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Flavor First: Martha Hall Foose's Southern Cuisine

Martha Hall Foose’s Southern hospitality feeds an appetite for great food and compelling tales.
By Linda Shockley
April/May 2009
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• Where to find Screen Doors and Sweet Tea: Recipes and Tales from a Southern Cook by Martha Hall Foose (Clarkson Potter, 2008) is available at your local bookstore and at www.amazon.com.

• Apricot Rice Salad 

Much like a dinner party where pleasure is measured as much by the company as by the platters on the table, Martha Hall Foose’s Screen Doors and Sweet Tea: Recipes and Tales from a Southern Cook (Clarkson Potter, 2008) offers a combination of wonderful tales about family and friends alongside recipes inspired by those beloved people and places of the South.

The Herb Companion: Pat Conroy wrote, “a recipe is just a story with a good meal at the end.” Your book offers proof of this through your narratives for each recipe. Were your selections driven solely on the flavors or did the narratives play a role, too?

Martha Hall Foose: They were chosen based on a combination of narratives and flavors. Apricot Rice Salad is a tribute to Mrs. Ethel Wright Mohamed, a dear friend and master of embroidery—some of her work is in the Smithsonian’s permanent collection. I used rice to remind me of her stitches. The colors reflect the pictures she embroidered, and the Middle Eastern spices remind me of her relationship with her husband, who was Syrian.

Others are more about place; the Refuge Crawfish Pie, named after the Refuge Plantation, is what you cook when the fish aren’t biting. Others are sendups of classics, like the Inside-out Sweet Potatoes, which should be sponsored by Lipitor.

HC: What’s the recipe for a great Southern meal? Can Yankees pull it off or must they settle for delivery and take-out?

MHF: A perfect Southern meal means such different things for people, but it’s always a seasonal thing. A great Southern meal in the wintertime can be a big pot of chicken thighs and dumplings. In summer, a big Sunday afternoon meal might be fried chicken, four kinds of squash casserole and the whole shebang, followed up with a bevy of desserts.

People today tend to think that Southerners eat the same as we did in 1942, but one of my favorite meals is grilled catfish, steamed vegetables and rice. I can always get my 5-year-old at the table for this without any cajoling or bribery.

HC: Do you have a garden?

MHF: The book tour took me away from my garden for a year but our neighbor Olga Henderson kept us in vegetables. My husband also sells his bread at the farmer’s market and there’s lots of bartering there for purple pole beans, watermelons and cucumbers. We’re tomato-holics; we love sliced tomatoes with almost any herb on them, so we never have enough tomatoes. I’m all for the heirloom tomatoes, but you have to plant plenty of the big Best Boys and Beefsteaks that are built for tomato sandwich-eating.

The herbs were the only plants that thrived in my absence. I’m big on the old trick of freezing herbs in stock in ice cube trays (see Herb Cubes below). I love going to my freezer in the dead of winter to pull out some of my tomato soup, and then I’ll add a cube of herbs from my garden. My tomato soup recipe is in the book. I make batches in the summer, freeze it and then toss in a cube of those herbs for a warm, fresh taste of summer.

This “local eating” movement is kind of funny as that’s what we’ve always eaten. Here, as in many small towns, it’s almost 30 miles round-trip to the grocery store. So if you want something, you either need to grow it yourself or be real sweet to the neighbor who’s growing it because we don’t have the luxury of running to the grocery store.

HC: Describe the role that herbs play in your cooking.

MHF: Using herbs in cooking is such a wonderful way to express your heritage and family traditions. The Mississippi Delta is like an extension of a port city that gets stretched out into lots of small communities with wonderful ethnic cooking. For example, thyme is such a staple in Southern, Creole and Cajun cooking along the Delta. And who knew my Mexican neighbor was growing lots of sorrel because she’s a sorrel soup fan? (For more about sorrel, view Herb to Know: Sorrel.)

You can make a great dish without herbs yet you know something’s missing. Sometimes it’s just that “green” flavor that you miss until you add the herbs to the soup you’ve been cooking all day. We eat a lot of tabbouleh, which calls for purslane, something you don’t see everywhere. It’s the best for authenticity and texture, but watercress will also change it up a bit and work well.
Dill is versatile and transforming. It’s perfect on baby red new potatoes, or on any fish that’s least expensive that day at the market, and it’s great to finish off a carrot soup. And, Southerners use quite a bit of mint, from iced tea to tabbouleh and pineapple sherbet. (Find our mint tea recipe in our feature on growing and cooking with mint.)

HC: Can you describe a dish that is transformed by adding a single herb?

MHF: I love my Sweet Potato Dumplings with Browned Butter and Sage. After you make the dumplings and sear them in a pan in browned butter, you add fresh chopped sage. Without the sage, it’s good; adding the sage elevates the lowly sweet potato that gets trotted out at Christmastime and Thanksgiving.

It’s the same with fresh pimiento cheese. You add fresh sage and it’s like putting on its party clothes.

I also love the way herbs are creeping onto the dessert menu, including lemon and thyme sorbet, and a strawberry and fresh mint sherbet. It’s a widening world of flavors.

HC: Tell us about your most memorable meal.

MHF: For the experience of sharing a meal, I’d say it was the Christmas the electricity went out at the farm. That was really funny. I have a dual-fuel oven so I could cook on the top gas burners. My cousin across the road had an all-gas stove so we also cooked at their house. It was an unintentionally progressive meal.

HC: Which meal do you love to prepare for friends and family?

MHF: If there’s a party at the farm, I’m all for a big pot of something simmering on the stove. Around February, it will be Duck and Sausage Gumbo. If it’s a big sit-down dinner and there’s a celebration of sorts, I really love Venison Roast covered with rosemary and gingersnaps, served with rutabagas, parsnips and all the root vegetables.

WEB EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW QUESTIONS

HC: The title of your new book Screen Doors and Sweet Tea is so evocative of the South. We know there are lots of great storytellers in the South. Is Southern hospitality real, or just another tale from below the Mason-Dixon line?

MHF: Well, any good Southerner would go to the grave insisting that it’s genetic or maybe something in the water. I’ve lived in larger cities, including Los Angeles, so it’s important to remember that many small Southern towns, like the one I live in now, don’t have movie theaters. We don’t have entertainment thrust at us all the time, so we tend to entertain ourselves.
I have to mention, though, that in traveling around the country for my book tour, people have been so lovely everywhere. But for Southerners, it may just be in our blood.

HC: What’s your favorite herb?

MHF: This is as hard as asking which is my favorite child or which is the cutest puppy in the litter. Hmm … if forced to pick one, I’ll say thyme, but only fresh thyme, not dried thyme.

Herb Tip: Herb Cubes

Everyone has used a handful of herbs, only to let the leftovers die a week later in the crisper drawer. Martha Hall Foose offers this tip for saving herbs for a blast of flavor in the dead of winter.

Fill ice cube trays with assorted leftover bits of herbs and top off with vegetable broth or water. When frozen, remove and place cubes in a resealable food storage bag. Use as needed through the winter to stir into soups, sauces or whatever you like for a bit of fresh herbal flare.

Linda Shockley is a New York-based writer who waits impatiently each spring at the Union Square Farmer’s Market to purchase the basil, lemon balm, rosemary, geraniums and sweet alyssum that fill her window boxes each summer.


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