Tag Archives: Catherine and Mary's

Following Simple Directions

The first time I remember baking anything, I was in my 30s already and my Grandmother Harbison’s hip had broken while she was taking cornbread out of the oven. After following the ambulance to the hospital and meeting my parents there to get Grandmother ensconced in a room, Grandmother was worried about what Granddaddy Harbison was going to eat while she was hospitalized. As far back as I knew my Harbison grandparents, Grandmother always took care of the cooking and the inside of the house and Granddaddy, who had an impressive green thumb, took care of the yard and the outdoors.

He didn’t cook. And, back then, with very few exceptions, neither did I.

But this was an emergency so I went back to my grandparents’ house and pondered what to do. There was a pot of Grandmother’s homemade vegetable soup already simmering on the stove and Granddaddy assured me that as long as he had cornbread and buttermilk in the house, he could make do for himself for a while. There was buttermilk in the refrigerator and, since grandmother’s cornbread had been ruined in her fall, I said I’d make a cake of cornbread.

I had no idea what I was doing. I pulled out the cornmeal and was relieved to see a recipe for cornbread on the package. I followed the directions carefully and was amazed and relieved when the final product actually looked and tasted like cornbread. Granddaddy declared that it was good.

I have been making cornbread ever since and have amended that original recipe over the years. Here’s the thing, though: I still have to follow the recipe to make a decent cornbread. As long as a recipe is available, why bother to memorize?

Over the years, I have gotten more comfortable in the kitchen. As a lifelong bachelor, that is a necessity. I vowed never to become like one of my bachelor professors at Alabama who never cooked, but was at Morrison’s Cafeteria every day at 5:30 p.m. to take his meal. He died not long after that Morrison’s on University Boulevard shut down; I worried that his fatal illness may have been triggered by food deprivation.

My grandmother, Eula Harbison, was a natural magician in the kitchen. She came from the era in which relatives might arrive for long stays and, later, company might happen to drop by for an unannounced visit, especially on a Sunday afternoon. She always had food warming in the oven and a cake on hand to offer her guests with a cup of percolator coffee. She made a variety of cakes, but my favorites were always the most simple and unadorned. On some occasions, she would apply a sugary glaze to these basic cakes, but as often as not there was no glaze. Her hospitality always seemed humble and effortless; she was a superb host.

This comes to mind tonight because I just made an olive oil cake and, even though olive oil cake was not part of Grandmother’s repertoire, it reminds me a lot of the kinds of cakes she would always have on hand.

An olive oil cake is a traditional Italian cake that substitutes oil for butter. It can be amended and embellished in any number of ways. It’s a common cake, but when I mention it to people, most are not aware of it.

I was aware of it, but I never recall tasting it. That changed in March when I was on a business trip in Memphis and having dinner with friends. The dessert menu at Catherine and Mary’s, an Italian-influenced Southern restaurant not far from Beale Street, listed an olive oil cake.
The cake was moist and flaky with a frothy cream and drizzle of sauce. It was the perfect way to top off a rich meal. I got back to Birmingham and vowed to experiment with olive oil cake recipes. No experimentation was necessary; it’s a straightforward and simple cake that has turned out moist and delicious each time I have made it by following simple directions. In fact, I was just asked to make one for an anniversary gift. With that success under my belt, I already am planning ways that I can adorn the cake for special occasions in the future. I am not confident as a baker, so olive oil cake may be my gateway into more adventurous baking.

I don’t live a “company dropping by” sort of existence, but I would be proud to offer a slice of olive oil cake to company that might call in the future.

Here’s the recipe I’m using:

Classic Olive Oil Cake

Swan Song with Ducks: A Memphis Journal

Thursday: It has been said that the Mississippi Delta “begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg.” In our current moment, there are people who will quibble, perhaps, with a statement like that, but I like the romance, even though there is apparently no “Catfish Row” in Vicksburg.

So, after a challenging Wednesday night trying to get a meal and service at the conference hotel in Memphis for the Southeastern Theatre Conference (SETC) convention, I decided on Thursday to walk down to the Peabody Hotel where I knew I would have a quiet, dignified meal and start my trip anew.

It worked, and after spending some time in the Peabody lobby with the ducks swimming around the fountain, I was ready to give Memphis a fresh start (www.peabodymemphis.com).

I attended my first SETC in Tampa in 1985 and that convention, too, had a rocky start but I kept coming back and, with a few gaps here and there, I have attended most conventions ever since. In the past few years, I have mostly been coming for editorial board meetings for Southern Theatre magazine. My second term on the editorial board ends this year.

This will be my last SETC. I hope to make it memorable.

Friday: I attended a morning performance by Colonial Williamsburg’s Museum Theatre (www.colonialwilliamsburg.org). I had met the director, Katrinah Carol Lewis, on my first day in Memphis. She educated me on the theatre program at Colonial Williamsburg, which includes much beyond the reenactors. The show, “Sentiments of American Women,” takes a look at and says the names of women who lived in and around Williamsburg in the period of the Revolution. The show gives voice to lesser-heard and never-heard women of the era. We meet enslaved women, indentured servants, and privileged women. In an extended tea party scene, the three actors explore eighteenth century norms, spotlighted by the questions and concerns of a 21st century woman. After the curtain call, the cast invited the audience to join them in saying the names of women in our lives who influenced, inspired, and shaped us. The performance space echoed with women’s names. One voice said, simply, “my mother”; the room collectively sighed in agreement.

