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From the pages of her two award-winning cookbooks, Screen Doors and Sweet Tea and A Southerly Course, Martha Hall Foose is likeable and down to earth, sharing intimate, relatable, and sometimes embarrassing anecdotes to accompany her delicious recipes. In real life, she’s the same way: during her visit to Southern Food and Beverage Museum on June 25th, Ms. Foose proved that, unlike “the other Martha,” she is made up of real, genuine ingredients—just like her recipes. Ms. Foose began her fudge demonstration with a lesson in the importance of starting with quality ingredients, such as real vanilla as opposed to imitation. “It’s like my shoe philosophy,” she said. “You may pay a hundred dollars, but if it turns out to be a dollar for each time you wear them, it’s worth it.” I agree (and thought her green espadrilles were just lovely).
While Martha prepared the fudge over a red and white-checkered tablecloth, she told us a little bit about herself and her current projects. Although she grew up in the Mississippi Delta, as a child her family would annually attend Jazz Fest here in New Orleans as a family vacation, where she would try to experience as many new foods and flavors as possible. She also had an aunt and uncle living here whom she would often visit as a child. Because of these two aspects, Martha later told me that New Orleans was where a lot of her earliest food adventures took place. “I ate my first turtle soup and had my first brandy milk punch in New Orleans,” she said. “So it’s been a town of a lot of firsts for me.”
While her geographic location may have played a big role in igniting her passion for food, it’s clear from reading Martha’s cookbooks and talking to her that her family has been the biggest inspiration. Each recipe in both of the cookbooks has a unique background, and many of them have been passed down from generation to generation. Ms. Foose told us that when publishing the cookbook, the hard part wasn’t choosing which recipes to include, it was deciding which not to include. As many of the recipes serve as beautiful tributes to people important to Martha, it’s easy to see why this is the case. The fudge, for instance, was a recipe that Martha got from her great aunt, a sort of recipe hoarder. “She had a ton of clipped out recipes that she saved stuck in a bunch of different places, and this one was one that she got out of the missionary society newsletter.” Martha laughed as she told me that the headings for all the recipes from this particular newsletter were “Methodist-Tested Recipes.” I was pleasantly surprised that the Methodists approved the fudge, because it was sinfully delicious.
Along with the fudge, Martha also indulged us in some hilarious stories, my favorite of which took place during her recent job as food designer for the forthcoming movie The Help. One scene involves the characters eating fried chicken, but since one of the actresses was intent on living a “cruelty-free lifestyle,” Martha was commissioned to design a vegan fried chicken drumstick. “I’m sorry honey, but it’s a cruel world,” she said laughing as she told us about one failed attempt after another to create a vegan drumstick that would actually stay intact and that could be reproduced for shoot after shoot.
What I found remarkable in Ms. Foose’s demeanor was an unmistakable pride in the heritage that produced such a unique culinary tradition. As a northerner, I’ve often been struck by the pride that many southerners have in being where they’re “from,” so I asked Ms. Foose whether she thinks the food culture of the South has played a role in creating such a strong pride. “It really has,” she said, explaining that the presence of port cities has allowed for many different influences to create such a unique cuisine. A perfect example is our own New Orleans, where Martha adds that the food has blended at times more easily than the cultures have. “I think people really do identify with their pride of ownership of their little spot, and a lot of that pride is shown through what they cook.”
Finally, I asked Martha if she had any tips for someone like me—in other words, someone who has tried and failed many times to produce anything edible: where to start? First, she said, make sure to read a recipe thoroughly before you dive in. Start simple, especially if you’re cooking for company. “Just have confidence,” she concluded. “And if something doesn’t go right, don’t tell anyone at the dinner party, because they’ll just be tickled that you’re having them over.” Sounds like good advice to me.