes or until the cranberries become soft. Separately, mix the cornstarch with the cold water then add it to the cranberry mixture. Turn up heat to a heavy simmer and continue to cook, stirring well, for another 5-10 minutes. Serve warm.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Shhh! Don’t tell Charlie

Last week Congressman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., was quoted in The New York Times as saying, “Mississippi gets more than their fair share back in federal money, but who the hell wants to live in Mississippi?”

The answer to the congressman’s question as to who wants to live in Mississippi is: me and 2,844,657 of my friends and neighbors, not to mention a few hundred thousand expatriated Mississippians stuck in New York, California, and all points in between.

After reading the Times article, my first reaction was to fire off a letter to the congressman’s office and various editors of national newspapers extolling the benefits of living in Mississippi: the friendly people, the stunning natural resources, the music, the art, the literature, the low cost of living, the beautiful women, the moderate climate (sans August), and the food— especially the food.

New York has its fair share of great cooking, but with all due respect to Mr. Rangel, I am talking about food with soul. Not soul food, although we certainly have plenty of that— and surely the best of that genre is served here in my home state— but food with soul. Food that was prepared with love as my grandmother did, as my wife does for our children. Food with soul infers a love, respect, and dedication to the preparation and dining process. It’s food of love, with love, and for love.

It’s the food, Charlie. On a 2005 nationally televised special for Hurricane Katrina relief, Morgan Freeman, the Academy Award winning actor, said of his home state, “I’d live here for the food alone.” Freeman knows what we know; Rangel knows not.

We know the joy of eating broiled speckled trout, salty oysters, and fresh shrimp from the warm Gulf waters, soft-shell crab and jumbo-lump crabmeat from Ocean Springs and Bay St. Louis. We know of the bliss that overcomes one in the middle of biting into a slab of sweet, smoky ribs from Leatha’s in Hattiesburg, or a filet of crispy-fried catfish dotted with hot sauce at any one of the hundreds of quaint fish houses hidden away on lightly traveled country roads.

The rolls served at the Elite on Capitol Street in Jackson, and the comeback dressing at the Mayflower, are both worthy of anyone’s citizenship, as is the gumbo at Hal and Mal’s. We know tamales from Doe’s in Greenville, cheesecakes from Jubilations in Columbus, and fried chicken at the hundreds of small diners and cafes located on town squares and roadside joints not discounting the chicken served on your grandmother’s dinner table— the true food of love.

We’ve know fine dining from the City Grocery in Oxford, to Nick’s in Jackson, and The Purple Parrot Café in Hattiesburg. From organic beef and free-range poultry in Meridian to a world-class creamery South of Tylertown, we’ve got the resources to eat like royalty. From the Sweet Potato Capital of Vardaman to Tomato Capital of Crystal Springs, down here the vegetables are fresher, the conversation is friendlier, and the politicians are more polite.

Life moves slower in Mississippi, but we’ll not apologize for taking time to visit, to listen, and to help one another. After reading Congressman Rangel’s statement I was reminded of another Morgan Freeman statement. When asked by a reporter why he lives in Mississippi when he could live anywhere in the world, Freeman replied, “I live in Mississippi because I can live anywhere in the world.”

So in the end, I will not fire off a letter to Mr. Rangel explaining why we enjoy living in Mississippi for fear that the correspondence might sway his ill-informed opinion, subsequently changing his mind and enticing him to move down here— an act that would consequently put at risk our long-standing and hard-earned reputation for hospitality.

Crabmeat Imperial

If you love crabmeat, you’ll love this dish. If you don’t love crabmeat this dish will win you over. Perfect when paired with champagne. Serve with toasted French bread croutons or a buttery cracker.

1 Tbl butter
1 /4 cup small dice yellow onions
1 /4 cup minced shallots
1 /2 cup small dice red peppers
1 /4 cup small dice green peppers
1 /4 cup small dice celery
1 /4 teaspoon salt
1 /8 teaspoon cayenne
1 Tbl minced garlic
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 /2 cup chopped green onions

1 1 /2 cup homemade or prepared mayonnaise
3 tablespoons Creole Mustard
1 tbsp sherry vinegar

1 /4 teaspoon hot sauce
2 pound lump crab meat

1 /4 cup dried Japanese bread crumbs
3 Tbl sour cream
2 tsp lemon juice
2 teaspoons creole seasoning

2 tablespoons chopped chives, garnish

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

In a large sauté pan, heat the olive oil. When the pan is hot, add onions, shallots, peppers, celery, salt and cayenne. Sauté for 5 minutes or until the vegetables are soft and translucent. Add garlic, parsley and green onions, sauté for one or two minutes. Remove from the heat and cool 30 minutes.

In a mixing bowl, combine one cup of the mayonnaise, mustard, vinegar and hot sauce. Mix until thoroughly incorporated. Gently fold in the crabmeat. Spoon the mixture into an 8”x 8”baking dish.

In a separate bowl, combine the breadcrumbs, the remaining 1 /2 cup of mayonnaise, sour cream, lemon juice and the Creole seasoning together. Spread the bread crumb mixture on top of the crab mixture.

Bake 20 minutes, or until bubbly and brown. Garnish with chopped chives.

Yield: 8-12

From the Hyperion cookbook Deep South Parties by Robert St.John

Monday, November 06, 2006

Holidays for the Mouse

I am currently two books into a three-book publishing deal with Hyperion Books. Hyperion is based in New York and is a division of ABC, and ultimately the Walt Disney Company. I, too, now work for the mouse.

The first book in my Hyperion deal was Deep South Staples, the second book in the contract, which was just released a few weeks ago, is Deep South Parties. Both books are filled with everyday recipes for family dinners and entertaining, but they are also filled with recipes that can be used for the holidays.

Two days after I signed the book deal, the editors asked my thoughts on the next book in the series. My first response was Deep South Holidays. I love this time of year. The weather is cool, the air is crisp, attitudes are festive, food tastes better, family is closer, and the excitement that I experienced as a kid always returns at Christmas.

The editors didn’t want to do a holiday book for several reasons that I won’t go into here. They are the big dogs, they have the experience, and if there is one thing I have learned over my 25-year business career, it is to put your trust into the hands of those who have more knowledge and experience and let that expertise go to work for you. I’ll not argue with the mouse. However, my next choice Deep South Parties was, in a way, a tribute to the holidays of my youth. Shhhh, don’t tell Hyperion (or the mouse), but it’s a perfect book for cooking during the holidays.

When I sat down to compile the recipes that were to be used in Deep South Parties I looked back to the neighborhood parties of my youth and remembered all of the foods that were served. I also sat down with my across-the-street neighbor, Barbara Jane Foote, and plowed through her extremely organized recipe files using many of those as a starting point and inspiration to create new twists on old favorites. Most were served during the holidays. In the end, one-third of the recipes in the book were a nod to the party foods of my youth, another third came from 18 years of catering parties and events, and another third were new and developed specifically for the book.

Down South we accelerate our entertaining during the holidays. Deep South Parties has recipes that can be prepared in spring and summer, but I predict the book will be used most often in the nine-week stretch between Halloween and New Year’s Day.

My entire Thanksgiving meal can be found in Deep South Staples: roasted turkey, cornbread dressing, gravy, green bean casserole, a wonderful cranberry dish, and the most amazing sweet potato casserole you will ever taste. My Thanksgiving desserts can be found in Deep South Parties: pumpkin cheesecake and sweet potato brownies.

