By Ginna Parsons/NEMS Daily Journal
A few months ago, I called Jana Gentry, a woman in Ripley who had been nominated to be featured as a Cook of the Week. Jana very politely declined my invitation, saying she had been featured years ago in the Journal in an article Phyllis Harper wrote.
At the time – the early 1990s – Jana had a tea room called Jana’s Bed and Breakfast that she operated for about four years. There actually was a bedroom in her home that she would occasionally rent, but mainly she just liked to cook for folks.
Seven days a week, she prepared mouth-watering lunches and dinners for anyone who walked through her doors.
“My cooking brought acquaintances and friends together,” she said.
Last week, Jana called and invited me to lunch at her home. I was already going to be in New Albany that morning, so I jumped at the chance to drive a few miles up the road to meet this interesting lady.
Jana was everything I thought she would be – gracious, kind, funny, an excellent hostess. She’s not a Southerner by birth, but she could not have been more genteel.
She invited a couple of her longtime friends to dine with us and the four of us sat at a beautifully appointed table in soft, padded chairs. Jana had already prepared our meal – a seven-layer salad – and served it on individual plates, although typically it’s served in a large bowl.
“I like to serve it on individual plates when I can, because that way you get all the good stuff,” she said. “If you have a large crowd, be sure your bowl is wider than it is deep or people will have trouble when they’re trying to get all the layers.”
Jana said she got this recipe from her mother, who only made it in the summer, when the tomatoes and green onions were ready to be harvested from the family’s garden.
“I’ve never run into anyone in the South who’s had this salad before,” she said.
She said the key to this dish is to make no substitutions: The lettuce must be iceberg, and the beans Ranch-style, not pinto beans or black beans or chickpeas. Tomatoes have to be fresh from the garden and the cheese must be Cheddar. She makes her own homemade Ranch dressing, but she said store-bought is fine.
I’d never had this salad before and it was delicious. I ate every single bite on my plate. I plan to make it a summer staple at our home from now on.
Iceberg lettuce, torn in pieces
Ranch-style beans, rinsed and drained
Chopped tomatoes in season
Shredded Cheddar cheese
Fritos corn chips
In a large, shallow serving bowl or on individual plates, layer the salad in the order of the ingredients listed. Crush some of the Fritos and let them fall into the salad and break a half dozen or so in half and scatter on top. If serving family-style, use tongs.
Ginna Parsons is the Daily Journal’s food/home/garden editor.