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Recipes and Stories

31 January 2019: Cold Weather Comfort and a Favorite Revisited

Oysters in Leek and Bourbon Cream, a variation of the old Lowcountry staple "Chafing Dish Oysters"

 

As January winds to a close, it's deep winter in Savannah, which means that the red buds, tulip (Japanese) magnolias, and wild violets are all beginning to bloom even though it's refreshingly cold and the temperatures are hovering at freezing every night.

 

But even though the landscape is trying to act as if it's spring, it's still bracingly cold and perfect cooking weather. It's also the height of the season for our local oysters. They're wonderfully briny and yet sweet, especially raw, but since they're the clustering type, they don't lend themselves to being presented on the half-shell.

 

What they do lend themselves to, and beautifully, is shucking and serving them ice-cold in a cocktail cup with crisp, horseradish-spiked cocktail sauce. They're also lovely simmered in stew and in that old Savannah winter party staple, "chafing dish" (creamed) oysters, which is oysters and sometimes mushrooms in a thick, rich cream sauce.

 

Of that latter, there are probably as many variations as there are cooks. My own version, inspired by a dish of escargots from a long-vanished local restaurant, is enlivened with sautéed leeks, garlic, ginger, and a splash of bourbon. Instead of serving them from a chafing dish with toast cups, I ladle them over small cornmeal griddlecakes (known down here as hoecakes).

 

It was one of the early recipes developed for New Southern Kitchen, and the dish that helped me woo and win the love of my life.

 

This week while researching for a newspaper column on romantic dining for two, that recipe popped up, reminding me sharply of how we evolve as cooks. Looking through the method, I was startled to realize that it was not the way I make it now. The structure and ingredients were the same, but there are subtle and (a few not-so-subtle) differences in the way I approach it now.

 

It also reminded me that it was time I made it again.

 

Oysters in Leek and Bourbon Cream

 

Adapted from my book New Southern Kitchen, this remains one of my favorite ways to cook Savannah's local briny-sweet cluster oysters. The original recipe served 4, but there's something intimate about this that makes me prefer to it when it's just the two of us. If you want to make it for more people, double everything but the butter (increasing that only by half a tablespoon) and bourbon (don't increase that at all).

 

Serves 2 as a first course

 

1 cup shucked oysters

1 medium leek (or ½ a large one)

1½ tablespoons unsalted butter

1 medium cloves garlic, lightly crushed, peeled, and minced

1 teaspoon peeled and minced fresh ginger root

2 tablespoons bourbon

1 cup heavy cream

Salt and whole white pepper in a peppermill

4-6 Mini Hoecakes (recipe follows)

1 heaped teaspoon finely minced flat-leaf parsley

 

1. Set a sieve over a stainless or glass bowl, pour in the oysters, and let them drain for at least 10 minutes. Reserve the liquor to freeze and use as fish broth. Trim the roots and tough outer leaves from the leeks and split them lengthwise. Holding each half root end up, wash thoroughly under cold, running water, bending back each layer to get the dirt from between them. Slice the white and most of the tender greens.

 

2. Melt the butter in a large skillet or sauté pan over medium high heat. Add the leeks and sauté, tossing often, until wilted, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add the garlic and ginger and sauté until fragrant, 15-20 seconds more. Carefully add the bourbon and let it evaporate, then add the cream. Bring it to a boil and cook until it is a little thicker than a cream sauce, about 2 to 3 minutes. (The oysters will throw off moisture as they cook, diluting it.) Turn off the heat. It can be prepared to this point several hours ahead. Cover and refrigerate the oysters and sauce in separate containers.

 

3. Half an hour serving, preheat the oven to 170-200° F. (or the "warm" setting). Put the hoecakes on a rimmed baking sheet in one layer and put them in the oven. Return the sauce to the pan over and bring it to a simmer over medium heat. Add the oysters, a small pinch of salt and a liberal grinding of pepper. Bring to a simmer and cook until the oysters plump and their gills curl, about 1 and 2 minutes. Turn off the heat, and taste and adjust the seasonings.

 

4. Put 2 hoecakes per serving onto warmed individual serving plates. Spoon the oysters and sauce over them, and sprinkle with parsley. Serve at once.

