Got a foodie on your holiday gift list? A piece of cake. Even the person who seems to have everything hasn’t yet had their next meal. Following are some suggestions for season’s eatings.
Sweet Home Alabama
If you don’t think dinner is worth a 190-mile drive from Nashville, you haven’t eaten at Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham. I admit, I was late coming to Frank Stitt’s tables. Not until a colleague and I went on a fact-finding mission to The Magic City in 1997 did I discover one of America’s best restaurants, and by then, Stitt had opened another excellent dining establishment, Bottega. In fact, not long before that, one of his former chefs had already printed his own calling card just a few blocks away, at Hot & Hot Fish Club.
In the two nights we were in Birmingham, we managed to eat at all three restaurants. But it was Highlands that seduced our palates, pierced our hearts and left us basking in afterglow, turning us into fawning groupies who preached the gospel of Frank Stitt upon our return. Opened in 1982, Highlands not only revitalized the then rather seedy Five Points neighborhood, it kicked off a culinary revolution in Birmingham and announced Stitt as a chef deserving of attention from such industry kingmakers as Gourmet, Bon Appetit, The New York Times and The James Beard Foundation.
His was an Odyssean journey that took him from his hometown of Cullman, Ala., to Tufts University in Boston, then to Northern California, where he finagled a non-paying position in Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse. From there, Stitt went on to Paris and the French countryside, which is where he had his “Alabama epiphany,” as he refers to his urge to come back home and apply the lessons he’d learned to the rich harvest of Southern regional foods, culture and tradition.
We in Nashville are fortunate that Highlands Grill is close enough to justify a long weekend scheduled around food, but we’re also fortunate that right in our own backyard, graduates of Stitt’s academy have migrated north, making their mark at Five Senses in Murfreesboro (Mitchell Murphree) and the just-opened Watermark in The Gulch (GM Nathan Lindley and executive chef Joe Shaw). For those who can’t make it to Birmingham—or who love food enough that they’re happy simply just reading about it—there’s Frank Stitt’s Southern Table: Recipes and Gracious Traditions From Highlands Bar and Grill, published by Artisan Books ($40).
Poring over the beautifully illustrated volume, I fell in love and in lust over and over again: if offered a choice between the recently published Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica and Southern Table, I’d have to go with the latter, which delivers one foodgasm after another. The foreword is written by Pat Conroy; Stitt’s introduction talks not only about his journey away from and back to Alabama, but also a typical day at Highlands. Each chapter begins with a story, all of the 150-plus recipes are preceded by an informative discussion of the dish or the key ingredient, and the banquet of color photographs is stunning. If you purchase this book for a friend, I’d advise buying two, because the first won’t ever see the inside of a gift bag.
Julia Child, one stick of butter at a time
Winning the Smack Myself on the Head and Proclaim, “Why Didn’t I Think of That!” Award is Julie & Julia: 365 days, 524 recipes, 1 tiny apartment kitchen (Little, Brown, $23.95). Here is an excerpt from the book jacket: “On a visit to her childhood home in Texas, Julie Powell pulls her mother’s battered copy of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking off the bookshelf…. Pushing thirty, living in a run-down apartment in Queens, and working at a dead-end secretarial job, Julie Powell is stuck…. And so she invents a deranged assignment: in the space of one year, she will cook every recipe in the Julia Child classic, all 524 of them. No skips, no substitutions. She will track down every obscure ingredient, learn every arcane cooking technique, and cook her way through sixty pounds of butter.”
Julie & Julia is not a cookbook, but a chronicle of the year Powell spent cooking Child’s cookbook, the resultant meltdowns, burnouts and freak-outs, and the effect it had on her marriage, her friendships and on herself. She never met the famed chef, who died just as Powell was finishing the book, but in some ways she came to know the larger-than-life—and death—figure more than many.
It’s really for the best that Powell had this idea; I haven’t had the time to read Julia Child’s legendary cookbook all the way through, much less cook 524 recipes in 365 days. And Kay & Julia just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Fit for a king
I might be able to cook my way through By the Sackful: A Scrapbook of Recipes From 85 Years of White Castle Craving (Favorite Recipes Press, $14.95), which contains a more manageable 144 recipes, but I don’t know that my family would live through it. I’ll take my fat in butter, cream and cheese, thank you.
But if you are or know a White Castle Craver, which is how addicts of the little burger are known, this is the book to buy. The recipes were originally entered in the Craver Recipe Contest, which requires cooks to use 10 White Castle burgers, including buns (pickles optional). The contest originated one Thanksgiving many years ago, when a White Castle team member substituted White Castle burgers for breadcrumbs, and White Castle Turkey Stuffing was born. Though I have never eaten a White Castle burger, I confess that when I got a press release last year with the stuffing recipe, professional curiosity got the best of me, and I made a batch. The guys on C Shift down at the Nashville Fire Department’s Station 9 ate it right up.
Along with recipes that run the gamut from Yucatan Burger ’n’ Eggplant Bake to Ultimate Stuffed Pasta Shells (winner of the 1997 contest), there are numerous personal tributes and stories contributed by Cravers, White Castle trivia, archival photos and advertising art. The book is edited by Nashville’s own Nicki Pendleton Wood. And a tip of the WC paper hat to the company, which is donating proceeds from the sale of the book to Turkeys 4 America, a nonprofit that gathers and donates turkeys to needy families nationwide.