Tag Archives: recipes

A Thanksgiving Dressing


IMG_2069  No Southerner I know stuffs the bird. In my experience we always serve dressing on the side. My Grandmother Harbison made a cornbread dressing and Grandmother Journey served a fancier oyster dressing, still using cornbread as a base. I like both but Mother is partial to a plain cornbread dressing without oysters so her cornbread dressing is what we have for the holidays.

Near Thanksgiving last year I shared memories of my Grandmother Harbison’s kushmagudi, a cornbread and potlikker dish which has become a staple of our cold weather holiday table. During my father’s extended hospital stay, Mother has often mixed up a quick kushmagudi when she gets home from the hospital at night.

As my Grandmother Harbison’s health made it more challenging for her to cook the holiday feasts, Mother began to make her own cornbread dressing from a recipe she found somewhere. It’s a very easy recipe, moist and rich, and even though it wasn’t exactly the same as Grandmother Harbison’s dressing, it got Grandmother Harbison’s seal of approval.

The celery in the cornbread recipe reminds me of another Thanksgiving tradition at my family’s house. In addition to using celery in the dressing, Mother has always put out a dish of raw celery sticks with our turkey. I grew up with raw celery as part of the Thanksgiving meal and never thought it was unusual until people from outside the family informed me that they had never heard of such a thing. Even so, it is a nice complement to turkey and dressing and cranberry sauce. We put celery sticks on our turkey sandwiches on Friday and that is a crunchy and delicious addition to the Thanksgiving leftover tradition too.

Even though circumstances dictate a spartan Thanksgiving this year, I packed Mother’s cornbread dressing recipe just in case I find the time to make it. And remember that a proper cornbread recipe does not include sugar.

Simple Cornbread Dressing

4 cups crumbled cornbread
2-3 slices crumbled white bread
½ cup chopped celery
1 cup chopped onion
2 large eggs
Sage, to taste
¼ teaspoon black pepper
2 cups chicken broth
1 can cream of chicken (or cream of mushroom) soup, undiluted

Combine all ingredients and mix well. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour (or overnight) for flavors to blend. Pour into 2-quart baking dish. Bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes.

Happy Thanksgiving.

A Menu for the End of the Carnival Season

IMG_1134  My attraction to Mardi Gras is directly tied to my attraction to the Gulf Coast. Growing up inland, Mardi Gras always seemed mysterious and somehow “foreign” and like a place I’d rather be. I would see news reports of the activities in New Orleans and Mobile and other celebrations on a smaller scale along the Gulf and they seemed to be in stark contrast to the grey late-winter life around me. I was raised in the Southern Baptist church and we did not observe Ash Wednesday. When I realized the Christian tie-in to the revelry of Mardi Gras and better understood the season that begins on Epiphany and ends precisely at midnight on Shrove Tuesday, that knowledge gave the events of the season even more mystery and appeal.

Age, experience, and knowledge began to de-mystify the events of the carnival season leading up to Mardi Gras and more and more the events began to move farther inland. When I was living and teaching in Indiana in the 90s, I began to throw beads at the end of my Fat Tuesday classes to give myself a sense of connection to my home region. Huntsville, where I live now, had its 2nd annual Mardi Gras parade on Saturday, February 14, but it’s a sad substitute for the real deal on the coast.

I am a bit of a traditionalist and a purist when it comes to the proper way to do things and I bristle a bit at the fact that one can now stand beneath a New Orleans Bourbon Street balcony and be showered with Mardi Gras beads on virtually any night of the year. In my mind, Mardi Gras beads should only be thrown in the season. And then they should be packed away until the following January.

The appeal of tradition and the desire to recapture the mystique of “The Season” on the Gulf Coast of the Deep South is one of the reasons Joe Cain Day, observed in Mobile on the Sunday preceding Fat Tuesday (and the subject of my previous essay), has engaged me.

I hosted my first Joe Cain Day celebration this Sunday, February 15, and it brought some levity to a blustery February afternoon in north Alabama as still another cold front – “the weather of northern aggression” I call it – moved into the area. On the invitations I wrote “Masks and mourning attire optional.” My guests, some of them wearing masks and almost all dressed in some form of black in “mourning” for Joe Cain, enjoyed the respite before the cold and icy work week resumed.