 

Mini Hoecakes

Makes about 12 2-inch diameter hoecakes, serving 4 to 6

 

½ cup stone-ground white cornmeal

½ teaspoon baking soda

¼ teaspoon salt

1 large egg, lightly beaten

About ¾ cup whole milk buttermilk or plain, whole milk yogurt thinned with milk to buttermilk consistency

Melted bacon drippings, butter, or vegetable oil, for greasing the griddle

 

1. If serving the hoecakes right away, position a rack in the center of the oven, place a large, baking sheet on it, and preheat to 170-200° F. (the warm setting). Whisk together the meal, soda, and salt in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, beat together the egg and buttermilk. Make a well in the center of the meal, pour in the liquids, and quickly stir them together. It should be moderately thick but should still pour easily from a spoon: if it doesn't, add a little more milk.

 

2. Heat a griddle or wide, shallow skillet over medium-high heat. The griddle should be hot enough for a drop of water should "dance" on the surface, but not so hot that it vaporizes instantly. Lightly brush the surface with fat. Pour the batter in about a generous tablespoon-sized portion from the end of a spoon—enough to pool into cakes about 2 inches in diameter. The edges should sizzle and form lacy air bubbles. Cook until golden brown on the bottom, turn, and cook to a uniform brown, about 2-3 minutes per side. Transfer them to the baking sheet in the oven as they are finished and repeat with the remaining batter until it is all cooked. Serve hot.

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22 December 2018: Old-Fashioned Thumbprint Cookies

Old-Fashioned Thumbprint Cookies

Once upon a time, I was very organized. Any holiday baking that I did would’ve been long ago planned out and done by now. But life, as the saying goes, has been too much with us lately, and other things have had to take precedence over it.

Moreover, with our grandchildren a full day’s drive away, and most of my friends and neighbors either watching waistlines or already inundated with treats, the only people here to eat Christmas cookies are the two of us. Now, two people and multiple tins of homemade Christmas cookies, cheese straws, and fruitcake is a deadly combination.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t have a few homemade treats in the house, and there’s always someone who’s holiday will be brightened by a gift of things we’ve made ourselves. Read More 

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20 December 2018: Savannah Chafing Dish Crab, or Hot Crab Dip

Old-Fashioned Savannah Chafing Dish Crab, or Hot Crab Dip

Once upon a time, an elegant fixture on the buffet table of any Savannah holiday party worth attending was a hot crab spread or dip that was simply called “Chafing Dish Crab.” It was of course named for the way it used to be served—warm but not bubbling hot from a glistening, polished silver chafing dish.

Dipped into toast cups  Read More 

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7 December 2018: Baked Potatoes

Old Fashioned Baked Potatoes: boiled and mashed potatoes mixed with butter, milk and salt, then spread in a casserole, topped with a sprinkling of black pepper, and baked until golden brown on the top.

When we nowadays hear “baked potato,” what automatically comes to mind is a fat russet potato baked whole in, as the old cooks would have put it, “its jacket,” until the outside is crispy and and the inside is fluffy and dry.

But before wood burning iron cookstoves and later, gas and electric ranges replaced the open hearth in the kitchen, that was called a “roasted potato,” which for us today usually means potatoes that are cut up, tossed with oil, and baked at a high temperature. Read More 

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30 November 2018: The Writing Life and Chicken and Dumplings

Old-Fashioned Southern Chicken and Dumplings

This page has been a bit quiet the last few months and I’m sorry about that. But I did promise at the beginning that it wouldn’t be filled with drivel just to keep myself in front of you all.

In the meantime, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what I do.

In many ways, it’s a small thing. It’s just stringing words together on a page—and not about the monumental, earth-shaking problems that are facing humankind. I don’t probe the depths of the human intellect or heart, nor contemplate the vast mysteries of the universe. I don’t attack injustice, blind hatred, suffering, or destructive greed.

All I do is write about how to cook and do it well. It’s never about being clever or inventive, and rarely tries to shake anyone up. It’s about ordinary stuff. And comfort.
 Read More 

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5 November 2018: Autumn Breakfast Biscuits Stuffed with Pan-Fried Pork Tenderloin

Hot, freshly-baked buttermilk biscuits stuffed with pan-fried pork tenderloin, an old time "hog killing day" breakfast treat.