Two weeks ago I taught a cooking class in which I demonstrated recipes from Deep South Parties. The dessert that I chose to demonstrate was the sweet potato brownie recipe. Last week at a book signing, a woman who had attended the demo approached me and said that she had prepared the sweet potato brownie recipe three times over a six day period. I don’t know if she ate that many brownies in less than a week, or gave them away to friends, but I couldn’t ask for a more dedicated and enthusiastic endorsement. Then I thought of the mouse, and my friends at Hyperion, and the excitement that fills the air when the foods of the holidays are prepared and enjoyed, and I wished for my New York friends many batches of sweet potato brownies over the course of the next nine weeks.

Sweet Potato Brownies were one of the original recipes I developed specifically for the book. They are perfect for a holiday snack and portable enough to take to someone else’s home if you’re not hosting a Thanksgiving meal.

Sweet Potato Brownies

If you don’t like sweet potatoes, don’t worry, you’ll love these. If you don’t like brownies, have no fear, you’ll love these. If you like sweet potatoes and brownies… get ready for an amazing treat!

1 /2 pound butter
2 cups sugar
1 1 /2 cups flour
1 tsp Salt
4 eggs
2 tsp Vanilla
2 cups raw sweet potatoes, grated
1 cups pecans, toasted

Preheat oven to 350.

In an electric mixer, cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add remaining ingredients in order, stirring after each is added.

Pour into a buttered and floured 9x12 inch baking sheet.

Bake for 30-40 minutes.

Allow brownies to cool completely before cutting.

2 Tbl butter
1 /4 cup orange juice
1 tsp cinnamon
1 cup confectioner’s sugar

Melt butter and add remaining ingredients. Let cool. Glaze brownies after they have been cut.

Monday, October 30, 2006


I receive a lot of e-mail about the fine-dining restaurants I visit. I eat out often. It’s my occupation and my hobby. So far this year I have dined at eight of the top restaurants in New York and others in Atlanta, New Orleans, Chicago, San Francisco, and the Napa Valley. I love foie gras, crisp white linens, and overly solicitous service. But what I love even more are “joints.”

I love a joint. You know the place. At first glance, it might not look like a restaurant one wouldn’t even want to step into, much less dine in. Typically, the atmosphere has accidentally evolved over the years. Nothing is contrived. The food is above average and mostly consistent. The wait staff is blasé, but efficient enough to take care of your needs. They know you by name by the second visit and know what you will order by the fourth. The place is clean in all of the places the count and is usually run by a family, or co-workers who have worked together so long that they consider themselves family. A joint is usually located in what a realtor would consider a B or C location, but it wouldn’t have the charm if it were located anywhere else.

A joint is a nice respite from the sterile, themed, corporate environment of so many just-average restaurants that are no different than the one down the road at the previous interstate exchange.

All hail the joints of the world.

A joint is full of character and is usually operated by characters. At our restaurants we strive hard to offer top-notch service and superior food. We spend hours training our wait staff and kitchen staff. Not so the joint. The typical joint appears to have handed a server a pencil and pad on their first day on the job and told them to “get out there and take an order.” Yet it works.

Most joints specialize in one particular food item. It is that food that has put them on the map. It might be one individual dish or it could be a broad category of food such as steak or barbeque. It might even specialize in a particular meal period such as breakfast or late-night dining.

There are joints with good food, bad food, and excellent food. They key is to find the ones with excellent food and put them into your dining rotation.

The one universal characteristic of a joint is that it is casual. A joint wears its casualness as a badge of honor. I love casual. It is Casual Friday every day at my office.

The other day at a speaking engagement, I was asked which restaurants— other than my own— I frequent most often. The audience seemed surprised by the answer I gave. They were all joints. They are places where the food is above average to excellent in its category, the service is friendly and efficient, and the atmosphere is casual and proud of it.

In Hattiesburg, when I want barbeque I go to Leatha’s on U.S. 98. They have beach towels for curtains, but the meat is tender, the smoke ring goes to the bone, and Bonnie takes good care of me.

If I want catfish, I go to Rayner’s on U.S. 49 North. It’s nothing more than a cinder block building but they’ve been frying catfish for over 40 years and it shows. The cole slaw is good, and the service is friendly.

When I eat steak I go to Donanelle’s on U.S. 49 South at the North Gate of Camp Shelby. When speaking of Donanelle’s, my friend said, “It ain’t much to look at, but the steaks taste great.” Donanelle’s is the quintessential joint. They serve steak, ribs, yellowfin tuna, and that’s about it. If you want a salad, your dressing choices are: Ranch, ranch, or ranch. No apologies. The rib-eye steaks are highly seasoned and marinated just like I like them. They are cooked over live charcoal, and my son can watch while they cook.

I love steak and eat it often. I visit the chain-operated steak restaurants occasionally, but I usually have to wait 30-45 minutes before I am even seated. I can leave my house, drive the nine miles to Donanelle’s, eat dinner and be home before I would have finished my salad at any of the near-the-interstate-exchange restaurants. If the food is good, I am always willing to give up atmosphere and a few of the finer points of service.

Do you have a favorite joint? If so, e-mail the name, address, and any pertinent information. I am compiling a list of The South’s Greatest Joints and would love to add your favorite to the collection.

Robert’s Marinated Steaks

6 Ribeye steaks (12-14 oz.), USDA Choice or Certified Black Angus
1 /4 cup Steak seasoning (recipe below)
3 Tbl Lemon pepper seasoning
1 cup Dale’s Steak Marinade
1 cup Stubb’s Beef Marinade (or other meat marinade: Allegro, etc.)
2 Tbl Garlic, minced
1 Tbl Liquid Smoke
Freshly ground black pepper

Heat grill to a medium-high heat. Rub steaks liberally with dry seasonings and pat them making sure the seasoning adheres to the steak. Set aside.

Mix the remaining ingredients together in a bowl. Place the seasoned steaks in a gallon-sized Ziploc bag (no more than 2 steaks per bag) and pour enough marinade into the bag to cover the steaks halfway when they are laying flat. Squeeze all excess air out the bag and seal. Allow the steaks to marinate in the refrigerator, lying flat, for no longer then two hours. Remove steaks from refrigerator 30 minutes before grilling.

Place steaks on the grill and immediately pour a little of the excess marinade on top of the steaks and sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper. After the steaks are turned (and you should only turn grilled items once) add a little more of the marinade. Yield: 6 steaks

Steak Seasoning

1 /2 cup Lawry’s Seasoned Salt
1 /3 cup Black pepper
1 /4 cup Lemon Pepper
2 Tbl Garlic Salt
2 Tbl Granulated Garlic
1 Tbl Onion Powder

Combine all and mix well. Store in an airtight container.

Monday, October 23, 2006

West Indies Salad

One of the most popular crabmeat recipes in the Gulf Coast region is West Indies Salad.

West Indies Salad, a cold hors d’ oeuvre usually spooned onto crackers, is a simple combination of lump crabmeat, onion, vinegar, oil, salt, and pepper. The dish was invented by the late restaurateur, Bill Bayley of Mobile, who has also been credited with the invention of fried crab claws. Bayley owned and operated Bayley’s Restaurant in Mobile which opened in the late 1940s.

Bayley, a former merchant marine— and a figure straight out of central casting if Hollywood was looking for stereotypical Southern café owner of that era— short, rotund, and never without a cigar, invented the dish while serving as a ship steward. As the legend goes, while Bayley’s ship was docked in a faraway port, he purchased a sack of lobsters and returned to the ship where he boiled them and added ingredients that were available: Oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper. A few years later, when he opened his Mobile restaurant, he remembered that dish, and since fresh lobster wasn’t available in Lower Alabama, he substituted crabmeat. The port where he originally purchased the lobsters was in the West Indies, hence the name, West Indies Salad.

