Book Review: Ham Biscuits, Hostess Gowns and Other Southern Specialties

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Books about the South are a weakness of mine. Books that combine Southern memoirs with cooking are the proverbial cherry on top. If you follow my Twitter feed, you’ll know that I spend a lot of time talking about cooking and recipes.

Recently, I picked up Julia Reed’s Ham Biscuits, Hostess Gowns, and Other Southern Specialties.

Reed’s book is a compilation of the essays she wrote on food and cooking for Newseek, which makes this a fast read. Each chapter is only 3-4 pages of prose followed by a couple of recipes.

The title of the book evolved from Reed’s habit of serving ham biscuits at her upscale parties in Manhattan. Elite New Yorkers marveled at her delicious food since they were used to eating boring hors d’oeuvres at their rounds of endless cocktail parties. A typical menu for Reed’s affairs includes ham biscuits, watercress sandwiches, cucumber sandwiches, crabmeat maison with toast points, steamed asparagus spears with yellow curry dip, deviled eggs, and rare beef tenderloin with horseradish sauce with Sister Schubert’s rolls. Yes, that sounds delicious.

Reed is from the South, you see. Therefore, she was brought up on the right way to entertain.

I wanted to fall in love with this book. It was quirky, (Reed devotes a chapter to why the hostess gown should return), but I struggled to like it.

Reed grew up in a different type of South than me. Her background is in the elite, monied South. While I doubt that few could match my Southern pedigree (Southern ancestors since 1764 with nary a Yankee in my genealogy!), they were/are at best middle class (since I’ve yet to secure a wealthy husband, I still reserve hope). While I know how to pen a thank you note and make deviled eggs, my parents certainly didn’t employ a cook, nor did I spend summers in France as a teenager.

Perhaps this is class envy, but it also made the book just out-of-reach for the average American.

Ironically, Reed derides snobbery throughout the cooking memoir, which makes the book somewhat funny. It’s similar to Gywneth Paltrow posting photos of her everyday wardrobe on GOOP and only including items that cost $500 or more. She thinks she’s an average American, but most people find her pretentious and snobby.

Now Southern cuisine is not ubiquitous. Most people hear “Southern” and think of down home recipes like cornbread, fried chicken or pecan pie (pronounced Pah-cahn not PEE-CAN). Some of the finest restaurants in the world are located in the South, so there is such a thing as fine Southern cuisine, and I think that this is the approach that Reed was taking. After all, her essays were written for the Newsweek reader, which imagined itself to be quite high brow until its financial demise and subsequent merger with The Daily Beast.

Does this mean that you shouldn’t read this book? No! I enjoyed it, but I just didn’t fall in love with it. Compared to reading a Rebecca Wells novel, which is like listening to my mother tell stories, this book is more of a friendly acquaintance.

I do intend to try some of the recipes. Her epilogue on pimento cheese is completely accurate, and I’m now contemplating running to the grocery store to pick up the ingredients to make it.

She also eloquently discusses the absence of red velvet cake in the North. This is the absolute truth. Bless her heart, my maternal grandmother is not the best cook in the world. However, she makes a red velvet cake to die for, and red velvet is always my cake of choice for birthdays. In the days leading up to my birthday, I sometimes dream about red velvet cake.

I never realized this was regional until a former employer was planning my going away party on my first move back to Chattanooga in 2008. The vice president of my department was a lovely woman from Puerto Rico. She asked for my favorite type of cake and was baffled when I replied “red velvet.” From what I understand, the staff had a tough time finding one in the DC area. (Since then Red Velvet Cupcakery has opened, which I’ve never tried.) Reed had similar experiences with red velvet cake. On writing about Christmas entertaining, she says:

…nothing invokes the season quite like a Red Velvet cake. When I was little, I thought a Red Velvet cake was just about the most magical thing I’d ever seen. Creamy white icing is cut through to reveal moist layers of cake the color of Dorothy’s slippers. I don’t think I’ve ever been served one above the Mason-Dixon line, but according to Great Desserts of the South, the cake was imported from Manhattan. A “Southern lady” had a piece sometime in the late 1920s or early 1930s at the Waldorf-Astoria and asked for the recipe. The hotel gave it to her along with a hefty bill, which she paid, and then she shared the recipe with everyone she knew. If any of that is remotely true, I’m grateful to her.

Is Ham Biscuits, Hostess Gowns and Other Southern Specialties going to be one of my all-time favorites? Probably not. However, the recipes are intriguing, and it was interesting to see another glimpse of Southern lifestyles.

Image: Open Library

Adrienne works in the conservative movement and blogs at Cosmopolitan Conservative and Adrienne Loves.


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