Southern staples enjoyed in Natchez

Published 11:59 pm Friday, April 17, 2009

My friends from Wilmington, N.C., visited us recently and we took a day trip to Natchez during their Spring Pilgrimage. Pilgrimage in Natchez lasts a month and this year’s tour featured 25 homes and gardens. There is also evening entertainment: a pageant, a musical tribute to the African-American experience in Natchez, a satirical comedy on the Pilgrimage and a musical concert. Pilgrimage in Natchez began in 1931 when the Natchez Garden Club hosted the state garden club meeting. They not only opened their gardens but their homes. The event was so successful that the local garden club decided to organize formal tours—a pilgrimage which would be similar to tours organized a few years earlier in Virginia by garden clubs there.

We toured four houses. Two were private homes and one of these was the more entertaining with the owner holding forth in the parlor with family stories (her daughters are the eight generation to live in the home). One house, Longwood is unique in several ways. It is the largest octagonal house in America, topped with an onion dome. It was begun in 1860 by a Natchez nabob but when the War broke out in April 1861, the workers fled north, never to return. The owner quickly finished the basement and moved in to await the war’s end. He died in 1864 and the house was never finished although the family continued to live there in diminished circumstances until 1968. At the time the famous Philadelphia architect, Samuel Sloan, was building Longwood he was also working on the First Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, N.C. (where we once attended) and on La Grange Plantation, a home in Wilkinson County, Miss. (built by the nephew of the man who built our present home).

We stopped touring midday to have lunch at Stanton Hall. Awaiting our table, we sat at the bar conversing with the bartender making their specialty, mint juleps. She gets her simple syrup infused with mint ready in about 20-30 glasses as her day begins. She then adds the bourbon, crushed ice to the brim and tops with a mint sprig as the orders come in. Once at the table we were served a plate of small buttered biscuits. These biscuits from “The Carriage House Restaurant” at Stanton Hall were divine. My husband ate several (saying they were very small). These recipes are from Lee Bailey’s Southern Food and Plantation Houses under the section “Informal Dinner at Stanton Hall.” I tried the biscuit recipe and it is really easy and good for any time of the day for a treat.


2 cups all-purpose flour

4 teaspoons baking powder

¼ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon sugar

5 tablespoons solid vegetable shortening, chilled (I used unsalted butter)

¾ to 1 cup cold milk, plus additional for tops

Preheat the oven to 450° F. Place all the dry ingredients in a food processor and give it a few whirls to mix. Add shortening and process, turning off and on a few times, until mixture is the texture of coarse meal. (You may also cut in the shortening with a pastry cutter or two knives if you do not have a food processor.) Pour in milk through the feed tube with the motor running, until mixture forms a ball. Stop immediately and roll dough out on a floured surface with a floured rolling pin to a thickness of about ¼ inch. Cut into 2-inch biscuits. Gather up the scraps and form into a ball, flatten and cut more biscuits until all dough is used.

Place on ungreased baking sheets and paint tops with milk, if you like, to make them brown more. Bake for 15 minutes or until golden brown.

These are usually split and buttered in the kitchen while they are still very hot. (If you don’t serve them right away, keep in a warm oven.)

A part of the salad plate at The Carriage House Restaurant was tomato aspic. Lee Bailey says he does not know when tomato aspic gained popularity in these parts, but he notes in many Southern restaurants it is as ubiquitous as iced tea. My friend Alice, who was with us, said the aspic was not tart enough. I thought it tasted really good, however.

Tomato Aspic with Mayonnaise

½ cup boiling water

2 envelopes unflavored gelatin (Alice uses lemon jello to add a different dimension)

3 cups thick tomato juice, warmed

1 small onion, very finely minced

2 ribs celery, very finely minced

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

½ teaspoon Tabasco

8 ounces cream cheese

Pour the hot water into a shallow bowl and sprinkle gelatin over it. When gelatin is completely dissolved, stir in the warmed tomato juice, making sure all lumps are gone; if they persist, reheat the mixture briefly. Stir in all other ingredients except cream cheese and cool slightly. Meanwhile, divide the cream cheese by spoonfuls among twelve ½ -cup molds. Pour tomato mixture in each and refrigerate until set, several hours.

To serve, run a knife around the top of each mold and set in a bowl of hot water just long enough to loosen gelatin. Place a serving plate on top and invert to unmold. If water has melted the aspic too much, refrigerate long enough to set again. Put a dab of homemade mayonnaise on each and garnish with a sprig of green, if you like.

Serves 12.

Everyone was eating fried chicken at the restaurant. I found that recipe also in Lee Bailey’s cookbook. I will have to try the chicken the next time. It looks great.

Spicy Milk Fried Chicken with Pan Gravy

4 cups milk

1 cup Louisiana hot sauce

3 tablespoons salt

1 pound all-purpose flour

2 medium frying chickens, cut into small serving pieces

Oil for frying

1 cup chicken stock, approximately

Freshly ground black pepper

Mix the milk and hot sauce in a small pitcher and stir in about 1 tablespoon of the salt. Place the chicken pieces in a shallow pan and pour mixture over. Turn once and marinate for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, put half the flour and remaining salt in a brown paper bag and tear off several large sheets of waxed paper, Place the paper conveniently on the counter next to the stove, Lift the chicken out of the milk mixture and allow to drain slightly before putting in the flour bag. Do this in batches. Shake chicken to coat well. Lift out, shake off excess flour, and place on the waxed paper. Repeat until all the chicken is coated, using more salted flour as necessary.

Pour at least 2 inches of vegetable oil in a deep skillet. Heat to 300 degrees. Can use a candy thermometer to measure heat. Put chicken in, but do not crowd. Fry, adjusting heat to keep the flour from burning, 15 minutes, turning a couple of times. Place on a cooking rack to drain, underneath which you have placed double sheets of paper towels. Keep an eye on the skillet so flour does not burn, and continue until all the chicken is cooked. You may want to do this in 2 large skillets.

To make pan gravy, carefully pour off all the oil from the browned flour and chicken bits left in the pan. Add the chicken stock and simmer a few minutes, until thickened. Adjust seasoning with salt and a generous amount of black pepper. Serves 6.