That is the story according to some accounts. Another version states that Bayley always liked the oil and vinegar based onion-cucumber salad that is served in a lot of Southern seafood houses. He simply substituted crabmeat for cucumber and a legend was born.

I like the first version, and I’ll choose to believe that one. Some things just taste better when there’s an interesting story attached.

Whatever the origin, the salad put Bayley’s restaurant on the map and for years the cigar-chomping restaurateur was asked to serve his specialty from Mobile to Montgomery to Washington D.C. The restaurant closed for a period, but Bayley’s son, Bill Bayley Jr., reopened the historic establishment and has been doing great business ever since.

Last week I ate at Bayley’s restaurant. It’s a simple, but clean, porcelain-coated concrete block building on the Dauphin Island Parkway in a part of town called Bayley’s Corner. The original restaurant was located next door.

The West Indies Salad at Bayley’s is served by the pint (12.95) or by the quart (17.95) and arrives to the table in a large bowl to be shared, family style. My group of eight ordered a quart and had trouble eating all of it. It looked like a lot more than a quart and I have no idea how they are making any profit by serving that much crabmeat for that price.

There has been one change to the original recipe in that the dish was originally made with lump crabmeat. Today, Bayley uses claw meat— the darker, less attractive, less expensive alternative— instead of the all white crabmeat. Nevertheless, it tasted just like my mother’s West Indies Salad. She prepared hers from the “Jubilee” cookbook published by the Mobile Junior League.

Typically crabmeat, a delicate ingredient, is paired with similar delicate components. Not so with West Indies Salad. The crabmeat almost becomes a vessel to carry the onions and vinegar.

I was asked to speak on behalf of West Indies Salad at a recent Southern Foodways Symposium. I offered to bring a few gallons for all of the attendees to sample. Linda Nance, Purple Parrot Café Sous Chef, and I played around with Bayley’s original recipe trying to update and possibly upgrade the dish. His recipe calls for Wesson oil. We used all types of exotic and expensive olive oils and flavored oils. The results were good, but not necessarily an improvement on the original. Whereas the Bayley recipe called for cider vinegar, we also tried substituting boutique vinegars, to no avail. Ultimately we learned that if we wanted to serve West Indies Salad, we would need to follow the original recipe.

Bill Bayley’s West Indies Salad

1 lb. Fresh Lump Crabmeat
1 Medium Onion, chopped fine
4 oz. Wesson Oil
3 oz. Cider Vinegar
4 oz. Ice Water
Salt and Pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients and gently toss. Refrigerate for several hours.

Crabmeat Martini

1/4 cup Red onion, small dice
1 lb Jumbo lump crabmeat (gently picked of all shell)
2/3 cup Lemon-flavored salad oil
2 Tbl Olive oil (not extra virgin)
1 1/2 tsp Absolut Citron Vodka (optional)
1/2 cup White balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup Ice cold water
1 teaspoon Salt
1 teaspoon Freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon Hot Sauce
2 teaspoons Cilantro, chopped fine
2 teaspoons Parsley

In a large mixing bowl, combine all ingredients and gently toss with a rubber spatula. Be careful not to break up any of the lumps of crabmeat. Cover and store in refrigerator 12 hours (toss every hour or so) to let flavors marry. Gently turn over just before serving, as the lemon vinaigrette will separate.

Divide crabmeat mixture between 4 lettuce-lined martini glasses. Drizzle excess vinaigrette over the crabmeat to wet the lettuce. Garnish with a rosemary skewered olive for a light and cool first course or double the recipe and serve on a lettuce-lined plate for a luncheon salad.

Serve the leftovers in a decorative bowl on the coffee table to be spooned atop your favorite cracker.

Yield: 6 servings, appetizer
4 servings, salad

Monday, October 16, 2006

The Long Forgotten Nest

Recent book business took me and my family to the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

While riding down Beach Boulevard and lamenting the loss of so many beautiful and historic homes and classic Coast restaurants I developed a craving for seafood.

In the past, when eating seafood on the coast, I stick with one of the old-line seafood restaurants of the broiled-flounder variety. I have fond memories of spending summers on the Gulf Coast in the days where fried shrimp served by a waitress was a treat. I ate my first raw oyster at Baricev’s. My first fried oyster, too.

They’re all gone. All of them. What the casinos didn’t purchase, Katrina washed away.

My best option was McElroy’s in Ocean Springs. I had eaten often at the McElroys when it was located at the Biloxi Small Craft Harbor— and even though they’re in a new building— they might be the last of the old-line seafood restaurants still standing.

On our way in, I was having a discussion with my five-year old son about fish sticks. I don’t remember how we got on the subject, but he had never seen or eaten a fish stick. I hadn’t seen or eaten a fish stick since the Nixon administration, but they were a staple in my home as a kid.

Fish sticks were fresh on my mind, and with a slight melancholy over the loss of the historic Coast restaurants of my youth, I ordered fried red snapper. When the waitress asked which side order I would like, I asked, “What are my options?”

The standard reply of, “Baked potato and French fries” was delivered, and then she threw in another option, “…or English peas.”

English peas? At an old-line Coast seafood restaurant? I never remember eating English peas at a seafood restaurant as a kid. I ate them at home all of the time. Did the recent spinach crisis have something to do with this particular option being offered as a side item?

I love English peas. I never eat them, anymore, mainly because my wife hates them and refuses to buy them. Therefore, my kids haven’t grown up eating them. English peas, you say? Why yes, and throw in a baked potato, too.

When the food arrived, I added butter, sour cream, salt, and pepper to my baked potato and mashed it inside the skin. The potatoes were sitting next to my small bowl of English peas. I took a bite of potato, then a bite of peas, another bite of potato, and another bite of peas. Before long, I scooted my pea bowl as close as I could get to the baked potato on the plate and took a bite of potato and a bite of peas at the same time. Ah, the taste of my youth.

Eventually, I broke down and added my English peas to my mashed-up baked potato. My children looked at me like I had grown a third eye.

The one thing that was well-known in my family when I was young was that Robert liked his English peas in a nest of mashed potatoes. That combination represented one of the few vegetables that I would eat. I remember my grandmother telling me that my dad liked them that way. I didn’t know my father, and I suspect that is the reason that I always ate English peas in a nest of mashed potatoes. Sunday night at the St. John’s circa 1968: Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, Ed Sullivan, Bonanza, fish sticks, and English peas in a nest of mashed potatoes.

At formal luncheons or dinners, others would eat rice and asparagus, but you could guarantee, I would be eating English peas and mashed potatoes. Simple, pure, youthful.

Currently, in my restaurants we are serving crispy eggplant ratatouille, black-eyed pea and banana-pepper relish, roasted-garlic flan, and tri-colored orzo pasta with mirliton and cilantro. This summer I ate dozens of expensive, complicated, and exotic vegetable pairings at restaurants from New York to San Francisco. All of the aforementioned vegetables might pale in comparison to my first English pea-mashed potato nest in the last 25 years.

Sitting in McElroy’s Seafood Restaurant, I felt like I was back in elementary school— Fried fish, mashed potatoes, and English peas, except with a view of the Back Bay in Ocean Springs. My wife just doesn’t know what she’s missing.

Mashed Potatoes

3 lbs Idaho potatoes, peeled and cut into quarters
2 Tbl. Salt
1 gallon Water

1 /2 cup Butter, cold
8 ounces Cream cheese, softened
1 cup Half and half, hot
1 1 /2 tsp. Salt
1 tsp Black pepper

In a large saucepot add potatoes and salted water. Cook at a low simmer to avoid potatoes breaking apart. When the potatoes are tender, carefully drain. Return potatoes to dry pot and place over heat for one to two minutes to remove all moisture.

