Cooking with Martha

Cooking with Martha

By Marc Stengel and Elaine Phillips

Matters of Taste

With a special blend of quiet authority and offhand address, Martha Phelps Stamps discusses her recently published cookbook as if it were a personal memoir. Indeed, The New Southern Basics: Traditional Southern Food for Today (Cumberland House) is, in part, an homage to forebears and friends of a family whose stamp upon local history predates Nashboro’s first palisade.

There is, too, a conscious—sometimes even self-conscious—literary aspect to the gentle prose that interleaves among uncluttered categories of recipes. Stamps’ manner of expression is influenced, no doubt, by her degree in English from the University of Virginia, and it’s made credible by postgraduate studies at The Culinary Institute of America. It has been honed, moreover, by her frequent essay contributions to the Nashville Scene. But ultimately it derives from a lifelong fascination with her favorite subject: the foods and “fixins” that shaped—and were shaped by—the character of the Middle South.

“In this book, I’m definitely trying to preserve recipes and traditions. I put them together in different ways—in my unique way. But that’s not to say I couldn’t meet somebody from the next block over who might say, ‘Oh, that’s how I’ve always done my stewed okra.’ I’m really just going back to the roots of Southern food and the times when the distinctive character of Southern cooking was being becoming apparent.

“So much has happened in this century to make food more mundane and featureless. People stopped growing their own vegetables, so you don’t see a variety of vegetables. In the ’60s when I was growing up, what you could buy on the grocery-store shelves was so limited. That’s changing for the better now—farmers’ markets are becoming more popular, for example.”

Amidst evocative recipes that unfold with lucid precision, Stamps kneads in occasional asides that portray a wistful respect for innocent rituals of food. “My family is Methodist when it comes to communion wafers and grape juice,” she writes, “but quite Catholic in regards to beaten biscuits and iced tea.” A lurking nostalgia suggests but never chides that a missing ingredient in many modern Southern pantries is a shared, familial experience of cooking’s ceremony.

“There are a couple of things that I think are different about this book,” Stamps explains. “One is my writing style; it’s very personal, and it’s very annotated. Everything that’s interesting, to my mind, has to do with people. That’s why history is interesting; that’s what makes science interesting; that’s why art is interesting.

“A second thing that sets this book apart, I think, is my attempt to validate a cuisine which I am constantly hearing put down. I want to try to distinguish and elevate what’s good about Southern cooking. For example, one of the great things about Southern cuisine that I think is misunderstood is the abundance at the table of different dishes—in particular of different vegetables.

“And in true Southern cooking, the meat dish plays much less of a role in anchoring the cuisine. It’s just a part of the whole presentation, and in many cases it’s just a flavoring element at that. One reason, I think, is that if you go back to the beginning of Southern cooking, there just wasn’t a lot of meat to be had.”

Above all, Stamps professes to simplify the process of Southern cooking by demystifying technique and dismissing overcomplication. In her presentation, the exotic—flower sandwiches made from fresh nasturtiums, for instance—becomes humble; and the humble becomes distinctly, even patriotically, exotic.

“Taste along with smell are the strongest senses, and they always bring up memories. What’s so special are the associations. I can remember what I was wearing the first time I ate certain things, what car I was driving in those days...definitely the person I was with...what music was on the stereo. And that all becomes, to me, a part of what we taste, a part of that meal or that dish, and of the place and of the occasion at that special instant in time.”—Marc Stengel

Signs and events

Philip Glass signs Music, 4:15 p.m. Sept. 26 at Davis-Kidd Booksellers The inimitable—did someone say interminable?—compositions of Philip Glass seem to underscore our increasingly attenuated fin de siècle. Appropriately, the minimalist maestro will lecture briefly about contemporary music, then sign copies of his book. His choral and dance extravaganza Les Enfants Terribles comes to TPAC Oct. 10-12.

Karen Davis and Thelma Kidd’s Farewell Open House, 2-5 p.m. Sept. 27 at Davis-Kidd Booksellers In a typical gesture of open-arm hospitality, Davis and Kidd will bid a formal farewell to their admiring public. The occasion, of course, marks the sale next week of Davis-Kidd Booksellers to Neil and Mary Beth Van Uum, owners of the very similar Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Cincinnati and Louisville. All day Saturday, Davis-Kidd will offer discounts on book purchases, and at 3 p.m., WPLN’s Rebecca Bain will moderate a short program that’s sure to engender more than a few misty eyes.

