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Praise the Lord and pass the collards

By By Robert St. John / food columnist
Aug. 27, 2003
Robert St. John is the executive chef/owner of the Purple Parrot Caf and Crescent City Grill in Hattiesburg and Meridian, www.nsrg.com. He can be reached at robert@nsrg.com or at (601) 264-0672.
In the beginning, the Junior League of Jackson said, "Let there be cooking" and it was good.
For me, eating is a religious experience.
I am a devout disciple of Southern cooking: cornbread, grits, banana pudding, fried chicken, fried okra, fried squash, fried corn, fried anything. Therefore, I am a very religious person.
Every religion worth its salt needs a bible. The Junior League of Jackson Mississippi has written the bible on Southern cooking.
In 1978 a group of charitable, hard-working and hyphenated-named ladies released the culinary Old Testament: "Southern Sideboards." Thirteen years later, the New Testament descended on our kitchens in the form of "Come On In."
As Southerners, these two cookbooks have been our gastronomic salvation and the holy books of all Deep South cuisine. My two volumes currently sit on a hallowed shelf among my cookbook collection.
I am a practicing Methodist, and "Southern Sideboards" has served as the cornerstone of most of the covered dish suppers I have attended (and we Methodists attend a lot of covered dish suppers). Praise the Lord and pass the green bean casserole!
When I thumb through my yellowed, well-worn and dog-eared copy of the Old Testament, I see dishes I grew up on, the foods of my youth, the food of our mothers and grandmothers, the food of Sunday dinners and Saturday afternoon picnics, Southern comfort food.
Eventually, "Southern Sideboards" begat "Come On In" and the New Testament took those concepts a step further. Without re-inventing the wheel, the Junior League of Jackson gave us a source for Friday evening cocktail parties, Saturday evening dinner parties and weeknight feasts.
These two books have achieved sales of biblical proportions. To date, "Southern Sideboards" has sold more than 450,000 copies. Verily I say unto you, it is one of the best-selling cookbooks in the history of the genre. The much-heralded and award-winning "Come On In" is a volume that arrived ahead of its time and looks to be a primary kitchen resource for years to come.
My association with the Old Testament got off to a dubious start 23 years ago. While trying to impress a college coed with my yet-to-be-discovered cooking prowess, I cribbed a recipe from my grandmother's copy of "Southern Sideboards." I cooked Buttermilk Chicken (Old Testament page 181) in my tiny apartment kitchen. I told this girl the dish was "an old family recipe, passed down from generations of St. Johns to my grandmother Eunice St. John."
I don't know how many years Campbell's had been making cream of mushroom soup at that point, but they certainly hadn't been doing so for generations. Actually, my grandmother had never cooked the recipe, but at quick glance, it looked like one of the easier preparations in the book and the story sounded interesting. I ultimately hoped that the little white lie would make my initial attempt at preparing a chicken casserole taste better.
Weeks later, on a weekend visit to Jackson, and the inevitable dinner with the parents, her mother served Buttermilk Chicken (Old Testament page 181).
When my girlfriend accused her mother of stealing my grandmother's secret family recipe, the mother explained, "It's from Southern Sideboards,' honey." Busted! It was then that I learned one of the first and foremost culinary commandments: Thou shalt not lie about the origin of a recipe.
I continued to make Buttermilk Chicken through the years and have now included an updated version a tribute to the Old Testament original in my upcoming cookbook, "Deep South Staples."
Blessed are the cheese bakers for they are destined to make broccoli casserole.
In my capacity as executive chef, I am in charge of recipe development. One of the most popular recipes I have created has its roots in the gastronomic New Testament, "Come On In." A simple squash casserole recipe was the inspiration for the Baked Shrimp and Squash recipe which is served in the Purple Parrot Caf and was published in my first cookbook, "A Southern Palate" (the gospel of St. John page 45).
Six years ago my mother visited our home bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and a Pyrex dish filled with a summer-squash casserole. When I asked for the recipe, she referred me to the New Testament (page 135) and Aunt Georgia's Squash Casserole. Later, while looking for an interesting and innovative pairing for shrimp and squash, I remembered Aunt Georgia's epistle.
To this day, the shrimp and squash dish that Aunt Georgia inspired is the center-of-the-plate entree we serve more than any other when entertaining guests in our home and one of the most popular items on the lunch menu of the Purple Parrot Caf.
I'll be looking to these two volumes for inspiration (read: stealing recipes) for years to come. The Junior League of Jackson has made life in Mississippi much more flavorful and that's the gospel truth.
Buffet without end, amen, amen.

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