IMG_1128One of my favorite images in New Orleans is that of Mardi Gras beads that never came down to earth during parades and got caught in the live oaks along the parade routes. They hang there throughout the year, gradually fading but always a reminder that the season has gone but will always come back again in January. I look for these stray beads on streetcar rides along St. Charles. With that image in mind, I threw beads from my second story bedroom window on the day before the party and let them catch in the cherry tree in my front yard so that my guests would have that image of beads in the trees upon arrival. (Now I will spend the rest of February retrieving Mardi Gras beads from the cherry tree.)

I designed the menu to reflect regional and seasonal tastes and as usual there was much more food than was needed. I made a lot of the food myself. I purchased other things from favorite vendors. Here’s my menu.

A Joe Cain Day Celebration / February 15, 2015

Boiled Peanuts

Cheese Straws

Breads, Toasts, and Crackers for dipping and spreading


Lobster and Shrimp Salad

Alabama Gulf Shrimp w/cocktail and garlic buttermilk sauces

Hot Seafood Dip w/ shrimp and crabmeat

Mardi Gras Chicken

Chocolate Truffles

Moon Pies

King Cake

Bloody Marys, Hurricane Punch and assorted beverages

The gumbo was ordered from Wintzell’s (www.wintzellsoysterhouse.com), a Mobile-based oyster house and restaurant that makes one of my favorite gumbos. The King Cake, a carnival season standard, came from Paul’s Pastry Shop (www.paulspastry.com) in Picayune, Mississippi. My friends G. Todd and Anita brought a couple of other dishes — a crawfish beignet with a savory sauce and crostini topped with shrimp, red pepper jelly, and sweet potato. The chocolates were from the Chocolate Gallery in Huntsville (www.chocolategalleryal.com).

IMG_1133“Mardi Gras Chicken” was a clear favorite of the day. When I was on the Gulf Coast in December, I was toying with the idea of a Joe Cain Day party. I asked my friends, the Brunsons – who are natives of Mobile, for a dish that their mother, Jean Brunson, would have made for Mardi Gras and Joe Cain Day. The response was unanimous – “Mardi Gras Chicken!” – and a recipe was produced. Mrs. Brunson was the caterer for the First Baptist Church of Mobile for many years and had a sizable repertoire. “Mardi Gras Chicken” is really an adaptation of a chicken tetrazinni recipe but Mrs. Brunson always made it around Mardi Gras and her children still refer to it as “Mardi Gras Chicken.”

I made my own revisions to the recipe and my adaptation of Mrs. Brunson’s adaptation is what I’m offering here. It’s a hit.

Mardi Gras Chicken

1¼ lbs. boiled chicken

1 large pkg. rotelli pasta

1 cup green, red, and yellow peppers, diced

1 medium onion, chopped

6 pieces of celery, diced

6 strips of pimento, chopped

2 cans of cream of mushroom soup

¾ cup of sour cream

1 cup of sharp cheddar cheese, finely grated

4 ozs. almonds, minced

Cook rotelli pasta in chicken broth. Since it will be baked in a casserole, it is best to cook it until it is fairly limp. Drain pasta. Add chicken to pasta (chop chicken into fairly large bites). Add peppers, onion, celery, and pimento. Stir in cream of mushroom soup, sour cream, and ½ cup cheese.

Place mixture in large casserole dish and top with ½ cup cheese and minced almonds. Bake at 350 degrees for I hour.

Happy Mardi Gras!


“I Love You, Alice B. Toklas”

IMG_1114   I bought my first Gertrude Stein book, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, at the late great Smith and Hardwick Bookstore on 20th Street in downtown Birmingham in the ‘70s when I was an undergraduate at Alabama. Smith and Hardwick was one of those amazing bookstores with an outstanding jumble of books on two levels in seeming disarray. It was owned by the Praytor sisters – Virginia and Anna – and by Anna Praytor alone when Virginia died in 1974.

