Some days it is very hard to put my life into words, or words most people would understand. For example, yesterday I spent four hours in a hoop skirt. Does that register with any of you? Trust me, those words seem surreal to me. Let me see if I can break it down for you.
I have a home that was built in 1832, and once a year it is on tour during Fall Pilgrimage in Natchez, Mississippi. A very big part of Natchez tradition is to help "receive" our visitors into the historic homes during Fall or Spring Pilgrimage in period costume. As I more than often have stated, I spent 23 years trying to get away from Natchez and 23 years trying to get home again. I did vow to never put on a hoop skirt, but coming home at whatever age, there are people who dictate what you will and won't do, and often in my life those people are the ladies of the garden club. The invention that revolutionized women's fashion in the mid-1800's is the caged crinoline. The caged crinoline was also known as the hoop skirt because of the series of concentric hoops found in its earlier version.
Yesterday I had around 150 visitors come through our home to hear the history of the architecture and the people who have lived here in the past 160 years. An important aspect of the tour is to see the way we live with history. Immediately following the tour, I hosted Jazz and Juleps for the visitors who wanted to have a more personal experience and feel of our home.
So, how do you cook in a hoop skirt? The simple answer is, "You don't."
When you have 150 guests coming to see your home, there is endless dusting, fluffing, gardening, rearranging, and other preparations. Keep in mind that my home is just one aspect of my life: I write for the Atlantic Food Channel every week, I do eight weddings a year, I am working on a new book, and I have children, a husband, Thursday-night poker, bridge when I can fit it in, my daily coffee group, and Tuesday Trivia at Bowie's Tavern with my husband and my son Martin (we need him for a lot of the answers). And in Natchez at least 30 percent of your time is called on for volunteer efforts. I also have five sisters and three brothers that I try to stay connected to and many other friends I like to spend time with.
Somehow, by the end of the day, it all gets done. This is something you all understand—we all spend our days juggling all that we have to do. People often ask me how I do it all. There is an easy answer: "Not always very well, but I try." With all of this going on, it was my idea to offer Jazz and Juleps here following the four-hour tour so I could trade my hoops in for an apron. Knowing it was going to be five days and knowing what my schedule was going to be like, I had to come up with a couple of easy but impressive foods that I could put in the freezer.
When touring Twin Oaks our visitors are greeted by me on the front gallery—and don't laugh, in a dress with hoops I am so much more comfortable than in an apron. I share my personal and family history and tell them what to expect. They then move into the study, where I have someone in character and speaking in first person as Cornelia Connelly, who was the first resident of this home and had a fascinating life filled with accomplishments, sorrow, and scandal. (Cornelia Connelly, January 15, 1809— April 18, 1879, born Cornelia Peacock, was the American-born founder of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, a Roman Catholic religious order. I recommend googling her wild story.) Of course, the dining room is one of my favorite rooms, and it is mostly my creation—we actually turned the enclosed back gallery into a large dining room that seats 14 (it is never big enough). As the visitors make their way through the house they end up in the property's original cottage, which dates to 1809. It is now our den and kitchen, and that is where we offer guests one of my butter biscuits, fresh from the oven with apricot butter and chilled almond iced tea, before they exit to the back garden.
I make my biscuits by the hundreds and they freeze beautifully and can be pulled out as needed and baked. I knew I needed to come up with several things to make ahead. I decided to make a variety of cream cheese tortas and put them in the freezer to take some pressure off. My personal favorite is fig and walnut. I use pureed fig preserves and layer it between a cream cheese, butter, and sour cream mixture. The hot pepper jelly variety is always popular with my guests. Not very Southern, but lovely in presentation and the taste is pesto topped with a puree of sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil. I also do one with layers of onion and capers, topped with smoked catfish. Once you get the basic cheese mixture down, the options are endless. Last week I made one with avocado in the center and topped it with a dried mango salsa. These freeze very well and are easy to turn out of a container while still frozen. All you have to do is put them on an attractive serving dish and unbox some crackers. This may help you put a few goodies away for entertaining during the holidays.
The other thing I made ahead was strips of cornmeal-coated catfish strips to be served with my jalapeño tartar sauce, again the catfish strips freeze well and the jalapeño tartar sauce keeps for several days in the refrigerator. Then to round this appetizer menu out, I do little tomato sandwiches. When serving cocktails before dinnertime, I recommend no more than an assortment of three items.
Here is my basic recipe for a layered cream cheese torta. I will also give you my jalapeño tartar sauce, which is great with fried shrimp, fish, or oysters. The tomato sandwiches are so easy there is no real recipe: cut sourdough bread into rounds with a biscuit cutter, whip a little cream cheese with mayonnaise and chopped basil, and top with a round slice of Roma tomato. Caution: Do not try any of this in a hoop skirt—unless you were born in Natchez.
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