Dinner at Miss Lady's: Memories and Recipes from a Southern Childhood

Dinner at Miss Lady's: Memories and Recipes from a Southern Childhood

by Luann Landon


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Back when people spent their whole lives in one place, life was all about family and family rituals. It was about the whole clan gathering at dinnertime over meals to be remembered forever. Luann Landon's cookbook/memoir transports us to that world of formal midday dinners, closely guarded recipes, and competitive cooks.

Dinner at Miss Lady's takes us back there through the memories, meals, and recipes of one Southern family. Landon recreates the old Southern way of life in comic and tender anecdotes—from the near disaster of losing the tiny dinner bell to revenge exacted by giving the wrong recipe for a cake. This is the world of Landon's extended family: the glamorous and indolent Aunt Clare; the industrious, proud grandmother Murlo; the other grandmother, spoiled, indulgent Miss Lady and her good-humored husband, Judge; and most important, Henretta, the protective cook, able to mend family battles with a perfect blackberry-rhubarb cobbler.

Adding to the vividness of this memoir are menus from those memorable meals, including birthday dinners, homecoming feasts, graduation celebrations, and sumptuous spring and fall parties. Landon shares detailed recipes for over sixty heirloom dishes: Cousin Catherine's Chicken Vermouth with Walnuts and Green Grapes, Beets in Orange and Ginger Sauce, Tennessee Jam Cake, Caramel Ice Cream.

A rich portrait of a life almost lost to us, Dinner at Miss Lady's is a memoir cooked to perfection, one to savor both for its stories and for its food.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781565122277
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publication date: 05/01/1999
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 1,024,295
Product dimensions: 5.83(w) x 8.27(h) x 0.55(d)

About the Author

Luann Landon grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, and spent every summer until she left for college in the small town of Greensboro, Georgia, with her extended family. She studied literature at Radcliffe, and has lived since then in France and Nashville. She taught French at Harpeth Hall School in Nashville and has won prizes in various poetry competitions. She lives in Sewanee, Tennessee, with her husband.

Read an Excerpt


Midday dinner in Greensboro is still vividly present to me. At one o'clock Henretta rings first the little brass dinner bell in the shape of a lady in a hoop skirt, and then the old black iron bell at the back door. We gather in the dining room, weaving together the individual threads of our mornings and our lives. We seat ourselves and Judge says grace. Typically, Miss Lady has had an attack of "nerves" and is dabbing at her eyes with her handkerchief. Murlo is exasperated with her for her lack of backbone. Judge is peeved because it might be necessary to call in Dr. Parker (who gives Miss Lady a sugar pill), and he could miss his fishing trip to the lake this afternoon. My mother's young and beautiful face is crossed with frowns—Susan, nine years old, will eat only grilled cheese sandwiches and Coca-Cola, and I, eleven years old, will eat only biscuits and dessert. She thinks of my father, who died three years before, after serving in World War II. She thinks of his beautiful hands, his elegant clothes, his wit. He was too sensitive to live, and now she must live for both of them. She has decided to spend only the summers in Greensboro, to live during the school year in Nashville. She must make a home for herself and her mother and her daughters, earn a living, pay the mortgage.

Aunt Virginia, my father's sister, has a sick child upstairs. Jimmie has whooping cough, and she is angry that the family chatter prevents her from hearing what is going on in his room. Her face is cross and flushed, but her voice is soft as she talks to Miss Lady. She is not really paying attention to anything happening outside herchild's sickroom. Uncle Pete, Aunt Virginia's husband, can never forget that Miss Lady considers him a little bit common. His manners at the table become more aggressive than they really are because he must always prove that he is a plain man and proud of it.

Henretta sets the platters and bowls of food on the table. She passes the biscuits (small, short, and delicate, the best biscuits I will ever taste in my life) and Miss Lady says through her tears, "Take two and butter them while they are hot," as if taking two biscuits and buttering them while they are hot is an action likely to have tragic consequences. Murlo refuses to help herself to the stewed tomatoes. They have been cooked with bacon grease. For a long time. Too long. All the vitamins have been eliminated, and they have no nutritional value whatsoever.

Miss Lady tastes her chicken. Her face, for a moment serene with anticipation, crumples into disappointment, as if she had been looking forward to this chicken breast to harmonize her nerves and make the world right. "Henretta," she says, "I don't believe your chicken is as good today as it was last week."

"Is that so, Miss Lady?" Henretta says, her chin shooting out stubbornly. "That was a right young bird."

"It's a little tough," says Miss Lady. "I believe you overcooked it."

Susan and I look at each other. How could Miss Lady say such things? How could she hurt Henretta's feelings? Henretta who would die for her. I want to leap up from the table and throw my arms around her, say, "Don't cry, Henretta, it's the best chicken I ever tasted." Henretta, great cook that she is, stands with dignity next to Judge's chair with the plate of biscuits in her worn hands, which are tender and pink on the insides and leathery and brown on the outsides. She is like an ancient statue that is being slowly worn away by bad weather.

Judge takes two biscuits, places them on his bread-and-butter plate, and begins to tell about one of the times he dined at Galatoire's in New Orleans. Again Susan and I look at each other. How can Judge be so insensitive? Doesn't he realize that Henretta's cooking is better than anything at Galatoire's? We look to Murlo for support. The expression on her face seems to say, "Just as I expected."

