As a multi-generational Southern entertainer, hosting friends and family is an essential part of my DNA. My historic childhood home in Tennessee was always the address for 4th of July parties and Thanksgiving dinner, and when I was a child, I helped my mother make chicken salad sandwiches and pecan tassies for bridal teas and Sip and Sees that she hosted. (Which if you don’t know, is Southern party-speak for “Come have Sherbet Punch and meet the new baby.”)
Not all Southerners are cooks, and one of my favorite women from Vicksburg, Mississippi once said to me, “I read cookbooks like fiction.”
I hosted my first Thanksgiving at age 25 and have it down to such a science now that I don’t even bat an eye if someone wants to come at the last minute (which always happens). I simply iron another napkin and set a place at the table.
Reading cookbooks, on the other hand, was not something that came natural to me as an adult with my own kitchen. I learned to cook by sight “guess-timations” and taste. If you ask my mother how she makes her, well… anything, she says, “Oh, you know how I do it! It’s easy!” (And those are the instructions.) Under her supervised direction, it took years of eyeballing buttermilk and Crisco glops to finally produce edible biscuits and when asked how I make them, I shrug and laugh. Folks think I’m keeping a family secret ingredient, but the ingredient is actually self-doubt and relief that they turned out OK and not like rocks.
My first cookbook was the perennial favorite Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook and I highly recommend it! It taught me how to read a cookbook and it has nice little kitchen lessons sprinkled throughout. The pages of mine are stuck together, but each stain represents a meal I cooked in my early twenties for friends.
I have amassed a collection of probably 100 or more, and they are part of my will. I can only pick three favorites for this exercise, which for the record, I think is completely unfair.
THE SOUTHERN LIVING COOKBOOK By The Editors
Oxmoor House, 1987 (Out of print)
Let me start by saying this is out of print, but it is essential. My “Cooking Bible,” so to speak. My mother passed me her copy over a decade ago, and I quickly realized it was where all of “her” recipes came from. All the dinners and holidays of my childhood, discovered like King Tut’s tomb. This cookbook is solid gold. Wild Rice Stuffed Chicken on page 383 tastes like a November school night. The Pecan-Cheese Ring on page 35 (in the “Dips and Spreads” section) is Christmas Day, and when I looked up the page number for reference, it was marked by a 4th of July party invitation from 1996. “Bring your own cooler and a pillow. You’re welcome to stay the night.”
There have been several iterations of this cookbook since 1987, most recently by Oxford, Mississippi resident, hostess with the mostest and frequent Today Show guest, Elizabeth Heiskell, but this is the no-frills, no fuss edition you want. You can find it used online for practically nothing.
SOUTHERN SIDEBOARDS By The Junior League of Jackson, Mississippi
Junior League of Jackson, Mississippi, $18.95
Any Junior League cookbook will do, and believe me when I tell you that I have most of them, but Jackson’s is the best. A staple since 1979, it even has a “Rainy Days and Special Days” section of children’s activities and recipes, including No-Cook Play Dough, soap crayons and snow ice cream, for the incredibly rare occasion that it snows in Mississippi. (The instructions make clear that it snows enough to have snow ice cream “about once a generation.”)
The recipes are simple and timeless, while carrying the legacy and traditions of Mississippi food. Which, by the way, is its own subset of Southern cooking, a fact I quickly learned when I moved here from Tennessee almost two decades ago.
JUBILEE: Recipes from Two Centuries of African American Cooking By Toni Tipton-Martin
Clarkson Potter, $35
I’m Southern enough to know, fully recognize and appreciate the fact that without African American cooking, there would be no “Southern cuisine.” Full stop.
Toni Tipton-Martin’s 2019 book Jubilee is a gorgeous and essential addition to the pantheon of great cookbooks. It’s stunning enough to put on a coffee table, but accessible in the sense that it isn’t pretentious and doesn’t read like most “decor cookbooks,” which are those pretty ones most often found perfectly stacked and staged in the homes of people who cannot boil water. She is a historian and keeper of African American food culture and this book is the product of a lifetime of love and research. It won 2020’s James Beard Award for Best American Cookbook, which was Tipton-Martin’s second — her first was in 2016 for Reference and Scholarship for The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks.
I have cooked from it during the pandemic, and it never fails to make me happy, remember home and be hopeful for a future where I can entertain and cook for friends and family again.