Cornbread or biscuits? Take your pick

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 22, 2010

My husband and I spent a wonderful two days at the Mississippi Heritage Trust Preservation Conference in Natchez last week. We have always been interested in historic preservation and wanted to know what was going on in Mississippi. May is preservation month throughout the country.

Many of the talks at the conference concerned how historic buildings can meet new goals for sustainability and energy efficiency. Old is the new green. With all the hype now about replacing old windows, we learned that storm windows added on top of old wood single pane windows was equally energy saving. We also learned that some new windows were already needing to be replaced after only 10 years.

Natchez is full of history. When the city was under Spanish control, it was connected to the ports of Mobile and Pensacola, Fla. When the U.S. took control in 1798, Congress created the Mississippi Territory, which included the present states of Alabama and Mississippi. Jefferson Davis,who was inaugurated President of the Confederacy in Montgomery on Feb. 22, 1862, had married Varina Howell at her home in Natchez. On the eve of the War of Northern Aggression, Natchez contained more millionaires per capita than any other city in the United States. Natchezians have been sharing their history since the first Garden Pilgrimage in 1932. The city never fails to please.

Food was a major event at the conference. We had a lovely lunch at The Elms when we arrived on Thursday. This was the highlight of the conference for me. We got to meet Esther Carpenter, who is the fifth generation to live at The Elms. She was named as one of the top female chefs in America by Gourmet Magazine and also owned the critically acclaimed restaurant, Esther’s in New Orleans. She also served as an executive chef at the Four Seasons in Newport Beach, Calif.

She has now returned home to Natchez. Her menu included Chinese chicken salad with asparagus in a ginger peanut vinaigrette, served with fresh fruit. She made a wonderful cornbread, and dessert was a decadent mocha kahlua cheesecake. The cornbread was just the best and she was kind enough to share her recipe. (Given below)

Adding to the enjoyment was the white tablecloths on the tables in the dining room and the parlors, set with silver and cloth napkins. The servers kept our wine glasses filled better than most restaurants. We also had several interesting luncheon companions. Much laughter was heard from our table.

On Thursday evening, we had a cocktail party at Elms Court. We were greeted at the door by the charming Ms. MacNeil, the fourth- generation owner. The house is fronted by a 142-foot long gallery of lacy ironwork nestled in a 150-acre estate in the city of Natchez. The garden had been featured in Architectural Digest in 1990. Some of the staff at Elms Court had prepared the buffet, which included a shrimp bisque, small finger sandwiches, grilled vegetables with dip, small roast beef sandwiches and many pick up desserts.

Friday morning was a delightful day of visiting the gardens of Washington Street. Perhaps the highlight was the small garden of an aging GP, Dr. Barnes, who had been cultivating it for 50 years. He knew every plant and its pedigree. He and Ms. MacNeil bantered about the Chinese Parasol Tree that he had been given by her mother. “Just a weed at Elms Court,” she said, “but you do seem to keep it in check here in town.” The trees had been imported in the mid 19th century to produce varnish – another cash crop to add to cotton for the plantation owners. It didn’t take off as hoped.

Friday was the day for the Heritage Awards, which were presented at the Carriage House Restaurant on the grounds of Stanton Hall. The restaurant is known for its fried chicken and good biscuits. We were given a choice of fried chicken or fried pork chops and of course we choose the chicken, which was very good. The little biscuits (for which I have given the recipe in a former article, as well as the recipe for the chicken) were not as good as I remembered. One of the locals told me the biscuits stayed in the warming oven longer and were therefore crustier. We still ate many!! The fried chicken was served with really good potatoes with gravy and green beans. Dessert was a choice of a lemon or chocolate tart. The lemon tart tasted just like lemon pie and was good.

So if you plan to visit Natchez, I would recommend staying with Esther Carpenter at the Elms. She is also a noted decorative painter and has painted one of the guest rooms in her bed and breakfast. I would make a bet her breakfast would be better than average. Lunch should include the fried chicken and biscuits at Stanton Hall. If I get past these places, I am one day going to try Fat Mama’s Tamales. The name intrigues.

If you can’t make it to Natchez try the recipe below.

Spicy Southern Cornbread

Courtesy of Esther Carpenter of The Elms

2 cups cornmeal

1 cup all-purpose flour

4 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon chili powder

4 eggs

½ cup plus two tablespoons oil or bacon grease

2 cups buttermilk

1 large onion, chopped

1 red bell pepper, chopped

3 jalapeño peppers, seeded and minced

1 8-ounce can cream-style corn

2 cups shredded “Mexican mix” cheese

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Grease a 10” cast-iron skillet with about 2 tablespoons oil and hear in the oven.

Sauté onions and peppers briefly in a little butter to soften.

Combine first six ingredients in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, beat eggs.

Mix in remaining corn oil and buttermilk, then cheese, creamed corn and onion mixture.

Stir this egg mixture into dry ingredients and mix well. Remove skillet from oven and pour in batter. Return to oven and bake approximately 20-25 minutes or until center is set and top is golden brown.