There’s a reason the Southern writer Rick Bragg’s book about his mother’s cooking is on the New York Times bestseller list. We Southerners treasure the memories of our mothers and grandmothers showing us how to make biscuits by feel—or shooing us out of the kitchen so they could work in peace. Splattered recipe cards annotated with handwritten notes are every bit as precious to us as the family silver. We asked six bakers, chefs, and caterers from across the South to share the recipes that were passed down from their mothers’ and grandmothers’ hands to theirs—and now to yours.
Jennifer Hill Booker
“I grew up watching both my grandmother and mom make biscuits,” says Jennifer Hill Booker, who is a chef and the Culinary Explorer for the Georgia Department of Tourism and Travel. “But the strawberry preserves are all my mom, and she taught me how to make them. When my sisters and I visit her, we fight over who gets to take home a jar.”
Italian Rice Salad
Asheville, North Carolina
“My teachers in elementary school were always jealous of my lunch box because of things like this Italian salad my mom used to make,” says chef Katie Button, who was born in South Carolina and now runs Nightbell and Cúrate in Asheville, North Carolina. “It is super simple and super flavorful. My own daughter loves olives and those kinds of flavors, and I look forward to making it for her and making her teachers jealous.”
Charleston, South Carolina
Nate Whiting’s grandmother always made loaves of her spiced zucchini bread when the summer squash boom hit gardens—and it paired perfectly with Whiting’s childhood love of sweet cream butter. “I remember myself as a little kid always stealing and eating gobs of butter—bad habit or young gourmand?” laughs the chef at Juliet in Charleston. “My grandmother was always trying to find things for me to eat with the butter. Her zucchini bread—and of course, lots of butter—was one of my favorites.”
The caterer Vera Stewart grew up in Macon, Georgia, where her mother’s classic egg salad was a staple. “We ate it between two slices of bread for an everyday lunch, scooped it with crackers for a snack, or made tea sandwiches out of it for an afternoon gathering,” Stewart says, adding that she and her mother both swear by a secret ingredient: Durkee Famous Sauce.
Poppy Seed Vinaigrette
The New Orleans-born pastry chef and owner of Bayou Bakery in Arlington, Virginia, and Lil’ B in Washington, D.C., long tried to re-create his mother’s “sacred” poppy seed vinaigrette. For years, she made the dressing for special occasions, birthdays, and holiday meals, but challenged him to try to guess the ingredients and steps. “Now I know why she kept it a secret,” he says. “She wanted it to be appreciated.” She recently took pity and typed out the recipe so he can make it whenever he likes.
Egg Custard Pie
New Orleans, Louisiana
As a child, Alex Harrell would visit his grandmother in Chipley, Florida, and he could count on her custard pie to be waiting in the fridge. “It was one of her staples and such an easy pie to whip up—just milk, sugar, eggs, and vanilla, plus a little bit of nutmeg if company was coming over,” he says. He now serves the custardy treat at his restaurant, Angeline in New Orleans, and like his grandma did on special occasions, he tops it simply—with berries, peaches, or nutmeg.