Jim Villas is one of our better cookbook and culinary memoir writers, while remaining a throwback to the likes of James Beard and Craig Claiborne. His affinity to Claiborne is especially strong, as both are unreconstituted Bourbon drinking Southerners who live(d) on Eastern Long Island and wrote for the 'Eastern Establishment' publishing powers. Villas' special talent seems to be in recapturing what is most familiar and most comfortable about food for Americans. This is certainly true of his most recent cookbooks 'Crazy for Casseroles' and 'Biscuit Bliss'. His most recent collection of culinary essays and opinions 'Stalking the Green Fairy' brings out this orientation in well written essays, but no book represents his culinary roots and inclinations quite as well as this book, cowritten with his mother.
On the face of it, this book would seem to be a transcription of mother Martha Pearl's little black recipe book into a form which William Morrow can publish and we can read and effectively translate into reproductions of Mrs. Villas favorite dishes. The back story of the book seems to be much more complicated than this, as Mrs. Villas' written recipes were sketchy, poorly handwritten, and done only as an aide d'memoire for someone who cooked almost entirely by experience, and look and feel, just like every other traditional southern cook whose praxis has been memorialized in writing. Thus, Villas had to do anthropology by observing his mother at work and doing his best to estimate amounts from quantities doled out by hand and eye. This too was made difficult by an entirely familiar friendly antagonism between mother and son in the kitchen. A running theme is that Mother Villas and son agree that Jimmy simply could never quite reproduce the quality of his mother's own recipes, in spite of years spent at studying and writing about the world's cuisines. Some of the repartee which documents this antagonism is a little difficult to believe, as when Miss Martha cannot find any 'White Lily' or other soft southern flour in Jimmy's East Hampton kitchen with which to make biscuits. I've been cooking regularly for less than three years and I have a regular supply of 'White Lily' shipped to the Lehigh Valley from Tennessee like clockwork.
I am glad I am skeptical of Jimmy's inability to reproduce Miss Martha's recipes, as if this were gospel, it would bode ill for your or my ability to make the recipes in this book into something remotely like the jewels which appear on Martha Pearl's North Carolina dinner table. In fact, I think a fairly well practiced cook with average equipment will do quite well with these recipes thank you.
The best things about the collection of recipes in this book are that practically all of the classic southern recipes are represented here and, in spite of the crack about doing anthropology, true practitioners of this cuisine are interpreting the recipes for us. With all due respect to Villas' friend Paula Wolfert, there is no observation and interpretation going on here. This is the real deal, where cook and scribe are part of the culture on which they report.
Just as Italy has it's 'oil line' separating the butter from the olive oil cuisines of North and South, I think the Mason-Dixon line could double as the mayonnaise line, as I suspect that beginning in Maryland, sales of Hellmans doubles per capita as you cross each state border from Maryland to the Carolinas. Both Villas are on very safe culinary grounds here, as they typically specify either Hellmans or homemade, AND, the Hellmans brands of mayonnaise are consistent winners in 'Cooks Illustrated' taste tests.
Most recipes in this book are fairly easy, although they are typically more picky about some details of method and ingredients than fellow Southerner Paula Deen of Savannah. They are also a lot pickier about the details of method than my own mother whose ideal recipe is Deen's spiral bound church fundraiser cookbook style. Of course, Miss Martha and my mother share a passion for the very freshest corn and tomatoes in season. There are also significant differences between Deen and the Villas in even a basic recipe such as pimento cheese spread. I suspect the Villas' interpretation is more traditional and it is certainly in line with Mother Villas' cardinal rule of not messing around with the taste of the main ingredients by adding a lot of extras. Their recipe for my favorite creamed chipped beef is a good example, as it is almost exactly the same as the recipe from Mississippian Craig Claiborne, but without the addition of Worcestershire sauce.
The recipe chapters fill all the niches you expect in a traditional southern cuisine, including Breakfast and Brunch; Canapes, Appetizers, and Snacks; Soups and Stews; Salads; Meats; Poultry and Game; Seafood; Casseroles; Vegetables; Breads; Desserts; Cookies and Confections; Pickles, Relishes and Preserves; Sauces and Dressings; and Beverages. With the chapter on preserving, the book covers more than most compendia of Southern cooking.
At every turn of the page in this book, I find myself nodding in agreement over choices of methods and ingredients. The use of torn bread pieces in place of breadcrumbs in meat loaf agrees with all my best sources for this delicacy. Patties for frying and doughs for rising are all chilled in the fridge for the righteous length of times to either firm up or relax. Miss Martha does share with Miss Paula the tendency to use canned soup and store-bought croutons in casseroles and such, but the application is judicious. Note that the coverage of the North Carolina speciality, pork barbecue, is a bit light. Do not depend on this book for much smoke work.
I really liked this book. It was a perfect mix of authentic, doable recipes and stories to make them and the authors come to life. Real home cooking with a good read thrown into the bargain.