The Other Martha

Chris Granger
by Vanessa Gregory - Mississippi - April/May 2011

For cookbook author Martha Hall Foose, there are no lines between food, family, literature, and life

It’s unclear how many pies Martha Hall Foose might bake today. The cookbook author is hosting Sunday brunch at Pluto Plantation, her family farm south of Greenwood, Mississippi, and bowls of eggs and sticks of butter cover the kitchen counters. Her eight-year-old son, Joe, has wedged past the half dozen adults to pour himself a wineglass of chocolate milk. The rest of us, a group of friends and family, finish slices of Foose’s latest offering—chocolate chiffon pie—and loiter near the stove. “Nobody seems to actually make it out of the kitchen here,” Foose says.

And who could blame us? After all, the kitchen is where Foose can be found, mixing mimosas and insisting we try doughy, powdered-sugar-dusted Danish treats called ebelskivers—“If you fried heaven in clarified butter, this would be it,” Foose says—or that we reach into the cast-iron skillet and take a piece of smoky venison-and-crawfish sausage: “It’s like Delta surf ’n’ turf.”

Besides being ground zero for pie and sausage and casseroles, this kitchen also inspires much of the warmth and wit that permeate Foose’s two cookbooks: the James Beard Foundation Cookbook Award–winning Screen Doors and Sweet Tea and the newly released A Southerly Course. Foose wrote chunks of them here, in her family’s circa-1914 ancestral home, sitting at the Formica table in the corner and staring out the window. It’s that connection to place that make culinary types swoon. Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize–winning food critic, has listed her cookbooks among those from the South that he loves best. Her food and tales of everyday Delta life have resonated with home cooks, too.

“When I think of Martha, the first thing I think of is storytelling,” Amy Evans Streeter, the oral historian for the Southern Foodways Alliance, told me two days before I arrived at Pluto. “She’s the best and funniest storyteller I know.”

That’s another reason we won’t leave the kitchen. Foose may be whipping cream, but she’s also sipping red wine from a juice glass and regaling us with stories about her latest gig as a food stylist for The Help, the movie version of the best-selling novel. To recreate a Mississippi table of the 1960s, Foose made camera-friendly aspics, a gingerbread house, 580 pieces of rumaki, Peking duck, and a masterful clove-studded glazed ham. Right now, though, she’s talking about crafting a meat-free, dairy-free “fried chicken” for a vegan starlet.

“I started with a summer squash,” she says. “But it would not hold up after five minutes.” So Foose impaled a vegan hot dog on a Popsicle stick, covered it with Tofurky, and wrapped that with a final layer of vegan pie dough that she lovingly sculpted to resemble chicken skin. Then she stuck the mess in almond milk and fried it. The director, Foose says, was jubilant: “It looks like chicken and it sounds like chicken!”

Did she try the concoction?

“Oh, no,” Foose says, looking pleased. “It wasn’t my responsibility to taste it.”