down home
February 7, 2009

The irony is that for the party celebrating my graduation from culinary school, I have no idea what I want to cook. I'm drawing a complete blank on menu planning and inspiration.

All I want to do is throw out some deviled eggs and smoked salmon—which I'm afraid looks like such a cliché of a cocktail hour, a party my grandmothers might have attended. But—as previously noted—I could do worse than channeling my grandmothers, and I start to get excited when I remember that I've been meaning to try out the pecan praline recipe featured by J.W. Renfroe, a tiny shop in Pensacola, Florida, which has achieved cult status in my family since Granddaddy started shipping gift boxes for every holiday. If I have pralines, really tart, lightweight deviled eggs, some spicy succotash tartlets, salmon mousse on homemade potato gaufrettes, a lima bean take on hummus—well, this starts to look like a menu.

It's around this time that I realize I'm going to have to break out the pimento cheese. Pimento cheese, for those of you who don't have regular access to Mississippi cookin', is a Southern staple generally consisting of cheddar cheese, mayonnaise and pimentos, sweet red peppers known to the rest of the world as "that red thing inside my olive." I grew up thinking of it as the bland, oddly textured, white-bread thing I would be fed by my grandmother when the Thanksgiving leftovers had run out.

But lately I've been rethinking the concept. NPR offered an interesting segment, part recipe, part anthropology, a while back. Emily featured her mother's distinctly less mayonnaise-reliant version at her birthday party last spring. And there must be some reason that Dad still craves it after all these years, right?

I scour the web and Robert St. John's Deep South Parties for variations, of which there may be an infinite number. (St. John includes three in one cookbook.) I decide I'm going to feel generally better about this endeavor if I sub in white cheddar for orange and stick to the idea of cream cheese outweighing the mayo (still, I make my own, which is also surely an improvement). Then I hit on the concept of adding garlic—at first just one clove to see what happens, then two more when I can't stop myself. Everything goes into the blender along with plenty of Tabasco, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce and nearly half of my spice cabinet. The result is amazing—tangy and zippy and wake-you-up, make-you-pay-attention. I'm just not sure how it's going to fly in a more Yankee crowd.

Bryan and Jessica bus in from D.C. early in the day to help assemble eggs, ice cupcakes, cut crusts off bread and give moral support as I try to figure out how to find the waffle-cut blade on my new mandoline. A nasty flu has taken out about a third of the New York population this week, my guest list notwithstanding, and I think I need to trim back some of the excess of food. I start to worry that I'll end up with a stack of soggy pimento cheese-sourdough triangles (which Bryan has generously slathered with butter) in the morning.

But then people start arriving, and I can't keep food on the plates. It's another case of disappearing food. By 9:30—just a little over an hour in—we've pretty much demolished everything, and I'm in the kitchen trying to defrost more bread to satiate a swelling call from the crowd begging for more pimento cheese. It's a hit.

I'm able to pull together enough reserve toasts to calm the masses, and mostly I'm just happy to discover how well my last-minute menu plays. For the next few weeks I'll be pipe dreaming about my successful restaurant riffing on a host of Southern treats.