On Food: Martha Nesbit celebrates Savannah's table
By Damon Lee Fowler
One midday in September during my early days as a food writer, I
drove out to Isle of Hope for an interview with Martha Giddens Nesbit, a
woman whose name was practically synonymous with Savannah cooking after
two landmark cookbooks and nearly two decades as a food and lifestyle
writer for this paper.
We had done interviews before, but on those
occasions, she was the journalist. This time, the tables were turned
and the notebook was in my hand.
She met me at her back door
wearing an apron over neat, simple slacks and blouse, the air around her
rich with the appetite-stirring aroma of curry. Typically, she was not
about to have someone over to her house without offering something to
We went right to the kitchen, where the table was laid with
bright linens and pottery, sweet tea, cheese wafers, shrimp curry over
rice, and a salad. We sat down without my notebook. "You can do that
after we eat," she said firmly as she took my hand and bowed her head to
While we savored the spicy-sweet curry, with its
fragrant promise that cooler weather was on its way, we talked, laughed,
and shared our joys and disappointments.
Eventually, the notebook
came out and the interview began. While admitting with a grimace that
she hated being on the other side of the questions, she never once
hesitated before giving an answer and was always gracious and
Well, as often happens for freelance writers, that
story never got paid for nor published. Yet somehow it didn't matter:
Martha and I were already long-time acquaintances before, but that
afternoon we became friends.
Shortly afterward, she went back to
the classroom, both as a graduate student and teacher. Her books quietly
went out of print, but she kept her hand in food writing through a
column in Savannah Magazine and several cookbooks co-authored with
friend Paula Deen.
She thought she was finished with cookbooks on
her own, however her mother, Alice Jo Giddens, had other ideas, and
pressed her to do at least one more. Luckily for us, Martha is a good
Southern girl who listens to her mother.
Memories of that long ago
September afternoon came back in a rush as I flipped through the
resulting book, "Savannah Celebrations: Simple Southern Party Menus''
(Pelican/2010: $24.95). Filled with warmth and good humor, this
handsome, picture-filled collection is Martha Nesbit at her best, and is
almost like sharing a meal with her.
Modestly frowning at the
idea of herself as a style-setter, she insists she's merely a mirror
held up to Savannah, reflecting the best of what she sees. And yet, it
is her keen eye for what is best that makes her work endure, that keeps
the recipes "typical" as generations come back to them again and again.
Shrimp Curry with Rice Ring
This was the centerpiece of that lovely lunch, the dish that will always say "Martha Nesbit" to me.
4 tablespoons butter
1 large yellow onion, chopped fine
1/2 cup apple, chopped fine
1/2 cup celery, chopped fine
1-1/2 cups water
1 tablespoon curry powder
3 pounds shrimp, cleaned and deveined
1 pint half-and-half
Rice ring (recipe follows)
Saute onion, apple and celery in butter. When wilted, add water. Let
simmer until apple and celery are tender and most of the liquid has
evaporated. Stir in curry powder. Add half-and half. Cook gently until
cream is reduced to sauce consistency. Refrigerate.
2. When ready to serve, bring mixture to simmer and add shrimp. Simmer until shrimp are just pink. Do not overcook.
Serve in rice ring. Next to curry, have small bowls of grated coconut,
chutney, chopped almonds, pickle relish or other specialty relishes.
Makes 8 1/2 cup servings
4 cups cooked rice according to package directions. Immediately before
serving buffet, sprinkle finely chopped parsley evenly into a ring mold.
Press rice into mold and unmold it immediately onto serving platter.
Pour shrimp curry into middle of ring. Have additional curry in a gravy
boat with ladle.
Crispy Cheese Wafers
bring back memories of my own mother, who always had a tin of similar
cheese wafers handy all through the Christmas holidays.
Makes about 4 dozen
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
2 cups grated sharp Cheddar cheese
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 cups Rice Krispies or other puffed rice cereal
1/2 cup finely chopped pecans
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Combine butter and cheese in mixer. Sift together flour, salt and cayenne.
Blend dry ingredients into butter and cheese using stiff spatula.
Mixture will be crumbly. Stir in cereal and pecans. Roll into small
marble-sized balls; heat from hands will help hold dough together.
Flatten with small fork on ungreased, non-stick cookie sheets. Bake
11-12 minutes, or until lightly browned. Store in tins. Wafers freeze
Chutney Cheese Ball
Martha says this is so good that she once ate an entire cheese ball all by herself.
Potentially serves 8-10 (unless you have invited Martha)
1 8-ounce package cream cheese, softened
1 teaspoon curry powder
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 9-ounce bottle Major Grey's Chutney, divided
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1/2 cup shredded coconut
Blend cheese, curry, mustard, and half of chutney. Add nuts and mix in.
Line a small glass bowl with plastic wrap, leaving lots of overhang.
