TUPELO – For now, Jean Bartlett is resigned to living in her second home in Tupelo two months a year and spending the other 10 months in Maryland at her primary residence. But she looks forward to the day when her husband, John, a professor at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, retires.
“Then we can be here most of the time, 10 months in Tupelo and two months in Baltimore,” said Bartlett, 65. “This is my play time. I don’t do any formal entertaining when we’re here. People just come and eat, some standing at the kitchen island.”
Bartlett grew up in Northwest Alabama, the daughter of a Southern Baptist minister. Even though she said her mother was a wonderful cook, Bartlett didn’t learn her skills at home.
“When John and I married and moved to Los Angeles, I took cooking classes and learned how to flambampé meats and desserts and how to make sauces,” she said. “But I am very good at Southern cooking, too. I can fry okra and squash and cook purple-hull peas. I make excellent cornbread. When people come here on New Year’s Day to eat peas and greens, they say, ‘Well, you haven’t lost your touch.’”
Bartlett enjoys cooking with the freshest ingredients possible, which is why she has a pretty good-sized garden in the backyard of her home in Belden.
“I do a lot of stir-fry for supper,” she said. “If there are 10 pods of okra and four or five green beans and maybe some onion, I’ll throw all that in the wok. If I have some meat, I’ll throw that in – not much, maybe half of a chicken breast for a big pan of veggies.”
While Bartlett might not do much formal entertaining, she can certainly put together an elegant meal, complete with antique china and silver. The former nurse and art shop owner might serve guests roasted beef tenderloin, fingerling potatoes marinated in olive oil and herbes de Provence, a big salad and fresh fruit with cream for dessert.
She might even serve bread, if you ask. Just don’t request chitterlings.
“When we first moved to L.A. in the late ’60s, everybody was talking about soul food,” she said, “and everybody wanted me to cook chitterlings. I had never eaten one or even seen one. I called my mother and she had no idea. I went to the bookstore and read up on them and then I had to go all the way to Watts to get them.
“John and I almost threw up the smell was so bad. I had to put them outside on the patio. All our guests had a “no-thank-you” helping. That means one bite.”
Whether Bartlett is preparing beef tenderloin for neighbors or a hamburger casserole for her grandchildren, she’s equally happy. Just being in the kitchen with friends or family is what’s important to her.
“I had such a blessed upbringing,” she said. “We didn’t have much, but we had a family that loved us. My brothers and I are still very close. I’ve always said that’s a great tribute to our parents.”
Do you know a good cook? Send your nominations to Ginna Parsons, Cook of the Week, P.O. Box 909, Tupelo, MS 38802. Or you can fax them to (662) 842-2233 or e-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ginna Parsons/NEMS Daily Journal