My friend Jean, an eminence in the American food world, died last week at her home in Chapel Hill at the age of 93. Born into an academic Yankee family and raised in Raleigh, she loved Southern food from her first bite of what became her all-time favorite dessert: brown sugar pie, as served in the basement cafeteria at the Fred Olds Elementary School. She was all of five years old, but this little girl taking note of the recipe was the first step of what became an amazing career that spanned more than six decades of remarkable food and travel writing.
Both Jean’s parents were scientists, and in college she sought out a solid grounding in food chemistry and nutrition at Cornell. There she gained a profound understanding of food from the inside out, all about bacteria and details of meat cuts and the chemistry of how it all goes together. She seemed to have a lifelong photographic memory for these details, and could explain easily to puzzled cooks why their food wasn’t coming out right and exactly how to fix it—even on the radio. She put this knowledge right to work when she returned to the still segregated Old North State after graduation and took a job with the Extension Service teaching farm women and girls in the far reaches of rural North Carolina about nutrition and food safety as well as economical recipes. But she was also curious about what these women were cooking, and where they’d picked up those recipes, which she recognized as important research to document.
Most of all she wanted to write, not teach, and she soon snagged a job as a cub reporter for the Raleigh Times. One day she was assigned to attend an event at the Carolina Inn in Chapel Hill where Eleanor Roosevelt would be speaking. Jean’s job was to get her attention long enough to elicit a comment or two and get a photo. The place was mobbed, but Jean connected with the First Lady who immediately suggested they escape to a quiet little room off the lobby and have a chat, which ended up going on for 20 minutes. She also snapped a particularly flattering photo that Mrs. Roosevelt wrote in her thankyou letter might well become the official portrait. Jean’s story landed above the fold on the front page and her journalism career was born. That aspiration soon led her to Columbia Journalism School, the only J-School among the Ivies. On receiving her master’s degree she earned the first of many many awards, which she would tell you with a perfectly straight face was “my Pulitzer.” Not the one you’re thinking of, but a year-long Pulitzer Traveling Scholarship, a budget given to one graduate of the program each year to the country of his or her choice. Jean went straight to Paris. Columbia made some important connections for her in France and it was a glorious, eye-opening year.
Her New York career began in earnest at the Ladies’ Home Journal, a magazine of much more importance culturally in the fifties than one might imagine today. The Journal published all the important fiction writers of the day and had a steady stream of international celebrities coming through their doors. Jean was in the test kitchen, where her duties frequently included preparing great meals for – and serving - some of these bold-face names, from Isak Dinesen and Kurt Vonnegut to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. She was always a great storyteller who loved both hearing and telling tales out of school, and she had an apparently endless hoard of them from this golden era of the women’s magazine business. Jean said it was “The Devil Wears Prada” times 10, with no expense spared (except for staff salaries).
After Ladies’ Home Journal Jean had a long free-lance career writing for all the major food and travel magazines and several newspapers, but it was in cookbooks, more than two dozen of them, that she made her name and entered the rarified ranks of the James Beard Cookbook Hall of Fame.
Her first BIG cookbook – over 4,000 recipes and nearly 1,000 pages – was co-authored with Elaine Hanna and published in 1975. It had the extremely unfortunate title of THE DOUBLEDAY COOKBOOK, a bit of anti-marketing corporate vanity that baffled its intended audience. But it was an encyclopedic compendium of modern American food that proved incredibly useful and reliable, and Doubleday updated it in 1985, still with the terrible title.
Jean was the first American food writer to discover and write in depth about Portuguese food (THE FOOD OF PORTUGAL, published in 1986 but still the authoritative standard). This book brought together her two major subjects, food and travel, and it was full of exciting discoveries. She felt an immediate affinity for both the food and the people of Portugal and was sometimes taken for Portuguese when she travelled there, although she spoke only kitchen Portuguese. I was lucky enough to be invited to go with her on her final assignment for Gourmet magazine to spotlight the food and wine of the Alentejo region in 2010.
It was something like her 87th trip to Portugal—and last, as it turned out. There were still plenty of discoveries. One of them was the treasured secreto, a small cut (just one per pig) of the famous black-footed pork of Portugal, tender and utterly delectable. Unfortunately Gourmet folded a day after we got home, and the full adventure was never written.
Jean gave my husband and me a solid education in all things North Carolina after we moved here in 2007; she had returned to Chapel Hill from Gramercy Park in New York to retire. Off we went on these jaunts with the AC turned up to Arctic whether it was cold or hot outside. We headed to Ayden for barbecue at Skylight, or on back-country trips to find special peaches in the Sandhills or for a herring run lunch near the East Coast. For that one we grabbed chef Bill Smith from Crook’s Corner (where they served Jean’s persimmon pudding every fall). Even if we were just going up to her father’s mountain house in Boone to sit on the porch with the majestic vista of Grandfather Mountain smack in front of us, there was always a regional food quarry of some sort we wanted to taste, the publishing world in New York to sort out, and endless chortling over stories upon stories. A favorite trip was to various potteries. Jean had collected North Carolina pottery with a curator’s eye and became friendly with a number of the potters. Her last book, in fact, was Kiln to Kitchen: Recipes from Beloved North Carolina Potters, for the University of North Carolina Press in 2019. Readers of this column may remember the terrific Cousins Granola recipe from that book.
