Our office receives strange telephone calls and odd requests on a weekly basis. The calls usually involve my schedule. I am often asked to be an after-dinner speaker or a conference/convention keynote speaker. I love doing that. The most frequent inquiry we receive is about cooking demos or dual demos. The dual demos are my favorite. My friend and collaborator, watercolorist Wyatt Waters, and I have done over 100 dual demos over the past 13 years all over the country. From New York to Texas and all points in between— I cook, he paints, and we feed a group of people for a fundraiser or special event. It’s a blast.
I am often asked to judge cooking competitions. Those are frequent requests and hard for us to schedule. The hardest are chili cook-offs because I have to pretend that I enjoy eating chili. Beauty-pageant judging is a frequent request.
I once judged a cooking competition, and awarded first, second, and third place ribbons. The lady who came in fourth approached me after the event and asked what was wrong with her dish. In an awkward moment I stuttered and stammered searching for the right words. Her reply was, “Well the recipe was out of your cookbook and I did everything you told me to do.”
A month ago we received a call from a sweet lady with a request. She had asked her mother, “If you could have anything you want for your 50th anniversary with dad, what would it be?”
“I would like for Robert St. John to come to my house and cook for our family,” was her reply. Upon hearing this, my initial thought was, your mother should aim higher. But they made an offer we couldn’t refuse and I was booked in Columbus, Miss. on a Saturday night in August.
I was a little skeptical. There are a lot of things that can make for an awkward night in that situation. One never knows what one is walking into when it comes to dealing with family dynamics. Was this going to be a formal, stuffy dinner? Was family politics going to lead to awkward situations and conversations? Would some of the siblings be unhappy about their mom not aiming higher?
To be honest, I wasn’t fired up about the gig. I had finished an unusually busy week, I was short a sous chef, I was driving up and back in one night, and my kids had just started back to school.
What you should know today is that I am ashamed to have even written the previous two sentences. From the minute I stepped out of my truck in the driveway of the Bigelow family home, I had a blast. I was greeted by the kindest, friendliest, most convivial and hospitable family I have ever met. I spent the next five hours with the most fun, laid back, and devoted family I have ever had the pleasure of meeting.
Jean and Jim Bigelow married 50 years ago. They raised four children and now have 10 grandchildren. I was told to cook for 20 people at dinner. They said that I could just serve chicken tenders to the kids, but I am a firm believer in the kids eating what the adults eat. I tweaked my original menu and offered something that I hoped would appeal to the entire group.
When I walked into the house, I was surprised to see my buddy, Wyatt Waters stepping out of the guest bathroom where he had been drawing on the wall. In a quick hint that this wasn’t going to be your average, everyday, boring family experience, I learned that they ask all guests in their home to sign the wall. Wyatt being, well, Wyatt, he drew a landscape scene.
I moved to the kitchen where I began to prepare dinner with my sous chef and server. The family members who weren’t visiting with Wyatt in the other room gathered around the kitchen island and we all visited while I cooked.
I love the Bigelow family and their longstanding traditions like the bathroom-wall signing, the critter bucket, the blackberry jam jar that will always be refilled if you send it back, and the ritual of everyone waving and shouting “goodbye” in the driveway whenever someone leaves. This was a family who loved each other. This was a family who loved life. This was a family who loved their parents.
It was an event that was the embodiment of what leads to a happy and fulfilling life, The Five Fs: Faith, family, friends, food, and fun. When the first four are present, it’s almost impossible to not have fun. Especially when the family is as loving, dedicated, unpretentious, and genuine as any I have ever met.
It speaks volumes about the children and in-law children of a couple who would go to this much trouble to make their parent’s 50th wedding anniversary a special event. Though it probably speaks more about the parents who did such a good job raising those children. I can only hope that one day— if I live that long— my kids would honor my wife and me with an evening of faith, family, friends, food, and fun.
Crab Bread with Tomato Basil Concasse
1 Tbl butter
2 Tbl green onions, thinly sliced
1/4 cup diced red peppers
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbl butter
2 Tbl flour
1/3 cup hot chicken stock
2 TBSP sherry
1 tsp lemon juice
1 Tbl hot sauce
1/2 pound cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup Swiss cheese, grated
1/2 pound Fresh lump crab meat
2 Tbl parsley, chopped
1 French Baguette, 16-20 inches in length
Preheat oven to 375.
Melt the first tablespoon of butter in a small sauté pan over a medium heat. Add in the green onions, peppers, salt and pepper and cook for 1 minute. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Melt the remaining two tablespoons of butter in a small sauté pan over a low heat. Stir in the flour to form a roux. Cook the roux for 3-4 minutes, stirring constantly, being careful not to burn the roux.
Whisk the hot stock, sherry and lemon juice into the roux mixture. Cook for 3-4 more minutes and remove from heat.
Place the softened cream cheese into an electric mixing bowl, and using the paddle attachment, beat it for 2-3 minutes. Scrape down the bowl using a rubber spatula, and then add the thickened stock mixture, peppers and onions and Swiss cheese. Blend until smooth.
Next gently fold in the crab and parsley using a rubber spatula.
Cut the baguette in half lengthwise and spread the crab mixture evenly over the bread.
Place the two halves on a foil lined baking sheet and bake for twenty minutes.
Remove the bread from the oven and allow cool for 3-4 minutes. Using a sharp serrated knife, cut 2” wide slices. Arrange slices on a serving dish and top each piece with a teaspoon of the tomato concasse mixture.
Tomato Basil Concasse
1 1/2 cups Fresh Ripe Tomatoes, seeds removed, very small dice
1/2 tsp garlic, minced
1/2 tsp salt
1/8 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 TBSP freshly squeezed orange juice
1/4 cup fresh basil, chopped
2 TBSP extra virgin olive oil
Combine all ingredients.
Yield: 8 servings