Posts Tagged With: female chef

Lunch with Mashama, Again!

(It’s time for the 2019 Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium.  Here’s another look at a tale told through lunch from the 2018 event.)

There are always new people at the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium.  I was one of those new people once, and a few years later The Wife was a new people.  This year the event was opened up to the public (usually it’s limited to members), so there were lots of new people.  

Whenever we sit down for a meal at this eating-meeting we have a choice to make: we can try to sit with folks we already know, which is fun because we often only see them once a year, or we can go potluck (food pun intended) and sit with complete strangers.  The great thing about potlucking with strangers is that they are not strangers very long.  Then you have new friends to sit with next year.  

A few years ago, at a lunch early in the weekend, we sat down and began making conversation with a couple of nice ladies from Savannah, Georgia.  And as we conversed The Wife and I discovered that one of them was Mashama Bailey, Chef at The Grey.  Not only was she a chef, she was also the chef that would be making lunch for us the next day.  I’ve seen a little behind-the-scenes video of what it takes to pull off one of these lunches, so in hindsight I’m wondering how she wasn’t already in a kitchen prepping to feed 300-plus people, but hey – chefs gotta’ eat, too, right?  And they don’t want to miss any of these meals, either.  

Fast forward to this year.  Since the day we sat with Mashama she has become a finalist for a James Beard Award (Best Chef Southeast), and The Grey was Eater.com’s 2017 Restaurant of the Year.  (Now all the chefs want to sit with us…)  Not a bad resume, considering she had already worked for years with Gabrielle Hamilton at Prune in NYC, and was hand-picked through that relationship to open up The Grey in 2014.  And we are grateful that she was also hand-picked to cook lunch for us again.  

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The theme for the SFA’s 2018 programming was the link between food and literature, in a vast number of forms.  This lunch was inspired by Zora Neale Hurston, a writer known for the novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” published in 1937, along with more novels, an autobiography, short stories, essays, plays and more.  Hurston was not a cookbook author, but as her biographer, Valerie Boyd (who spoke to us at the Symposium), noted, food was an integral part of her personality.  To research, Chef Mashama worked with Boyd, and read a lot of Hurston’s works for inspiration.  Here’s what she came up with.  

On the table as we arrived were what she called “Jook Snacks,” foods that people from her small-town Georgia roots (and Hurston’s in rural Florida) would have eaten simply because they were around.  There were hot buns with preserves, bread and butter pickles, and a platter of pulled rabbit with Tabasco sauce.  How old were you when you first sat down to a platter of pulled rabbit?  On the day we had it, I was that day old.  

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The second course was Savannah Red Rice with Shrimp, and Stewed Okra.  According to Mashama, chicken and rice was Hurston’s dish, so the translation to Savannah was simple.  Over the last few years I’ve eaten less rice than I used to (you know, carbs and all), but I didn’t hesitate to dive into this.  I’ve even made a version of it before, a baked rice dish flavored (and colored red) by tomatoes, accentuated with onion and bell pepper, and studded with bacon or sausage – or, in this case, shrimp, which was absolutely appropriate for a port city dish.  Stewed okra, of course, is not just okra – it’s got tomatoes and onions going on, too.  

The third course took us to the juke joints Hurston wrote about.  Mashama said, “Fish is the ultimate juke-joint food.”  So instead of shrimp and grits, she made fish and grits.  Not like your mama’s fish and grits, though.  (I’m just kidding – if your mama made fish and grits, please let me know.)  These were mostly-whole whiting atop grit cakes so carefully put together they almost looked like thick slices of potato.  So now I have another way to love grits.  Alongside were Tabasco Sauce-braised collards with smoked pig tails.  (By the way, did I mention that this was the 2018 Tabasco Luncheon?)  Again, did your mama put pig tails in the collards?  If mine did, she didn’t tell me – I wasn’t always as adventurous as I am now, so her silence would have been a good idea.  And it was a good idea, indeed – the pig tails, I mean.  Ash-roasting sweet potatoes was also a good idea, served on a bed of thick, red sauce that I meant to ask about…but didn’t.  

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Let’s talk about dessert.  This is the part where I’ve already confessed in previous writings that I like to hang around and partake of leftovers.  This time was no different.  Tea cakes made with cornmeal and buttermilk were the centerpiece, because Tea Cake is a main character in Hurston’s first novel, and according to Boyd’s biography, cornbread and buttermilk was Zora’s favorite childhood breakfast.  I had a few of these, but not a few too many.  To accompany the tea cakes were candied pears – I love pear preserves and these were an interesting twist – and peanut brittle that was kinda’ fancy.  

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Not only did this lunch make me want to go to Savannah, it also made me want to read some Zora Neale Hurston.  Eating and reading – two of my favorite things to do. 

