Texas (Cook)Book Festival
Reviewing the Central Market Cooking School
Deep South Parties OR How to Survive the Southern Cocktail Hour without a Box of French Onion Soup Mix, a Block of Processed Cheese, or a Cocktail Weenie
by Robert St. John
Hyperion, 272 pp., $19.95
My friend Sam, who grew up in Virginia, is the consummate entertainer. She's about the only person I know who actually hosts cocktail parties and serves mixed drinks before dinner; her hors d'oeuvres are legendary among her friends. I thought this was simply her inimitable entertaining style, but Robert St. John's Deep South Parties informs me that this is just what people do in the South: socialize over leisurely but serious drinks, complemented by what's known as the "cocktail buffet" or the "cocktail supper." Sam imported the practice to California with wild success; now, with this book to guide me, I think it's a great idea for Texas, too.
Essentially an instruction manual for throwing Southern-style cocktail buffets that will blow your guests away without breaking the bank or raising your blood pressure in the process, it's all about simple but quietly sophisticated Southern party fare traditional in a good way, but enhanced by twists and tweaks that demonstrate a professional's touch. St. John is a syndicated columnist, as well as a longtime restaurateur in Hattiesburg and Meridian, Miss.; he's a chef who likes to tell stories along with his recipes.
The book is usefully organized into chapters like "To Be Passed," "On the Sideboard," "Out of the Freezer," "Hot Dips," and such. Interspersed are tales of the author's cooking adventures and of memorable parties past, along with "Tips for Entertaining" sprinkled about. The recipes, none of which are very complicated, rely heavily on seafood: oysters, shrimp, and crab, in particular (Crawfish-Andouille Hush Puppies, Baby Crispy Fried Oyster BLTs, Hot Corn and Crab Dip). Bacon plays a starring role, and cheese makes frequent appearances, although never naked. Nothing but nothing is tame, bland, or ordinary; spices abound, strong and piquant flavors are the rule. All the better to accompany the drinks.
Speaking of which, of course there's a chapter on Southern cocktails that includes such usual suspects as the peach daiquiri, as well as some pleasant surprises like Pimm's Royale (Pimm's, champagne, and cucumber). There's an ecumenical collection of party punches: Episcopalian Punch and Catholic Punch are loaded with booze, but surprise the Presbyterian, Baptist, and Methodist punches manage nicely without.
While I loved all the recipes I tried, I found the book's ultraretro design pretty tedious, and the black-and-white Fifties-vintage stock-photo illustrations ranged from distracting to annoying. Also, the recipe index is inconsistent and rather sparse (for example, Sin Bread is only to be found under Bread, Sin). These quibbles aside, if this collection doesn't make you want to throw a party, I don't know what will. Think perfect fare for civilized tailgating. Or take a page from Sam, and try a cocktail supper.
Robert St. John will be in the Texas Book Festival Cook-ing Tent on Saturday, Oct. 28, at 3:30pm.