Stella’s Southern Cooking Birthday Banquet

Stella is one of my favorite people I’ve met while at NYU. She’s a true Southerner–a Tennessee gal–and she literally moved to New York moments before school started. Despite her love for New York City living, it’s been a long while since she enjoyed a true-grit down home Southern meal. And so since yesterday was her birthday, a few days earlier we decided to throw Stella a Southern Cooking birthday bash.

When I say “we” I’m actually referring to Stella and I: Stella wanted to cook her favorite Southern treats for everyone. I was happy to oblige and to offer up my kitchen. So here’s Stella with some corn meal, ready to get started:


Here’s the remarkable thing about Stella’s cooking: she does it all from memory. No recipes for her, no sir!

This is the complete opposite of how I cook. With no real family food traditions, I’m creating my own with cookbooks. Stella is her own cookbook, and she began by steeping orange pekoe tea bags for sweet tea:


Notice how she tied those bags together? That’s true Southern sweet tea skill. I love sweet tea. Basically, Stella brought the water to a boil, added about a cup (I think) of sugar and then turned off the heat and let the bags steep. [She says real sweet tea would involve larger bags, but this worked fine.] Eventually we poured this into a pitcher, added cold water to taste and it was delicious.

Meanwhile, I got started on Stella’s birthday apple pie. This was my job and I found a recipe with a 100% approval rating on Epicuruious. This was the recipe, but I don’t recommend you use it. While Stella was happy with how it turned out, most people had pretty tepid reactions—including me. The filling was bland (which actually one commenter warned it would be on Epicurious, I should’ve paid attention) though the crust was pretty ok. Here’s the filling pre-baking:


It needed more sugar and more something, I’m not sure what. Here’s the pie pre-baking with Stella’s initials done by moi:


Now it should be stated here that Stella is a vegetarian. Her love for Southern cooking is focused purely on vegetables—and this was lucky for us because so many vegetables are in season right now. At Whole Foods, Stella masterfully plucked ingredients off the shelves. When it came to squash she was a bit nervous: “I’m not sure I remember how to cook this,” she said, “I’m scared I’m going to mess it up.”

When we got back, she sliced the squash, coated the slices in cornmeal and added it to a large pan with a bit of oil and onions:


“I don’t want it to turn mushy,” she said and began stirring. Over time, she stirred and stirred and the squash seemed like it was getting mushy.

“Maybe the heat should’ve been higher? Maybe I added too much?”

Stella stirred and stirred.


After a long while, she decided that the squash was a failure, scooped it into a cake pan and hid it in the microwave. We were so busy cooking other things, I had no time to offer my opinion on the matter.

Meanwhile, Stella began making fried cornbread. She mixed the batter by instinct and added it to a hot skillet with a bit of oil:


The finished product was quite tasty and looked a little like pancakes:


As Stella began boiling corn and making biscuits, I had our guests snap asparagus while I took the pie out of the oven: (ok, I snapped this picture before that):


Having our guests snap asparagus was a fun interactive part of the evening. Unless you asked the guests who said: “We’re not the hired help!”

Here’s the pie out of the oven:


I was a bit proud–this was my first apple pie!–and I toured it around the room in oven mitts to an uninterested crowd. I rested it on a cooling rack and stared at it like a character out of Tom Sawyer. “Awww, can’t I have just one slice ma?”

Ma–or Stella–ignored me and finished her biscuit batter which she also made from memory. That I found most impressive. Here she is transfering biscuits to a cooling rack: (Incidentally, she used shortening which makes the biscuits flakier):


Soon our guests were hungry–and with the asparagus roasting in the oven (this was my other contribution since there wasn’t any place left to boil it)–we began setting out the other food. Let’s see what we have here:


Potatoes, corn, pie, biscuits, wine, beer, lemonade. What you DON’T see is the squash. Stella took it out of the microwave and set it on the table and said, “Ok, I don’t think this tastes good but you guys can have some anyway if you want.”

Well we did and you know what? It was the best thing on the table! We all loved it. It was sweet and squashy and even Stella gave it another chance and decided she liked it too. (Later, after speaking to her family, she told me you’re supposed to cook it a really long time on low heat. Either way, I think it tasted great.)

The pie, though, I mean look it wasn’t awful:


Plus there was ice cream. Most people thought it was fine it just didn’t dazzle. But Stella liked it and it was Stella’s birthday. I made an eclectic country mix to play on iTunes while we ate. Stella requested I put on some pop music but I persisted. I’d like to conclude with some lyrics from Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman” which if you haven’t heard, you must.

“’cause I’m a redneck woman

I ain’t no high class broad

I’m just a product of my raising

I say, ‘hey ya’ll’ and ‘yee-haw’

And I keep my Christmas lights on

On my front porch all year long

And I know all the words to every Charlie Daniels song

So here’s to all my sisters out there keeping it country

Let me get a big ‘hell yeah’ from the redneck girls like me, hell yeah”

“We don’t say ‘yee-haw,'” argued Stella. I suppose she’d know. She perked up though when Dolly Pardon’s “9 to 5” came on. Who doesn’t love that song?

Happy Birthday, Stella! Thanks for keeping it country, sister! Yee-haw!

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