If you were looking for a particular title in the store and couldn’t figure out where it might be in the dusty stacks, one of the Misses Praytor always seemed to know exactly where it was located. Here’s what great locally-owned bookstores were like back then: I was in school in Tuscaloosa and if there was a book I needed I would telephone Miss Anna Praytor in Birmingham. She would mail the book the same day and enclose a handwritten bill and thank you.

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933) was Stein’s own autobiography told in the voice of Toklas, her long-time companion, secretary, cook, confidante, hostess, and handler. Alice B. Toklas (1877-1967) and Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) met on Toklas’s first day in Paris in 1907 and were never apart until Stein’s death thirty-nine years later. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas was a huge hit and led to Stein and Toklas’s triumphant first tour of the U.S. that spanned seven months in 1934 and 1935. Stein captured the experience of the American tour and other events in a 1937 book titled Everybody’s Autobiography. Whatever else Gertrude Stein may have been, she was never modest.

Over the years I have been fascinated with Gertrude Stein and have directed and adapted her plays, delivered papers about her oeuvre and influence, and conducted acting workshops based on the enigmatic short ditties she referred to as “plays.”

And the more I have learned about Stein, the more interested I have become in Toklas and her quirky and ongoing influence. Eugene Walter knew Toklas (of course) in Paris in the ‘50s and “adored [her] because she had this little moustache, and I swear she waxed it.” He says that upon meeting her “Right away you could see cat and monkey” (his two favorite creatures). “She had a logical mind, but she also had the gift of the parenthesis.”

Walter and Toklas exchanged cooking ideas and recipes and it was The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook (1954) that brought Toklas a surge of attention after Stein’s death. The Cookbook is really a fascinating memoir with recipes presented in a witty, earnest, and distinctive voice. In a chapter entitled “Murder in the Kitchen,” Toklas discusses the unpleasant tasks of preparing live animals for the kitchen: “The first victim was a lively carp brought to the kitchen in a covered basket … So quickly to the murder and have it over with.”

As Toklas assesses and deals with the fish she observes:

The carp was dead, killed, assassinated, murdered in the first, second, and third degree. Limp, I fell into a chair, with my hands still unwashed ready for a cigarette, lighted it, and waited for the police to come and take me into custody. After a second cigarette my courage returned and I went to prepare poor Mr Carp for the table.

Later in the same chapter Toklas describes her preparation of “Six white pigeons to be smothered, to be plucked, to be cleaned and all this to be accomplished before Gertrude Stein returned for she didn’t like to see work being done.”

In addition to being very readable, educational, and entertaining, the Cookbook continues to inspire into the 21st Century. A brief passage in Toklas’s chapter entitled “Servants in France” about the hiring of an Indo-Chinese cook named Trac inspired the creation of a beautiful and award-winning 2003 novel, The Book of Salt, by Monique Truong. Truong’s seductive and meditative book explores a fictional Vietnamese cook, Binh, who comes into the Stein-Toklas household.

No doubt the part of the Cookbook which caused the most stir is a recipe for “Haschich Fudge” in a section of the book called “Recipes from Friends.” The marijuana brownie recipe “which anyone could whip up on a rainy day” was given to Toklas by Brion Gysin and is described as “an entertaining refreshment for a Ladies’ Bridge Club or a chapter meeting of the DAR.” The chapter of recipes from friends was inserted to fill the book out and Toklas might have been clueless about what she was presenting with the fudge recipe. Even so, the American publishers left the recipe out of the first American edition but it was included in others and became notorious and sort of a code, especially when the hippie movement of the 1960s took hold.

That recipe is the reason that a fairly insipid and badly dated 1968 Peter Sellers comedy directed by Hy Averback is called I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! Sellers plays “Harold Fine,” a strait-laced attorney who falls in with a group of very stereotypical hippies and is especially enamored of one particular hippie, Nancy, played by Leigh Taylor-Young. Nancy, of course, bakes Alice’s brownie recipe that fuels much of the frolic. The title song, penned by Elmer Bernstein (who was no hippie) and performed by Harpers Bizarre, has the refrain “I love you, Alice B. Toklas / And so does Gertrude Stein.” Other lyrics evoke “Coriander baby elephants singing ‘Silent Night’/ Sweet cinnamon and nutmeg Che Guevara.” (The ladies would be so proud.)