Later, I met friends for lunch at Charlie Vergo’s Rendezvous(www.hogsfly.com), still my favorite spot to get ribs in a city that prides itself on its barbecue. The Rendezvous, situated in a basement space in an alley, seems to go on forever from one dining room to another with seventy-plus years of mementos on the wall. The dry-rub barbecue, its specialty, is a dish my mother still vividly recalls years after she first tasted it.

Since the Rendezvous alley is directly across the street from the Peabody, my friends and I went over to duck-watch in the hotel’s elegant lobby. There was plenty of people-watching, too.

I find that in my travels lately, I tend to explore less and go to places that provide sanctuary and familiarity. I’ve seen most of what there is to see in Memphis on previous visits and felt little need to explore further on this trip. I passed Graceland back when Elvis was still alive and that is as much of Graceland as I need to see. The Rendezvous and The Peabody, however, are always dependable places of refuge and I tend to return whenever I’m in the area.

As we left the Peabody, clouds were gathering. The big winter storm that was forecast was arriving right on schedule. At 6:00 on Friday evening, snow began to not so much “fall” as “blow” wildly across the sky.

I’m not big on reunions, but a professor from the University of Alabama, my alma mater, had mentioned a gathering of Alabama students, alumni, and faculty – past and present – to be held a couple of blocks from the hotel that night, just as the storm peaked.

The Main Street trolley was my primary mode of transportation on this trip and, when it was time to head down to Westy’s for the gathering, the trolley had temporarily stopped due to icing on the tracks. The snow was still coming and had quickly covered the ground, but the fierce wind was dying down a bit and I tightened my scarf, buttoned up my jacket, secured my hood, and headed down.

Westy’s, a divey place in the “Pinch District,” close to the Pyramid, seems to be a stalwart of that north Memphis area (www.westysmemphis.com). When I was in school at Alabama, attending theatre cast parties, my rule was “When they start playing show tunes, I’m out.” Westy’s is a place where I’m pretty sure show tunes have never been played.

I’m glad I braved a Southern blizzard to attend the event. In addition to some of my professors and friends from Tuscaloosa days whom I hoped would be there, there were other Tuscaloosa friends and colleagues that I wasn’t expecting to see. I didn’t stay long, but I was happy to have braved the weather. And happy that I had checked the weather forecasts before I packed.

By the time I left, the short-lived blizzard had subsided, leaving bluster and frigid temperatures in its wake, and the trolleys back on schedule.

Saturday: Most of the snow was gone by morning, leaving ice and sludge in its wake. I had a pleasant breakfast with the professor who has taken my place at my former employer, said some good-byes to old friends, and took a trolley ride to the south end of the line and back.

I have “done Beale Street” in the past, and had no big desire to dodge the crowds on this trip. However, I did jump off the trolley long enough to pay homage at the W.C. Handy statue on Beale Street. Handy, a Florence, Alabama, native, secured his reputation as “Father of the Blues” while living in Memphis. I feel a connection since he and I both taught at the same Alabama college – Handy in the early 1900s and I a century later. When in Memphis, I feel a certain responsibility to commiserate with him over our shared history.

It has been a long-standing SETC tradition to have dinner at a nice local restaurant with old friends on the final night of the convention. We are usually a group of five, but the conditions of the 2020s reduced our group to three this year. Somewhere along the way, I was designated as the person who chooses the restaurant for this soiree – a responsibility I take very seriously.

Outside of barbecue, I don’t know a lot about Memphis restaurants, so I spent a lot of time researching, along with some welcome consultation with food writer John T. Edge, who lives in Oxford, Mississippi, not far from Memphis.

I changed my mind several times along the way, but came up with a winner. Catherine and Mary’s is part of the restaurant group of Memphis chefs Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman. with Trey Williams as chef de cuisine (www.catherineandmarys.com). The fare is billed as “grandmother cooking, Italian philosophy of dining, and southern ingredients.” The ambience was perfect, the wait staff was exceptional, the menu has something to appeal to every taste, and the food is outstanding. My friends had pasta dishes and I – trying to stick with my resolution to eat mostly fish as my protein – had a perfectly prepared halibut entrée and, for dessert, a memorable olive oil cake. Janet and Russell, my friends, ordered a round of our traditional SETC closer, Brandy Alexander, and we toasted the friends who weren’t with us this year.

Sunday: Time to leave my final SETC. Whenever I’m in a river town, I want to spend time on the river. While my hotel was just off the river, any view of it was thwarted by the façade of the convention center. I have been to the Mississippi River in Memphis in the past, but I never quite seemed to get there on this trip. I vowed to change that before I drove home.

After checking out of the hotel, I drove along the riverfront and eventually landed at a spot with the foreboding name of Martyrs Park. It’s a place of reflection, memorializing over 5,000 Memphians who remained in the city to help and lost their lives during an 1878 yellow fever epidemic. It was an isolated and perfect spot for calm meditation on the storied river.

It was time to head home.