Slowly, Henretta clears the table. We listen to the sound of her shuffling carpet slippers, then the kitchen door swinging shut behind her.

Suddenly Miss Lady is crying in earnest. This morning, this time at the dinner table have been mere prelude to her real sorrow, her real despair. She is crying for everything, for the whole world. She is crying about tough fried chicken, about her little brother who died when he was two years old, about my father's death, about the gardenia bush killed by the frost in February.

Henretta brings in dessert. Carefully she places a bowl of blackberry-rhubarb cobbler in front of Miss Lady. "Try a little, Miss Lady. It'll do you good." She offers a cut-glass pitcher of cream on a silver tray. Miss Lady dabbles the cream over the cobbler and lifts her spoon as if it weighed ten pounds. She takes a bite. Slowly, as she savors and swallows it, the expression on her face changes. The light, buttery pastry, the sweet-tart fruit, the thick, dark red juice, faintly spicy—once again, Henretta's artistry has saved Miss Lady. Peevishness and self-indulgence give way to pleasure. "Yes," she seems to be saying, "I love all of you. Don't you understand that I want to give all of you beauty and pleasure and this world we live in contraries me? Won't let me? But now—but now—look what Henretta has done for us. She has created something perfect, out of bitter blackberries, sour rhubarb, raw flour, plain sugar. She's an artist as I am, only no one acknowledges us, no one knows how deeply we are wounded by ugliness, by unshapeliness, no one realizes how hard we work to mend the broken world."

The expression on Miss Lady's face is what Henretta wants, what she hopes for. The expression on Henretta's face is what I hope for. Her face breaks into the smile I love—her mouth, chin, cheeks, eyebrows, hairline—all, all warm, beautiful, heart-easing curves. The world is no longer flat; it is round. We will not fall off into uncharted darkness. We will go round and round on a path of life that will comfort and keep us.

Aunt Virginia takes a second helping of cobbler but foregoes the cream in deference to her diet—she is always trying to measure up to its rigors but never succeeds. She listens; not a sound from upstairs. Fannie, Jimmie's nurse, is reliable, even if she does let the child eat sugar directly out of the sugar bowl.

My mother is saying to herself, "Well, at least the girls look healthy—I must be doing something right." She smiles and I look at her and think that she is beautiful, though she doesn't have the sort of porcelain prettiness appreciated in Greensboro. Her beauty is more contemporary—wide, high cheekbones, a mouth that smiles generously, a broad forehead, frank and hospitable. Of course I don't recognize these qualities as being contemporary on this occasion, when I am eleven years old, but I do realize that my mother is different from my grandmothers—not etiquette, sensibility, and soul, but a forthright handshake, a brave heart, and no fuss.

Murlo looks at Miss Lady and shakes her head. The bad blood must have come in from Miss Lady's father's line; her mother's line is definitely good. Mentally she compares Miss Lady's and Judge's genealogical charts with her own, as she has done hundreds of times. Yes, she must admit, the Evanses and the Fosters, her own family, are almost (not quite) evenly matched.

Uncle Pete leans away from the table, balances the delicate Victorian chair on its back legs, and says, "I'm about to pop." There is a brief silence as this word "pop," not quite in the tone of the occasion, seems to run around the table and slap our faces. Uncle Pete bumps his chair forward, gets up from the table, takes his leave without a word of appreciation to Henretta, and readies himself to walk two blocks back uptown to his drugstore. Before he leaves the house, Aunt Virginia follows him into the hall. We hear low voices as they tell each other good-bye. I remember that this morning as I passed their bedroom door, I saw them sleeping in each other's arms. After we hear the front door close, after we hear Aunt Virginia's footsteps, full of concentration and energy, running upstairs to her sick child, Miss Lady sighs and says, "Virginia and Pete are in love." I want her to say more, but of course she doesn't.

It's the time of day when it seems that the difficult morning has passed, and now the lovely, long afternoon waits. We came to the table hungry, cross, wayward, sorry we had been born. We leave with generous hearts, loving one another, not wanting to change places with anyone on earth.

Blackberry-Rhubarb Cobbler

There are so many variations on the cobbler, but this is the real one for me—the one I carried to the big house.

1 pound fresh blackberries
1 pound fresh rhubarb
1 cup sugar

For the Pastry:

4 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon cream cheese
1 cup self-rising flour
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup milk
butter to dot
juice of 1/2 lemon

1. Preheat oven to 325°F.

2. Wash fruit, and cut the rhubarb into 1-inch pieces. Combine blackberries and rhubarb in a large bowl, mix with the sugar, and let stand while making the pastry.

3. In a medium bowl, cut the 4 tablespoons butter and cream cheese in small bits and cut into the self-rising flour with 2 knives or a pastry cutter. Add egg and mix well, then add milk to make a dough.

4. Press dough with fingers in a thick layer in bottom of a 9-by-12-inch


Table of Contents


A Golden Cake, A Green Plate

Lightning Bugs

The Big House

Peaches and Cream

Two Grandmothers


The Rude and Bleeding Beet

Yellow Roses

One for the Cutworm, One for the Crow

A Green Silk Dress


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