I am such a geeky nerd. Or is it a nerdy geek? I’m not sure, but It’s whatever you are when the communications department chairman at the university where you somehow were asked to teach a media-writing class cleans out his office and leaves a big box of used books in the lobby with a “Free to good homes” sign and it’s like a mega sale at T.J. Maxx — you are THAT excited. So you pull the box over to a nearby chair and ignore the student chatter around you and delve into the treasures: “Ethics in Media Communications”! “Communicating for Results — A Guide for Business and the Professions”! “Media Flight Plan III”! Was there ever a greater collection of (used and possibly outdated) media textbooks? Strangely, I seemed to have been the only person interested in this unexpected bounty, and the department chairman walked by and whispered approvingly that I could ignore the two-to-a-customer posted limit. I cannot wait to browse through these and revel in the grownup luxury of getting to read textbooks without having to study them — and that right there, I believe, is what marks me as a nerd. And THEN, to make this day even better, my newspaper-editor husband brought home a couple of Junior League cookbooks from the food editor’s giveaway stash. Both were published in 1977, when only single women got to use their real names and everybody else got to hide behind their husbands’. The golf-themed cookbook from Augusta, Ga., is in green, of course, and features adorable golf illustrations. The hardback cookbook from Nashville is rather more posh — as Nashville believes it is — and starts with a formal-dinner menu that starts with caviar soup, which I don’t think I’ll be making but it sure is fun reading about.
Anytime husband John Pitts and I are 1) together and 2) close to Oxford, Miss. and 3) it’s anywhere close to eating time, we celebrate by heading to the downtown square for some of the best food in the state … or anywhere. And the thing is, you can’t take a wrong step once you’re there. Oxford has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to places to eat. Take our newest favorite — Ajax Diner. This is real down-home cooking paired with a good beer selection, as if your Southern grandma cooked Sunday dinner at the local bar and invited the whole town. Best bets here are macaroni and cheese, sweet potato casserole and burgers. I decided to ignore the “List of Approved Foods for Patients with Malfunctioning Gall Bladders” my doctor gave me, and I went for the fried oyster salad (although in deference to The List, I didn’t eat all the cheese). But a better list is “Things We’re Going To Try the Next Time We Go To Ajax:” Black-bean chili with local ground beef, homemade pimiento cheese in a grilled quesadilla and the blackeyed-pea and catfish cakes. And maybe fellow Ajax fan Eli Manning will be there.
You know how you’ll go by the same restaurant every so often and it seems really intriguing and you think, “We really should eat there some day.”? After the twenty-third time or so that my husband and I were in Murfreesboro, Tenn., and walked by the Maple Street Grill, downtown on the square, we finally decided to go in and, you know, eat. Turns out that Maple Street is a popular local gathering spot for lunch and dinner as well as drinks and tapas at night in the upstairs bar, Maple Street Uncorked. And no wonder. The interior space has that urban-cool feel of downtown renewal without being pretentious about it — it’s cozy, comfortable and Southern elegant all at the same time. The lunch menu was enticing — a grilled portabella sandwich, pan-seared tuna, fish taco and turkey and apple sandwich all sounded yummy. (Not to mention the Fried Hershey Bar. Since I’ve been banned from deep-frying sugary objects at home since our leftover Valentine’s candy debacle, I have to take advantage of anytime I can snag a warm & melty fried delight.) Dinner featured steak, chicken and pasta entrees, while the Uncorked menu included tapas choices such as a hummus flight and a cheese board along with I-really-want-to-try-that drinks — Cucumber Rain, made of Rain Organic Cucumber Lime Vodka with sweet-and-sour mix and ginger ale, seemed especially to be calling my name. Extra points to Maple Street, too, for online ordering and a smart-phone app. We’ll be back.
I think we all know there are two kinds of people: Those who start making their Thanksgiving dressing by tearing up pieces of white bread and those who start by whipping up a couple of pans of cornbread. And although husband JP and I generally are in sync with almost all of our opinions — except, of course, the eternal questions of politics, the Clintons and whether or not Sarah Jessica Parker is “hot” (I just don’t see it) — we each are pretty adamant in our position when it comes to white bread versus cornbread in Thanksgiving dressing. And neither of us is budging. When I tell you that I come from Yankee stock since my mother’s family was from Illinois and my dad’s from Pennsylvania and that my husband’s family is full of Southerners from way back , you probably can guess which side of the bread basket we each claim. Read more in the food story I wrote for the TimesDaily. But whatever sort of bread/cranberry sauce/pie/potatoes/vegetables (just not lima beans, please), hope your dinner is yummy and you eat it with people you love.
When I was little, I hated vegetables. Hated them. Avoided them at any price. Would not eat them unless I was forced to, which generally was in the form of having to stay at the supper table until I cleaned my plate. And we all know how wonderfully delicious cold lima beans are. (Parents!) But now? As a card-carrying adult — and that’s an AARP card — I adore fresh vegetables and eat them any chance I get. Luckily, folks dear to my heart are skilled vegetable cooks so I get to enjoy the fruits of their labors. Such as Older Daughter, who replanted her vegetable and herb garden after the April 27 tornado near Huntsville, Alabama, pretty much flattened it. Today, less than three months later, it’s thriving and healthy and all she has to do is walk across her back yard to get makings for the lightest and most flavorful vegetable & pasta dish ever. I’m not a big fan of pasta — although I love the way Nigella Lawson says it: “Past-ah.” — but I asked for seconds of this. It was that good. And then my friend Evelyn made a yummy summer feast that starred a cool and refreshing watermelon salad along with lightly cooked and delicious yellow squash. Now, what’s for dessert?
Think fried. Think crunchy. Now think onions. Doesn’t that sound as if it would be a lovely combination — sort of like fried onion rings without all that pesky finger-licking grease? That’s what I first thought when I spied these “Onion Chips” at the Fresh Market in Huntsville, Alabama, recently: “Chips made out of onions! Genius! Why didn’t someone think of this sooner?” But the answer to that question was clear after one bite: No one had done this before because it’s a horrible idea. At least this version is. You know how when you accidentally eat some of the inedible onion skin and it literally tastes like paper — paper that tastes really really bad? Imagine that in crispy form and you’ve got these onion chips. Yuck. It’s sad that somehow the concept of fried onions got messed up so badly. I couldn’t even think of anything to do with them after everybody I forced to taste them politely declined to have any more. I mean, there’s your sign, right there. I’d thought about grinding them up for breading crumbs or salad add-ons or something creative like that, but these don’t even deserve a second life.
So to offset such food awfullness, go out and buy/borrow/read/look at/check out Martha Foose’s new cookbook, “A Southerly Course.” Martha is a Mississippi native and personifies the best of the Magnolia State — open-hearted, generous, adept at storytelling, skilled in the kitchen and wrapping it all up with a wry sense of humor and an appreciation of all the cultures and heritages that make up today’s South. And the recipes are absolutely wonderful: Bacon Crackers. Sugarcane Sweet Potatoes. Honey Pear Salad. Pickled Crawfish Tails. Summertime Spaghetti Squash. Peach Shortcake. Dandelion Cracklings. And the photos! Gorgeous food close-ups using heirloom china and vintage linens combined with hometown shots of the Foose folks — Martha even reveals her messy refrigerator door — make this cookbook seem both a food-feast and a friend’s scrapbook. But “A Southerly Course” is more than a collection of user-friendly yummy recipes. Martha knows that the soul of good cooking is the love that goes into every spoonful — the sharing of good times with family and friends, the sharing of laughter around the table, the sharing of priceless memories with those you care about. Now, that is Southern cooking, Mississippi-style.