Not What You Expected: Southern Foodways Alliance Monday, Oct 15 2012 

Southern Foodways

In keeping with our fall tradition, I’m heading over to the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium this week. SFA is a great group and if you are a Southerner by birth or by frame of mind, you should be a member of this great group. I jokingly call it the Bourbon and Bacon Festival as there is not lack of either. Seriously, one year there were strips of Allen Benton’s bacon hanging from trees lining the entryway as hors d’ouevres. All that aside – it’s not just about the food. It’s more than what you might expect. Sure, there’s great food, but it’s also about fellowship and education. The Southern Foodways Alliance feeds my head, my heart, and my stomach.

The mission statement reads.”The Southern Foodways Alliance documents, studies, and celebrates the diverse food cultures of the changing American South. We set a common table where black and white, rich and poor — all who gather — may consider our history and our future in a spirit of reconciliation.

I strongly believe in these values as a Southerner. And, as a cook, in my opinion, everything about the whole entire world can be summarized by the food that goes into our mouths – politics, race, finance, agriculture, art, religion, education, and geography. Everything. It’s more than you might expect.

Last week I taught in Ohio and Indiana. All of the classes were sold out. Some people might not expect that, but Southern food is very popular across the country. Yet, as I travel, I often find myself explaining what Southern food actually is. People think all Southern food is unhealthy. People think all Southern food is fried. I didn’t grow up eating Bacon-Wrapped-Breaded-Deep-Fried-Macaroni and Cheese or Cheeseburgers served on Krispy Kreme or Red Velvet Pancakes with Cream Cheese Syrup.

Yes, I did grow up eating Fried Chicken. But, Southern food is more than fried chicken. Frankly, to define Southern food as fried chicken is one-dimensional. That’s like saying Japanese food is solely sushi, Italian food is no more than spaghetti and meatballs, and all French food is bathed in a buttery rich cream sauce. Assumptions are dangerous, often wrong, and the truth is more than you’d expect.

Real Southern Food

NY Times Atlanta Bureau Chief Kim Severson recently interviewed Paula Deen on Times Talk. I am asked about Paula almost as much as I am asked about working for Martha Stewart. Paula has been nice to me – I’ve been featured in her magazine and she’s had me on as a guest on her TV show. When she announced her diabetes to the world I did share with the NY Times that French chefs weren’t vilified for their use of butter. However, I also said I don’t think what Paula Deen shares with the world on Food Network defines Southern food — and I’d say that to her if she were sitting down right beside me. In fact, she very well might agree with me. She’s your cook, not your doctor, as she famously pointed out. I might only add that she’s entertainment.

I’ve lived and traveled all over the world. The South does not have a monopoly on rednecks or racism, but people assume that most Southerners are racist. I do think that the South somehow lives with this menace better, but then, I am not black and I do not face the prejudice an African American faces in our society. I only say that racism is part of our daily lives in the South. That’s part of our dialogue in SFA. Racism does exist and there are people that do judge people by the color of their skin, and there are people that do not. Geography has nothing to do with it and that’s not what most people think.

SFA is filled with like-minded Southerners that celebrate the diverse food cultures of the changing American South. We set a common table where black and white, rich and poor — all who gather — may consider our history and our future in a spirit of reconciliation.

Frankly, SFA gives me hope. I appreciate the work done spreading the message of the rich, diverse cultural heritage of the South. The South of the SFA is perhaps not what most people expect, but it is just as real as what is assumed to be true. This is the South that I want the world to see, to believe in, and to understand. 

And then, ungloriously heaped on  the pile of rubbish that is American television is Honey Boo Boo, a reality series about a small-town Southern family airing on a network comically called The Learning Channel.

Maybe I’ll have a slug of bourbon and a couple of slices of bacon, after all.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!


PS: In the spirit of “not what you expected”, today I’m sharing a recipe for Roast Delicata Squash Rings that will appear in my next book, Lighten Up, Y’all: 150 COMFORT FOOD RECIPES FOR HEART AND SOUL. I turned in my proposal just this week! In it I will lighten America’s favorite Southern recipes to make them a better choice for good health, while keeping the traditional flavors intact.

