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Robert St. John

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

After-Church Meals and the Nest

February 1, 2010

My family has many traditions. Some are centered around holidays, others are centered around seasons, most are centered around food. The oldest tradition in my family goes back three generations— the after-church meal on Sunday.

Years ago my grandmother always hosted the after-church meal. She usually cooked three weeks out of the month. The menu alternated on a rotation of roast beef, lamb, and turkey.

During the turkey weeks, her table looked just as it did on Thanksgiving day. She loved the traditional Thanksgiving meal of turkey, dressing, and cranberries, and didn’t see why someone should serve those items only in November. During our roast beef and lamb weeks she always served each of the proteins with rice and gravy. The vegetables varied, and there was always some type of congealed salad which I never ate.

As a kid, I wasn’t a fan of rice and gravy, so my grandmother always prepared mashed potatoes as a second starch, just for me. In the ultimate act of culinary coddling, she made a nest out of the mashed potatoes on my plate and placed a portion of English peas inside— a small thing, but it always made me feel special. She once told me that my father had liked his mashed potatoes that way. After that, I was hooked.

As the years passed, our after-church meals on Sunday moved from one place to another. Members of the family moved away, some passed away, and new members joined the troop. Our after-church meal today is a result of 21st Century lifestyles. We are a nomadic troop on Sundays. We move from restaurant to restaurant rarely eating in someone’s home.

I tried to start an after-church tradition at my house years ago. I cooked a leg of lamb like my grandmother used to make, but our guests who brought children also brought bags of McDonald’s Happy Meals. I lost interest after that.

One of the restaurants that has recently made it into our after-church Sunday meal rotation is the Movie Star Restaurant in Hattiesburg. Movie Star was originally located in Purvis in the abandoned Movie Star Lingerie factory. After eight successful years, and some issues with their landlord, they built a new building in Hattiesburg and have been packed ever since.

An affable and hard-working man named Roger Bickham runs the restaurant. Bickham, nicknamed “Hippie,” looks like a pocket-sized Santa Claus. Though in lieu of stuffed stockings and sugarplums, this former Hess Petroleum employee serves some of the best fried chicken in the state— certainly in the top three. In this writer’s judgment, it is the best fried chicken in town.

“I thought you didn’t eat at buffets,” regular readers of this column might say. That is true. Movie Star is the exception. I eat there and I eat there often. The fried chicken is great, but I go for the mashed potatoes and English peas.

My wife hates English peas. My son and daughter won’t eat them either. I, on the other hand, love them. Consequently, they are never a part of our family meals at home. No full-service restaurant has served English peas on the menu since the early 1960s. If I want English peas, I go to the Movie Star restaurant. They’re right there on the buffet next to the mashed potatoes.

I was in line yesterday, making a nest out of my potatoes and filling it with English peas, when a woman across the buffet from me said, “I haven’t done that in 25 years.” She proceeded to place her English peas on top of her mashed potatoes. Good stuff, that.

I miss my grandmother, but thanks to the Movie Star Restaurant I don’t have to miss mashed potatoes and English peas ever again.

Robert’s Mashed Potatoes

3 lbs Idaho potatoes, peeled and cut into quarters
2 Tbl. Salt
1 gallon Water

1 /2 cup Butter, cold, cut into small pats (1 stick)
6 ounces Cream cheese, softened
1 cup Half and half (or buttermilk, if using buttermilk omit cream cheese)
2 oz Sour Cream
1 1 /2 tsp. Salt
1 tsp Black pepper

In a large saucepot add potatoes to salted water. Cook at a low simmer (do not boil) to avoid potatoes breaking apart. When the potatoes are tender, carefully drain. Return potatoes to the dry pot and place over low heat for one to two minutes to remove all excess moisture.

Place potatoes a mixing bowl. Using a hand-held potato masher, mash the potatoes. Add cold butter— one piece at a time— as you begin to mash. Mix cream cheese and half and half in a microwave safe container and heat in the microwave until hot. Remove from microwave, blend together, and slowly add to hot potatoes. Gently fold in sour cream. Add salt and pepper. Potatoes may be covered tightly and held in warm place for one hour before serving. Yield: 10 servings

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