Sly references to Toklas’s fudge recipe had a way of sneaking in to pop culture. In a 1969 episode of the sitcom “Bewitched,” Samantha’s mother Endora is offered a cookie. Endora asks if it’s from an Alice B. Toklas recipe. When she’s told it’s not, Endora says, “… I’ll pass.”

My favorite recipe from the cookbook is “Oeufs Francis Picabia” from the chapter titled “Dishes for Artists.” Here it is:

Break 8 eggs into a bowl and mix them well with a fork, add salt but no pepper. Pour them into a saucepan – yes, a saucepan, no, not a frying pan. Put the saucepan over a very, very low flame, keep turning them with a fork while very slowly adding in very small quantities ½ lb. butter – not a speck less, rather more if you can bring yourself to it. It should take ½ hour to prepare this dish. The eggs of course are not scrambled but with the butter, no substitute admitted, produce a suave consistency that perhaps only gourmets will appreciate.

I am no gourmet, and this recipe is too rich to serve a lot, but I have prepared it and can attest to the fact that it is delicious.

In 1963, needing money, Alice B. Toklas finally got around to writing her own autobiography. It is called What Is Remembered. Even though she outlived Gertrude Stein by over two decades, she chose to end her own life’s story with the death of Gertrude Stein.

A Menu for the New Year

IMG_1101  A couple of decades ago, when I stopped actively celebrating New Year’s Eve, I started cooking a big meal for New Year’s Day and use New Year’s Eve to prep the food.

It’s always a simple menu using the Southern good luck staples that we always had for New Year’s Day growing up – pork, greens, and black-eyed peas. If that’s your basic menu, cornbread is a given. Over time, I realized that such a healthy and hearty meal should be shared and began to invite friends and family over for the meal to celebrate the beginning of a new year.

In recent years it has become “a thing” and my menu constantly evolves while the basics remain the same. Since many of the same people attend regularly, I constantly make notes and look for ways to add new touches and tastes. In 2014, for example, I served baked grits from the recipe used at Frank Stitt’s Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham as a base over which to ladle the black-eyed peas. It was a delicious riff on traditional ingredients.

Around Thanksgiving of 2014 I was talking with a new colleague and friend and holiday plans came up. I asked her if she would be around for New Year’s Day and told her that if she was, she was invited to my house for lunch. She said she would like to come and I told her that it would be nothing fancy, “just the New Year’s staples.”

“Herring?” she asked.

That caught me off-guard. “Well, no, actually,” I said. “I meant pork, black-eyed peas, and turnip greens.”

The conversation ended soon after but I was intrigued and started researching and found that herring is a New Year’s good luck food in Germany, Scandinavia, and some eastern European locations. I resolved then and there to add herring in some form to my New Year’s lunch menu this year.


I decided to serve a herring appetizer. As guests arrived on New Year’s Day, in addition to various pralines, hard candies, and pecans, there was a serving dish with herring in white wine sauce with red onion slivers scattered around. Toasts and crackers were laid out on which to layer the herring. Sour cream was available at the side as a spread for the fish. It was a very tasty and popular appetizer. It may become a new tradition for the meal at my house.

After all the guests arrived and toasts were made, the lunch main menu was pretty standard for Southern homes on New Year’s Day:

Pork Roast with dry rub of coffee, brown sugar, seasoned salt, and orange zest
Seasoned Black-Eyed Peas
Seasoned Mixed Greens

The seasoning for the greens and peas included hog jowl. The ambrosia is adapted from a simple ambrosia from chef Scott Peacock. His elegant classic includes only orange, coconut, sugar, and sherry. Mine uses satsumas from south Alabama for the citrus and adds pecan pieces and cherry slices.

The pork roast dry rub is worth sharing. I had jotted down a recipe from somewhere for a meat dry rub using coffee, granulated sugar, and seasoned salt. I experimented with it until I came up with the one I used on New Year’s Day. All of my guests left the lunch with a jar of this rub and it’s one you can easily make.

Dry Rub for Meat
1 part ground coffee (I used Community Coffee)
1 part brown sugar
1 part seasoned salt
1/2 part orange zest

Put all ingredients into a jar. Seal the lid and shake to mix thoroughly. Rub the meat with a good olive oil and then generously rub the meat with the dry rub.