Roast Delicata Squash Rings
Serves 2

These tasty treats are beyond delicious. I could eat them every night. The seeds crisp up for a perfectly nutty savory crunch.

1 Delicata squash
1 teaspoon canola oil
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the oven to 400° F. Line a baking sheet with a nonstick silicone baking sheet. Using a chef’s knife, very thinly slice the squash, seeds and all, and place on the prepared baking sheet. Drizzle over or brush with oil. ( I actually keep my canola oil in a spray bottle and 3 squirts is one teaspoon.) Season with salt and pepper. Transfer to the oven and bake until the rings are tender and slightly charred, about 45 minutes. Serve warm.

Out and About
I’ll be at Thyme in Starkville, Mississippi on Sunday 10/21 from 12:30 to 2:30 for a Reception and Book-Signing. Also, on Sunday 11/18 I’ll be in Evans, Ga with a Tailgating Demo and Book-Signing. It’s free and open to the public. You can sign up for that event here.

PS. Please take a moment and like me on Facebook or follow on Twitter. And, if you send your information to me, I’ll do the same!

Please be nice. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without permission is prohibited. Feel free to excerpt and link, just give credit where credit is due and send folks to my website, Thanks so much.

Copyright © 2012 Virginia Willis Culinary Productions, LLC.

Thanksgiving Morning: Two Great Ways to Start the Day Wednesday, Nov 25 2009 

Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and websites – everywhere you look are recipes or stories about Thanksgiving sides or The Best Turkey. I’m guilty, too having sent out recipes for winter greens and winter vegetable gratin just last week.

But, I was talking to some folks this past weekend at Mistletoe Market in Perry, GA and we were talking about making breakfast for a crowd. I suggested they try my recipe for French Toast Casserole. It’s great. (If you click on the photo you can see it featured in Paula Deen’s magazine.) I’ve shared it before so excuse the redundancy, but it’s perfect and I don’t think you’ll mind because it tastes soooo good.

Breakfast can get the short shift on Thanksgiving. There’s so much food later in the day, but the morning can be hectic. When my sister and I were young, our favorite mornings were when Mama would prepare French toast for breakfast. The smell of butter, kissed with cinnamon, combined with the heady scent of sizzling egg was a most welcome greeting as we bounded down the stairs.

Sounds great – but nothing to make with a full house of people and lots of cooking still left to do. So, instead of another side dish to compete with Mama’s Sweet Potato Casserole or dessert to compete with Cousin Kathy’s Buttermilk Pecan Pie, I am sharing a couple of recipes for breakfast or brunch. (I will admit however, I have served the cassserole before as a dessert, but that’s neither here nor there 😉 )

My French Toast Casserole is made the night before, so you won’t find yourself camped in front of a hot griddle in the early morning, groggy and in need of caffeine. Make it tomorrow night and then, Thanksgiving morning remove it from the fridge to take the chill off. Grab a cup of coffee and pop it in the oven. Turn on the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade, give many thanks you aren’t in that crowd lining the streets of NYC, and basically, breakfast is ready. It’s a sturdy dish, nothing to fuss over, and responds well to being kept in a low oven while family members emerge for the day.

If you want to go for an even more simple way to start the day, try Sauteed Pears with Vanilla Yogurt and Honey Peanuts. The pears can be sauteed the night before and even microwaved in individual servings on Thanksgiving morning. I love the flavor combination of the peanut and the pear.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone. I have so much to be thankful for – no, not everything is perfect by a looooong shot – but I am so grateful for what I do have. I have my health, my family, good friends, and love in my life.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!

Serves 4 to 6

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
4 large Bosc pears, peeled, cored, and sliced
1 tablespoon sugar
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Pinch of fine salt
1/4 cup smooth peanut butter
1 tablespoon honey
1 cup low fat vanilla or plain yogurt
1/4 cup honey roasted peanuts, coarsely chopped

Melt the butter in a large heavy bottomed sauté pan over medium high heat. Add pears and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes, or until softened. Sprinkle with sugar, cinnamon, ginger and lemon juice. Season with a pinch of fine salt. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 5 to 7 minutes. Keep warm.

In a small bowl combine the peanut butter, honey, and yogurt; stir until smooth. Set aside.