Joseph Blotner, “Robert Penn Warren: ‘It was poetry or death,’ ” 7:30 p.m. Sept. 30 in Room 108, Swang Center, David Lipscomb University For a dozen years, the Landiss Lectures at Lipscomb have represented a true, albeit underappreciated, literary salon in Nashville. Joseph Blotner’s appearance will no doubt occasion lively discussion of the poet Nashville so desperately wants to call its own. A fitting topic, since Blotner’s most recent work is his ’97 biography of the late poet laureate. Additional information is available via 269-1000.—Marc Stengel

Suspicion à la carte

The Butter Did It, by Phyllis Richman (Harper Collins, 1997, $23) After reading Phyllis Richman’s first mystery, I will never again order a restaurant’s “seafood special” on a Monday. According to Chas Wheatley, Richman’s restaurant-reviewing heroine, that’s when restaurants get rid of their not-so-fresh fish before the Tuesday shipment arrives. But aging oysters are not Chas’ biggest problem; she has to figure out who killed Laurence Levain, her former lover and one of Washington D.C.’s culinary superstars. As she draws on her connections in the journalism and restaurant circles, Chas uncovers the spaghetti-like mess of egocentrism, secret recipes, jealousy, and possessiveness that holds together the world of celebrity chefs.

Richman, the award-winning food editor of the Washington Post, draws on her insider’s knowledge of restaurant reviewing, fine food, and the people who create it. The aforementioned “seafood special” tip is just one of the details that makes the mystery’s setting convincing. Trendy dishes, real-life celebrity chefs, and savvy dining tips are scattered throughout the novel.

At the center, though, is Richman’s likable heroine. Worldly, honest, and tough on restaurants, but vulnerable when it comes to personal relationships, Chas is a smart, witty narrator; we willingly follow her as she investigates her former lover’s death. Indeed, Richman’s greatest strength as a writer is her ability to create interesting, engaging characters. Chas is surrounded by people who could easily reappear in a sequel: Homer Jones, the detective who would rather talk food than crime; Sherele, Chas’ best friend and the drama critic at the newspaper where they both work; Dave Zeeger, Chas’ pizza-loving paramour; Lily, Chas’ twentysomething daughter; and Ari Bouchereon, Chas’ ex-husband, a gentle, woolly-headed chef.

Although The Butter Did It is strong on characters, dialogue, and setting, the book’s plot needs some fine-tuning. The flaws include a red herring that’s not strong enough to lead the reader off the path, and a confusing denouement that requires some rereading. The basic premise, however, is irresistible, and Richman plants enough clues to make the whodunit’s solution plausible.

An added bonus of The Butter Did It is its collection of yummy food ideas. Laurence Levain’s signature dish is nouilles en quilt multicolore, a dish in which translucent pasta sheets encase rosy salmon. Another chef puts a new spin on onion soup, the old restaurant war-horse, and we even get a recipe at the novel’s end for chocolate-hazelnut calzone.

The Butter Did It is not going to revolutionize nor subvert the mystery genre, but it is, quite literally, a tasty little confection, perfect for devouring at night or during the last golden afternoons of Indian summer.—Elaine Phillips

The dog-eared page

“Grief and love’s dart/Harass and hurt/My heavy heart./So, I am old.... Once, young and gay,/I went my way,/no such dismay/Balking my boldness.... Woefully now,/Blight on my brow,/Gloom where the glow/Used to be bright.... Cheated of choice,/Muscle and voice/Renounce rejoicing/Once and for all.... I was a lover/Famous forever,—/All that is over,/Still, if she’d call—”—Dafydd ap Gwilym, fl. 1320-70, “His Old Age,” from Nine Thorny Thickets, trans. from the Welsh by Rolfe Humphries (Kent State U. Press, 1969)

“Grief and love’s dart/Harass and hurt/My heavy heart./So, I am old.... Once, young and gay,/I went my way,/no such dismay/Balking my boldness.... Woefully now,/Blight on my brow,/Gloom where the glow/Used to be bright.... Cheated of choice,/Muscle and voice/Renounce rejoicing/Once and for all.... I was a lover/Famous forever,—/All that is over,/Still, if she’d call—”—Dafydd ap Gwilym, fl. 1320-70, “His Old Age,” from Nine Thorny Thickets, trans. from the Welsh by Rolfe Humphries (Kent State U. Press, 1969)


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