Monday, July 31, 2006


Several years ago I wrote a column about funeral food and how people in the South band together to feed the family of the bereaved when a loved one has passed away.

I never expected to be so close, so soon, to the phenomenon.

A few days ago my wife’s 37-year old sister lost a long and hard-fought battle with her heart. It was a battle that she fought with guts and grace, always positive, always resilient, and— even in her most weakened state— a battle in which she spent most of her time caring more about the well-being of others than her own.

Within hours the food began arriving. Fried chicken, potato salad, cakes, cookies, and fruit were the first to show up. The refrigerator filled to capacity in the first hour.

One friend, whose wife was out of town, and had no idea how this drill worked, dropped by the grocery store and came over with a mixed-bag smorgasbord of groceries and paper products in various sacks, no rhyme, reason, or theme to the gift, just supplies for people in need from someone who truly cared.

Family and friends were all over the house. Some hadn’t eaten in days and were ravenous; others had lost their appetite weeks ago. Three of my wife’s friends cooked an entire dinner and brought it to the house. One of those same friends came over and washed clothes and cleaned the children’s rooms.

It was a beautiful thing to see. At times, it felt as if the entire community had mobilized in honor of this one cause. The chefs at my restaurant were ready to load us up with even more food but I had to tell them that we had no more refrigerator space.

Four years ago, when writing the original column on funeral food, I stated: “Down here, communities band together during times of tragedy. Food is the common vein that runs through it all. However, my generation doesn’t seem to come together like the generations before us. Are we so busy that we have forgotten the importance of community, friends, and family?”

I was wrong. Very wrong. Community, friends, and family are alive and well and living in and around Hattiesburg, Mississippi. My generation stepped up to the plate and knocked it out of the park in this time of need. It does my heart good.

With dozens of out-of-town family and friends traveling in, all of the food will surely be consumed— homemade bread, pies, crudité, sweet rolls, sandwich platters, chips, dips, and more fried chicken— everything but sausage balls. My wife’s sister always cooked sausage balls. They were my daughter’s favorite. The two of them could eat dozens in one sitting. Every Christmas, Easter, and Fourth of July our kitchen was filled with sausage balls. Whenever my sister-in-law asked my daughter what she would like for her birthday, the answer was always, “Sausage balls.”

The sausage-ball recipe wasn’t a passed-down family secret, or a much-sought-after prize-winning formula, just a simple recipe off of the side of the Bisquick box. What made the recipe special was the love that went into the preparation of the dish. It was the same main ingredient in the food that recently kept our refrigerator bulging.

We lament the loss of a sister, a daughter, a wife, and an aunt— a woman of exceptional strength and courage. We thank our friends who kept us in their thoughts and prayers. We thank those who kept us fed, and we try to move on with a large, empty, and seemingly endless void in our lives, a space where a courageous young woman used to be.

Bisquick® Sausage-Cheese Balls

3 cups Original Bisquick® mix
1 pound bulk pork sausage
4 cups shredded Cheddar cheese (16 ounces)
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary leaves
1/2 teaspoon parsley flakes

1 . Heat oven to 350ºF. Lightly grease bottom and sides of jelly roll pan, 15 1/2x10 1/2x2x1 inch.
2 . Stir together all ingredients, using hands or spoon. Shape mixture into 1-inch balls. Place in pan.
3 . Bake 20 to 25 minutes or until brown. Immediately remove from pan. Serve warm.

Memorials can be made to The Mississippi Organ Recovery Agency in memory of Jennifer Pender

Monday, July 24, 2006

The French Laundry

Yountville, Calif. — “I have just eaten the best meal of my life. Hands down. No question.” Those were the opening sentences of a column I wrote just five weeks ago after dining at Per Se, in New York.

Stop the presses. I have just experienced a humbling, 32-course culinary bacchanalia at the hands of Thomas Keller, and the statements made just five short weeks ago are now old news.

