Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Robert St. John: My Top 25 Cookbooks

The view from my desk is inspirational. I’ve been in the same office for 27 years. There are no windows, but I have surrounded myself with things that inspire me and things that I love.

There are a lot of photos of family all over the room. There are also a lot of photos of the Beatles. There are odd trinkets, trophies, honors, certificates, a college degree, awards, and all sorts of memorabilia scattered everywhere. My Regional Emmy Award sits next to a personalized bowling ball signed by Jeff “The Dude” Bridges. They are both situated next to a first place trophy from a Jell-O wrestling competition (I didn’t compete, it was turned in when I was collecting trophies for the décor in one of our restaurants).

Most of all there are cookbooks.

Last month, while I was out of town my assistant, Simeon Williford, took on the rather large task of organizing and pouring through the cookbook collection in my office. It’s a task she’s been dreading— and putting off— for almost four years. It sounds like an easy undertaking, but I have been collecting cookbooks for over 40 years and by a loose estimation there are somewhere around 1,200 cookbooks on the shelves across from my desk. That doesn’t include the hundreds of books in boxes stashed in other places in my office, at home, and in several storage facilities.

The cookbooks are semi-organized today as she made substantial progress while I was away. Though the hallway just outside of my office is packed with books, and I have yet to undertake the long-overdue task of culling through the stacks in the hopes of eliminating ones that I no longer use, never did use, or books that just need to be given away.

My office wall is filled with books. The question I am most often asked — after the “how many books do you have?” question— is, “Have you read all of those?” The answer is yes. They’re all cookbooks. Restaurants and food are my life, my hobby, my passion, and my joy. I have at least viewed every page of every book on those shelves.

Asking if I have cooked from them is a different story. I have cooked from many of them, especially in the early days I was working 90 hours a week in the kitchen. I have been inspired, at least in some way, by most of them. These days the cookbooks I cook from most are my cookbooks. The books I become inspired by, and the ones that encourage me and keep me motivated writing and releasing cookbooks— I have two cookbooks in the works for release over the next two years— are on these shelves.

I have several dozen volumes of Art Culinaire, but have never cooked from any of them. I probably never will. They’re pretty to look at though. There are a pair of antique lawyer bookcases flanking the cookbook shelves that contain mainly non-fiction books and some fiction from Mississippi writers, but everything else— save some business books— in the room is a cookbook.

I often get asked about my favorite cookbooks. I have never answered that question before for fear of leaving one out that I truly treasure. But now that my cookbooks are semi organized, I’m going to take a stab at listing my top 25. It should be noted that any list I ever create is a fluid document. I change my mind often on subjective things like favorite songs, albums, or books. It should also be noted that each of these books has a personal connection to me in some aspect. I either cooked from it in my early career or used it as an instruction manual and text to further my skill and knowledge. Here is the list as it stands today (in no particular order, and I am sure I’m overlooking several):

“Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen” Paul Prudhomme— This book came out in the mid 1980s and is still in print. People today don’t recognize the revolution that surrounded Prudhomme after he opened K-Paul’s. He was a great chef, and a chemist of real cooking.

The Commander’s Palace New Orleans Cookbook” Ella and Dick Brennan— This book had just been released when I started working as the executive chef in the Purple Parrot kitchen. The recipes were my north star and exactly what I was aiming to recreate in my first restaurant.

Larousse Gastronomique” Librarie Larousse— I never attended cooking school. I started cooking after firing our chef opening night. I needed all the basics I could get.

The Joy of Cooking” Irma Rombauer— More early day basics.

Craig Claiborne’s New York Times Cookbook”— a massive work from the best Mississippi culinarian to ever walk the earth.

Southern Sideboards” The Junior League of Jackson— My mother and grandmother cooked from this book. It tastes like home.

Come On In” The Junior League of Jackson— The follow up to Southern Sideboards.

Recipe Jubilee” The Junior League of Mobile— my mom’s gumbo recipe started here.

Screen Doors and Sweet Tea” Martha Foose— When this book was released, I sat in my car outside the bookstore and couldn’t stop turning pages.

How To Cook Everything” Mark Bittman— No kitchen should be without it.

Culinary Artistry” Andrew Dornenburg Karen Page— My copy is so dogeared and worn. This book probably gets more use than any other in my collection. The recipes and restaurants are dated at this point, but the flavor profiles and dynamics are spot-on and useful. It’s the first book I bought my son when he told me of his desire to go into the restaurant biz. “The Flavor Thesaurus” by Niki Segnit is a newer, more comprehensive, book. I just bought my son a copy of this one, too.