Place potatoes a mixing bowl. Using a hand-held potato masher, mash the potatoes. Add cold butter as you begin to mash. Next, add cream cheese and mix until melted. Stir in the half and half, salt and pepper. Potatoes may be covered tightly and held in warm place for one hour before serving. Yield: 10 servings

Monday, October 09, 2006

Winsor Court After the Flood

New Orleans’ Windsor Court Hotel opened in the early1980s around the time the World’s Fair came to town.

From day one, Windsor Court has been consistently listed among the top hotels in the world. It has garnered more awards and more acclaim than any other hotel in New Orleans, and probably more than any hotel in the South. In 2001, Conde Nast Traveler listed Windsor Court as the “Number Two Hotel in the U.S.” Every reputable travel publication has— at one time or another— listed the Windsor Court among the nation’s best hotels.

My wife and I have traveled often— 90 miles to the southeast of our home— for a getaway weekend. The service at the hotel has always been impeccable.

One of the aspects of the Windsor Court’s service that always impressed me was the name-recall ability of the staff. Once a guest checked in— anytime a member of the staff passed you in the hallway, opened the front door for you, or gave you directions at the concierge desk— the staff was able to call you by name. It was amazing. I never figured how they did it.

The rooms were plush, the bathrooms were adorned with marble, the towels were soft and thick, and the bedding was plush and comfortable. Over the years, I have run into Elton John, Eric Clapton, and several other high-profile celebrities and politicians in the lobby.

The restaurant at the Windsor Court— The Grill Room— was, at one time, listed as the top restaurant in New Orleans. In the early 1990s, when Kevin Graham was manning the stoves, the dining room was hard to beat. At that time, the food Graham was preparing was on a much higher level than most of the other restaurants in New Orleans.

I have just returned from a weekend at Windsor Court, my first since the New Orleans levee system failed after Katrina blew through Mississippi.
told that there were still several FEMA employees staying on the government’s tab.

The Windsor Court isn’t the hotel it used to be, but it’s not too far off. The problem is the lack of available labor. A recent Washington Post article stated, “The population of 187,525 is about 41 percent of the 454,000 people estimated to be living in Orleans Parish before the storm hit Aug. 29, 2005.”

The population of New Orleans was 191,000 in 1870. It’s going to be a long time before the city reaches the pre-storm level of service personnel. Immediately after the levees broke, Burger King restaurants were offering potential employees a $6,000.00 signing bonus and still not able to fully staff their restaurants.

On this recent visit to Windsor Court, there were noticeable problems that never would have been visible two years ago— mold on the ceiling of the room and above the shower, dirty silverware, and cheap, thin towels. Nevertheless, the service was close to what guests have come to expect.

The bellman who brought our luggage to the room was the same man who served our brunch the next day. I don’t know this for a fact, but I got the impression that the hotel is severely understaffed and running on a skeleton crew. Nevertheless, the workers who are there and in the trenches are working with the same commitment to exceptional service that has always marked the Windsor Court.

The hotel was fully booked that weekend, but the dining room was virtually empty for brunch. The food was not the food of the 1990s, but everyone in New Orleans deserves a pass these days.

In the larger scheme of things, the quality of food and service at a luxury hotel doesn’t matter much when people have lost their homes and all of their belongings. Nowadays, the Windsor Court Hotel is no different than all of the other businesses in the Crescent City— just taking it day to day, trying to patch holes in employee scheduling, hanging by a string until the convention trade returns, and hoping that one day soon life will return to some semblance of the days before August 29, 2005.

Sweet Potato Nachos

This recipe has the perfect blend of flavors, colors and textures. Make sure that the chips are fried crispy. Floppy chips can’t hold the topping.

1 large sweet potato, sliced into very thin potato chip-like circles
Peanut oil for frying

1 cup Boursin cheese (recipe listed below)
1 /2 cup pecan pieces, toasted
1 /2 cup roasted red peppers, cut into 1 ½-long strips
1 TBL fresh chives, chopped

Preheat oil to 325 degrees.

Fry the sweet potato chips six to seven at a time. Move chips often and cook to a light brown color.

Drain onto paper towels.

Preheat oven to 325.

Once drained, place the chips on a baking sheet. Top each slice with 2 teaspoons boursin cheese and 3 strips of roasted pepper. Bake three minutes.

Sprinkle with toasted pecans and chives and serve immediately.

Boursin Cheese

This is the recipe we serve in the Crescent City Grill. In addition to being a good spread for crackers, it can also be used to stuff mushroom caps, and as a filling for miniature puff pastry turnovers.

8 oz. cream cheese, softened
1 Tbl salted butter, softened
1 /2 tsp Creole Seasoning
1 /4 tsp Minced garlic
1 /8 tsp thyme, oregano rosemary, chives, basil, dill, sage
1 tsp fresh parsley, chopped fine
2 Tbl half and half
1 tsp sherry vinegar
1 /4 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 /3 cup sour cream

Place all ingredients in the bowl of an electric mixer. Using the paddle attachment, beat on high speed until all ingredients are well incorporated, scraping sides of the bowl occasionally to ensure all ingredients are combined.

Yield: 2 cups

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Destin Lament

DESTIN, Fla— Two fellow Mississippians, Jimmy Buffett and Mac McAnally, wrote a song about being down in this part of the country during the off-season: The Coast Is Clear.

Twenty years ago when I first heard the song, I couldn’t relate to it. I thought, that’s just two old guys who don’t like to be around the action any more. I was living here in Destin at the time, and could imagine how boring it must be when the crowds are gone. I was young and foolish.

Today I assume my official role as one of the old guys who doesn’t like to be around the action anymore. This is a beautiful time to be in this part of the country. No crowds on the beaches, cooler weather, no traffic, lower rates, no long waits in restaurants, did I mention cooler weather?

I am here to celebrate my 45th birthday (I told you I was one of the old guys), and to get a little rest before the release of my next book and subsequent promotional tour.

Every time I am in this part of the country, the romantic in me sadly reminds me of what this area was like 35 years ago, and I lament the loss of the quaint fishing village with miles of unspoiled beaches. I long for the days of no high-rise condominiums or sprawling strip malls serving up the same tired retailers one sees in the suburbs of Everytown U.S.A. Although being here in October seems a little closer to “The good old days” (you see, I’m sounding like an old man already).

The redfish are biting and the seafood is plentiful. I almost ate my weight in steamed crab last night. One of the benefits of so-called “progress” is the proliferation of good restaurants. The restaurant Fish Out of Water at Watercolor is performing on a higher level than most. I still love Bud and Alley’s at Seaside, and Harbor Docks— where I worked during one of my extended stays here— is as solid as ever.

The new fine dining places are great, and those who know me know I love to eat that type food. Though I also like the old-line restaurants, the ones that remind me of what this place was like 35 years ago. The places my parents, and my parents friends took me in the days when getting to eat a plate of fried shrimp was a rare treat. The one place I keep returning to when I visit this area is Bayou Bill’s on U.S. 98.

During the summer, the crowds at Bayou Bill’s are enormous. They are lined up in the parking lot before the restaurant opens, and once the doors are unlocked; the restaurant fills up immediately, and stays on a wait all night long.

Two nights ago, at 7:30 p.m., we walked right in, and I subsequently began to eat my weight in steamed crab.

Last night we were dining in one of the trendy restaurants-of-the-moment and the Destin lament struck me again: It’s a shame we can’t have the restaurant growth and leave everything else the same.