I have once again eaten the best meal of my life. Hands down. No question.

On a warm evening in July, I experienced a slight hint of what Sir Edmund Hillary might have felt when he reached the peak of Mt. Everest. Though mine was a culinary pinnacle, it was a zenith, nonetheless. For years, The French Laundry has been my gastronomic Mecca. I have finally reached the summit.

The French Laundry in Yountville Calif. is widely considered the nation’s finest restaurant, a reputation it has dutifully earned over the course of the last 12 years. At The French Laundry, excellence seeps from of every nook and cranny and percolates from every personality. It exists— actually thrives— several strata above even the finest restaurants in New York. Nothing compares.

I arrived with three friends; an artist, an architect, and a CEO. Our reservation was scheduled for a 7 p.m. seating but we arrived an hour early and were seated immediately. In an instant the server informed us that Chef Keller had developed a special menu for our party, and instructed us to sit back and enjoy the ride.

There were sixteen rounds of culinary brilliance on tap for our small group. I sat across the table from the architect. The artist and CEO faced each other to my right and left, respectively. When each course arrived, the artist and CEO were served the same item, which was an entirely different dish, though similar in flavor profile, to the course served to the architect and me. As I always do when dining out, we shared and tasted each dish, all 32 of them.

The wine pairings were made with the artist and CEO receiving a similar pour, while the architect was given a different wine to compliment his course. I, as always, being the only teetotaler in the group, resigned myself to drinking distilled water and focusing on the food. Gladly, this would not suffice at The French Laundry. It was after the first course, when the sommelier learned that I would not be drinking, that I was blessed with one of the most brilliantly amazing “touches” I have ever witnessed in a restaurant.

Sensing that I would more than likely be turning down every wine offering, he asked, “Would you like me to design a non-alcoholic beverage tasting to be paired with your meal, sir?”

I have been eating professionally for 18 years and not drinking for even longer— 23 years. Never had that question been posed. I had resigned myself to a life without pairings. Not if Thomas Keller’s staff was going to have anything to say on the matter. Not at the French Laundry.

I’m not talking Shirley Temples’ and Roy Rogers’. Before each course, after he had poured the wines, the sommelier presented me with some of the most unique and inventive beverages I have ever tasted. While the others drank rare French champagnes with their chilled avocado soup, I was served a sparkling apple cider that was the perfect accompaniment. When the artist, architect, and CEO were poured a fine Maderia with their White Truffle Custard, I was given a gourmet root beer with a truffle syrup reduction that paired with the dish perfectly. Other courses were accompanied by such inventive beverages as a Lavender and Chamomile Mimosa, “Chaud Froid” Corn and Truffle Cappuccino, and Golden Monkey Black Tea with Porcini Shavings. Each inventive, each a perfect pairing, and each created on the spot. Brilliant.

Typically, this column comes in at 750 words. I could use twice the column inches allowed and still not begin to breach the surface of the truly amazing aspects of this meal.

After eating a meal such as this, a food writer runs the risk of using overly flowery verbiage and exaggerated adjectives to describe the experience. The problem with this restaurant is that any description I would commit to paper couldn’t do justice to actually sitting in the dining room and experiencing the actual meal. From the maitre d’ to the servers, to the kitchen staff with whom we visited after the meal, everyone was at the top of their game. I couldn’t find one single negative in the entire experience, a rare treat, indeed.

It is the only meal I have ever eaten that needed a halftime break. After the 10th course, the maitre d’ asked if we would like to take a short break in the garden. We did, and the overly attentive service continued, even outside of the restaurant.

A quick tour of the kitchen, and an opportunity to thank Chef Keller in person ended, with what will now be described, as the finest dining experience of my life. While browsing through my notes of the meal I see comments such as “extremely professional and informed staff,” “perfect service,” “best ever,” and “truffles, truffles, truffles!”

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.

