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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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“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.

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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:

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

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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):

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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:

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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):

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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:

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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:

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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!

10 comments

  1. gaaaaaaaah i love this entry. reminds me of the dinner i cooked for my friends using family recipes that never *quite* turn out the way you remember. wish your friend a happy birthday from a happy reader ;)

  2. oh and i totally feel your pride about that apple pie, even though u dissed it. i always feel it’s great when one bakes something. like artwork u know?

  3. That feeling of “just fine, but it didn’t dazzle” is always the worst for me. If I had baked a horrific, unpalatable pile of nastiness, then it would be clear that something had gone terribly awry. I could laugh and apologize and everyone understands when you don’t even bother to serve flat-out culinary disasters.

    But when I produce “decent” cookies that are just “ok”…*I* feel bland. I’ve got a Jewish mommy; I can’t *waste* the cookies, and so I serve them. I apologize for them, but people look at me like I’m crazy.

    “What do you mean? They’re fine.”

    Who wants “fine” cookies?!?!?! I’m a little ashamed to admit it, but I think I’d prefer producing atrocious cookies to fine cookies. Ideally I want my cookies to make people feel happy; in the worst-case scenario, they eat my cookies and don’t even notice they’re eating them. Somewhere in between those two lies the case where people taste my cookies and laugh, or gag.

    This is why baking will forever stress me out infinitely more than stovetop cooking. When cooking, I have many more opportunties for feedback, for the food to let me know what it wants in order to become fabulous. I can take my bland risotto and turn it into peppery, cheesy quenelles at the last minute.

    But when you bake, all you can do is cross your fingers for 35 minutes or so. With practice, you can get a good sense of how the raw materials will turn out by tasting them before their visit to the oven, but once they have made the transition from “batter” to “cake”…you’re pretty much done. I suppose a boring casserole may be salvaged by an excellent sauce, and a decent cake by stupendous frosting…but cookies are on their own.

  4. Oh, and I meant to say thanks for that entry, Adam. It was really comforting to read a report of a dinner party in which some foods were fantastic, some foods were fine, and some of the guests were indifferent to both, anyway. I’ve definitely been there…but we don’t hear of it too often!

  5. The looked lovely Adam! I think the flaw was the recipe, not you! It definatley did need more sugar. I would recommend adding a 1/4 cup of white sugar as well. Also, maybe a little extra cinnamon. With the cranberries some orange zest would go nicely as well. Good luck!

  6. After looking at the picture I am thinking the apples may have had something to do with it. I would sugget a mix of granny smith and rome. Ok, I am shutting up now.

  7. Aww, they said I was cute. ::blush::

    It still beat out most of the apple pie I’ve had in the city

    that has always left me hungry and achin’ for more.

  8. Pardon me? It’s Dolly PARTON!

    :)

    Loved this post. I love ‘theme’ dinners! And Stella without a cookbook – very very impressive! I’m with you Adam – someday I hope to let go of my cookbook training wheels, but for now, must rely on (other people’s) recipes!

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