There are times in a writer’s life when she just feels thankful for the richness around her, when the story comes spilling out in colors, smells, and good vibes. And all this without the pen even hitting the page, yet. I had one of these moments last spring when I had the blessing of connecting with Martha Hall Foose on the telephone, while she was grocery shopping, in fact. I was in the process of reviewing her latest addition A Southerly Course and decided to sit down in my rocker for a tad more personal touch, a hope to be more rooted. What I got was a lively exchange and, alright it was a little daydreamy on my part but, the feeling of sitting on a wide, wrap-around porch in the deep South, accompanied by a clinking ice-filled glass of lemonade and chat with someone who spoke to my city girl/country heart self. She was every bit charming and had an ample supply of Mississippi warmth. Here’s a taste of that spring day (revisited)…
I am very interested in Ms. Hall Foose’s process of creatively spinning story and food and how organic her technique is. She assures me that her first endeavor was Screen Doors and Sweet Tea: Recipes and Tales from a Southern Cook and that before that she had never “written anything longer than a grocery list, honestly.” I want to leap from my seat, taking that as more than inspiration, let me tell you. Her humble openness strikes a chord, and I become even more immersed in the tale she is churning…her journey to this foodie fete. Because there is a long-traced tradition of Mississippi storytelling in her culture, she divulges that it is “just a matter of putting down what everyone talks about in the kitchen.” I can imagine them all at this point, a bounty of women stirring, whisking, laughing, all while keeping time on the oven, a bustling but carefree vibe swarming through the humidity. And I am sure I can definitely hear those ice cubes clinking, I know it. She draws me further into her world.
I want to know what inspires her most about her surroundings…is it the people, the colors, the richness of tradition, the land? Or can she even choose? But she does, she pauses for a moment, maybe she is thinking pensively (which it sounds like) but she could also be reaching for a bag of flour or deciding on what protein looks the freshest for tonight’s feast while padding the supermarket aisles. Either way, she shares that in the Delta, the part of the state where she lives, the “people are really so connected to the land emotionally. [They] are just holding their breath … if they can’t get the crops planted and that sort of thing. The whole culture is based on the land. Whether it’s the music or the paintings, everything is really so connected to the physical place. I can’t really separate all of those dimensions because they’re all so intertwined.” And with that, I feel the holding of my own breath, it’s lines like that that speak to a writer’s soul and, boy, does she have it.
When asked what she is most proud of in where she comes from? Again, a little pause. Her style impresses upon me that the rhythm is so much different from my own usual routine and surroundings. She takes her time and with a smile in her voice “The people still have the ability to entertain each other. We’re real good at coming up with hi jinx to keep us busy!”
And you know I have to ask…favorite inspirations in the art world?! Karen Carrier of the Molly Fontaine Lounge. “She’s always been on the forefront of Southern Culinary Modernism in cooking in Memphis. She feels that way about her hometown too, so I love that about her, that she’s very involved in the arts. Writing-wise I am a giant fan of Mark Richard’s new book, House of Prayer No. 2. I just love his economy of words. Love Dean Faulkner Wells’ new book, Everyday by the Sun: A Memoir of the Faulkners of Mississippi. Her book was just such a revelation and she mentioned Mississippi in that one also.”
“Music-wise, my number one favorite band right now is my cousin Daniel’s band, Gold Magnolias. They’re great and kids that lived next door to each other from first grade on and now they’re in New York, young men. Their songwriting is really thoughtful. They’re my big faves.”
She lets me in on the bit that the Korean Grilled Onions recipe is a tribute to Daniel and his wife. I just lap up information like that and the close family ties makes for a perfect recipe. Speaking of which I have to know what she chooses to nosh on if she has a craving… “Favorite recipe if it was the dead of winter, it would probably be the Doe Loin with Winter Biscuits. I’m trying to be hopeful for spring…I’m pretty keen on the Soybean Salad. Dessert-wise, Chocolate Chiffon Pie can’t be beat.” That, in itself, is a full meal and I am satiated; I told you she was forthcoming and charming.
As one who is consumed by the beauty and story (oh, and the sometimes uncontrollable urge to seek and devour) of vittles, but burn anything that doesn’t cook in three minutes, I have to know what’s her favorite part of this realm? “Thinking about cooking is my favorite part of cooking.” She also shares with me, as a side-note, that “the closest Camembert is 2.5 hours from my house. I’m a big grocery store wander-arounder,” which explains why she took my call while shopping in the first place. So she loves to linger over her passions too. I’m not alone.
But when asked about what she has learned in between the birth of Sweet Tea and Screen Doors and A Southerly Course? She sinks back into the land and imparts “how emotionally people were involved with Sweet Tea and Screen Doors. Curious to see how people are connected to food and stories has deepened all the more.”
It was a lovely glide through the aisles with Martha Hall Foose, and I just have some last few items on my list to share with you here, she can’t live without her husband’s bread, baker Donald Bender (she dedicates her book to him as “my husband and best friend, who gives our family our daily bread”). Her favorite Eudora Welty book is Delta Wedding, and the project in her heart is one where she and her hubby go half on a writing/baking project. As I wrapped up my time with her, I didn’t hear any squeaking grocery cart wheels, so I knew I had kept her for long enough, I felt like I had been to Mississippi and became part of the landscape, even for just a half an hour. Check out A Southerly Course: Recipes & Stories from Close to Home for a full serving of stunning photography, down home cooking, a bushel of stories and personality the size of, well, a bigger state.
Sky Sanchez is a native Sacramentan. She writes, blogs, substitute teaches and tutors and is always on the lookout for one more job to add to her bursting at the seams schedule. When she is not at her computer or flipping through writer magazines, she is on all fours summoning her unicorn abilities for her three and a half year old or plugging in one half of the ear buds from her thirteen year old son’s iPOD, usually followed by “Ya, I like that, but turn it down.” She shares a partnership, both in business and by law, with her best friend and biggest fan and proofreader.
She writes for the Sacramento Book Review and the San Francisco Book Review, and contributes to Sacramento Talent Magazine and Stories on Stage blog. She also scribbles out her own blogs atepicureanpc.wordpress.com and skysf.wordpress.com.
Martha Hall Foose is the James Beard Award-winning author of the bestselling cookbook Screen Doors and Sweet Tea. Martha’s latest book, A Southerly Course: Recipes & Stories From Close to Home (Clarkson Potter, 2011), delves deep into the Mississippi Delta flavors and food ways, where Martha finds inspiration in local ingredients. In her signature style, Martha pairs each recipe with an anecdote or words of advice, her memorable tales about each dish lingering long after the last bite has been polished off.
Born and raised in Mississippi, she attended the famed pastry school École Lenôtre in France. She returned to Mississippi and opened Bottletree Bakery—a Southern institution in Oxford—and later, with her husband, Mockingbird Bakery in Greenwood.
The former executive chef of the Viking Cooking School, Martha was a food stylist for the movie The Help, based on the bestselling novel of the same name.
She makes her home on her family’s farm in Tchula, Mississippi, and with her husband and their son.