We were ten at table – seven adults and three young people aged 11 and younger. For dessert, each guest was served a single madeleine and reminded of how Proust’s madeleine was a trigger for memory in Remembrance of Things Past. Whatever…

The adults enjoyed the madeleines and the kids scarfed them down; I doubt that anyone was too concerned about Proust.

It was a lovely meal and a lovely afternoon. A soft rain began as the guests began to leave. As the last guest departed, we had a quick “post-mortem” of the event. “The afternoon was full of laughter,” she said. “That’s what I needed — an afternoon filled with laughter.”

May 2015 be filled with happy laughter.

Food Memory: Mother’s Fresh Apple Cake


IMG_1122  Last night friends invited me over for dinner. As we ate Lake Erie perch, we talked about food – where holiday meals would be eaten, travel plans, restaurant favorites, and New Year’s meals and itineraries.

Food and food memory are key to everybody’s holiday traditions and powerful seasonal associations come from foods around the holidays.

Jean Harbison Journey, my mother, would be the first to tell you that she never cared to be known for her cooking. As a young woman getting married and starting a family in the ‘50s, she – like most women of her generation – was looking for convenience and ways to juggle feeding a family with her busy schedule of work, volunteering, and other activities. She was heavily engaged in P.T.A., church, and community.

Even so, she got meals on the table and there were always favorite meals and special treats that she made. None of her dishes, however, got and gets as much attention as her fresh apple cake. There are many fresh apple cakes out there but Mother’s has to be among the finest I’ve ever tasted – okay, it’s by far the best. She gets just the right combination of firmness and moisture and once somebody has sampled Mother’s cake, they always want more.

The process is a collaboration between Mother and Dad with him chopping the apples and stirring the mixture to Mother’s satisfaction. In years past, I would come to town for Christmas only to find my parents busy in the kitchen with almost a factory line in motion of putting together and baking cakes for the family meals and as Christmas presents for friends. The whole house smells like Christmas on these occasions. Sometimes I would chauffeur as Mother delivered cakes on Christmas Eve.

Oftentimes, people brazenly asked Mother to bring one of her fresh apple cakes. This applied even to doctors’ offices. Mother would have an appointment scheduled and would get a call from the office asking if she might be bringing an apple cake along. She always tried to comply.

Mother and Dad have slowed down and aren’t able to make the volume of fresh apple cakes they used to make but the cake still makes appearances on holidays, birthdays, and special occasions. She occasionally still takes one to the offices of favorite doctors and their staffs when she feels like it.

I have tried to make Mother’s recipe exactly once. The right flavor was there but the texture and form were a mess and I haven’t dared try again, although Mother gave me several pointers about what I might do differently next time. I gather that I should spray my cake pan with Baker’s Joy baking spray and have noted that on my copy of the recipe (if I ever get the courage to try it again). I also suspect that I overworked the batter and should have let it rest longer. I gave the recipe to a friend years ago and she said it took her four tries to get it tasting like Mother’s.

When my brother anchored a television news program, Mother was invited on to demonstrate how to make her fresh apple cake. She performed like someone who had been in front of the camera all her life and was told later that it was one of the most requested recipes at the station.

It is a perfect cake for dessert at any meal and is always a favorite for breakfast. Mother is a teetotaler and I would never dare do it, but I suspect that this would be a great cake to drizzle with a bourbon-based sauce.

As Christmas quickly approaches, I’m sharing Mother’s recipe with my highest recommendation. I’ll tell you up front that even if you follow the recipe to the letter, I doubt that it will match hers. But it will still be delicious and memorable.

Jean Journey’s Fresh Apple Cake

 2 1/2 cups plain flour

 2 cups sugar

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup chopped pecans

1 cup oil

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla flavoring

3 cups apples, chopped (Mother usually uses tart apples)

  1. Combine and mix all dry ingredients.
  2. Add oil, eggs, and vanilla.
  3. Mix well by hand.
  4. Add chopped apples.
  5. Mix well. If dough is stiff, let it stand for a while and mix again.
  6. Pour mixture into a tube pan.
  7. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 350 degrees for 50-60 minutes.


