The local Junior League cookbook is the culinary bible of the Southern home. Every kitchen of my Alabama childhood had at least one well-worn copy of Magic, the Junior League of Birmingham’s 1983 recipe collection, with an enticing yellow-spiral binding and entries on everything from shrimp salad to banana pudding. Some would also have a copy of Palates, Platters, and Other Such Matters, the JLB’s 1950 edition, notable for its more liberal inclusion of lard and mayonnaise. Like every Junior League cookbook, the recipes were sourced from the community and thus varied wildly both in quality and in method of preparation. Still, the hand-me-down wisdom from Birmingham’s residents on how to properly prepare venison skewers or pimiento-cheese eggs had an authority that no celebrity chef or French instructor could muster. They were part of the trusted pantheon that my parents, whose taste ran more to grilled fish and apple pies than deep-fried catfish and layer cakes, would consult whenever a dish needed some extra flair. When I moved up to New York for college, my mother bequeathed me the most useful items she could think of for the journey: a ceramic teapot, a CD of Thin Lizzy’s greatest hits, and a copy of the newest JLB cookbook, Food for Thought.
It was part homesickness, part tiring of the endless meal-plan tuna melts that caused me to leaf through Food for Thought for more than just the pictures and familiar contributor names. (In scanning the index of recipes, certain contributors jumped out: the mother of a junior high crush, the organizer of the reception of my first and only debutante event, the family for whom my high school auditorium was named.) Sandwiched between essays waxing nostalgic about grits and poking fun at California cuisine were the dishes that taught me how to cook in earnest. After teenage years full of longing for escape from my muggy Southern home, I began, in my little dorm on 116th Street, clumsily making vats of overly spiced gumbo and punch bowls of mint juleps for my bewildered but grateful roommates. Read More