The French Laundry
Chef’s Tasting Menu
July 17, 2006


Summer Melons, Mint, and Yogurt

Haas Avocadoes, Cilantro Shoots and Espelette
Laurent Perrier “Grand Siecle” MV
Sparkling Apple Cider, Sonoma Sparkler

with Granny Smith Apples and Black Pepper

with Lime Scented "Gelée" and Fresh Juniper Berry “Tuile”

CAULIFLOWER “PANNA COTTA”Beau Soleil Oyster Glaze and Russian Sevruga Caviar

“OYSTERS AND PEARLS”“Sabayon” of Pearl Tapioca with Beau Soleil Oysters and Russian Sevruga Caviar

Vanilla Mousseline, Bananas and Shaved Hazelnuts

Marcona Almonds, Globe Artichokes, “Mâche” and Pedro Ximenez Glaze
Manzanilla “La Guita”

Minced Périgord Truffles and Toasted Brioche “Soldiers”

with a “Ragoût” of Périgord Truffles
Barbeito, Sercial, Madeira 1978
Root Beer, Truffle Syrup

with Apricot “Confit”, Marinated Peppers, and Curry “Aigre Doux”

Baby Leeks, Sweet Carrot “Ribbons,” Red Pearl Onion “Petals,”
Spanish Saffron “Mayonnaise” and Garden Basil
Emmerich Knoll, Gruner Veltliner, 2004, Austria
Lavender and Chamomile “Mimosa”

“AGNOLOTTI” OF SWEET GOLDEN CORNBlack Truffles from Provence and Corn Pudding

with Grated Périgord Truffles
Domaine Boillot, Meursault “Les Perrieres,” 2004
“Chaud Froid,”Corn and truffle Cappuccino

Artichokes, Wilted Arrowleaf Spinach and Lemon

French Laundry Garden Summer Squash, Niçoise Olives, “Fleur de Courgette”
and San Marzano Tomato “Marmelade”
Chateau Simone, Palette, 1998

“PEAS AND CARROTS”Maine Lobster Tail “Cuite Sous Vide,” Garden Pea Shoot Salad
and Sweet Carrot Buttons

Green Grape “Confit,” Melted Belgian Endive, Périgord Truffles and Sauternes-Lobster Coral Emulsion

Medjool Dates, Celery Branch and Pumpkin Seed “Vinaigrette”

with Silverado Trail Strawberry Jam and “Frisée” Lettuce
Domaine Weinbach, Gewurztraminer, “Cuvee Theo” 2003

All Day Braised Hobb’s Shore "Poitrine de Porc",
with a "Cassoulet" of Pole Beans and a Whole Grain Mustard Sauce

“Ragoût” of Golden Corn, Applewood-Smoked Bacon, Piquillo Peppers and “Béarnaise” Reduction
Radio Coteau, “Savoy,” Pinot Noir, 2004

Spring Onion, Cèpes, French Laundry Green Beans and “Sauce Bordelaise”

“Nameko” Mushrooms, Broccolini, “Kohishikari” Rice
with Sweet Garlic and Ginger-Scented “Jus”
Modicum 2001
Golden Monkey Black Tea

Tomato “Confit”, Applewood Smoked Bacon, Hard-Boiled Quail Egg
and Haas Avocado “Puree”

Slow-Baked Heirloom Beet, Fennel Bulb “Relish” and Juniper Wood-Aged Balsamic “Vinaigrette”

ROYAL BLENHEIM APRICOT SORBETMarcona Almond “Streusel” and “Gelée de Noyaux”

ROYAL BLENHEIM APRICOT SORBETMarcona Almond “Streusel” and “Gelée de Noyaux”

Caramel Ice Cream and Butterscotch “Crunch”
Toro Albala, Pedro Ximenez, 1971


Wisdom...or Lack Thereof

When speaking of his wisdom teeth, my grandfather used to say, “I’ll never get my wisdom teeth cut out, I do some of my best chewing with those teeth.”