From now on, I think I’ll take Mr. Buffett and Mr. McAnally’s advice:

The tourist traps are empty, vacancy abounds
It’s almost like it used to be before the circus came to town
That’s when it always happens, same time every year
I come down to talk to me, when the coast is clear

Yellowfin Tuna Tartar with Avocado Relish

The ingredients must be fresh. Do not substitute. You won’t be sorry. A true crowd pleaser with a lot of “Wow” appeal.

1 /4 cup minced green onion
1 tsp fresh minced ginger
2 Tbl chopped cilantro
2 Tbl toasted sesame seeds
1 Tbl sesame oil
1 tsp fish sauce
1 /2 tsp hot sauce
2 Tbl soy sauce
1 tsp honey
1 tsp sherry
1 tsp rice vinegar
2 Tbl cottonseed oil
1 /2 pound fresh Yellowfin tuna, small dice

Combine all ingredients except for Yellowfin tuna and blend well. Diced tuna should be added to sesame seed mixture just before serving.

Avocado Relish

1 Tbl fresh lime juice
1 tsp cottonseed oil (or canola oil)
1 tsp sesame seed oil
1 /4 tsp garlic, minced
1 TBSP red onion, finely diced
1 tsp fresh chopped parley
2 tsp red bell pepper, small diced
1 medium sized ripe avocado
1 /4 tsp Salt
1 /8 tsp Cayenne pepper

Combine first seven ingredients and blend well. Quickly fold the avocado. If making in advance, place the seed in the relish and press plastic wrap directly on to the relish, sealing it off from any air exposure. Refrigerate.

5 sheets fresh egg roll wrappers to make wonton crackers

Using a cookie cutter, cut 2 1 /2-inch circles into the center of egg roll wrappers. Fry according to the package directions.
To serve, place 1 1 /2 tsp of the tartar mixture and 1 tsp avocado relish on the wonton crackers.

Yield: 25-30

Monday, September 25, 2006

After-School Snacks

One day last year, while my wife was out of town, I picked my daughter up from school.

On our way home we stopped by one of my restaurants to deliver some paperwork. While there, my daughter and I sat down in the dining room, shared a plate of French fries, and talked about school, church, work, and the joys of being a third grader. It was a spur-of-the-moment occasion and a good opportunity for a meaningful visit.

Last week, my daughter asked if I would pick her up from school again. “But what about your mom,” I said. “She’s not out of town and she always picks you up.” My wife usually bakes cookies for the kids after school while they do their homework.

“Dad, I want you to pick me up so we can go eat French fries again like we did last year.”

Wow. The first thing that hit me was that she remembered that afternoon. The second was that it had been over a year since the two of us sat down in my restaurant and shared a plate of fries.

Don’t get me wrong, I spend a lot of time with my children, but that time is usually spent with my wife and son, too, all of us together. It was a treat to have my daughter make the request and was even more special that we spent the time in the dining room of my restaurant.

I picked her up that afternoon and we sat at a small table upstairs with a full view of the dining room. We ordered fires and soft drinks. It was three in the afternoon and the lunch traffic in the restaurant had long since cleared. While she dipped her fries in a ramekin of bleu cheese dressing we overheard a manager interviewing a potential employee at the next table.

I took the opportunity to explain the job-interview process and what a potential employer looks for when hiring someone. I told her about the benefits of a higher education and the importance of graduate degrees, and then we played a game in which we interviewed each other.

Although most of the mock interviews were spent joking and making up funny backgrounds and personal histories, she was able to think on her feet and deliver some extremely creative answers.

As a kid I ate a lot of oatmeal after school. I made bowls of instant oatmeal, baked oatmeal cookies, ate oatmeal cream pies, and drank a lot of Hawaiian Punch. My father died when I was six and my mom was usually in school or teaching school. My after school snacks were usually eaten in front of the television or running out of the door on my way out to play neighborhood football.

I don’t know what it was about oatmeal and after school, but it— along with the occasional Milky Way bar— was my after-school snack of choice. In those days, French fries would have been a special occasion food.

Eating fries after school with my daughter was significant because the conversation was fun and the company was exceptional, but it was made even more special because she initiated it. We laughed, and ate, and enjoyed each other’s companionship. She picked up a few pointers on applying for a job and begrudgingly learned the benefits of a Masters Degree.

It’s good for a father to share a plate of fries with a daughter— for no other reason than to slow down and catch up— and if you can throw in a few laughs and a couple of life’s lessons at the same time, it will serve as a memorable and magical moment.

Sweet Potato Brownies

If you don’t like sweet potatoes, don’t worry, you’ll love these. If you don’t like brownies, have no fear, you’ll love these. If you like sweet potatoes and brownies… get ready for an amazing treat!

1 /2 pound butter
2 cups sugar
1 1 /2 cups flour
1 tsp Salt
4 eggs
2 tsp Vanilla
2 cups potatoes, grated
1 cups pecans, toasted

Preheat oven to 350.

In an electric mixer, cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add remaining ingredients in order, stirring after each is added.

Pour into a buttered and floured 9x12 inch baking sheet.

Bake for 30-40 minutes.

Allow brownies to cool completely before cutting.

2 Tbl butter
1 /4 cup orange juice
1 tsp cinnamon
1 cup confectioner’s sugar

Melt butter and add remaining ingredients. Let cool. Glaze brownies after they have been cut.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Fall Peaches?

Is it fall yet?

I don’t know when the first official day of fall arrives, but around here, it doesn’t feel like “fall” until mid December. The first day of autumnal equinox is September 23. But on September 23 rd in South Mississippi it doesn’t feel much different than August 23 rd or July 23 rd for that matter.

Autumn is a term reserved for people who live in a part of the country where leaves turn brilliant shades of red, yellow, and orange. They wear wool sweaters in October; start worrying about when the first frost will arrive, and whether the snow blower needs a pre-season tune up.

We have no leaves. We have green pine needles which turn a dull and ugly brown. We use our lawnmowers into November, have no idea what frost looks like, and— with the exception of those attending an Ole Miss football game— our wool sweaters, skirts, and jackets stay packed in mothballs until they are ready to be pulled out for the two-week period in late January we call winter.

Autumn is a season that sounds cool and brisk. It was 92-degrees, yesterday. It has been said that South Mississippi has four seasons: almost summer, summer, still summer, and Christmas. I have friends who measure the seasons as: dove, deer, duck, and turkey. We badly want to have a fall in South Mississippi, though all we can really do is keep raking pine straw and reading Southern Living to find out when the leaves are at their peak in every other Zone but ours.

Our weather does have its advantages. I was traveling down U.S. 49 last week and noticed a sign at a fruit stand that advertised fresh “Tree-ripened peaches.” I wheeled in and checked out the newly arrived crop. When I asked the lady where they were picked, she said, “South Carolina.” I was expecting the typical off-season answer of California, Mexico, or South America.

To my knowledge, I had never eaten South Carolina peaches. As far as I was concerned, the summer peach season started with Chilton County, Alabama and later moved to Georgia where it ended. I guess it makes sense that the late season would keep the crop moving farther east into South Carolina.

I bought two baskets and dreamed of sliced peaches for breakfast.

I went to the South Carolina Department of Agriculture’s website to research South Carolina peaches, and learned more than I ever needed to know. They seem to resent Georgia’s peach popularity and don’t hide their discontent with statements such as: “South Carolina ranks # 3 nationally in fresh production. (At one time, one county in South Carolina could produce more commercially grown fresh peaches than the entire state of Georgia.” They have also adopted the motto “Tastier Peach State.” Talk about a chip on your shoulder.

Ultimately what I learned from this entire experience is that no matter where the peaches come from, unless you are buying them in late June, July or early August, they just don’t taste like summer, no matter how hot it is outside.

