“Out on Rural Route 2, mailboxes are all on the same side of the road. . . . The mail run is around four o'clock. About five most afternoons, nearly everybody comes down to check the mail. Propped or perched on a variety of seating (old tractor seat, stump, log, lawn chair, wheelchair, four-wheeler and tailgate), they go through their daily post, trusty dogs at their sides, mailbox doors folded down, with a drink of some sort resting on each one."
As this is the Deep South, the drink generally involves bourbon. So begins Martha Hall Foose's paean to Southern cooking, Screen Doors and Sweet Tea: Recipes and Tales from a Southern Cook (Clarkson Potter, April 2008). Born and raised in the Mississippi Delta, Foose augmented her culinary birthright with formal training in France before opening the Bottletree Bakery in Oxford, Miss., and Mockingbird Bakery in Greenwood, Miss. Her first cookbook, Screen Doors, has catapulted her into the company of Paula Deen, the Lee brothers and Nathalie Dupree as a spokesperson for Southern-style vittles. We caught up with her by phone before her appearance at Saturday's Festival of Reading to discuss the new book's success. (See page 5E for schedule.)
Does your classical French training change how you approach traditional Southern dishes — and have you gotten any flak for doing radical things like adding coconut milk and curry powder to sweet potato soup?
When I came home from France, my grandmother wanted to know if I'd learned anything beyond how to smoke and drink. But I think my training at Ecole Lenotre taught me to look at things differently in my own Southern repertoire. And yes, I've gotten flak. Chinese cooking is probably the only cuisine where they're more adamant than Southerners about the "right" way to do things. In Southern cuisine, there's the dark Karo syrup faction and the light Karo syrup faction. Well, I don't have a dog in that fight.
Are there any classic Southern dishes that you wish would just go away?
That would probably be fried chicken. On Good Morning America they ask you what you would like to cook and you give them myriad choices. But they want fried chicken, and there's nothing more nerve-racking than fried chicken. Everyone has ideas about it, so it's a perilous subject to approach.
One of most enjoyable things about the book is the text and stories at the top of each recipe. How did you develop these, and how did you choose your recipes?
It was a blessing to have my editor Rica Allannic, because while we're about the same age, we grew up in completely different environments. She called me on a lot of Southern B.S. These days, with the flick of a wrist you can have 10,000 recipes for pot pie at hand, so a recipe's provenance and its emotional connections should play a big role in a dish.
I picked recipes based on three criteria. Some I chose because they were tributes or stories that explained the Delta. Some were those iconic Southern dishes (biscuits, fried catfish), but condensed. Most of the recipes in this book are one page. I tried to incorporate traditional flavors and dishes in a modern, real-world setting. My third criterion was just to lighten up and not take Southern food so seriously.
What's been the most surprising thing about how the book was received?
I guess the Mailbox Cocktail's popularity has surprised me. It might be because of the economy — no one's getting great news in their mailboxes, so this makes opening the mail a little easier. There's a woman in Portland who wrote to say they've started the tradition in their neighborhood.
Are you working on another book?
I'm not sure if I have another cookbook on the horizon — I'm leaning toward working on a book of essays that have recipes with them. I came to cooking from working at Square Books in Oxford, Miss. They had a cafe, and I'd make something for lunch out of one of the store's cookbooks. So it's funny that I've come full circle.
I'm smitten with this writing thing. I'd like to see what would happen if I devoted my whole brain to it.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293.