Once again, I should have listened to my grandfather.After 44 years and some extremely successful chewing, I have removed all four of my wisdom teeth.Day after day, I kept waiting for the wisdom to kick in, to no avail.

After returning from the dentist’s office, heavily medicated and without a care in the world, I fell into the bed. My wife did as the doctor instructed and placed two ice packs on my cheeks to help prevent swelling. The bags wouldn’t stay in place and so she looked for anything to help secure the ice packs. This is where the trouble began.

Feeling all powerful and a little mischievous, my loving wife of 13 years dug deep into her closet to find the ugliest, most flower-filled scarf in her drawers. She returned with a gaudy blue, orange, and yellow number with assorted spring flowers which she proceeded to tie around my face, securing the ice packs, and leaving a large floral bow on the top of my head.

My head— full of some heavy-duty medication at the time— had no clue, or care, as to what was occurring.Moments later I was awakened by a series of bright flashes. I opened my eyes to find my wonderful spouse— the love of my life, my supreme caretaker at that moment— laughing, camera in hand, taking incriminating photos of her chipmunk-cheeked, floral-scarf clad, big-bow adorned patient. I am sure the photos will resurface at a later date. Still very much out of it, I mumbled a few choice words, gave her a gesture or two, and rolled over.

She whispered, “I’m going to the drug store to get your prescription filled. The phone is right here if you need me.”

Approximately five minutes later the doorbell began ringing, and ringing , and ringing. I tried to ignore it, but it continued to ring. Finally, I slid out of bed, wearing only a pair of shorts and the aforementioned bow-tied floral scarf. I shuffled through the house and opened the door.

Standing across from me were four of the most shocked housekeepers you have ever seen. To my recollection they were speechless. I looked at them. They looked back at me. I looked at them a little longer, they stood, jaws dropped, looking back at me. Finally, still only an hour out of surgery, I mumbled, “I got my wisdom teeth out.” Which, with my mouth full of gauze, probably sounded like, “I duh muh wunnuah teee how.”

Note: I am never home during the day on Fridays when the housekeepers show up. They don’t know me and I have never met them. We know each other intimately now.

I shuffled back to the bedroom, crawled back into the bed, and dreamed of banana pudding.

When my wife returned from the drug store I was sprawled out, flat on my back, in the middle of my bed, knocked out cold and without a care in the world as the housekeepers were busy vacuuming and dusting around me.

Like my grandfather, I, too, used to do some of my best chewing with those teeth. I’ll think of them often (mostly when I’m eating steak) and wonder why they never imparted any wisdom.Alas, I’ve always got banana pudding.

Joan Holland's Almost Heaven Banana Pudding

1 cup Sugar
6 Tbl Flour
Pinch of Salt
4 Egg yolks (reserve whites for meringue)
2 cups Milk
2 tsp Vanilla
6 Tbl Butter
Vanilla wafers
4 Bananas, ripe, peeled and sliced

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Combine sugar, flour, salt, eggs, milk and vanilla in a small nonreactive sauce pot. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly until the custard thickens. Remove from heat, stir in butter until dissolved.

Butter a 2-quart baking dish. Arrange the vanilla wafers around the outside and across the bottom of the baking dish. Spread a layer of custard over the wafers. Place sliced bananas on top of custard and spoon the remaining custard over bananas, spreading evenly.


4 Egg whites
6 Tbl Sugar
1/2 tsp Cream of tartar

Beat the egg whites with an electric mixer. When they start to increase in volume, add the sugar and cream of tartar. Continue to beat until soft peaks form. Spread over the pudding and bake at 350 degrees until golden, about 8 - 10 minutes. Allow pudding to cool completely before serving (refrigerate at least 4 hours).

