By Robert St. John
The South Mississippi of the 1960s and 1970s – the Mississippi of my childhood – didn’t lend itself to adventurous dining and exotic ingredients. However, there were two locations where my palate was expanded: trips to New Orleans with my mother, and dinners at my grandmother’s house.
My grandmother hosted weekly lunches after church, and went “all out” when relatives from out of town visited during the week. Those meals are the prevailing, and the fondest, memories of my childhood years.
I have written often of my grandmother’s dinners. They are a prominent part of any speech I have ever delivered. The impact they made on me was so strong that all of my ideas on sharing a meal or family dining emanate from that dining room at 205 4th Ave., in my hometown of Hattiesburg.
Her meals were grand. She set a very formal table with linen, sterling silver and crystal, and spent a few days in preparation of a meal as typical as an after-church Sunday lunch. The entrees consisted of mostly Southern standards, though all expertly prepared. Her leg of lamb – even in the face of the foods I’ve experienced across the globe – would still, without hesitation, be my last-meal request.
Desserts typically involved pound cake with fresh fruit or seasonal cobbler during the summer. Homemade cakes were served on birthdays
The fond memories of my grandmother’s dinners, however, end at the salad course. My first exposure to salad was at my grandmother’s table. The salads she served were mostly congealed aspicky kinds of things. I loved my grandmother dearly, but I hated her salads with a passion.
Tomato aspic is truly a cruel trick to play on a young boy. It looks like Jell-O, it shakes like Jell-O, but it tastes like gelatinous V-8 juice. To this day I don’t drink V-8 juice, just from the taste-shock I experienced – thinking I was about to eat cherry Jell-O with whipped cream on top and biting into tomato aspic with a dollop of mayonnaise – when I was 8 years old.
Granted, the lettuce leaf underneath should have been an indicator, but an 8 year old blinded by the exciting prospect of Jell-O doesn’t tend to think rationally.
She served what I call “Little old lady salads,” and everyone but me seemed to enjoy them. Idiots, all.
Just as she rotated main courses, the little old lady salads were in a rotation, too. One Sunday the dreaded tomato aspic would make an appearance, the next Sunday she would serve ambrosia.
Never in the history of the culinary world has something that sounded so pretty tasted so badly. Ambrosia sucks. Most people under 40 years old probably don’t even know what ambrosia is. Consider them lucky. I don’t want any part of a salad that has marshmallows, coconut, sour cream and those neon-red, overly sweet jarred cherries in it. No thank you, pass the gravy, please.
Sometimes I think she congealed her ambrosia – another bad idea.
Add to the list of terrifying salads anything that ends with the word “mold.” As long as I can push away from the table I hope to never see another broccoli mold or vegetable mousse.
These formal salads made such a negative impression on me (read: traumatized) that I wouldn’t eat a regular tossed salad for years. I can remember a phase when I ate just the core of iceberg lettuce. No dressing. No accoutrements. I was probably 19 years old before I began to eat lettuce with some type of dressing. Blame it on aspic.
Today I love salads of all types. My favorite is a simple Tuscan salad of arugula lightly tossed in enough balsamic vinegar to barely wet the greens and then drizzled with even less extra virgin olive oil. Add salt and pepper and the salad is complete.
Our restaurant customers love salads. They account for almost 40 percent of our lunch business. We even offer a summer feature menu in our casual-themed New Orleans concept that focuses solely on – you guessed it – salads. It’s a huge hit this time of year.
I spent many days propped on a stool next to the window-unit air-conditioner in my grandmother’s kitchen watching her fry chicken, roast lamb or roll biscuit dough. Through all of those fond memories, I don’t ever remember her making a congealed salad or ring mold. Maybe I just left the room when the V-8 and gelatin molds came out of the pantry.
Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author of numerous books.