Talking at the Table with Martha Hall Foose

Martha Hall FooseIn the introduction to A Southerly Course, you describe the life you’ve lived as one following a meandering course close to that of the Mississippi River and that the trait of “meandering” is apparent in your cooking.  Would you elaborate on that, please?

When I was really little we moved out in the middle of nowhere.  But my grandmother was a world traveler, and she would bring back recipes for things like ceviche.  Kids in Mississippi at that time were not eating ceviche.  My own travels end up in my cooking pot a lot of the time.  In the book, for example, there is a sweet and sour salsify with plum jelly and rice wine vinegar.  This is a recipe that really came about from working in an Asian restaurant then growing up in Mississippi and having a plum tree in the backyard.

A Southerly CourseYou write in the opening pages, “I think we Southerners are homesick for the place in which we still live.”  As a Southern girl myself, I love this statement and would love for you to elaborate on this.

When I moved back from Minneapolis to Mississippi about nine or 10 years ago, I was really homesick.  Now that I’ve been back almost 10 years, there are some feelings of that homesickness that I still have - even though I’m here.  And it’s not not that trite nostalgia thing that gets hoisted on Southerners a lot but more of a wishing that idealized South.  I think I’m homesick for an imaginary place.

Well, you go on to make this wonderful comment, and I’m going to quote you here:  Our regional history, fraught by the economics of cotton and all that surrounds it, is difficult to manuever and remain on solid footing.  Communality through food in many ways has helped us as a region begin to reconcile ourselves with the past.  Would you talk about this?

When you look at a book like The Help, for example, there is that portrayal of the maternalistic housekeeper and the child, that Driving Miss Daisy relationship between blacks and whites in the South.  These relationships are very complicated.  The families are interwoven, but there is also a clear separation.

Take my own family for example.  Joseph Newton worked for my grandmother.  At Christmas, he would bring his family to her house and pick up his Christmas present.  Now in my generation, when Joseph’s family comes at Christmas, we all sit down at the table and have dinner together.  When my grandmother was alive, that would not have happened.  It’s just not how things were then.

But we all gotta eat!  The kitchen is a healing place.  Food is just a basic human need - and the kitchen is a level playing field and food.  People appreciate  a good cook no matter what color she or he is.

Your book is features some true Southern favorites with a wonderful, unexpected twist.  Recipes like Fig Pecan FondueDandelion Cracklingsand a yummy Chicken Liver Spread. Where does your inspiration for these updated favorites come from?

When I’m just cooking for our family and we’re out of the farm, I’ll do anything to not go into town to the grocery store so a lot of my concoctions come from the.  For example, the Grilled Springs Onions really is a Southern dish to me, but at first glance it may not seem like it is.

And sometimes I want to tell a story s0 I craft a recipe around that.  Sometimes the story does come first, and sometimes the recipe.

In the first book, Screen Doors and Sweat Tea, I thought I needed to include all those iconic Southern dishes like fried chicken.  But in this one, I wanted to explore my relationship to the foods where I’m from without having to feel obligated to those quintessential, Southern recipes, and I hope the recipes in this book are well received.

You have these wonderful stories interspersed throughout the book where you share memories from childhood or talk poignantly about the family china.  In fact, I was really touched as you spoke of those heirloom pieces of china and silver and how they can bond the modern home to the people and homes long gone.  Would you talk about that a little more please?

My friend Minter really makes a point to use these pieces, but I just can’t get my act together.  (Martha stops in mid-sentence to let me know that a man is riding a horse down the highway!)

My great aunt and both grandmothers passed away at the same time.  My mother inherited all of these things, and she started to wonder what will happen to it all when she’s gone.  She doesn’t pull out the silver tea service but parting with it is another thing.  I think it will be curious to see what things my son, Joe Joe, if I ever allow him to marry and leave his mother, will want.

In the end, when people inherit family pieces, it tends to be books and things to do with eating.

