Wednesday, November 09, 2016
Fruitcake Weather in St. Francisville
By Anne Butler
Fruitcake Weather. That’s what beloved southern author Truman Capote called it in his wonderful Christmas Memory, when the first wintry winds blew down pecans to be shelled and when annual visits to the local bootlegger surrepticiously supplied the secret kick to the dozens of fruitcakes made by Capote, then an orphaned child, with an elderly relative whom he described as “still a child.” The Christmas memories may have come from their home in rural Alabama, but all across the South and especially in St. Francisville, Louisiana, holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas were always special, and every old home’s gleaming mahogany sideboard groaned with the weight of homemade fruitcakes to which, every time anyone passed by, another little dash of brandy was added.
So as the holidays approach, it is only natural that our thoughts turn to…food, desserts especially, rich holiday traditions gleaned from old family receipt books and tattered treasured clippings. Back in the era of Capote’s childhood, recipes were like antiques…they had to have provenance, so you could tell whose they were, where they came from, where they were served, who cooked them and who enjoyed the consumption. They were like old friends or family with familiar backgrounds, and you could tell by the name of the contributor whether the recipes would be any good or not.
In Plantation Recipes and Recollections compiled by Violet Pate, elderly keeper of the history of the oldest established black Baptist church in the St. Francisville area, she records the details for Oyster Dressing, noting that it was cooked for 30 years for Mrs. Lois Lester of Waverly Plantation at Bains by Violet Glover, who happened to be the charming grandmother of Baton Rouge mayor Kip Holden from whom he obviously inherited his brilliant smile. Even in the early days, its location right along the Mississippi River assured St. Francisville a bountiful supply of fresh holiday oysters shipped upriver by prosperous merchants as Christmas/New Year’s rewards for loyal patrons.
Early cookbooks came in all sizes and shapes. That whirlwind master marketer Marcelle Reese Couhig, familiarly known as Nootsie, hit the jackpot with beloved recipes like the internationally appreciated Asphodel Bread, on index cards in actual boxes, still sold today by descendants at their local bookstore. Her typically casual recipe for French 75 is below, reprinted from the Women’s Service League Feliciana Favourites cookbook, treasured compendium of offerings from all the good cooks of the area, first printed in 1981; an updated version, with all new recipes (but no contributor names), has just been released to fund worthy community projects undertaken by this volunteer group.
Every local church and charity had its fundraising cookbook over the years. St. Francisville’s earliest residents being mostly English, the holiday recipes were heavy on Anglo influences…Charlotte Russe, Floating Island, Plum Pudding brought to table flamed by such liberal doses of brandy that wide-eyed children feared their grandmother would go up in smoke, mincemeat pie with plenty of hard sauce (see recipe below) to make it palatable, fruitcake so frequently doused over preceding weeks that visible fumes arose, much to the delight of tipsy great-uncles (didn’t every family have one?). The vintage cookbook published by Grace Episcopal Church, whose congregation first came together in the 1820s, included a recipe for “Old English Plum Pudding” said to have been brought from Liverpool “more than a century ago and age has not lessened its popularity.”
And eggnog. Lots and lots of eggnog. At Catalpa Plantation, as described in Audubon Plantation Country Cookbook with wonderful vintage images and lots of history accompanying the actual recipes, the late grande dame and gracious hostess Mamie Fort Thompson was quoted as insisting that in making the eggnog served at Catalpa’s famous Christmas parties, you could use half an eggshell as your jigger to measure the bourbon. She strongly recommended using the larger half!
Of course today our kitchen shelves groan under the weight of contemporary cookbooks from all over the world, from notable chefs (especially our wonderful Louisiana ones) and famous restaurants. And in St. Francisville itself we even have restaurants lending new influences to our holiday menus…Oriental, Middle Eastern, Mexican, Cajun. But there’s just something about those old cookbooks full of recipes as warm and welcoming as treasured old friends, and holiday visits to the St. Francisville area impart the same feeling.
Still, there’s lots to do in St. Francisville besides eat. Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination. A number of splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours: The Cottage Plantation (weekends), Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation (check locally; it has new owners), plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens and Imahara’s Botanical Garden are open in season and are both spectacular. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer periodic living-history demonstrations to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs (state budget constraints have unfortunately shuttered Oakley Monday and Tuesday).
In November Oakley features programs called “Forgotten Lives” (a quarters tour with emphasis on experiences of plantation slaves) November 6 from 12 to 4, and “Deck the Halls” on November 26 from 10 to 3, allowing visitors to “adopt a mantle” to decorate with period greens for Christmas. And as decorations go up throughout the historic downtown area of St. Francisville in preparation for Christmas in the Country the first weekend in December, the little rivertown becomes a sparkling winter wonderland.
The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking and especially bicycle racing due to the challenging terrain, birding, photography, hunting, and kayaking on Bayou Sara. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some nice restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from ethnic cuisine to seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.
For visitor information, call West Feliciana Tourist Commission and West Feliciana Historical Society at 225-6330 or 225-635-4224, or St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873; online visit www.westfeliciana.us, www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, www.stfrancisville.net or www.stfrancisville.us (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).
MAMIE THOMPSON’S FAMOUS CATALPA EGGNOG
6 eggs, separated; 6 tbsp. sugar; 6 jiggers bourbon; 1 half-pint whipping cream, whipped; 3/4 cup milk (optional); nutmeg.
Beat egg yolks until very light. Add sugar. Beat. Beat egg whites, then gently fold into yolk mixture a little at a time. Pour bourbon over, to sort of cook the egg whites. Mix. Add whipped cream, folding in gently. If too thick, add up to ¾ cup milk. Refrigerate until very cold. Top with sprinkling of nutmeg.
VIOLET GLOVER’S OYSTER DRESSING
6 jars oysters, chopped; 10 slices bread, toasted and softened with milk; 1 stick butter; ½ cup onion; ½ cup celery; ½ cup bell peppers; salt and black pepper; 1 teaspoon Tabasco.
Drain oysters and save juice. Cook onions, celery and bell peppers in butter until tender (about 10 minutes of stirring so they won’t burn); add chopped oysters and toasted bread, then salt, pepper and Tabasco sauce. Pour ingredients into baking dish and cook in oven for about 20 minutes at 350 degrees.
GRANDMA’S HARD SAUCE (from Oil & GAStronomy)
1 stick real butter, softened; 2 cups confectioners sugar; brandy.
Beat butter, gradually adding sugar until creamy. Add brandy one tablespoon at a time to taste. Taste brandy. Add brandy to taste. Taste brandy. Add brandy to taste. Goes well on hot apple pie, mincemeat pie, or on a spoon. Grandma is always in a wonderful mood after making this recipe.
1 quart gin; 3 bottles champagne; 1 pint lemon juice; 1 cup sugar.
Chill gin and champagne for a couple of days in the fridge. Use one large chunk of ice in the bowl. Make it yourself in a plastic something in your freezer. Pour sugar over ice, then all the rest of the liquids. If you like it sweeter, make a simple syrup, but watch you don’t spoil your dinner. Serves approximately 25.