Some of my very best childhood memories are tied to the cool, crisp days of autumn—and not merely because it happens to be the time of year when I was born. There’s something about the cool, clear air, golden light, and rituals of the season that are always renewing and reassuring.

One ritual of autumn that has been nearly lost to us all is the annual hog killing day. I confess to having only a vague memory of those days from when we lived in Grassy Pond, a little farming community outside Gaffney, South Carolina. But the memories that have been passed down by my mother and her parents have been told and retold until they’re almost as vivid as if I’d been right there beside them,  Read More 

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19 October 2018: Grilled Ham and Pimiento Cheese

Grilled Ham and Pimiento Cheese.

When griddle-toasted sandwiches became popular in the last century, it raised one of the oldest sandwiches known, thin-sliced ham and cheese tucked between thin slices of buttered bread, from classic to perfection. There’s nothing in all of cooking that can surpass that exquisite balance of crisp butter-toasted bread, warmed salty-sweet ham, and irresistibly  Read More 

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29 September 2018: Michaelmas and Mushrooms

Mary Randolph's Stewed Mushrooms

Though autumn officially began a week ago and won’t really be felt here in Savannah for weeks to come, for me September 29, the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels (commonly called Michaelmas) is the real beginning of the season, which happens to be of my favorite of the entire year.

Aside from roasted goose in parts of England, there’s not a lot of food that’s connected with Michaelmas. But among the flavors that speak of autumn for me are mushrooms: in soup, sauce, over pasta, rolled in an omelette, or just on their own, sautéed in butter or, as the early nineteenth century doyenne of Southern cooking, Mary Randolph, directed, stewed in their own juices: Read More 

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27 September 2018: Ham and Coca-Cola

Ham Steak Baked in Coca-Cola, a modern Southern classic

Old, in the context of culinary history, is relative. The cuisines that collectively make up the thing we loosely refer to as “Southern cooking” aren’t exactly ancient when compared with their root cuisines in Europe, Africa, Native America, and Asia, but they’re actually a good deal older than we often suppose.

As early as the mid-seventeenth century, for example, the cookery of the Virginia Tidewater had already solidified into a cuisine that was unique to the region and would be easily recognized by modern Virginians. And by the middle of the eighteenth century, the rice cuisine of the Carolina Lowcountry, the Creole cookery of New Orleans, and, many believe, the still largely undocumented cookery of Appalachia had taken on the basic form that they have today. In short, most Southerners could go back two centuries and feel right at home at the table.

That said, many of our most iconic, argument-provoking dishes are really not much older than my generation Read More 

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14 September 2018: Old Friends, Mentors, and Sautéed Apples in Bourbon Caramel

Sautéed Apples in Bourbon Caramel Sauce

One blustery late autumn evening, Timothy and I had gone up to Charleston to sing in a choir for a special evensong and were staying, as we do whenever we can, with my lovely friend, mentor, and adopted big sister, Nathalie Dupree and her husband Jack Bass.

Our “pay” for singing was a dinner that, to Timothy’s disappointment, did not include dessert. When we got back to the house and had settled in at the kitchen table, Nathalie, who is a text book example of the maxim that Southerners are always talking about food, wanted to know all about where we’d eaten and what we’d had. Read More 

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19 August 2018: MaMa’s Vegetable Soup

MaMa's Vegetable Soup, photographed for my first book, Classical Southern Cooking, by the incomparable John Carrington.

If my entire life as a cook could be summed in one thing, it would be a lifelong—and so far—failed quest to reproduce my maternal grandmother’s summer vegetable soup. Her kitchen was where I first cooked, and we made many a pot of vegetable soup together during my summer visits. The memory of its taste remains vivid more than half a century later. But somehow, I’ve never been able to get my own to taste and look exactly like hers.

When I was trying to construct a recipe for my first cookbook, in her typical way, MaMa said, “I never measured anything for soup, so just guess.” Well, of course, she measured— Read More 

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11 August 2018: Stuffed Eggplant

Classic Seafood-Stuffed Eggplant

Eggplant, one of the great defining elements of the cuisines of the Mediterranean basin, has also been a staple in Southern kitchens at least since the late eighteenth century. Believed to be native to the Far East, this exotic vegetable with the odd-sounding name found its way to the Mediterranean and Africa long before the Americas were colonized, but its exact migration has been lost to time. Likewise, no one is sure how it found its way into the South.