To serve, place the pears in a shallow bowl. Top with yogurt mixture. Sprinkle over peanuts. Serve immediately.

Out and About: News and Notes Thursday, Oct 1 2009 


Hi there – Hope this finds you well. I left the sunny beaches of South Florida and have been zipping up some serious skymiles. Currently I am writing from New York en route to Philadelphia for the Les Dames d’Escoffier conference.


Last I touched base I had just taught in Maine. Since then, I’ve made a little jaunt through Indiana and Ohio, had a great time in Greenville SC at Euphoria with Shaun Garcia and his posse at Soby’s, taught in Savannah and had a great food and wine dinner at Local 11 Ten with chef Jeff Rodgers. I always try to sample the local – the really local food when I am in town. So, in Owensboro KY I sample BBQ mutton, West Lafayette IN, I paid a visit to the XXX – no! not that kind of XXX, and in Cincinnati? You’ve got it – SkyLine Chili!


After Philly, I have a brief stop in Memphis on Tuesday 6 October, I will be in Memphis teaching a class on Mother Sauces at the Viking Culinary Arts Center I love, love, love teaching that class!

I’m kicking of The World of Coca Cola Cooking with Coke Series on October 10. Click through on the link above to buy tickets. It’s a great value for a fun night out. I’ll be doing a demo and there will be free samples created by Tony Conway’s team at A Legendary Event as well as Wine and Specialty Beverage Tasting and a Tour of the World of Coca-Cola. Finally, parking is FREE. I'll be doing a booksigning, so you can purchase books onsite or bring your copy to have signed. The holidays are just around the corner, so think about anyone who may need a copy of BAY for a gift. (Shameless plug, I know.) The deal is, the folks who follow me are none other than Atlanta chef Richard Blais and Food Network star Paula Deen! They told me that, and I was pretty incredulous, to put it mildly. You want ME to lead off?

Paula & VA

Speaking of Paula – my appearance on her show aired again recently. Thanks so much to everyone for their notes, emails, and FB messages. She was a blast. I’ve also been asked to write for her new website, so keep your eyes open for that!


Another really pretty cool thing going on is that my friend, colleague, and James Beard award winner Martha Foose and I are featured Cookbooks of the Month on Chowhound ! Can you believe it? Pretty ding dang awesome if you ask us! It’s really, really great. Real live readers, real people are cooking from our books, giving feedback, and asking questions. You know, I wrote yesterday that all the awards and nominations in the world mean a lot, but there’s nothing like someone showing up to my class with a dog-eared, stained copy of my cookbook. Nothing. Thanks Chowhounders!

There are a couple of professional events I want to tell you about, as well. My colleague Lisa Ekus-Saffer and I have developed a program called Honing Your Edge It’s media training for culinary professionals. We have 2 series of seminars coming up, one in DC and one in Seattle. There is also an additional seminar in DC on Cookbook Publishing 101.

Click on the link to find out more about it. In DC IACP members receive a 15% discount and in Seattle, we are extending the discount to members of LDEI. For more information, shoot Daniele an email at

Just around the corner? Charleston SC, Athens GA, and St. Louis MO! Mexico, DC, and Seattle! Who knew there were so many folks liking Southern food all over?! Lot’s of fun classes, events, and ways to participate in good food and cooking all over. So, please come out and have a great time.

In the meanwhile, please enjoy my recipe below for Mama’s Apple Pie. Apple season is upon us and there’s not much better than a steaming, spicy slice of hot apple pie.

Bon Appetit, Y’all!



Mama’s Apple Pie
Makes one 9-inch pie

Even though peaches are considered the quintessential Southern fruit, the phrase “as American as apple pie” applies to the South, too. Apples grow in the cooler mountainous regions from Georgia to Virginia. There is no longer an issue with refrigeration, but apples were an important fruit for people in the country who lived off the land. When held in a cool cellar, apples lasted for months, providing much needed vitamins and nutrition in the winter.

Many factors affect an apple’s juiciness: the age of the apple, the weather and climate where it was grown, and how it has been stored. In a pie, there’s sometimes a fine line between juicy and sopping wet. Flour is one ingredient that will help absorb some of the cooking juices.