Miniature Fried Peach Pies

A true Southern dessert staple. These work well with apples, too.

Sweet Pie Dough:
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1 /2 Tbl granulated sugar
1 /8 tsp salt
1 large egg
1 1 /2 cups all-purpose flour
2 Tbl ice water

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 /2 pound frozen peaches, thawed, or 1 cups fresh peaches, small diced
3 Tbl granulated sugar
1 /4 cup peach jam or preserves
Pinch of ground cayenne pepper

1 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp corn starch
1 Tbl peach schnapps

1 Tbl sugar
1 /2 tsp cinnamon

Vegetable oil for deep frying

To prepare the pie dough, beat together the butter, sugar, and salt for three minutes on medium speed in the bowl of an electric mixer. Add egg and beat for 30 seconds. Add flour and water and beat for 15 seconds. Turn off the machine, scrape down the sides of the bowl, and beat again for 10 seconds.

Scoop up dough with your hands and form into a one-inch thick disk. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least one hour.

Melt butter over medium-high heat in a sauté pan. Sauté peaches and sugar until sugar is dissolved, approximately two minutes. Add the preserves, cayenne, and cinnamon; cook, stirring frequently, for 3 minutes.

Dissolve cornstarch in the schnapps and stir into hot peach mixture. Remove from heat and cool.

On a lightly floured surface, roll out dough into a 16 x 11-inch rectangle about 1 /8-inch thick. Cut out 3 1 /2-inch circles and place two teaspoons of filling in the center of each dough circle. Fold the circles in half and pinch the edges together. Refrigerate pies for 30 minutes before frying.

Heat 2 1/2 inches of vegetable oil to 350-degrees in a heavy four-quart saucepan. Fry pies 4 or 6 at a time until golden brown, 1 1/2 -2 minutes per batch. Drain on paper towels.
Keep warm in a 200-degree oven until all pies are fried. Serve immediately.

Yield: 24-26

From Robert's newly released Hyperion cookbook "Deep South Parties"

Monday, September 11, 2006

Benton’s Bacon is Best

I have discovered the world’s best bacon.

Chef John Besh, recently introduced me to Allan Benton’s bacon. Besh was introduced to the product through Chef John Fleer of Blackberry Farm in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, not too far from the smokehouse where Allan Benton does his magic.

Benton has been curing hams, bacon, and prosciutto for 33 years, though the business has been in operation in Madisonville, Tenn. for almost 60 years. Madisonville is located a few miles off of I-75 between Chattanooga and Knoxville and from this day forward will be known to me as the center of the porcine universe.

In 1947, a dairy farmer named Albert Hicks began curing hams and making bacon for his neighbors. In 1973, Benton, a former high school guidance counselor, purchased the business, and luckily for us, has been smoking and curing pork using the tried and true methods passed down from generations of Smoky Mountain farmers ever since.

Benton’s bacon is perfect. I am convinced that when God invented bacon, this is how He wanted it to taste. When I asked Benton why his bacon was so superior to the store-bought variety, he stated, “We do it like your grandparents would have done it. Like my grandfather did it, and like Albert Hicks did it.”

The country’s taste buds are waking up from a decade’s long dry spell. The heirloom vegetable movement is taking hold and the general public is beginning to recognize the impact of individual flavor on a dish. Today’s mass marketed tomatoes have been genetically altered over the years to have thicker skins so they will ship well, redder color so they will have more eye appeal, and grown to be picked early and ripened in a box on the way to the market, sacrificing taste at every alteration.

Bacon is the same. Mass produced commercial pork bellies are injected with brine in the packing house, flash-smoked in a smoke room, and— 24 hours later— are being packaged and shipped. It’s quick, it’s easy, it’s profitable, and the result tastes nothing like bacon did years ago.

The Allan Benton process for curing and smoking bacon takes time— a minimum of five weeks. First Benton mixes together a dry-rub blend of salt and brown sugar, rubs the pork bellies and stacks them in a 38-degree cooler for two weeks. Next he transfers the bellies to another cooler where they hang in a 45-degree environment for a week and a half. They are then moved to an aging room for two more weeks before they are taken to Benton’s smokehouse where they spend 48 hours in an intense billowing fog of thick hickory smoke.

“You wouldn’t believe how much smoke you can generate out of an old wood burning stove,” Benton says. I believe it because I have eaten the end result.

In the past few years Benton’s bacon has found a home in some of the finest restaurant kitchens from New York to Napa. “For years I thought I would starve,” Benton says, as he gives credit to Chef Fleer for introducing his product to top chefs around the country.

The operation is still small by most standards. Benton cures approximately 12,000 hams per year, smokes around 3,500 pounds of bacon each week, and produces a prosciutto that will rival any produced in Parma, Italy. The prosciutto is cured for 14-16 months and on occasion 18-22 months. “I like to cut the prosciutto into 1 /8 th inch strips and eat in on a sandwich,” Benton says.

He makes sausage, but doesn’t ship it retail like the bacon, ham, and prosciutto. I ordered bacon and ham last week and am going to have to place another order soon; it’s so good that I keep giving it away to my friends. Benton ships anywhere in the U.S. and the bacon keeps for up to four months in the refrigerator. Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams: 423-442-5003 www.bentonshams.com .

Monday, September 04, 2006

One Year Later

I spent the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina with my friend and noted New Orleans chef, John Besh.

We ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner while filming a television program. Besh cooked breakfast at his home in Slidell, took us to lunch at Café Reconcile, and finished the program with a nine-course feast at his flagship establishment, Restaurant August.

One year earlier, Besh was riding out the storm in his restaurant on Tchoupitoulas Street in New Orleans. The next day he headed into Mississippi, chainsaw in hand, to look for supplies. Back in New Orleans two days after the storm he commandeered a boat, fired up a makeshift cooking station using a propane-fueled crawfish boiler and delivered red beans and rice by boat as he and a co-worker paddled around New Orleans rescuing people from their homes. A rescue mission with food— that’s pure Besh.

The 38-year old Besh is one of the unsung heroes of Katrina. A former member of the U.S. Marines and a Gulf War veteran, he worked under battlefield conditions to be the first white tablecloth restaurant to reopen in New Orleans, all the while feeding over 1,200 displaced people breakfast, lunch, and dinner seven days a week.

What endears me to Besh is that, with his talent, knowledge, and skill set, he has every right in the world to be haughty and arrogant, yet he is the last who would ever be so. As the days drift away from August 29 th, 2005, I continue to discover stories of his heroism and bravery, but always from others. Besh would never focus on any of his accomplishments in the course of an everyday conversation, and would actually go to great pains to steer the dialogue in another direction.

Besh welcomed us into his home that day and, as the cameras rolled, cooked breakfast from the hip— nothing planned, nothing pre-cooked, a pure unadulterated case of winging it. It would be one of the more memorable breakfasts I have eaten.

He chopped onions, bell pepper, and celery and sautéed them in a skillet with a little bacon fat. Next he added garlic and a few seasonings. He then pulled out two of the sweetest tasting heirloom tomatoes I have ever eaten, chopped them, and added them to the pot. It wasn’t until then that we realized that breakfast was heading in an etouffee-like direction. He cooked a simple pot of grits and then pulled a plate of crawfish from the refrigerator. The main course was crawfish etouffee and grits topped with a fried egg. He prepared homemade biscuits and served preserves made from the fruit trees in his backyard. A highlight of the meal was a small plate that held house-made sausage from August and a few pieces of Allan Benton’s bacon shipped in from Madisonville, Tennessee.