2007 was the same year she published her favorite of her books, the magnum opus she poured her heart and soul into: A LOVE AFFAIR WITH SOUTHERN COOKING. Although in theory it covered the whole South, it’s heavily focused on North Carolina cooking, the region she knew best. Here were the bogs, slumps, sonkers, shirt tail pies, chess pies and other homey recipes she’d been gathering since her early days working for the state. Her greatest joy was to find a terrific recipe that was very old, preferably from an equally old person. She showed up on our back porch one afternoon with a still-warm scuppernong pie from just such a recipe that she couldn’t wait to share—it was out of this world, and appears in FROM A SOUTHERN OVEN.
Jean’s family had no patience with funerals or memorial services. She herself didn’t like to attend them and waved away the very idea of one for herself. So it seems the best way to give her a proper salute is to recreate her food and share it. Here are the recipes of Jean’s I’ll be making this week.
BROWN SUGAR PIE
This is the very pie that remained Jean’s favorite dessert her life long. Which is saying something; she had a famous sweet tooth. It’s an old-fashioned chess pie. No one knows what chess pie means, but possibly it’s a pie made from things you have on hand always—in the chest. Jean’s version is not exactly the school cafeteria version; she browns the melted butter slightly for a delicious twist on the standard.
1 pound light brown sugar
4 large eggs
¼ cup milk
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon salt
1 stick of butter, melted and slightly browned
One 9-inch pie shell
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees and set the rack in the middle of the oven.
Blend the brown sugar, eggs, milk, vanilla, and salt in a medium bowl, then add the butter in a slow stream, beating all the while.
Pour the filling into the pie shell, put it on a baking sheet and bake on the rack 50 to 60 minutes or until puffed and golden brown.
Cool to room temperature on a wire rack before cutting. The filling will fall slightly as all chess pies do.
Serve as is or with whipped cream.
GREEN SOUP (CALDO VERDE)
Jean says this lusty soup is “probably” Portugal’s national dish. Lusty it is. It’s also simple, quick, even tastier the next day. In Portugal the native cabbage it’s made with is often sold as a convenience food, already cut whisker thin for this soup. Jean says collards and kale or even turnip greens are a great substitute; just stack the leaves and cut them as thin as you can. I make it with lacinato (aka dinosaur) kale.
Yukon Golds work perfectly in the soup.
Serves 6 to 8
1 large yellow onion, minced fine
1 large garlic clove, minced
4 tablespoons olive oil
6 large Maine or Eastern potatoes, sliced thin
2 quarts cold water
6 ounces Spanish chorizo or pepperoni, sliced thin
2½ teaspoons salt, roughly
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 pound collards, kale or turnip greens, washed, trimmed of coarse stems and veins, then sliced filament-thin.
Sauté the onions and garlic in 3 tablespoons of the oil in a large heavy saucepan
2 to 3 minutes over moderate heat until they begin to color and turn glassy.
Do not brown or they will turn bitter. Add the potatoes and saute, stirring constantly, 2 to 3 minutes until they too begin to color. Add the water, cover, and boil gently over moderate heat 20 to 25 minutes until the potatoes are mushy. Meanwhile, fry the sausage in a medium-size heavy skillet over low heat 10 to 12 minutes until most of the fat has cooked out; drain well and reserve.
When the potatoes are soft, remove the pan from the stove and with a potato masher, mash the potatoes right in the pan in the soup mixture. Add the sausage, salt, and pepper, return to moderate heat, cover, and simmer 5 minutes. Add the collards and simmer uncovered 5 minutes until tender and the color of jade. Mix in the remaining tablespoon of olive oil, and taste the soup for salt and pepper. Ladle into large soup plates and serve as a main course with chunks of Broa, Portuguese cornbread. (You can of course serve it with Southern cornbread.)
This is Jean’s most famous recipe, the only recipe her close friend and colleague Sara Moulton wishes she herself had invented—not only because it’s so delicious but also so adaptable. You can make it ahead, serve it hot or cold or room temp.
Sara has featured it on the Rachael Ray show and it’s always a hit, on TV or at the table.
There’s a pecan-crusted version in the LOVE AFFAIR WITH SOUTHERN COOKING book.
Serves 4 to 6
1½ sticks unsalted butter, cut into several pieces
1 tablespoon minced garlic
3 cups fresh breadcrumbs
1¾ ounces of finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1 tablespoon of freshly minced rosemary
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 3½-pound chicken, cut into 10 pieces (or all thighs, wings, or breasts, if desired)
1 lemon, cut into wedges
Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Combine the butter and garlic in a small saucepan. Heat over medium-high heat until the butter has melted. Pour into a large bowl and cool to room temperature.
Mix the breadcrumbs, cheese, rosemary, and pepper in a large bowl. Dip each chicken piece, one at a time, into the melted garlic butter. Transfer to the bread crumb mixture and turn until coated on all sides.
Arrange the chicken in one flat layer on a large baking sheet. Drizzle on any of the remaining melted butter. Bake until lightly browned and just cooked through, 50 to 60 minutes. Serve with lemon wedges.
Fran McCullough is a James Beard Award-winning editor who has also authored several books on food. She lives in Hillsborough.
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