“Tex Mex” Ford Fry— This book inspired me to open a Tex Mex restaurant. Excellent.

Rick Bayless’ Mexican Kitchen” Rick Bayless— the master of Mexican.

River Road Recipes” Junior League of Baton Rouge— my grandmother’s gumbo came from this book.

Ad Hoc At Home” Thomas Keller— Simply the best at what he does. Period. End of story. I have all his books. This is my favorite (it’s the most approachable).

Staff Meals from Chanterelle” David Waltuck— I am typically more interested in what the chefs are feeding each other before the dinner service begins that the actual food they are serving later on the menu. This is the first book I bought that covered those family staff meals.

Frank Stitt’s Southern Table” Frank Stitt— No one can compare to what Stitt has done for the Alabama culinary scene.

Frank Brigtsen’s Stay at Home Cookbook” Frank Brigtsen— this is more of a pamphlet than a book. Brigtsen released it during Covid. I value it as much, if not more, than almost all the others on this list. Frank rocks.

The Edna Lewis Cookbook” Edna Lewis— Other than my grandmother, Miss Lewis was my fired chicken muse.

Mastering the Art of French Cooking” Julia Child— The bible.

The Gift of Southern Cooking” Scott Peacock— This book was big for me when it came out. Still is.

Emeril’s New Orleans Cooking” Emeril Lagasse— This was a revelational text for me. Emeril opened his first restaurant a year or so after I opened mine. He’s been an example to follow ever since.

Crescent City Cooking” Susan Spicer— Spicer and Brigtsen are two of my favorite chefs in the city. They are both as gracious as they are talented. This is her first cookbook.

The New Basics” Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukens— I studied “The Silver Palate Cookbook” by these two in my early days of the kitchen. This came next.

The Professional Chef” Culinary Institute of America— My go-to when I need to learn how it is done.

Grillades and Grits

2 lbs Veal top round cut into two-inch strips

2 tsp Kosher salt

1 Tbl Black pepper, fresh ground

1 /2 cup Bacon grease (or canolaoil)

3 /4 cup Flour

3 /4 cup Onion, diced

1 /4 cup Shallot, minced

1 /2 cup Celery, diced

1 tsp Garlic, minced

3 /4 cup Green bell pepper, diced

1 /2 tsp Dried thyme

3 cups Chicken broth, hot

1 cup Tomatoes, peeled, large dice

1 /2 cup Red wine

2 tsp Hot Sauce

1 Bay leaf

1 tsp. Salt

Place one to two tablespoons of the bacon grease in a large heavy skillet and place on high heat. Season meat with one teaspoon of the fresh ground pepper and the kosher salt. Place the meat in hot skillet. Once browned, remove meat from the skillet.

Place the remainder of the bacon grease into skillet. Once melted, lower heat and slowly stir in flour. Cook three to four minutes. Add onion, shallot, celery, peppers, thyme and garlic. Continue to cook roux mixture for four to five minutes. Using a wire whip stir in the hot chicken broth, red wine, bay leaf and tomatoes and bring to a simmer.

Add veal back to the mixture and cook over a very low heat for two to three hours, stirring occasionally. When meat is tender stir in hot sauce, the remaining black pepper and salt.

Prepare garlic cheese grits during the last 30 minutes of cooking. Spoon grits onto a serving dish and top with grillades.

Yield: 8-10 servings

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Trollfest '09

Trollfest '07 was such a success that Jackson Jambalaya will once again host Trollfest '09. Catch this great event which will leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Othor Cain and his band, The Black Power Structure headline the night while Sonjay Poontang returns for an encore performance. Former Frank Melton bodyguard Marcus Wright makes his premier appearance at Trollfest singing "I'm a Sweet Transvestite" from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Kamikaze will sing his new hit, “How I sold out to da Man.” Robbie Bell again performs: “Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be Bells” and “Any friend of Ed Peters is a friend of mine”. After the show, Ms. Bell will autograph copies of her mug shot photos. In a salute to “Dancing with the Stars”, Ms. Bell and Hinds County District Attorney Robert Smith will dance the Wango Tango.

Wrestling returns, except this time it will be a Battle Royal with Othor Cain, Ben Allen, Kim Wade, Haley Fisackerly, Alan Lange, and “Big Cat” Donna Ladd all in the ring at the same time. The Battle Royal will be in a steel cage, no time limit, no referee, and the losers must leave town. Marshand Crisler will be the honorary referee (as it gives him a title without actually having to do anything).