Not to the reader: If you take nothing else away from this column, go to the website: www.bentonshams.com and order some of Allan Benton’s smoked country bacon. It is by far the best bacon I have ever eaten, hands down, bar none, end of story.

For lunch we traveled to Café Reconcile, a non-profit restaurant formed to teach at-risk youth a trade and life skills. There we ate fried catfish and a beautifully prepared shrimp and okra dish.

The dinner at August was— as all dinners at August are— amazing. Besh sent out nine courses of culinary brilliance. No one in the entire South is performing on a higher level than John Besh, post Katrina. He purchased the restaurant from his former partner a few weeks before the storm hit and, with his name now on the note at the bank, saw New Orleans’ long-standing convention business dry up overnight. Most chefs would have thrown in the side towel. Not Besh, he stepped it up a level and won the James Beard Foundation’s award for Best Chef Southeast (for those unfamiliar with Beard Awards, if Besh would have been in the movie trade, his mantle would now be sporting an Oscar).

John Besh and the restaurants of New Orleans came through after Katrina. They rescued us, they fed us, they sheltered us, and they performed one of the most important functions in the post-Katrina environment— giving us a sense of normalcy, and a look into the days when New Orleans was truly the city that care forgot.

Monday, August 28, 2006

A Riot in the Cafeteria

The food police are at it again. This time they’re targeting school lunchboxes.

The Center for Science in the Public Trust has recently issued a Lunchbox Makeover for school-age children giving them, what they believe are, “10 tips for a healthy school lunch.”

It is my belief that— to a person— everyone who works at the CSPI is childless. Here are their supposed “easy” suggestions for making over our children’s lunchboxes:

1. Encourage your child to choose one percent or fat-free milk. The problem is not the milk, but how to keep the milk cold. It’s already hard enough to get cold milk at school. I can remember the milk cart at my school used to arrive mid-morning immediately after recess. There’s nothing quite as unrefreshing as a glass of warm milk immediately after running for 20 minutes in the scorching Mississippi heat.

2. Leave the cheese off sandwiches, unless it’s low-fat or fat-free cheese. My daughter inherited her cheese addiction from her mother. Their philosophy: “If it tastes good, it’ll taste better with cheese.” I’ll let the CSPI try and fight that battle. Though I know the adversary, and they don’t have a chance. My wife thinks cheese is one of the major food groups and should be reclassified as chewable calcium.

3. Switch from fatty luncheon meats to low-fat alternatives. If God would have wanted us to eat low-fat bologna, he would have made skinnier pigs.

4. Include at least one fruit in every lunch. I have no problem with this one. In elementary school, I used fruit as a bargaining chip to trade for other people’s bologna and cheese sandwiches. An apple and two bananas were usually good for three chocolate chip cookies and a Pop Tart.

5. Sneak vegetables— like lettuce or slices of cucumber, tomato, green pepper, roasted peppers, or zucchini— onto sandwiches. What planet are these people living on? My wife, who is somewhere over the age of 30, doesn’t even eat cucumbers, tomatoes or green peppers, how will she sneak them onto my child’s bologna and cheese sandwich?

6. Use whole grain bread instead of white bread for sandwiches. Amazingly enough, we’re a step ahead of the game on this one. At our house it’s always been 100% wheat bread since the children were born.

7. Limit cookies, snack cakes, doughnuts, brownies, and other sweet baked goods. Actually, my vote is for no sugar for anyone under the age of 16. When they’re able to drive, we’ll let them eat sugar. I’ll support that legislation, tomorrow. At our house, we don’t let our children eat sugar-filled foods before they go to school, and certainly don’t want them eating processed sugar while they’re at school. To our kids, sugar is like granulated amphetamine. My children are active enough; I couldn’t imagine loading them up on doughnuts, cake, and brownies, and turning them loose on their teachers. Although, while babysitting, my mother seems to take great delight in feeding them a few scoops of ice cream just before she drops them off at our house. Once, I think I heard her laughing hysterically as she drove out of the driveway.

8. Limit potato, corn, tortilla, or other chips. At this point, I think we need a quick recap— warm milk, no cheese, low-fat processed turkey, kiwi, roasted pepper, cucumber, and tomato with a slice of wheat bread— no Fritos, no Ruffles, no Tostitos. Where’s the benefit of being a kid, if you don’t get to eat a few potato chips? I’m not talking about sitting in front of a television or video game and eating a large can of Pringles. We adults spend the rest of our lives watching what we eat. Kids run and play and spend all day burning calories. I say, “Pass the Doritos.”

9. If you pack juice, make sure it’s 100% juice. Good luck. Have you ever seen an all-out riot created by a nine and five year old? It can turn nasty pretty quickly.

10. Don’t send Lunchables. Do we actually need someone to tell us that?

Are these healthy suggestions? Yes.

Are they “easy” suggestions, as the CSPI states? No.

In a nutshell, be realistic. Don’t load your children up on sugary and fatty foods. Don’t let them lounge in front of the television all day, and for your own safety, wait until they’re 21 to feed them zucchini, green peppers, and cucumbers.
Pineapple Sherbet

One day last week the weatherman at my local television station reported the day’s heat index as 117 degrees.

Earlier that afternoon I had been running errands for my wife. My children were with me. One of our errands placed us near Kamper Park in my hometown of Hattiesburg. As a child I spent countless days in that park during the summer months. Funny thing, I don’t ever remember being too hot. Running, swinging, sliding, and jumping in the Mississippi heat with more energy than I’ll ever know again never slowed me down, the temperature outside never mattered.

However, last week’s heat slowed my pace considerably. Maybe it was age. I was certainly feeling all of my 44 years, maybe more.

As we drove down the road that led to the park, I showed my children— a nine-year old girl and a five-year old boy— the place where I ate ice cream as a child. It was an ice cream parlor owned by the Seale-Lily Ice Cream Company.

The “Seale-Lily” as it was known around town, was a soda fountain of the standard 1950s/1960s variety, which served ice cream in bowls and cones, sundaes, splits, milk shakes and light sandwiches. I held the place in high regard.

At the Seale-Lily I only ate pineapple sherbet. It was my favorite then and it is my favorite today, when I can find it. When making homemade ice cream, my family usually prepared vanilla or peach. To me, homemade peach ice cream tastes like summer, but pineapple sherbet tastes like my youth.

I am not sure what it was about pineapple sherbet that steered me away from the typical childhood choices of chocolate and strawberry. It has only occurred to me as I write this column that pineapple sherbet might be a strange choice for a kid.

Today a liquor store occupies the space where the employees of the Seale-Lily scooped thousands of cones.

My children asked about the Seale-Lily and wanted to know if there was a place in town that served pineapple sherbet. Hattiesburg has several ice cream shops which offer excellent gourmet ice creams, varieties in every color and flavor, places where exotic candies and fresh fruits are mixed by hand to one’s selection. I am a regular at The Marble Slab Creamery and my waistline is a testament to those visits. However, I couldn’t think of one place that serves pineapple sherbet.

At 44, I might not be as active as I was at six years old, but I am much more resourceful. After thinking for a minute, I walked over to the Sunflower grocery store that anchors the shopping center that housed the Seale-Lily and bought a quart of pineapple sherbet and a box of hard-plastic spoons.

I drove my children next door to the park and took them to the giant gazebo that has been there as long as I have been alive. We sat at a picnic table in the sweltering August heat, no cones, no air conditioning, no worries, and ate pineapple sherbet straight out of the box.

In an instant I forgot about the heat. I watched as my children ate with abandon and wondered if one day they would tell their kids about the joys of pineapple sherbet in the hot Mississippi heat.

