Flavor First: Martha Hall Foose's Southern Cuisine

Martha Hall Foose’s Southern hospitality feeds an appetite for great food and compelling tales.

| April/May 2009

  • Ben Fink

  • Andrew Lamb

• 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.

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