Food Memory: Kushmagudi


IMG_0881     As the cold weather holidays roll in, I look forward to family food traditions. Going into Thanksgiving week and celebrations in Birmingham with my family, food memory kicks in bigtime.

There is a dish called “kushmagudi” (this is my own spelling; there is no official spelling) which is always on the Journey family tables at Thanksgiving and Christmas. It is simple Southern food and its name (and my phonetic spelling) has no precedence that I can find.

My brother wrote a lovely essay about this dish a couple of years ago but since I haven’t been able to retrieve it, I will reintroduce the basics to “Professional Southerner” readers.

My grandmother Eula Harbison used to make kushmagudi and I always assumed that it was a known thing, like salt on watermelon, pepper on cantaloupe, and celery sticks served with turkey. As long as I can remember, kushmagudi was on the holiday table so I would mention it casually and be surprised at the blank stares I received. As I lived and traveled around the country, I realized that nobody outside my immediate family seems to have a clue what “kushmagudi” is.

Many might know some variation of the dish, I think, but not by that name.

Kushmagudi is nothing more than a tasty mixture of crumbled cornbread with the potlikker of turnip greens. I say “nothing more” but I am convinced that one needs a cook’s instinct to pull off the right mix. I have always heard stories about Grandmother feeding the masses of her family and crowds from church at short notice in the ‘30s and ‘40s and having family move into her family home between jobs and houses, during travel, etc. Based on what I know, I realize that Grandmother’s kushmagudi may have been invented as Depression food and a way to make the food in the rural house and garden go farther.

Based on what I know, I am sure that the word “kushmagudi” is Grandmother’s own coinage to name a dish she already knew but reinvented for her immediate and extended families. I have talked with Southerners who know a variation of potlikker and greens but, so far, none outside my own family have referred to it as “kushmagudi.”

After Grandmother died in December 1995, I was asked if I would make the kushmagudi for Christmas. I will admit that I was daunted. I had eaten it all of my life but I had never thought about it.

I relaxed and thought about the dish. I realized that it is a basic and instinctual recipe and that if one understands its components one should be able to make it in a satisfactory manner.

Here’s my basic recipe for my grandmother’s kushmagudi:

Eula McCarn Harbison’s Kushmagudi

  1. Make 1-2 cakes of cornbread or use leftover cornbread if you have it (remember that sugar is never acceptable in cornbread).
  2. Boil up a pot of turnip greens with your favorite spices and seasonings.
  3. Bring the greens to a boil and simmer on low for at least a half hour.
  4. In a large mixing bowl, crumble 1-1½ of the cakes of cornbread.
  5. Ladle the potlikker of the greens over the crumbled cornbread in the mixing bowl and mix to your preferred consistency and taste.
  6. Let the mixture meld for a while, keep it warm, and serve it.

I like to mix some collard greens with my turnip greens to vary the flavor of the potlikker a bit. Grandmother tended to use less spices in her greens than I do; she used salt and pepper. I like to add a little pepper sauce, sage, bacon fat, garlic powder, thyme, and other seasonings to the greens before I strain them into the cornbread. I also might add a small dash of sugar to the greens (but never to the cornbread). I also like to mix more of the actual greens into the mix. Grandmother generally just used the potlikker and served the seasoned turnip greens as a separate side dish.

This is truly a recipe that may be adapted to your and your family’s preference.

A bowl of kushmagudi with a glass of buttermilk is a perfect meal on a chilly night in late fall or winter.

Even though kushmagudi is cornbread-based, it is different enough that my family serves it alongside Mother’s traditional cornbread dressing. I think one must sprinkle pepper sauce over a good kushmagudi at table. This is a dish that is always on my family’s table at Thanksgiving and Christmas and is often a side at my New Year’s Day luncheon.

If you have a variation of this dish, or a variant name, I would love to hear from you. If you’ve never tried it, you ought to. It’s easy and tasty.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Food Memory: Turnip Green Soup

IMG_0769  When I was growing up I didn’t think much about turnip greens because they were ubiquitous. They’d be served at home regularly, most restaurants had them on the menu, and any “meat and three” joint or cafeteria would serve them. As long as there was a bottle of pepper sauce – hot peppers in vinegar – on the table to sprinkle over them I was good.

