Do you know Martha Hall Foose? I don’t, not personally at least, but I wish I did. She seems like the kind of woman I’d want for a friend. Warm, welcoming, funny, full of stories to delight your soul and your senses. Plus, we’re both from Mississippi, and that’s an automatic bond in and of itself. Us Mississippi gals have to stick together.
I was thrilled to be offered a review copy of her latest cookbook, A Southerly Course, in which she shares recipes and stories of life in the South. As I flipped through the pages, I was struck by the sense of ease and comfort that seeps from the pages. Her words are effortless and her recipes are inspiring. She offers passages that are juicy, concise in their construction, yet rich in meaning:
Peeking beneath the table’s pall in the mythic South to see how its patent qualities of deep involvement with family, observance of ritual, and celebration of eccentricity play out around Southern food today has been quite a trip. It has taken me on an inner journey as well. My ambition to understand this mythologizing to which we Southerners are prone has had me up nights in the kitchen. The myths themselves seem to begin with stories told around tables.
There’s a sense of front porch simplicity, of Sunday dinners on the farm, of family traditions passed down through generations. She writes of a life with which I’m familiar, of hardship masked by the fortitude and grace of the people of this region. My people. Her people. If you’re from the South, or even if you’re not (maybe even especially if you’re not), I highly recommend this book. Even if you never attempt one of the recipes, you’ll delight in the stories behind them, and in the insight into this strange and rich subculture of America.
I really, really, really wanted to try the Skillet Fried Corn recipe. When I first got the book, I flipped through the various sections, and the book just sort of naturally fell open to this page. For years, my mother and I have romanticized my paternal Grandmother’s fried corn. It’s what many people have come to call creamed corn, but it’s a far cry from what we know today as creamed corn. I can picture it now, golden kernels of corn, dotted with a surplus of black pepper, fried in bacon grease. The “cream” came from scraping the milk from the cob after you’d cut the kernels off. Ms. Foose’s recipe is the closest I’ve come to something similar. Hers calls for butter in addition to the bacon grease, and garlic (which I’m pretty sure my Grandmother never used), but otherwise it’s close. Unfortunately, corn season has passed in these parts, so it will have to wait until next summer.
As it turns out, the first recipe I decided to test was used more as a guideline than as a formula. I needed a soda cracker recipe, and hers was the first I came to. I followed her ratios, but the ingredients are mine. It was nice to find a simple, straightforward recipe for a cracker in a modern cookbook, though. I think so many of us have come to rely on store bought crackers that we forget that they can be made at home. And perhaps they should – there’s something personal about serving guests crackers that didn’t come from a sleeve in a cardboard box. Plus, you can store them in adorable mason jars – there’s not much cuter than that.
Sage Cornmeal Soda Crackers
adapted from A Southerly Course by Martha Hall Foose
prep time: 10 minutes
cook time: 20 minutes
yields: 180 crackers
- 3 1/2 cups stone-ground white cornmeal
- 1 cup whole wheat flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon dried rubbed sage
- 1 teaspoon sea salt, plus more for sprinkling
- 3/4 cup expeller-pressed (non-hydrogenated) vegetable shortening
- 2 cups whole milk
- Preheat oven to 375F
- Combine dry ingredients
- Cut shortening into dry ingredients with a pastry cutter until it resembles course meal
- Make a well in the center and add the milk
- Stir to combine and knead to form a stiff dough. If it’s too wet, add some more flour or cornmeal
- Turn dough out onto a well floured surface and roll to a 1/8-inch thickness
- Use a pizza cutter or knife to cut into one-inch squares. Prick with a fork and sprinkle with sea salt
- Transfer to a baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes, until golden brown and crisp.
- Allow to cool before serving.
They were crisp and light, if a little dry. As I recall, though, that’s a feature of soda crackers. The cornmeal gave them some texture, and the sage was subtle but still noticeable. They paired very nicely with a sweet potato bisque that I served for dinner. I think they would also be good smeared with goat cheese and topped with tomato jam. I was pleasantly surprised when the recipe yielded almost 180 crackers – Ms. Foose’s version says it only makes 60. Not sure why the discrepancy, but I’m certainly not complaining. We’ll have soda crackers for days.