In some parts of our region, it used to be known as “Guinea melons” or “Guinea squash,” after the West African nation, which, while by no means proof of the route it took getting to our shores, is certainly suggestive.

At any rate, for at least a generation before Mary Randolph’s landmark work The Virginia House-Wife was published in 1824, Southerners have been loving eggplant.  Read More 

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1 August 2018: The Joys of Summer Minestrone

Classic Minestrone alla Romana. Summer in a bowl.

In all of cooking, nothing satisfies me in the summer, both in the making and the eating of it, quite the way that a pot of vegetable soup always does. Whether it’s my best shot at reproducing my grandmother’s soup (something I have never quite succeeded in doing) or a classic minestrone alla romana, it’s my idea of the ultimate summer comfort food.

Whenever I manage to get home for a visit, it’s the first thing Mama and I make together. It’s never exactly the same: The base is always tomatoes, onions, and okra, but while she was still gardening, we’d add whatever was ready to be harvested supplemented by the stash from two enormous chest freezers in the garage. Read More 

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28 July 2018: Old-Fashioned Shrimp Salad

Old-Fashioned Shrimp Salad, here tucked into Parker House rolls and enjoyed with tea.


Before July slips completely away, here’s one last word on those old-fashioned chopped meat salads, specifically, one that’s quintessential to a Lowcountry summer: shrimp salad.

No one would argue that tomato sandwiches are the primary hallmark of summer for most of us. We eagerly anticipate that first really vine-ripened tomato so we can thickly slice it, tuck it into soft white bread slathered with mayonnaise, and relish it wearing an old shirt (or no shirt) while standing over the sink, because it’s going to drip all over us when we bite into it.

But here in the Lowcountry, the hallmark sandwich of summer is shrimp salad.  Read More 

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8 July 2018: Summer Comfort and Blueberry Crumble

Blueberry Crumble is summer comfort food at its very best.

It’s funny how, when we talk about “comfort food,” we almost always mean something that will provide comfort in the cold season, that keeps us warm and cozy inside when it’s cold and bleak outside: a hearty stew, a big bowl of chili or chicken and dumplings, a savory pot pie or pot roast.

But in the heat of summer, we often need comfort just as much as we do in cold weather, and while we may welcome a warm dish in the midst of a steady string of salads, cold soups, and sandwiches, the things that are so comfortable in the cold season are usually not all that appealing when the heat index soars. Read More 

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16 June 2018: Summer Comfort Food and Ham Salad

Old-Fashioned Ham Salad slathered thickly onto hearty bread

I’ve never been very interested in clever cooking. And the older I get, the less interested in it I become. I’m not talking about being genuinely and intelligently creative or inventive in the kitchen, but about the kind of cooking that’s more about being clever for the sake of novelty, and all too often at the expense of flavor.

If, when one sits down at the table, one is obliged to be cerebral and analytical about what’s in one’s mouth, or wade through a thicket of startling and even conflicting aromas and flavors that crowd one another out, quite frankly it gets completely in the way of any real pleasure.

In short, if I have to think over what’s in my mouth before I can decide whether I like it, in my opinion, the cook has failed at his job.  Read More 

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8 June 2018: Old-Fashioned Chicken Salad

Old Fashioned Southern-Style Chicken Salad, yes, with saltine crackers

We were just home from a quick trip to Charleston to catch up with my friend and mentor Nathalie Dupree and get in a couple of Spoleto concerts. It was midafternoon and we were tired and hungry. The refrigerator gave up a bit of leftover poached chicken and, because I’m Southern, there’s always mayonnaise and what the old cooks called “made mustard.” A quick survey turned up a nearly empty jar of bread-and-butter pickles that needed to be finished off, and while the celery was old and not very promising, there’s always onions in the pantry.

Sometimes, knowing when to leave well enough alone is a cook’s best asset.  Read More 

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21 May 2018: The Case of the Corrupted Collop

Classic Scotch Collops, here made with pork tenderloin.