Turnip greens were one of the many Southern staples that I didn’t much think about or miss until I began to travel and lived in places where they were hard to get or completely unavailable. That’s when I began to pay more attention to them. I began to grab them fresh when I could find them. I questioned older Southern cooks about how to prepare them.

I also began to experiment with collard greens which were generally less served in my own native environs. I enjoy cooking collard and turnip greens together; turnip greens have a bit more of a bite and the collard greens pull that down a notch. I even began to play around with the actual turnips, which were rarely served on Southern menus. I occasionally make a creamed turnip puree which is good to spread on bread or use as a dipping sauce with a plate of crudités.

Several years ago my mother, knowing my appreciation of greens prepared well, mailed to me a recipe for “turnip green soup” that she had cut out of the newspaper. I have a rule that I never tamper with a recipe until I have prepared it as written at least once. After that, I can start playing around.

I thought the “turnip green soup” would be a recipe that I messed with because it used frozen turnip greens and some canned ingredients. I would make it their way and then see how I might improve it with fresh ingredients. But here’s what happened: It was so delicious as written that I wasn’t sure I wanted to mess around with it.

I did tamper with it a bit though, and have made substitutions when I was missing an ingredient in the pantry. When fall weather and football season roll around, it’s a great quick meal to prepare. I cook a large batch of it in a cast iron dutch oven, transfer it to containers in the refrigerator, and eat on it for a few days. You must have cornbread with it and I sometimes just make a cake of cornbread but I prefer to make corn sticks as the accompaniment so that I can just dip the corn stick in the soup.

I often serve turnip green soup as a starter course to my New Year’s Day luncheon. A few years ago, when my sister-in-law ran her first half marathon in Huntsville, I prepared a pot of it for lunch after the run and found that it was the perfect post-run comfort food. Friends from Ohio have transferred it up North and I hear it “has legs” along Lake Erie.

I am teaching a Saturday morning class this fall and there are hours of college football to watch when I get home from class. When I left class around 11:00 this Saturday morning, I ran by the store to pick up some ingredients, came home, made a batch of turnip green soup and corn sticks, and had a hearty meal before my main game aired at 2:30.

Here’s the recipe for turnip green soup as I usually make it. It is a forgiving recipe, open to substitutions or deletions depending on taste. It can easily be a vegetarian dish if one is so inclined.


2 packages (about 24 ounces) frozen turnip greens with diced turnips

1 package Knorr vegetable mix (from the soup section)

1 can (about 15 ounces) northern beans

1 can (about 15 ounces) navy beans

1 small onion, chopped

5 cups chicken broth

1 pound smoked sausage, sliced thin (I use Conecuh smoked sausage from south Alabama)

1 teaspoon hot sauce (I use more)

1 teaspoon garlic powder

Salt and pepper to taste

Tony Chachere’s Original Creole Seasoning to taste

Combine all ingredients in a soup pot. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer. Cook until sausage is done. Serve with corn bread, corn muffins, or corn sticks.

Food Memory: Cheese Straws

IMG_0760 In every community in the South – church, club, work, neighborhood – there seems to be the one lady who is famous for her cheese straws. Neither of my grandmothers made cheese straws, nor does my mother. But I have always known about them and associated them with significant occasions – parties, weddings, wakes – and in every Southern community it seemed that there was always a lady – always a woman – who was celebrated for her cheese straws.

When I worked at Alabama Shakespeare Festival, that lady was Mrs. Betty Campbell, a theatre supporter and erstwhile ASF board member.

A member of that theatre company knew that he had truly arrived and been accepted into the fold when Mrs. Betty Campbell graced him with a tightly wrapped little package of cheese straws tucked into his box at the theatre. After I had been at the theatre for about a year, I was delighted to find a package of Mrs. Betty Campbell’s cheese straws placed neatly in the center of my desk when I returned from lunch one afternoon. The golden baked morsels lived up to their reputation and were worth the wait. And they were consumed quickly.

