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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

James Beard Foundation Awards

May 18, 2009

A couple of weeks ago The James Beard Foundation Awards ceremony was held in 

New York to honor the nation’s best chefs, restaurants, cookbook authors, and food journalists.

The James Beard Foundation Awards are the Academy Awards of the food business and my home state of Mississippi was

 represented well.

John Currence, chef/owner of City Grocery in Oxford, Miss took home the Beard award for Best Chef: South. Martha Foose, the Mississippi Delta chef and cookbook author, won a James Beard Book Award in the category “American Cooking” for her cook

book, “Screen Doors and Sweet Tea: Recipes and Tales from a Southern Cook.” John T. Edge, also of Oxford, a director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, won recognition as Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America.

That’s a big night for a small state. It’s an even bigger night for a small town. Currence and Edge have both been living in Oxford for a couple of decades. Foose spent her early days in the restaurant business working in Oxford— first for Currence, then at The Bottletree Bakery

For years, I have considered Currence the best chef in Mississippi. I still do. His creativity, New Orleans roots, and sound culinary fundamentals have kept him at the top of the food chain in this state. If I were in charge of an awards ceremony, I’d give him another medal just for bringing breakfast back to the forefront of the Mississippi culinary scene by opening Big Bad Breakfast in Oxford.

Currence, who was in jeopardy of becoming the Susan Lucci of the Beard Awards, finally got his due— though in my opinion, long overdue due— and was recognized as the best chef in the South, which I am sure is the first of many to come.

I purchase and receive hundreds of cookbooks every year. Martha Foose wrote my favorite cookbook of 2008. Last November, I recommended Foose’s cookbook in this column with these words, “My publisher says that if someone cooks six recipes out of a cookbook, it is a major success. The first time I thumbed through Foose’s book, there were several dozen recipes I wanted to prepare.”

“Foose got her start at the La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles, and moved on to several bakeries in Mississippi. However, where Foose shines in this, her first publishing effort, is on the savory courses that take place well before dessert— Inside Out Sweet Potatoes, Lady Pea Salad, and Chicken Thighs and Dumplings to list just a few.”

From the banana pudding she cooked for Oprah (in individual Mason jars) to Catfish in a Paper Sack, “Screen Doors and Sweet Tea” is filled with recipes new, true, and Southern.

John T. Edge, one of the founders of The Southern Foodways Alliance, has done more than most to draw attention to Southern cuisine and culture. I am serious about food, but I don’t take food too seriously. John T. takes food seriously. Actually, I don’t know anyone who is as serious about food as John T. Edge. With an academician’s focus, he has written a series of book that focused on classic American foods— “Donuts An American Passion,” “Hamburgers and Fries An American Story,” and other books focusing on fried chicken and apple pie. Anyone who is as serious about food as John T. certainly deserves to be listed among the nation’s Who’s Who.

I don’t have the exact statistics, but I would venture to guess that this year Mississippi received more James Beard Awards per capita than any other state. It’s time more people knew what we’ve known for a long time: This is a great state for good food. Currence, Foose, and Edge, have helped spread the word through their hard work, devotion, and enthusiasm. For this, and everything else they have done, they should be recognized, congratulated, and honored often.

Amaretto-Brulee Breakfast Bread

1 /3 cup             Butter, melted

3 /4 cup             Brown sugar

2 Tbl                  Honey

2 Tbl                Pecans, chopped (optional)

2 Tbl                Almonds, slivered and blanched (optional)

8                      Slices of sourdough bread, cut into 1-inch thick rounds

4                       Eggs

2 /3 cup           Milk

1 /4 cup            Heavy cream

1 /8 tsp              Cinnamon

1 /8 tsp               Nutmeg

1 Tbl                  Vanilla

1 Tbl                   Amaretto

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a cast iron skillet, combine butter, brown sugar and honey over medium-high heat. Cook mixture, stirring constantly until bubbly and sugar has dissolved. Add nuts. Pour Brulee into the bottom of a round, two-quart Pyrex baking dish. Allow Brulee to cool slightly then top with the sourdough bread croutons. There should be enough bread to cover the bottom of the dish. If your sourdough loaf is small, add more bread slices so that the entire dish is covered in one layer of bread.

In a large mixing bowl whisk eggs, milk, heavy cream, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla and Amaretto. Pour mixture evenly over the bread. Using the tips of your fingers, press bread down gently to force custard into croutons without breaking. Cover dish with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

Allow custard to come to room temperature one hour before baking. Bake uncovered until bread is puffed and edges of croutons are golden brown, (approximately 40 minutes). Place a plate on top of the baking dish. Using dish towels or pot holders, invert dish onto a plate. Top with powdered sugar. Yield: four to six servings


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