This is my sister’s favorite dessert and she always requests it on special occasions.

Double recipe All-American Pie Crust, in 2 disks, (see below)
7 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, and thinly sliced
3/4 cup to 1 cup sugar, plus more for topping the pie
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
Pinch of fine sea salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into bits
1 tablespoon water

Prepare the pie pastry. To shape the crust, on a lightly floured work surface, roll out one disk of the dough into a 13-inch round about 1/8 inch thick. Transfer the dough round to a 9-inch pie plate. With a sharp paring knife, trim the dough flush with the rim of the plate. Freeze until firm, at least 30 minutes.

To make the filling, place the apples in a bowl; sprinkle over the sugar, flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt. Stir to combine and coat. Place the apple mixture in the unbaked pie shell. Dot with butter bits.

Roll out the remaining half of the pie crust on a lightly floured surface. Cover the filled pie crust with the round of dough, and trim so that 1 inch overhangs the pie plate. Fold the dough under, and crimp the edges by pressing with a fork or your fingers. Chill in the refrigerator until the crust is firm, about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, to bake the pie, preheat the oven to 400°F. Brush the top of the pie with the water. Sprinkle over a teaspoon or so of sugar. Bake until golden brown, about 50 minutes.

Transfer to a rack to cool slightly before slicing and serving.

All-American Pie Crust
Makes one 9-inch pie crust

When I was her apprentice, Nathalie Dupree spent hours on my baking and pastry education, patiently showing me again and again how to create perfect pie crusts, homemade breads, puff pastry, and rolls, until I had the techniques down cold. She crafted this recipe for beginners: it’s an easy crust for novices because it’s made in the food processor and because of the combination of butter and shortening. Shortening does not melt as readily as butter does and makes for a more forgiving dough. As Nathalie knew, a beginner’s first taste of sweet success in the pastry kitchen can be inspirational.

For a double-crust pie, simply double the amounts and divide the dough before rolling out.

11/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/4 cup solid vegetable shortening, preferably Crisco, chilled and cut into pieces
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into pieces
3 to 8 tablespoons ice water

In the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade, combine the flour and salt, then add the vegetable shortening and butter. Process until the mixture resembles coarse meal, 8 to 10 seconds.

With the processor on pulse, add enough of the ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the dough holds together without being sticky or crumbly. Shape the dough into a disk and wrap in plastic wrap. Chill until firm and the moisture has distributed evenly, about 30 minutes.

Flour a clean work surface and a rolling pin. (If making a double-crust pie or 2 pie shells, work with one disk at a time, keeping the second disk chilled.) Place a dough disk in the center of the floured surface. Starting in the center of the dough, roll to, but not over, the upper edge of the dough. Return to the center, and roll down to, but not over, the lower edge. Lift the dough, give it a quarter turn, and lay it on the work surface. Continue rolling, repeating the quarter turns, until you have a disk about 1/8 inch thick.

Ease the pastry into a 9-inch pie plate. Trim 1 inch larger than the diameter of the pie plate; fold the overhanging pastry under itself along the rim of the plate. For a simple decorative edge, press the tines of a fork around the folded pastry. To make a fluted edge, using both your finger and thumb, pinch and crimp the folded dough. Chill until firm, about 30 minutes.

Derby Y’all: French Toast Casserole with Bourbon Crème Anglaise Friday, May 1 2009 

French Toast Casserole

French Toast Casserole

This week was y’all filled. Seriously y’all filled. I was a guest on Paula Deen’s Best Dishes on Saturday and Monday on Food Network. And, the May issue of her magazine, Cooking with Paula Deen has a feature on me with my recipe for French Toast Casserole. She was really, really nice. We had a blast. She called me a “hell of a chef” and said “I could put my shoes beside her stove or under her table any day.” Nice!

This recipe is great for breakfast, brunch, and I will also be featuring it as a dessert this week at May-Gration, a fundraiser for the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts hosted by the Blue Heron in Sunderland, Massachusetts. I’m thrilled to be a part of this. It’s a North-South thing, featuring recipes from my book and tasty morsels from owners Chef Deborah Snow and Manager Barbara White. The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts distributes approximately 6.4 million pounds of food to more than 100,000 people in the community every year. Click on May-Gration above to check it out.