Oh, the convolutions of an historian’s mind. While researching a story for my regular newspaper column, I was reminded of a curious old recipe from Harriet Ross Colquitt’s timeless classic, The Savannah Cook Book, published in 1932. The recipe was for Scotch Collops.

Now, collop is an old English word for a thin slice of meat. It could be used for anything from veal to bacon, though it most commonly described thin slices of veal or beef round. They were usually fried in butter or lard and sauced with a rich gravy made from the deglazed pan juices—essentially the same as Italian scaloppine. Read More 

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26 April 2018: Asparagus, Leeks, and New Potatoes

Stir-Fried Asparagus with Leeks and New Potatoes

Before the season for asparagus passes completely, here’s another great stir-fry that brings it together with two other favorite spring flavors, young leeks and little red new potatoes.

This is the kind of thing my mother would make when I was growing up, since Stir-frying is one of her favorite cooking techniques. Not only is the technique quick, it does wonderful things for the fresh produce that is no further than her back yard. Read More 

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21 April 2018: Of Spring Peas and Thyme

Fresh Spring Pea Soup with Spring Onions and Thyme

Whether you call them garden, green, sweet, or, as we often do in the South, “English” peas, you probably take the plump, round seeds of the trailing plant pisum sativum for granted. You may even think of them as ordinary and a bit boring. Yet, once upon a time, these little orbs were celebrated as a precious commodity and a rare harbinger of spring.

Thomas Jefferson even carried on a friendly competition with one of his neighbors for the first pea harvest of the season. Read More 

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21 April 2018: Spring Peas and Onions

My Father's Sweet Spring Peas with Spring Onions

While we’re on sweet peas, a favorite way to dress them in my kitchen is with bright, herby spring scallions and butter (and lots of it). It’s not only delicious, the mere aroma of it always brings with it warm memories of my father.

Contrary to the notion that ministers do nothing from Sunday to Sunday but write long, tedious sermons, my father was a very busy man. Aside from three services a week (more, if someone got married or died), Bible study groups, and not one, but three sermons to compose, there were visits to the sick, shut-in, worried, and grief-stricken, counseling sessions for troubled marriages and spirits, and patience to be found for irritating parishioners who were ever eager to find fault with him, his family (that would be my brothers and me), and the church in general. Read More 

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6 April 2018: Stir-Frying Asparagus

Southern-style Stir-Fried Asparagus with Country Ham and Scallions

The lovely thing about the tender new produce of spring is that it doesn’t ask for much in the kitchen, but practically begs for quick, light treatment. And nothing is quicker and lighter than stir-frying.

Most of us automatically associate stir-frying with the ancient cuisines of China and South-East Asia. But it’s actually a basic, almost universal technique (essentially the same as sautéing) that’s found in most of the world’s cuisines well beyond Asia, including France, Italy, and the Middle-East.  Read More 

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27 March 2018: Shrimp Bonnie

Shrimp Bonnie is equally good served over hoecakes or pasta or even a bed of hot grits.

One of the real joys of teaching is the sharing. It’s more than just showing someone the basics of cooking, but also sharing the subtleties that make a cook into a good one, trading culinary secrets with other teachers and students, and revisiting memories of the people who’ve shaped me into the cook I’ve become.

Unhappily, it’s been a year since my last class. So, a recent class for a group of feisty Southern ladies who gather under the singularly appropriate appellation “Southern Comfort” marked a welcome return of the sharing, trading secrets, and revisiting of memories.

The best memories it brought to fore were of my lovely friend Bonnie Gaster, the fabulous cook who helped me create the appetizer that opened the class. Read More 

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14 March 2018: A Gratin of Spring Leeks

A Classic Gratin of Spring Leeks

We rarely think of giving leeks in a starring role in cooking. More often than not, this kitchen workhorse is expected to retire into the background, lending its subtle, fresh flavor to the more showy main ingredients of a soup, stew, sauté or occasional casserole.