But that was the only time Mrs. Betty Campbell ever honored me with cheese straws. I waited patiently, but a second offering never materialized. This nagged me for a while and then, one Sunday morning in the New York Times magazine, I ran across an article, “Eat the Rich Stuff,” by Julia Reed, a Mississippi native. In the piece she remembers tastes of her own childhood and how they inform her adult Christmases. The article is wonderful but the real revelation is the fact that at the end of the article Reed shares her favorite holiday recipes, including one for cheese straws.

I read the recipe carefully and realized I can do that. Why I thought have I spent my life at the mercy of old ladies with cookie presses to get my cheese straw fix when all I have to do is buy some basic ingredients and a cookie press (whatever that is) and I can have my own fresh homemade cheese straws whenever I get the urge?

I went shopping for a cookie press at a local kitchen supply place, but first I had to figure out what it was. I approached a customer who sort of looked like she might be a Junior Leaguer. She would know. “Excuse me,” I said, “where might I find a cookie press?”

She eyed me. “You’re going to make cheese straws, aren’t you?” she said.

“I plan to try.”

She took me straight to a shelf of cookie presses and pointed out her favorite, an Italian model. She wished me luck and went on her way. I left the store with a sparkling new cookie press and a resolve to become the first man, to my knowledge, to make cheese straws.

The first batch turned out well. I began to add my own touches to the recipe, share the results with family and friends, and get accustomed to the process. One of the first things I learned was that all of those old ladies were strong. It was a workout of the wrist and arms to squeeze those straws out of the tiny opening of the cookie press and onto a baking sheet.

The first true test of my cheese straw mastery came on a visit to Greensboro, Alabama, a small town in Hale County. I went down for a quick visit to see my friend Randall and decided to take a bag of freshly baked cheese straws to him and his mother. When I presented them, both were surprised that I had baked them. Some friends – Greensboro ladies that I had known over the years – had been invited over for afternoon tea.

When we were seated, Randall set out a plate of my cheese straws. I tensed a little, knowing that I was among a group of Southern cooks who knew their way around cheese straws.

“These are delicious. Where did you get them?”

“Eddie made them,” Randall said. I was among people who had known me so long that I was still “Eddie” to them.

There were looks of disbelief and then astonishment.

Finally, someone said, “Well, they’re delicious and it’s obvious you used real butter. That’s essential.”

I assured them that real butter had indeed been used and then found myself comparing cheese straw recipes with the ladies. I was happy I had passed the ultimate test of the cheese straws and was validated in the belief that I could serve and present cheese straws with confidence.

Later, I remember thinking Is this what my life has become? Sitting around comparing cheese straw recipes with a bunch of ladies older than my mother?

Oh well. I can think of worse fates.

I continue to bake cheese straws for special people and special occasions and continue to enjoy the surprised gasps when I reveal that these straws were made by a man. I haven’t baked any in almost a year but when the temperatures begin to drop and the air gets crisp the urge to buy some fine cheddar and make up a batch begins to twitch. This time of year a few cheese straws with fresh figs (or fig preserves), a glass of sherry, or a cup of warm tea hit the spot.

Here’s my recipe. It is adapted from the recipe in Julia Reed’s 2001 New York Times piece which was in turn adapted from a cookbook called Southern Sideboards Cookbook by Winifred Cheney. Over time, I have made my own revisions, and that is what I’m sharing with you.


1 stick (8 tablespoons) of softened unsalted butter

8 ounces finely grated extra-sharp cheddar cheese (I like to mix white and yellow cheddar)

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper (I like my straws hot)

1½ cups plus 1 tablespoon sifted flour

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix the butter with the cheese and seasonings in a large bowl. Add the flour and knead into a smooth dough.
  2. Pack the dough in batches in a cookie press and press through the round-ridged opening onto an ungreased cookie sheet to form “straws.” 2½-3 inches are good, but I just squeeze until it seems long enough or stops on its own.
  3. Bake until golden and crisp, usually about 12 minutes in my oven. Remove from the cookie sheet with a metal spatula, cool, and store in an airtight container.

The straws break easily but that doesn’t affect the taste, does it? Also, depending on temperature and humidity, I sometimes sprinkle a little water on the dough in the press so that it comes out more easily.

Oh yeah – if you make these and people love them, mention my name.