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Let’s Eat Sweets, Y’all

If you were to peruse my social media feeds, you’d see pretty quick that I follow a lot of chefs. Back in the summer I happened to see a re-tweet from one of those chefs: a contest to win 2 tickets to an event in Ridgeland, Mississippi called Sweetest Chefs of the South, put together by Let’s Eat Y’all. I had seen that it was coming, but as intriguing as it seemed, I couldn’t figure out how I would swing a trip like that in the middle of the week. But just for fun, I retweeted it, too – and won the tickets! So I started re-figuring.
Female pastry chefs from all over the South were the focus of the evening: Mississippi, Florida ,Texas, Tennessee, Louisiana, Georgia and Alabama were all represented. Among those were two who were already on my radar, Whitney Miller and Martie Duncan.
Whitney is a native Mississippian from Poplarville and was the first winner of Gordon Ramsay’s MasterChef competition. The treat at her table was Mississippi Mud Pie, but I assure you: it wasn’t your grandma’s version. Her take began with a Mason jar lid filled with buttery graham cracker crumbs, topped with a brownie, garnished with a dollop of cream cheese mixed with whipped cream, and finished with pecans. The brownie was chocolaty and rich; in her demo she revealed that secret: real baking chocolate (not just cocoa powder) and a little shot of coffee. I’ve served desserts in Mason jars before, but never in the lid. Something new to try.

Whitney and fam makin' mud pies.

Whitney and fam makin’ mud pies.

Whitney and I had crossed paths before, but this would be my first time to meet Martie Duncan. As an addict of the Food Network show, The Next Food Network Star, I felt like I knew Martie pretty well just from watching season 8. Still, I was a wee bit star-struck. But not so star-struck that I couldn’t bust up there and introduce myself, and we discovered pretty quickly that she’s just a good ol’ girl from Alabama. In her demo she showed us how to make an extremely versatile pastry dough called Pate a Choux, which she used to make the bite-sized cream puffs that held her One Bite Banana Pudding. When I quizzed The Wife on the way home, she declared this her favorite of the evening.

Martie and Me

Martie and Me

One of my favorites (there were several) was the S’mores Macaron from Stephanie Little, a private chef from Baton Rouge. Actually, Stephanie is from Oxford but works in the shadow of LSU; as a Rebel in Bulldog country, myself, I could relate. The cookie part of the macaron served as the graham crackers, with a touch of fresh-ground cinnamon to give a deeper flavor. For the Hershey Bar element, half the cookie was dipped in chocolate. And somehow (chef magic) she gave the marshmallow filling a smoky campfire flavor by infusing a special tea into the mix.

I want s'more of these macarons.  (Sorry.)

I want s’more of these macarons. (Sorry.)

Felicia Suzanne Willet (Felicia Suzanne’s of Memphis) made Butter Rolls with Brandy Peaches and Whiskey Anglaise. At one of the pharmacies I’ve worked in, we had a regular customer who rarely visited without mentioning his desire for butter rolls. I continually encouraged him to bring some to me, and I’m still waiting. It’s unlikely his had Anglaise sauce drizzled on them, but I was thrilled to finally get one.

Buttah rolls

Buttah rolls

Jen Adelsheimer (Broad Street Bakery, Jackson) had a table full of sweet stuff. Salted Peanut Butter Cheesecake, King Cake, Blackberry Peach Fruit Trifle, and a couple of other things I couldn’t pronounce. Corey Ellison (The Fairview Inn, Jackson) had tiny little peanut butter tortes with raspberries and lemon curd. Jacqueline Ladnier (French Kiss Pastries, Ocean Springs) brought Strawberry Cream Cheese Bavarian Cake. Head spinning yet from the sugar? Mine was.

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Nealy Frentz (LOLA in Covington, LA) featured Hummingbird Cake. As I walked to her table, the host of the event walked by and told me (with a mischievous look) I wouldn’t like it. Personally, I think he was probably trying to trick me into leaving him the leftovers. As it turned out, Chef Nealy had made a pretty little hummingbird nest out of coconut on top. Nice digs for the hummingbird, but coconut and me, we don’t agree. But I’m pretty sure The Wife and The Host happily enjoyed my share.
A couple of lemon-related desserts really caught my attention. The Lemon Ice Box Pie from Erin Swanson (Restaurant R’evolution, New Orleans) was unlike any lemon ice box pie Granny ever made, topped with meringue sticks, blueberries, and cubes of limoncello gelee. Blueberries were also the garnish of choice for Jamie Foster (The Manship, Jackson), on her Lemon Panna Cotta with Blueberry Coulis, another favorite.

Yes, this is lemon ice box pie.

Yes, this is lemon ice box pie.

Peaches were the fruit du jour. Mary Jennifer Russell (Sugaree’s Bakery, New Albany) diverted from her famous cakes and brought us a Peach Pie Parfait. Danielle Smathers (Restaurant 356, Atlanta) made peach cakes: layers of peach pound cake filled with peach jam, topped with cream cheese frosting and dusted with fennel pollen. Just knowing I had eaten something dusted with fennel pollen (and liked it) made for an especially memorable dish.

Peaches and Pollen

Peaches and Pollen

Finally, we made it to Von Larson’s station (Von’s Restaurant and Grill, Bayou La Batre, AL). Her dessert was simple: bread pudding with vanilla cream. I’ve had a fair amount of bread pudding in my life, and it can be hit and miss. Hers was definitely a hit, the kind that leaves you a bit dizzy from the richness but still ravenous for another bite or three.
To wash everything down, I picked up an iced “Ray au Lait” coffee drink from the Mississippi Cold Drip Coffee and Tea Company. (Not surprisingly, recommended by Ray.) It didn’t exactly cut the sweet, but it did help keep me awake for the trip back to Starkville.

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Due to our work schedule that day, the Sweetest Chefs of the South had another name that night: dinner. Perhaps not the best plan for everyday dining, but when among pastry chefs, a baker’s dozen of deliciousness suited us just fine.

Martie Duncan's Banana Pudding in One Bite

Martie Duncan’s Banana Pudding in One Bite

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