Do yourself a favor, today; buy your son, daughter, niece, nephew, grandson, granddaughter, or friend some ice cream. Whether it’s in a cone or straight out of the box, you’ll be making memories for you and them. Pineapple sherbet or not, you’re likely to forget about the heat and humidity, but you’ll never forget the joy of eating ice cream with a child.

Monday, August 14, 2006

For Whom the School Bell Tolls

I am now the father of two school-aged children. This week my daughter enters fourth grade and my son enters kindergarten (let’s all bow our heads and say a prayer for Mrs. Prine, his teacher).

Back to school means returning to the daily routine of getting to bed early, waking up early, the before-school scramble, and waiting in a long line for the after-school pick-up. It also means lunches away from home.

Throughout the summer my children eat late breakfasts and large lunches. Lunch might be eaten at 11:30 a.m. or at 2:45 p.m. it depends on several factors: how hot they get while playing outside, what’s on television, which friend is visiting, or what’s being served. Not so in the school year. Back to school means back to a daily routine that will be followed— with the exception of a few brief holiday interruptions— until next May.

I love the fall. Though Mississippi won’t see a hint of fall-like weather until the middle of October, it is my favorite season. The excitement that comes with returning to school— a new teacher, new books and supplies, the possibility of making new friends— is an excitement that we never relive in our adult years. Fall just smells different.

The sense of smell, like the sense of taste, has strong connections with our memories. Today, the scent of pencil shavings from a pencil sharpener will instantly take me back to Mrs. Smith’s fourth grade class at Thames Elementary School. Nowhere in my average workday do I encounter the smell of pencil shavings, these days it’s all rolling-ball pens with precise grips and Microsoft Word with dull and odorless keyboards and screens.

In my youth, the aroma of yeast rolls wafted through the corridors of school signaling the approaching lunch hour. My elementary school had an honest-to-God line-them-up-in-the-back-of-the-room grab-a-tray-and-a-carton-of-warm-milk we-only-eat-greens-on-the-days-they-mow-the-grass cafeteria.

The school cafeteria is an important place for childhood socialization. One is not supposed to talk in a classroom, recess is usually spent running, playing, or competing in kickball or basketball games. In the lunchroom the pressure is off. That is where the art and politics of conversation is learned, friends are made, urban legends are spread, and meals are shared.

Sharing a meal with friends is one of the few elementary school activities that we carry into adulthood. We no longer dust the chalk off of erasers, or line up in single file lines, we don’t turn in homework, take tests, or carry a lunch box, I haven’t played kickball in several decades, but I share a meal with friends all of the time, and I don’t do it much differently than I did when I was 10-years old.

In those days lunch boxes were— like today’s bumper stickers— a statement or extension of one’s personality or views. I had a Charlie Brown and Snoopy lunch box. It was lame and didn’t really make a bold statement about who I thought I was, or what I believed, but it was on sale when my mom bought it, and that was that. As a kid I always wanted a Beatles lunchbox. In retrospect I had more in common with Charlie Brown than John Lennon, but a kid has to dream.

A few years ago I compiled a list of the items that I longed for as a kid, but never got. The list was long and extensive. Most were toys that I no longer wanted or material junk that no longer mattered. Though, sitting at the top of the list were a Beatles lunchbox and a Lava Lamp.

I write this column surrounded by three large Lava Lamps and a Beatles lunchbox, reminiscing about the school cafeteria, yeast rolls, and the many hours I spent dusting erasers, a punishment then, but a fond memory, today.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Beautiful Swimmers

When I was a child my family owned a small, rickety fish camp on the Pascagoula River near the Gulf Coast of Mississippi.

When the year’s final school bell rang, shorts were put on, shoes were kicked off, and the slow pace of summer kicked in. I spent those days fishing, trolling for shrimp, and water skiing.

In an era before catch-limits, we filled ice chests full of redfish— this, a full decade before Prudhomme blackened one in a skillet and started the national craze that created the subsequent redfish shortage. Other days we attached a small shrimp trolling-net to the back of our boat. We trolled slowly all afternoon, hauling in the net every hour or so and separating shrimp from the other sea life that had been netted. Most of the other species were tossed back into the water except for the occasional flounder or sheepshead. We then returned to the small camp and boiled the shrimp just minutes out of the water.

All summer we kept crab traps in the water. No matter where we were traveling on the river, or into the Gulf, we stopped on our way home to check the crab traps. The day’s crab catch was added to the ice chest and the crabs were boiled and picked that evening.

The refrigerator was always full of crabmeat, usually in the form of West Indies Salad. My mother loved West Indies Salad and was never too far from a Tupperware bowlful and a box of crackers.

West Indies Salad is a simple creation of crabmeat with a light vinaigrette dressing and is said to have been created by Bill Bailey, a Mobile restaurateur who operated a long-running establishment on the Dauphin Island Parkway. My mother used a recipe from the 1964 Mobile Junior League cookbook, Recipe Jubilee!.

As Labor Day drew nearer, afternoon showers became lighter, the days grew shorter, and the crabs traveled upriver with the brackish water. I can remember using hand nets to scoop crabs out of the shallows of the tiny beach near our swimming hole, always returning the sponge crabs (those bearing eggs) to the water. On some days, ice chests could be filled in mere minutes.

The generic and specific name for the Gulf Blue Crab is Callinectes sapidus, and according to the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources website, “Its generic name, Callinectes is a combination of two Latin words meaning ‘beautiful swimmer,’ while its specific name, sapidus, means ‘savory.’”

I have always loved the term “beautiful swimmer,” and though the Blue Crab’s swimming motion is more of a herky-jerky sideways scamper than a graceful and fluid movement worthy of the title beautiful swimmer, I think the name is befitting if only for the crustacean’s wonderful flavor, unmatched versatility, and culinary stature in the Gulf South.

The three most beautiful words in the Mississippi cooking lexis are: Jumbo Lump Crabmeat. The majority of my restaurant career has been filled using dishes featuring crabmeat. It is the first and foremost ingredient in my larder. One would have a hard time finding more than a dozen savory seafood dishes that couldn’t be improved substantially by the addition of crabmeat. It is sweet, and delicate, and versatile.

Since childhood I have associated the month of August with crabs. It is the most plentiful and economical month for purchasing crabmeat and, to this day, the abundance allows me and my chefs to focus on developing dishes featuring the Gulf’s most versatile delicacy. At the Crescent City Grill in Hattiesburg we use over 400 pounds of fresh crabmeat each week during the annual August crabmeat promotion. The slow and tedious effort of picking through the fragile lobes in search of stray shell or cartilage is worth every man hour of overtime.

My mother sold the fish camp 20 years ago. A few years after my son was born, I drove down to see if I might be able to buy the property back from its current owners. The old camp, the neighboring camps, and the entire area was in such a state of disrepair that I immediately lost the desire to return, and haven’t.

Today, summer is shorter and the pace is faster. My kids don’t have the luxury of a Memorial Day to Labor Day vacation as school now starts in the middle of August. Something seems wrong about a world that makes a kid sit in a hot classroom while there are so many beautiful swimmers to be caught.

West Indies Salad

2 lbs. Jumbo Lump crabmeat, picked of all shell
1 Medium Red Onion (chopped fine)
1 /2 cup Light Olive Oil
1 /2 cup Champagne Vinegar (or White Balsamic Vinegar)
1 Tbl. Parsley
1 tsp Hot Sauce
2 tsp. Worcestershire Sauce
Salt and Pepper to taste

Gently combine all ingredients and refrigerate for four hours or overnight.

Serve on sliced tomatoes, a bed of lettuce or as an appetizer with crackers.