Meet KIM Waaaaaade at the Entergy Tent. For five pesos, Kim will sell you a chance to win a deed to a crack house on Ridgeway Street stuffed in the Howard Industries pinata. Don't worry if the pinata is beaten to shreds, as Mr. Wade has Jose, Emmanuel, and Carlos, all illegal immigrants, available as replacements for the it. Upon leaving the Entergy tent, fig leaves will be available in case Entergy literally takes everything you have as part of its Trollfest ticket price adjustment charge.

Donna Ladd of The Jackson Free Press will give several classes on learning how to write. Smearing, writing without factchecking, and reporting only one side of a story will be covered. A donation to pay their taxes will be accepted and she will be signing copies of their former federal tax liens. Ms. Ladd will give a dramatic reading of her two award-winning essays (They received The Jackson Free Press "Best Of" awards.) "Why everything is always about me" and "Why I cover murders better than anyone else in Jackson".

In the spirit of helping those who are less fortunate, Trollfest '09 adopts a cause for which a portion of the proceeds and donations will be donated: Keeping Frank Melton in his home. The “Keep Frank Melton From Being Homeless” booth will sell chances for five dollars to pin the tail on the jackass. John Reeves has graciously volunteered to be the jackass for this honorable excursion into saving Frank's ass. What's an ass between two friends after all? If Mr. Reeves is unable to um, perform, Speaker Billy McCoy has also volunteered as when the word “jackass” was mentioned he immediately ran as fast as he could to sign up.

In order to help clean up the legal profession, Adam Kilgore of the Mississippi Bar will be giving away free, round-trip plane tickets to the North Pole where they keep their bar complaint forms (which are NOT available online). If you don't want to go to the North Pole, you can enjoy Brant Brantley's (of the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance) free guided tours of the quicksand field over by High Street where all complaints against judges disappear. If for some reason you are unable to control yourself, never fear; Judge Houston Patton will operate his jail where no lawyers are needed or allowed as you just sit there for minutes... hours.... months...years until he decides he is tired of you sitting in his jail. Do not think Judge Patton is a bad judge however as he plans to serve free Mad Dog 20/20 to all inmates.

Trollfest '09 is a pet-friendly event as well. Feel free to bring your dog with you and do not worry if your pet gets hungry, as employees of the Jackson Zoo will be on hand to provide some of their animals as food when it gets to be feeding time for your little loved one.

Relax at the Fox News Tent. Since there are only three blonde reporters in Jackson (being blonde is a requirement for working at Fox News), Megan and Kathryn from WAPT and Wendy from WLBT will be on loan to Fox. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both and a torn-up Obama yard sign will entitle you to free drinks served by Megan, Wendy, and Kathryn. Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required. Just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '09 is for EVERYONE!!!

This is definitely a Beaver production.

Note: Security provided by INS.

Trollfest '07

Jackson Jambalaya is the home of Trollfest '07. Catch this great event which promises to leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Sonjay Poontang and his band headline the night with a special steel cage, no time limit "loser must leave town" bout between Alan Lange and "Big Cat"Donna Ladd following afterwards. Kamikaze will perform his new song F*** Bush, he's still a _____. Did I mention there was no referee? Dr. Heddy Matthias and Lori Gregory will face off in the undercard dueling with dangling participles and other um, devices. Robbie Bell will perform Her two latest songs: My Best Friends are in the Media and Mama's, Don't Let Your Babies Grow up to be George Bell. Sid Salter of The Clarion-Ledger will host "Pin the Tail on the Trial Lawyer", sponsored by State Farm.

There will be a hugging booth where in exchange for your young son, Frank Melton will give you a loooong hug. Trollfest will have a dunking booth where Muhammed the terrorist will curse you to Allah as you try to hit a target that will drop him into a vat of pig grease. However, in the true spirit of Separate But Equal, Don Imus and someone from NE Jackson will also sit in the dunking booth for an equal amount of time. Tom Head will give a reading for two hours on why he can't figure out who the hell he is. Cliff Cargill will give lessons with his .80 caliber desert eagle, using Frank Melton photos as targets. Tackleberry will be on hand for an autograph session. KIM Waaaaaade will be passing out free titles and deeds to crackhouses formerly owned by The Wood Street Players.

If you get tired come relax at the Fox News Tent. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both will entitle you to free drinks.Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required, just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '07 is for EVERYONE!!!

This is definitely a Beaver production.

Note: Security provided by INS