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Robert St. John

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

A Vessel For Everything, and Everything In Its Place

October 11, 2016


I might be the only southern writer/columnist/author working today who didn’t grow up drinking iced tea.

It wasn’t due to lack of exposure to iced tea. Our family drank a lot of it. My grandmother hosted elaborate Sunday lunches several times each month in which her formal dining room table would be set with fine china, sterling silver flatware, crystal glasses for water and sterling silver goblets filled with iced tea. My brother and I drank milk.

The setting was perfect, and the memories shared at that table are with me still. Yet there isn’t one memory among all of the leg of lamb, fried chicken, rice and gravy, homemade biscuits, and the dreaded ever-present congealed salad that includes iced tea. My brother and I were drinking milk in those silver goblets.

Most people would be asked to turn in their Legit-Southerner Card for something like that. But the no-iced-tea situation is not even the most un-southern thing about my early eating habits. I didn’t start eating collard greens and turnip greens until my late 30s, I don’t really care for pimento cheese, and didn’t start eating grits until my mid 40s.

I was 18-years old before I ever took a sip of iced tea. I was working on a landscape crew as an employee of the aforementioned milk-drinking brother in the summer of 1980. All of my co-workers on the crew liked to eat at a certain meat-and-three restaurant that was popular at the time. As I remember the lunch plate at North Heights Restaurant was around $5.00 for a protein, three vegetables, cornbread, and a glass of iced tea. I was a soft drink consumer in those days, and a counting-change-in-the-sofa-cushions-because-I-was-so-broke soft drink consumer at that. A soda with the plate lunch cost extra. So, to be frugal, I drank the iced tea that came with the meal.

Over the years I began drinking a little more iced tea. After a decade or so I was drinking as much iced tea as soft drinks. Today I drink way more iced tea than I probably should.

As memorable as those childhood lunches at my grandmother’s house were, I never once drank iced tea in those silver goblets.

Iced tea is a very casual beverage and it is typically consumed in very basic, informal drinking vessels. Hot tea is a formal drink characteristically served in a bone china cup. My grandmother took everything up a notch when it came to setting a formal table, and iced tea being served in silver goblets seemed perfect in her world.

I have favorite plates, bowls, and silverware for certain occasions and foods. As a little kid my mother served freshly squeezed orange juice every morning. My favorite glass was an Archies comic strip jelly jar glass. I collected all six of the glasses. Over the years each of them broke at one time or another. When relaying this story to my friend Wyatt, he too, remembered those glasses as a kid. One day surprised me with a set he had purchased on Ebay. It was a great gift and, up until that point, I had never thought to look on Ebay for lost childhood items. That began a long period of purchasing childhood toys, books, and household goods on Ebay that I thought were long forgotten.

When I told my kids about the jelly jar glasses they were baffled. “Why would you drink out of a jelly jar?” They asked.

“It used to be a thing,” I said. “The jelly jars these days are way too big and you could never make a glass out of one.”

“But why not just drink out of a regular glass?” they asked. I didn’t have an answer. I actually can’t remember why I liked drinking out of those jelly jar glasses. Maybe it was because I had a crush on Veronica. Or was it Betty? I can’t remember, but I thought the blonde was hot. Either way, I loved drinking orange juice out of those Archies jelly jar glasses.

I also had two favorite cereal bowls. They were the perfect shape, circumference, depth, and had a handles on the side. The bowls were promotional items from Kellogg’s and I still have two of them— one with Tony the Tiger on the side and another with Snap, Crackle, and Pop. I am serious about cereal. My son and I fight over who gets to eat their oatmeal out of those bowls. After several years of this I decided to go back to Ebay to see if I could purchase a couple of used Kellogg’s promotional cereal bowls online. There were none to be found. My son and I were at the point of racing to the kitchen each morning to see who could use the perfect cereal bowl first.

I eventually found a few bowls online that were similar and that solved the dilemma.

All cooks grow accustomed to things that we use in the kitchen and at the dining table. I have a special cutting board, a favorite knife, a certain plate for specific food items, prep bowls that correspond to certain recipes, and my grandmother’s cast iron skillet. They all hold value to me.

I also have my grandmother’s silver goblets. We only break them out for Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and Easter. But maybe I’ll change that and start drinking iced tea out of them. Though it wouldn’t be too long before my son caught on that they keep beverages colder, and he would be wrestling me over goblets.


The best polenta I have ever eaten was prepared by Fabio Picchi at Cibreo in Florence. I haven’t been able to get close, but that doesn’t stop me from trying. If I challenged him to a grits-cooking competition, I think I could take him.

2 cups              Polenta
6 cups              Chicken stock
1 TB                Kosher salt
1 tsp                Fresh ground black pepper

In a 2 quart sauce pot, bring the chicken stock to a boil. Add the polenta or cornmeal and reduce to medium-low heat and stir constantly until it begins to thicken, about 3-4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, and drizzle with a small amount of extra virgin olive oil. Serve immediately.

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