The Fourth of July celebration on Whitland Avenue, which this year marked either its 17th or its 19th anniversary (nobody is quite sure), began as a small neighborhood party, staged to celebrate Independence Day in an appropriately All-American manner. The original idea, according to Pat Burton, one of the founders, was that someone would read some patriotic speeches, a few musicians would play some spirited tunes, and there would be a big picnic. The very first year, Slick Lawson, a Whitland stalwart, rounded up 30 musicians, who took their places on the Burtons’ front yard and entertained the crowd with “God Bless America,” “America the Beautiful,” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” A lamb was roasted, and a good time was had by all.
By the fourth or fifth year, however, the event had become so popular that the lamb was replaced with hot dogs, and neighbors began bringing side dishes and desserts. The 30 musicians grew to a band of 60, and a parade of bunting-draped bicycles and flag-bearing Whitlanders marched up and down the avenue.
Officially, the Fourth of July on Whitland is just for neighborhood residents and their invited guests. Three years ago, my good friend Slick asked if I would consent to judge the food portion of the event. I was so excited about actually being able to be part of this Nashville tradition that I immediately accepted. Having never been to the Whitland party, I had no idea of the magnitude of the task that awaited me.
I was staggered when, at the appointed hour, I strolled up to Slick’s house, only to be confronted with table after table after table loaded down with casseroles, salads, cobblers, pies, beans, tarts, and pasta. Yikes!
I was joined by Elaine Wood, just returned to Nashville from the Northeast to ride herd on the brand-new Hard Rock Cafe, and by some fellow from O’Charley’s, I believe. Slick handed us each a clipboard that contained a ballot of sorts. He also equipped us with one spoon apiece.
Not one to make waves in my very first appearance at such an established affair, and figuring everyone there knew everyone else anyway, I gamely took my one spoon and used it to sample a bite of almost every dish there. First, second, and third place awards were handed out in two categories“Great American Picnic” and “Mom’s Apple Pie.” We tried them all, sharing spoons as necessary. Thank goodness, neither I nor my fellow judges had any communicable diseases.
The following year, Slick asked me not only to judge, but to recruit the other judges as well. I divvied up the categories into side dishes and desserts. (I took the side dishesI really don’t have a sweet tooth.) We also cut down on the the entries by taste-testing only those dishes that had been registered for the actual competition.
This year, organizers had already separated the competition entries into their categories. This time, however, each of us was thoughtfully provided with an entire bag of plastic cutlery so that, if we wanted, we could dip a fresh spoon into every dish.
The dessert judgesMary Carter and Susan Chappell from Nashville Life and Monica Holmes, the caterer who runs The Clean Plate Clubmade quick work of the cookies, cakes, pies, and cobblers. The first-place winner was Libby Miller’s fine Blueberry Crumb Pie. Before I had a chance even to sample it, someone had whisked it away to the picnic tables.
It took a little longer for Elaine Wood (now also in her third year as a Whitland judge), Michael Cribb of Bound’ry (making his judging debut), and me to taste our way through the 25 hopefuls in the “Great American Picnic” category. There were not quite so many black bean salads this year, but there were plenty of varieties of pasta salad, lots of feta cheese (I loved Teri Cohen’s warm potato salad with olives, feta, and mint), and several creative uses for homegrown tomatoes.
First place went to Nanci Lewis’ Roasted Walnut Vegetable Pasta; the silver medal went to Cindy Steine’s gorgeous Summer Salad (Cindy’s son, David, was also a winner in the bicycle-decorating contest); and the bronze went to Elizabeth Fox’s Tomato Pie with Tarragon and Nutmeg, something she just whipped up after spending an inspirational couple of weeks in Tuscany.
Herewith, you’ll find Cindy and Elizabeth’s winning recipes. Enjoy them in the comfort of your own backyard, but be aware, I have a very good memory (especially when it comes to food). If you try to submit either one as yours in next year’s Fourth on Whitland, you will be duly court-martialed.
Tomato Pie With Tarragon & Nutmeg
1 9-inch frozen or homemade deep-dish pie crust, unbaked
3 or 4 large fresh tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
3 tablespoons fresh (or 1 1/2 tablespooons dried) tarragon
1 teaspoon fresh grated nutmeg
3/4 cup fresh grated Parmesan cheese
3/4 cup mayonnaise
1/3 cup plain bread crumbs
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake pie crust 3-4 minutes and remove from oven. Arrange tomatoes on bottom of pie crust, salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle with tarragon, grate nutmeg over top. Combine Parmesan cheese with mayonnaise and spread over tomatoes. Sprinkle with bread crumbs. (Optional: sprinkle slightly with more Parmesan and grated nutmeg for garnish.) Bake for 30 minutes until top is brown. Serves 6-8. Note: Crisp bacon (six slices) can be added as a layer for variation.
Cindy’s Summer Salad
(Note from Cindy: “The key ingredients to this salad are produce items with a uniquely Southern flavor and quality oils and vinegars available in specialty cooking stores. Bradley tomatoes ripen in late June to early July. Big Ripley Tennessee-grown tomatoes make a good alternative. Compact, tender Kirby cucumbers and sweet Vidalia onions create the best counterpoint to the tomatoes that can’t be found in a supermarket. Use the best extra-virgin olive oil you can afford, or use herb-infused olio santos to jazz it up. Balsamic vinegar is especially kind to tomatoes.”)
6 large Bradley or Ripley tomatoes, thick sliced
4 to 6 Kirby cucumbers, peeled and sliced thin
1 large Vidalia onion, chopped
2 cans garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
2 12-oz. packages fresh cheese tortellini
4 oz. goat cheese (Chevre)
1/2 cup (or more) fresh basil, chopped
7 tablespoons high-quality olive oil (or 4 tablespoons olive oil for cooking with 3 tablespoons olio santo for marinade)
2 or 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
Calamata olives for garnish
Sauté the garbanzo beans in 3 tablespoons olive oil until just soft. Allow to cool. Boil tortellini for about 5 minutes; drain, sprinkle with 1 tablespoon olive oil, and set aside to cool. Arrange sliced tomatoes on a platter. Arrange sliced cucumbers over tomatoes; sprinkle chopped onions over entire platter. Chop or crumble cheese and sprinkle over platter. Spoon garbanzo beans around the perimeter of the salad and then arrange the tortellini clumps in among the tomatoes. Sprinkle all with basil. Drizzle 3 tablespoons olio santo over the platter, then do the same with the balsamic vinegar. Place olives around platter to garnish. Add ground pepper to taste. May be served immediately or refrigerated for a few hours to let flavors blend. Serves 8-10.