Yield: 8-10 servings

Robert St.John is an author, chef, restaurateur, and world-class eater. He is the author of “A Southern Palate,” “Deep South Staples,” “Nobody’s Poet,” “My South,” and the upcoming “Deep South Parties.” He can be reached at or

Monday, July 10, 2006

Santa Fe

SANTA FE— Travel notes and food quotes from my dining diary the week of July 8th:

Have you ever wished for something for so long that there is no way the experience will live up to the “build up?” For 15 years, one of the restaurants on my “get-to list” has been the Coyote Café in Santa Fe, N.M. I am a big fan of Southwestern cuisine. It is one of my favorite regional/ethnic cuisines.

Chef Mark Miller is one of the foremost authorities on Southwestern cuisine. Actually, he has been credited for starting the Southwestern food movement in the early 1980s. I used to frequent his Washington, D.C. restaurant, Red Sage, and enjoyed many fine meals there.

Although Coyote Café was the restaurant that started it all, it has been surpassed by many. The meal I paid for at Coyote Café and the lunch at Miller’s neighboring Rooftop Cantina didn’t live up to the billing or acclaim.

I was in Santa Fe to meet with a movie-director friend who is helping me with a TV project. I learned a lot in two days. I learned that movie making is not magic. Watching the filming of a movie is akin to watching water evaporate. Even if it’s an action-comedy, it’s long and slow and boring. I watched two days of filming that will amount to 10 seconds on screen. In addition to that epiphany, I learned that John Travolta is tall and friendly, William H. Macy is even friendlier (and had a grandmother that lived on the Mississippi Gulf Coast that made fine gumbo), Ray Liotta is intense, Martin Lawrence is gracious, and Tim Allen is difficult.

Note: I hesitated to write the above column for fear that some might think I was dropping names. Actually, I believe that one earns the name-dropping moniker only when the names that one drops happen to be friends or acquaintances. The actors listed above have no idea who I am, and had forgotten me within seconds of meeting me, possibly while meeting me.

I did, however, meet a veteran actor and Jackson, Mississippi native, M.C. Gainey, who has friends in Hattiesburg and eats in my restaurants when he is in town (Now that, my friends, was a first-rate name drop).

Two restaurants that were pleasant surprises, and one meal that will certainly make my 2006 Top 10 List, were Café Pasqual and Geronimo. The former being an example of one of the best Southwestern breakfasts I have ever enjoyed and the latter being one of the finest lunches, of any style, I have enjoyed this year.

The breakfast consisted of an organic breakfast quesadilla made with top-notch chorizo, scrambled eggs, guacamole, cheese, salsa, in a grilled whole wheat tortilla, and an impressive order of French toast. Beautiful.

Geronimo, in my opinion, is tops in 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.

Possibly the most interesting entrée on the menu was one my dining companion ordered. The entrée was listed as “Grilled Cheese and Tomato Soup.” However, just as with the macaroni and cheese, it was nothing like your standard lunch variety grilled cheese and soup combo. This entrée featured Artisan smoked cheddar cheese, prosciutto ham, and black truffles sandwiched between two slices of delicately toasted brioche and served with a frisee salad and a roasted Roma tomato soup with burgundy and grilled calabacitas (Southwestern squash and chilies). Amazing.

Geronimo was a stark, yet elegant, space located on Canyon Road among hundreds of art galleries and studios and is a not-to-be-missed dining experience when one is visiting Santa Fe.

The disappointment of the Coyote Café and the bursting of the bubble of movie-making magic were not trip killers as they were surpassed by two excellent meals, beautiful art, and 70-degree weather.
The Sword, the Bathroom, and the Pirate

My son has a the bladder the size of an English pea.

He also likes pirates.

These two seemingly diametrically opposed statements converged during one fateful incident in a restaurant bathroom.

I have often written of my son’s bouts with bathroomitis. Bathroomitis is a malady that strikes early in life and usually affects boys in the three to five-year old age group. It is not a condition recognized by the American Medical Association, but it is surely experienced by fathers of young boys everywhere. The symptoms are easily detected and the condition is effortlessly diagnosed. During any restaurant visit, my son makes multiple trips to bathroom.