At one point in the cookbook, you compare the famed Congealed Salad to a Pageant Girl.  I was laughing so hard when I read this.  Please elaborate on this for our readers.

Well, I started thinking about the comparisons between the two.  You see, my grandmother and I would watch the Miss AMerica Pageant and she would make comments about “jiggling.”  “She jiggles too much.”  Or, “she jiggles in the wrong places.”

At the time, I was decoupaging my great aunt’s recipes to the top of this dinette set - several were even noted as Methodist-tested recipes!

Anyway, the homemaker of the 1940s and 50s was really showing the height of her prowess in Home Economics with this array of congealed salads.  And some of them are really hard to make, especially the layered ones.

So, you see, there is more the salad and the pageant girls.  Both might seem superficial at first but when you get down to the nuts and bolts of it, there is a lot more to it!

One of the many things I love about this cookbook are the little notes on each page - some of which provide a history lesson or a bit of social or cultural commentary.  For example, I had no idea that the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case that decided whether the tomato would be marketed as a fruit or a vegetable!  Your love of history and of your Mississippi home and of the foods you grew up with really permeate your writing and your cooking.  Where do you think this is rooted?

My mother was a history teacher, and we were forced to stop at almost every historical marker when we were on the road.  Now she teaches hand sewing for the National Needle Arts Guild.  She doesn’t cook, and I don’t sew, and we have a wonderful relationship!  But she really inspired me in a lot of ways.  In fact, the way she approaches her needlework and how I approach cooking is very similar.  She teaches a class on the history of needles, and I really admire the way she is able to blend the two - the physical craft and the history behind that.  Why does she sew what she sews is the same reason I cook what I cook.

You recently worked as a food stylist for the movie, THE HELP.  Tell us about that experience and what you did as a food stylist.

Well there were several of us.  I had to make vegan fried chicken drumsticks because one of the actresses was leading a cruelty free life.  So I had to devise a chicken vegan drumstick that looked like the real one.  I took a popsicle stick and cut off a third of it and then put a vegan hot dog on that and wrapped it in Tofurky and then pie dough.  Then I styled it with manicure scissors, dipped it in almond milk and flour and then fried.

I also built gingerbread house in August in Mississippi and made an array of tomato aspic and other congealed salads.  This was a congealed-salad-intense movie.  But I did get  to make some of the things I remembered eating as a child but hadn’t made myself - like studding a ham with maraschino cherries - it was so glossy!

The photography in this book is absolutely stunning.  Were the photos all shot in Mississippi?

I really worked hard on the photography along with Chris Granger.  In so many cookbooks it seems the photos could have been taken anywhere.  I really wanted to evoke a sense of place for each recipe.  We shot the whole book in a short amount of time here in Greenwood, even the dishes used in the photographs are mine.  It was a lot of planning to achieve that emotional sentiment you want to give to the picture.  I mean what is the story behind the Enchilada casserole? I wanted to make sure it was not just a pretty plate of food.  I wanted to be sure that it really informed the story or the inspiration around the dish.

As a novelist, I want to finish this interview talking about Eudora Welty.  You grew up in her hometown.  You talk of seeing her in the market or her silhouette in her window.  You’ve even spent time with her niece in Miss Welty’s kitchen, looking at recipes written in her own hand.  You wrote that her cooking has “fueled stories around the table and ones read around the world.”  I loved every word you wrote about Miss Welty, and then the very first recipe after that is one for Custard Pie.  You said you would cook this for her if she were alive and that you would want to thank her for the realization that it is not a prerequisite that to understand home you must exile yourself to gain perspective.  Please explain.

Miss Welty always struck me as someone who was so humble to be so accomplished. But it was really funny the number of custard and pudding recipes she had marked - corn pudding and butterscotch pudding and more.  It really was an unbelievable  number of pudding recipes.  We got very tickled.

But puddings and custards are recipes of such simple ingredients, ingredients you have on hand.  It is a remarkably homey recipe.  That custard pie is one of my favorites, and I wanted to pick a recipe that would really be about not having to leave home.