What could be more Southern than eating black-eyed peas on New Year's Day? How about sweet tea, deviled eggs, pimiento cheese, ambrosia, three-bean salad, shrimp boats, red beans and rice, corn pudding, fried okra, red eye gravy, cream doughnuts, cup custard, lemon icebox pie and divinity? If your mouth is watering from that recitation of down-home specialties, you'll like Screen Doors and Sweet Tea, a Southern cookbook which escalates the competition in a crowded field.
According to her bio, author Martha Hall Foose is a Mississippi Delta cook who studied in France, and the cuisine bears this out. True Southern fare -- heavy on the influences delta and soul -- is approached with reverence and then presented with signature spin: Foose is not the first cookbook author to prepare banana pudding (page 198) in individual servings, but she may be the first to suggest you do it in canning jars. As far as I know, she is definitely the first to make sweet tea pie (page 203) -- a recipe so crazy and that it would have made my grandmother applaud and so good that, according to the head note, it got Foose into the state fair pie baking contest. She didn't win, but then again, the winner probably didn't go on to write a cookbook as good as this.
The food you will make from these recipes is good, but what makes this cookbook a standout is Foose's respect for the history and meaning of each dish and the cooks who make them. Southern cookbooks often gloss over, even ignore, the fact that deep, true Southern cooking is soul cooking, but Screen Doors and Sweet Tea doesn't. That's an important distinction, and along with the author's fluency as a cook and a writer is the book's true strength. As important as they are, thinking that southern food is about fried chicken and cobbler is as limited and racist as thinking that Chinese food is about chow mein and fortune cookies.
Screen Doors contains some deep Southern cuisine that will give poseurs pause even as old-timers nod their heads sagely and with affection, amusement and a bit of satisfaction. What would you do if you found prawns burying your toast, were presented with a coffee can full of tamales, or took the coconut cake to Fellowship Hour and left the caramel cake at home instead of the other way around as God intended? If you don't have a relative or e-friend who lived those days and cooked that food, in Martha Hall Foose and the great cooks who influence her cuisine, you have one who is living and cooking that way now.