He might not need to go for hours while at home. But take him to a restaurant and he’s up every five minutes.

What does any of this have to do with pirates, you say? Read on, dear reader, read on.

My five-year old son chooses a favorite toy as some might choose a pair of underwear. It is a random procedure that usually involves picking up the first thing he sees in his toy chest or the toy nearest the back door on the way out of the house. No deep thought goes into the process and he likes it that way.

During a 48-hour period in June his favorite toy happened to be the Elite Operations Medieval Fantasy Sword, Barberia design, from Toys R Us, $5.95. Granted, an ancient Celtic sword is out of place in the world of pirates and buccaneers, but five-year olds don’t split hairs when playing games, it was the toy that was at the top of the pile when he was in search of a pirate weapon, and one sword is as good as another when forcing someone to walk the plank.

The sword is approximately 36-inches long and is made of hard, shiny plastic. If one didn’t know it was a harmless toy, it might look like an intimidating weapon. At a quick glance, it might even look like a real sword. In the hands of my son, a swashbuckling kindergartener, it can be the cause of much grief and embarrassment.

While driving my daughter to camp last month, we were to meet my mother-in-law, who was going to babysit the five-year old buccaneer for a week. The rendezvous point for the obligatory child trade off was a restaurant just off of the interstate in Vicksburg, Mississippi.

At this point I should note that when my son chooses his toy-of-the-moment, the choice is made and he doesn’t turn back. At least until the next toy catches his fancy. Nevertheless, the toy, whatever it may be, stays in his hands. He doesn’t let go. Whether it is a small rubber ball, a Star Wars action figure, a Sponge Bob pencil eraser, or a pirate sword, it goes everywhere with him. It is the parental path of least resistance. Better to let the boy keep his toy— whether in church or in a restaurant— than to deal with the alternative. As parents we choose our battles. His affection for the toy-of-the-moment is a battle we choose not to fight.

Back to the mother-in-law trade off.

So, we were in the rendezvous point making the exchange when the wannabe pirate was struck with his usual case of bathroomitis. I took him to the restroom, sword in hand, to do what needed to be done. Unfortunately it was a small restroom and there was only one stall, and what needed to be done, needed to be done in that stall. As fate would have it, the stall was occupied. I know this because my son said, “Look daddy, cowboy boots.” He had done as we all do— the universal method to make sure the stall door isn’t stuck and there’s actually someone inside— the-bend-down-and-peek-under-the-stall-door maneuver.

While waiting for the stall to empty, nature called. Daddy was struck with a case of bathroomitis and I went to the urinal to stand and do what one does at a urinal. While standing, I turned around to check on my son.

The boy was bent over with his arm reaching under the bottom of the adjacent stall. Unfortunately it was the arm that held the aforementioned pirate sword and he was waving it back and forth on the other side of the stall wall.

I was stunned for a moment and baffled to the point of speechlessness as I tried to figure out why my son was waving the sword under the stall. Then I remembered the cowboy boots.

For some strange reason the man on the other side of the stall wall remained silent. Maybe he was struck speechless as he sat in his most private of private moments, dumbfounded as a 36-inch sword appeared under the stall wall swishing back and forth cutting the air.

My son had a strange look on his face as he was up to his elbow in swordplay. It wasn’t a look of mischievousness, but rather a look of determination to try and make contact with whatever might be on the other side of the wall. To my knowledge he never did.

“Stop!” were the only words that would come across my lips. He looked up at me puzzled. It was a look that said “Why in the world would I stop doing this? It’s too much fun.”

I grabbed him and ran out of the men’s room, shoved him towards my mother-in-law and said, “Run! Good luck! See you next week!”

In conclusion, to the cowboy-boot wearing man who was nearly assaulted by the Elite Operations Medieval Fantasy Sword in the stall of the Shoney’s restaurant in Vicksburg, Mississippi, around noon on June the 3rd, 2006, wherever you are, just blame it on a chronic case of bathroomitis.