So, check out this month’s issue of Cooking with Paula Deen. Give my French Toast Casserole a try for breakfast, brunch, or even as dessert. It’d be a great make-ahead dessert for a Kentucky Derby Party served with Bourbon Crème Anglaise. (How often to do you get to say bourbon and breakfast in the same paragraph? Hmm.)

Speaking of bourbon. I got to meet Parker Beam earlier this month at a bourbon tasting at a conference. That’s right, BEAM, as in related to Jim BEAM. His ding-dang ancestor INVENTED bourbon in Kentucky. He’s now the master distiller at Evan Williams. I was in the presence of greatness.

And, yes, I got his autograph. 😉

Bon Appétit, Y’all!

Master Distiller Parker Beam and Virginia Willis

PS Couple of blogs about my recent event at Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham if you want to check them out: and

French Toast Casserole with Bourbon Crème Anglaise
Serves 8

When my sister and I were young, our favorite mornings were when Mama would prepare French toast for breakfast. The smell of butter, kissed with cinnamon, combined with the heady scent of sizzling egg was a most welcome greeting as we bounded down the stairs. For breakfast, this version is made the night before, so you won’t find yourself camped in front of a hot griddle in the early morning, groggy and in need of caffeine. The next morning, remove it from the fridge to take the chill off. Grab a cup of coffee and pop it in the oven. By the time the table is set, the family is assembled, and you’re ready for your second cup, breakfast is ready. Brioche and challah are yeast breads, rich with egg and butter, and make superlative French toast.

For dessert, make it early in the day, or even a day ahead. It’s bread and eggs, y’all. We’re not solving life’s mysteries, and nothing will “go wrong” if it’s in the fridge for a day or so. Just remember to remove it from the fridge to take the chill off about 30 minutes before you cook it. Serve it warm or room temperature.

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted
3/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 loaf brioche or challah, sliced
11/2 inches thick (about 11/2 pounds)
8 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup whole milk
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup chopped pecans
Confectioners’ sugar, for accompaniment
Sorghum, cane, or maple syrup, for accompaniment
Bourbon Creme Anglaise, (See recipe below)

Combine the melted butter and brown sugar in a baking dish. Arrange the bread slices in the dish. Whisk together the eggs, milk, vanilla, cinnamon, ginger, and salt in a bowl. Pour over the bread, letting it soak in. Top with the pecans. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 3 hours and up to 12 hours.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Let the chilled casserole stand at room temperature for 20 minutes.

Bake until browned and set, 30 to 45 minutes. Remove to a rack to cool slightly. Sift over confectioners’ sugar. Serve hot or warm with sorghum, cane, or maple syrup.

Bourbon Crème Anglaise
Makes 3 cups

This creamy, dreamy deliciousness may also be made ahead. Don’t be trying to make this when you’ve been sipping on the brown stuff. If you don’t pay close attention, the eggs will curdle. Sip too much stuff and you won’t care. Better to make it ahead.

2 cups  whole milk
6 large egg yolks
1/4 cup sugar
Pinch of fine sea salt
1 tablespoon bourbon

Make an ice bath by filling a large bowl halfway with ice cubes and water.

In a saucepan, bring the milk almost to a boil over medium heat. In a second saucepan, blend together the egg yolks, sugar, and salt with a wooden spoon until thick and light (be careful not to make the mixture foamy). Mix in half the hot milk, then transfer the mixture to the other saucepan with the remaining milk and blend. Add the bourbon.

Decrease the heat to low and simmer gently, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Continue stirring the custard until thick enough to coat the back of the spoon and the mixture reaches 180°F on an instant-read thermometer. Remove from the heat.

Set a sieve over a large, clean bowl and pass the custard through the sieve.

Place the bowl in the ice bath, and stir the custard until it has completely cooled. Lay a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the custard to prevent a skin from forming. Store the custard in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours.

Reprinted with permission from Bon Appétit, Y’all: Recipes and Stories
from Three Generations of Southern Cooking by Virginia Willis, copyright ©
2008. Published by Ten Speed Press.
Photo credit: Ellen Silverman copyright 2008.

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