With spatula, pack cream cheese mixture firmly into bottom of dish. Use
overhang to cover top. Chill.
2. When firm, unwrap top, invert
dish into your carrying dish, and snap on lid. Keep chilled. When ready
to serve, cover with rest of chutney and shredded coconut. Serve with
Martha: "I've never served this that I didn't get a call afterward
requesting the recipe. I've seen a dozen recipes (for it), but this is
the easiest, prettiest and best.''
1 1-pound can refried beans
1 package taco seasoning mix
1-1/2 cups sour cream
2 tomatoes, diced
4 green onions, white and green parts, sliced fine
8 ounces grated cheddar cheese
Black olives for garnish, if desired
Guacamole, if desired, purchased or homemade
Tacos or corn chips
Spread beans with a spatula in the bottom of a 13-by-9 inch plastic
casserole dish with snap-on lid. Combine taco mix with sour cream. Cover
beans with sour cream mixture. Layer tomatoes and green onions. Cover
with guacamole, if using. Cover entire casserole with layer of cheese.
Garnish with black olives, if desired, cut in half and placed in design
on top of cheese.
2. Chill, covered, in container until ready to serve. Serve with chips.
Layers must be thin, so do not prepare in a smaller pan. Halve recipe,
instead. To make guacamole: Mash one ripe avocado with a little lemon
juice, 2 tablespoons of sour cream, 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder and 1/4
teaspoon of salt..
Martha's Fried Chicken
you can buy chicken from an obliging restaurant or market deli, there's
nothing like home-fried chicken for a tailgate (or any other) party.
1 fryer chicken, cut into pieces
Salt and pepper
Vegetable oil, about 3 cups
1. Early in the day, season chicken. Refrigerate. When ready to fry, toss chicken in bag with flour.
Heat oil in large skillet with lid. When hot, add chicken. Cover and
cook on medium high for about 10 minutes. Remove cover, turn chicken to
other side and continue cooking on medium high for about 10 more
minutes. Remove smaller pieces first. Drain on brown paper bags (or
Dottie's Baked Beans
Martha: "The recipe is an adaptation of one given to me by my friend
Dottie Courington of Savannah. With half a pound of bacon and 2 cups of
brown sugar, how could (they0 be anything but delicious?"
1/2 pound bacon, chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
2 large onions, chopped
1 48-ounce can pork and beans
2 cups dark brown sugar
1 cup ketchup
1/4 cup prepared mustard
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
2 teaspoons liquid smoke
In large Dutch oven, fry bacon until crisp. Remove bacon and all but 2
tablespoons of the grease. In bacon grease, fry onions until they are
tender and transparent. To onions, add crumbled bacon, beans, sugar,
ketchup, mustard, Worcestershire and liquid smoke.
2. Cook on low several hours, stirring occasionally.
Old Fashioned Potato Salad
4 baking potatoes, peeled and diced, or 8-12 new potatoes, cubed, with skin left on
2 ribs of celery, diced
1/2 of a green pepper, diced
1/4 cup sweet salad cube pickles (not sour pickle relish)
1-1/2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon prepared mustard, preferably Dijon
1 cup mayonnaise, preferably Hellman's
4 hard-cooked eggs, chopped
1. Cook potatoes in salted water until tender. Drain.
Place potatoes, celery, green pepper and pickles in a bowl. Combine
salt, pepper, mustard, mayonnaise and lemon juice. Toss dressing with
potatoes. Add chopped eggs, then toss lightly. Serve immediately, or
chill before serving.
Chewy Chocolate Cookies
Martha's version of Gottlieb's legendary chocolate chewy meringue cookies.
2 cups confectioners' sugar
2 tablespoons powdered cocoa, sifted
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup all-purpose flour, sifted
3 egg whites
1 cup chopped pecans
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Stir together sugar, cocoa, salt and
flour. Add egg whites one at a time. When well-beaten, stir in chopped
2. Drop by tablespoonfuls onto parchment lined baking
sheets that have been sprayed with vegetable oil. Bake for 12-13
minutes. Allow to sit on the parchment for about 30 seconds before
moving with a spatula. Cool on waxed paper. Store in airtight container.
Best eaten the same day they are made.
Slice and Bake Oatmeal Cookies
From Martha's mother-in-law, Mona Nesbit. These travel very well.
Makes 8 dozen
1 cup vegetable shortening
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
3 cups oatmeal
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1. Cream shortening and sugars. Mix eggs and vanilla together; then add sugar to mixture. Mix well.
Sift together flour, salt and soda. Add to sugar mixture, mixing with
spoon. Add oatmeal and nuts. Stir until mixed. Form dough into rolls.
Wrap in waxed paper. Chill.
3. When ready to bake, preheat oven to
375 degrees. Slice dough into 1/4-inch slices. Bake on ungreased cookie
sheet at 375 for 10 to 13 minutes.