But leeks are a lovely vegetable and when they’re given the center of the stage (or plate or pan if you will) they really do shine, especially in the spring.  Read More 

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26 February 2018: In Defense of Southern Cooking III

Buttermilk Biscuits are as Southern as it gets, and yet historically, they weren't a part of all the old cuisines of the South

The Historical Cuisines

The loose regions into which the South has historically been divided, for the most part, follow the patterns of European colonization. They are: the Old South, the Atlantic coast from Maryland to North Florida; the Deep South, incorporating the Gulf states from West Georgia and the Florida panhandle to Eastern Texas; the Mountain South of Appalachia, including the Western portions of Virginia, the Carolinas, and northern edges of piedmont Georgia and Alabama as well as the interior states of West Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky; and the Central South, which includes parts of the “border states” of Missouri, Kentucky, and West Virginia as well as Arkansas, Eastern Oklahoma and North-east Texas.

You must understand that those loose regional boundaries are very loose indeed.  Read More 

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16 February 2018: Hot, or Baked, Chicken Salad

Hot, or Baked Chicken Salad, a relatively new Southern classic

Tradition has often been defined as “how they did it when we were children” and it’s not a bad description of the way we all too often look at the elusive thing that we call Southern Cooking. So much of the “traditional” cooking that sparks debate among Southerners today has actually not been around all that long.

For example, one of the easiest ways to start the biggest fight you ever saw is to pronounce before a group of Southerners that there is only one true way to make pimiento cheese and then proceed to describe said way. Every single person present will argue that you don’t know what you’re talking about, because that’s not how their grandmother made it. Read More 

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26 January 2018: In Defense Southern Cooking, Part II

Country fried steak with onion gravy as it’s done in my kitchen and was done in my grandmothers’ kitchens. The variations on this dish across the South’s many cuisines are staggering.

Beginning to Define the Cuisine(s) or, the Tip of the Iceberg

The most useful fact to know in attempting to define Southern cooking is the same one Marcella Hazan addressed of her own native cooking in The Classic Italian Cook Book: “The first useful thing to know about Italian cooking is that, as such, it actually doesn’t exist.”

She goes on to explain that cooking in Italy varies from region to region and from town to town within those regions, so “Italian cooking” isn’t a single cuisine, but a collection of many.

Likewise, the most useful thing to know about Southern Cooking “is that, as such, it actually doesn’t exist.” As is true for Italian cooking, it also is not, and never has been, a single, homogenous cuisine. Read More 

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12 January 2018: In Defense of Southern Cooking, Part I

Fresh Collard Greens

One day around the new year, when pots of collards and field peas were simmering away in so many Southern kitchens, a discussion arose among some of my colleagues about the frequency with which collards seemed to be turning up on so many so-called “new” Southern restaurant menus, and of how these greens were mostly being used and presented in ways that had nothing to do with Southern cooking.

The nicest thing one could say of most of these misbegotten things is that they’re bewildering. Read More 

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24 December 2017: Drinking Custard

Drinking Custard

Every year when the winter holidays roll around, I begin to crave that old-fashioned Southern holiday treat, drinking custard. Eggnog, at least, the real thing laced with bourbon or brandy, wasn’t something we had in a Baptist pastorium. But drinking custard was another thing. We could enjoy it not only at Christmas, but throughout the cold season.

If you’ve not encountered it, drinking custard is the same thing as custard sauce, only made with fewer egg yolks or whole eggs so that it’s thin enough to sip from a cup the way you’d do eggnog. For many Southern families, it was and still is a long standing holiday tradition and is actually the base that is often used for eggnog, especially if it contains no alcohol.

Mama used to tell stories of the days when my father was in seminary in Louisville and pastored a small country church Read More 

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19 December 2017: Christmas Breakfast

Christmas Strata with Ham and Mushrooms

When I was growing up, Christmas day always began (well, after plundering a roomful of Santa loot) with a traditional Southern breakfast: grits, eggs, my granddaddy’s perfectly seasoned pork sausage, country ham with red-eye gravy, homemade biscuits, usually with fruitcake, ambrosia, and sometimes drinking custard added in.

Nowadays, unless we have friends drop by, there are just two of us here on Christmas morning: Our children and grandchildren live three states away; my parents and siblings are four hours away. And one of us is a church musician with a command performance at Christmas Day Mass. We rarely have the luxury of time and leisure for a breakfast like that.

And, to be completely honest, the last thing I want to do on Christmas morning is stand in the kitchen monitoring a grits pot, hot oven, and panful of sausage patties. Read More 

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