Feast on This

The Glory of Southern Cooking.

"When I tamper with certain sacred dishes," James Villas writes in his latest cookbook, The Glory of Southern Cooking (Wiley and Sons), "[my mother] still says I've lived up north too long and don't know much about Southern cooking."

This will be news to Villas' fans, who have followed him as food and wine editor of Town & Country magazine for 27 years and over the course of a dozen books, which include My Mother's Southern Kitchen (1994), My Mother's Southern Desserts (1998), My Mother's Southern Entertaining (2000), and, with or without his mother's say-so and know-how, the very Southern-sounding Crazy for Casseroles (2003).

But make no mistake, Martha Pearl Villas of North Carolina, your son James, winner recently of the James Beard Journalism Prize and Bon Appetit's Writer of the Year Award, hasn't gotten too big for his britches. In The Glory of Southern Cooking, he's downright gaga over what goes into and comes out of the South's kitchens — traditional Southern dishes right up there, Villas believes, with French cuisine bourgeoise and Italian cucina casereccia.

Highfalutin, you say? No way. Here is a man whose recipe for Skillet Cornbread calls for one-quarter cup of bacon grease (yes, a quarter-cup), which is how they do it in Mississippi, and no other recipe, to Villas' knowledge (and knowledgeable taste buds), can equal it — even, he adds, his very own mom's.

Bacon grease, then. And country ham. And rice, sorghum, cornmeal, and buttermilk. Let's not get fussy here, because Villas doesn't get fussy. In fact, he won't stand for it. You want to champion other regional styles of American cooking? "Ludicrous," he writes. That "hideously expensive," "ever-so-convenient gas grill"? "Heave it into the dump," he declares. (Nothing wrong with the coal-burning bargain variety.)

This is a man who, as a child, watched as Mr. Nunn, Villas' boyhood neighbor in Charlotte, beheaded hens with a hatchet. This is also a man who helped his grandfather skin rabbits. So he knows what down-home's about. And he knows what a good Fried Dill Pickle is about. He found one at the Hollywood Cafe near Tunica. Villas' recipe for Tennessee Monkey Bread? It comes courtesy of a member of the Junior League in Memphis. The source for Memphis Quail and Vegetable Stew? Villas' friend Henry. And the Peabody Grits Pudding? It belongs to The Peabody, of course — "a slightly eccentric but civilized landmark that no traveler in the South should miss," Villas writes. ("Eccentric"? Villas couldn't be referring to the twice-daily parade of ducks in the hotel's lobby. Maybe he means the peaches sautéed in honeyed orange butter, which The Peabody adds to this dish. Villas would rather you really dazzle your guests and let the pudding stand on its own.)

And as for barbecue, where's the beef? Not in this cookbook. When Villas says barbecue, Villas means hog and hog only, and as a proud Tarheel, he calls the North Carolina version — pit-cooked, hickory-smoked, vinegary, and pulled — king. But when it comes to ribs, Villas doesn't want any argument: "Only a fool denies that the undisputed capital is Memphis, Tennessee." And what of our neighbor across the river? Arkansas is, Villas writes, "the only state I know in the South that normally tops barbecue salad with Thousand Island dressing." The very idea must be unspeakable, because Villas doesn't comment.

Most likely, Memphian Jennifer Chandler would comment, and her likely response: So what?

You like shredded pork and Thousand Island on your lettuce leaves? Have it your way. But start by bagging it. Chandler's new book, Simply Salads (Rutledge Hill Press), does just that in more than 100 recipes — recipes that begin with store-bought, prepackaged greens. Your salad spinner can hit the dust. It's okay. Chandler's spinner is collecting dust.

Here are, however, her two bits of advice: Watch that "use-by" date on the salad package, and, better yet, have a good look at the greens: If that bag of baby arugula, hearts of romaine, or Mediterranean blend are off-color and limp, switch to what's crisp and fit for your table. Be flexible. Expand your horizons. Try a Spring Mix (baby lettuces, mizuna, tatsoi, frisée, and radicchio) or mache rosettes. The dressing — with ingredients you've probably already got at home — you can make yourself. Chandler supplies those recipes too. Trust her.

She trained at the Cordon Bleu in Paris. She ran the late (lamented) Cheffie's Market and More in Memphis. And she's food editor of MidSouth magazine, Delta Magazine, Nashville Home & Garden, in addition to contributing to The Commercial Appeal.

She knows her way around a Caesar, Cobb, and Waldorf salad, and she knows what she likes in local restaurants: Automatic Slim's Margarita Chicken Salad, Houston's Seared Tuna Salad, and the Grove Grill's Spinach Salad with Roasted Tomatoes. But Thousand Island on barbecue salad? Sorry, Arkansas. Chandler doesn't preach, but she does recommend ranch dressing to go with her Rendezvous-inspired BBQ Pulled Pork Salad.

"This is not a diet book," she says, in case you're wondering. "My Taco Salad, for example" — which calls for a pound of ground beef, a cup of sour cream, a cup-and-a-half of cheddar cheese, and two cups of tortilla chips (feeds four) — "is going to appeal to any hearty eater who doesn't want a dinner based on a bag of grass."

And thanks to Mississippi photographer Langdon Clay, that Taco Salad is going to appeal to any eye as well. No "bag of grass" — and this goes for every salad in Simply Salads — ever looked so good.

Shelf Life

It's Official: Somebody is going to die if Lilly Beth doesn't catch that bouquet.

That's according to Gayden Metcalfe of Greenville, Mississippi, and her co-author, Charlotte Hays of Washington, D.C., but Hays is a Delta native too who went to Lausanne, to Rhodes, to New York as a "gossip columnist at home in the world of ideas."

Here's the authors' latest idea (and the follow-up to their highly successful Being Dead Is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies' Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral): a how-to on the right and wrong ways proper Southerners get hitched. It's subtitled "The Official Southern Ladies' Guide to Hosting the Perfect Wedding," but don't take my word for it. Ask for it by name: Somebody Is Going To Die If Lilly Beth Doesn't Catch That Bouquet.

In it, you'll learn that by "Southern" the authors mean the Mississippi Delta. (Ground zero: Greenville; church of choice: St. James' Episcopal.) You'll also learn how to keep a wedding cake from "weeping" in the heat. You'll learn to avoid anything served on a Saltine or Ritz cracker at the wedding reception. And to put everybody (and that includes the MOB: the mother of the bride) in a good mood, you'll learn that fig preserves are the Delta's idea of an aphrodisiac.

The book also comes with valuable recipes no tasteful Southern wedding does without: Quail Eggs with Catfish Paté, Curried Mayonnaise, Chicken Salad Cream Puffs, three recipes for Mint Sauce, and two recipes for Sausage Cheese Balls. Bloody Marys, by the gallon, are here too to get you through the morning-after "hang hang."

We know what Lilly Beth is going to do if she doesn't catch that bouquet. What's somebody who isn't a "lady" to do at a "perfect" Southern wedding? If you're the father of the bride, the authors advise that you "sit up, pay up, and shush up." If you're the groom, try to look presentable. And if you're a guest, go for the "Knock-up Crackers." To make:

Combine ranch dressing, Wesson oil, dill weed, garlic powder, and Tabasco sauce and throw in a box of oyster crackers. Then file under "food for a shotgun wedding." Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hays have, with this advisory: "addictive." 

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