Everybody should have a "V.D. dinner" in case of an emergency, according to journalist Julia Reed. But, everybody, it's not what you think.
"V.D." stands for "visiting dignitary," and it's the grand meal Reed's mother would throw together on a day's notice when Reed's father, a Republican Party strategist, brought some out-of-state notable to Greenville, Mississippi. Someone like Ronald Reagan or Robert Novak or William F. Buckley Jr. And joining them for dinner would be 25 other sudden guests. No, make that 50.
Reed's advice in such a situation: Let them eat cake (okay, lady fingers), according to Reed's mother's charlotte russe. But only after you've served them beef tenderloin with bordelaise or béarnaise sauce; wild rice with mushrooms; scalloped oysters; spinach and artichoke casserole; and homemade yeast rolls.
An old-fashioned menu by contemporary standards? Yes. So what? Your surprise guests -- all 50 of them -- will love it. Socialite Pat Buckley (William's wife) certainly did, because once she tasted the Gulf oysters (layered with cream and crushed Ritz crackers), she wrote Reed's mother for the recipe.
The New York Times liked it too when, years later, Reed, almost as a joke, contributed the dish (substituting canned artichoke hearts, frozen spinach, and Philadelphia cream cheese) to the newspaper. HarperCollins then included it in its annual series Best Recipes of the Year.
And now Reed's memory of it is included in Square Table, a new community cookbook compiled by the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council in Oxford, Mississippi, and published by Wimmer Cookbooks in Memphis. More than recipes, though, it's a collection of fine art by Oxford artists and a gathering of fine essays by noteworthy Mississippi writers: among them, John Grisham on Brunswick stew; Beth Ann Fennelly on Pink Velvet Cake; and the late Larry Brown on chicken stew.
John T Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi, offers an introduction; photographer Langdon Clay puts the food in focus; and stylist (and Ole Miss art professor) Cory Lewis does the dishes proud.
More dishes to serve and more stories to tell come by way of author Marcie Cohen Ferris in Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South (The University of North Carolina Press) -- Memphis stories too, in a chapter Ferris titles "What's a Nice Jewish Boy Doing in the Barbecue Business?"
Make that, "boys." Ferris is referring to father and son Don and Barry Pelts, longtime members of Temple Israel and, technically speaking, they're the men, not the boys, behind Corky's.
But it's not like the Peltses aren't doing their part to satisfy the cravings of Memphis' pork-free kosher community. For example, when Orthodox leaders went to them a few years ago to ask for kosher barbecue in a fund-raiser for the Margolin Hebrew Academy, Corky's delivered with fresh utensils, scrubbed kitchens, and scorched ovens, and Rabbi Nathan Greenblatt made sure to keep it clean. And as for the fund-raiser? In the words of Barry Pelts, "The whole Orthodox community, they went nuts over it." And as for Corky's? It's since made barbecued beef brisket and turkey, hickory-smoked beef spare ribs, and barbecued chicken "drummies" a thriving sideline, with one adjustment in its advertising: The restaurant's logo of a smiling pig can quickly convert to a smiling cow.
For more such tales, across the wide South and throughout its history, see and enjoy Matzoh Ball Gumbo. Ferris, a native of Blytheville, Arkansas, professor of American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and vice president of the Southern Foodways Alliance, knows good eats and a good story when she sees one.
Joy Bateman of Memphis magazine, sister publication of The Memphis Flyer, makes ad sales her business. But she knows something too about art (in her spare time, she's an illustrator) and about fine dining (she's a regular on the city's restaurant scene). Bateman combines both interests in The Art of Dining in Memphis, a self-published book filled with her colorful illustrations to go with the signature recipes she's drawn from Memphis' top eateries.
Her first stop in these pages, though, isn't to eat. It's to remember the Knickerbocker restaurant on Poplar in East Memphis, her "home away from home" when she was growing up in the late '50s/early '60s. It's where she watched as the chef grilled T-bones and as her father ate fried scallops on toast points.
These days, Memphis is full of great restaurants, but the dishes have taken a turn -- a fancier turn in the case of Wally Joe's "Grilled Loin of Lamb with Black Olive Crust, Celeriac-Potato Hash & Oven-Dried Tomato Red Wine Sauce"; an unexpected turn in the case of Stella's "Crawfish Cheesecake"; and an unusual turn in the case of Blue Fish's "Pan-Seared Diver's Scallops with Red-Eye Gravy."
You hanker, however, for something strictly down-home? Try the cornbread at downtown's Little Tea Shop on Monroe. Gourmet magazine's July 2005 issue saluted it. Joy Bateman in The Art of Dining in Memphis calls it melt-in-your-mouth.