Food & Drink

Mom Cooks Best

Chefs share the recipes their mothers and grandmothers taught them to make

photo: Margaret Houston

From left: Custard pie; strawberry preserves; Italian rice salad.

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.

photo: Courtesy of Jennifer Hill Booker

Jennifer Hill Booker and her mother.

Strawberry Preserves

Jennifer Hill Booker
Lilburn, Georgia

“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.”




Katie Button at 14 with her mother, Elizabeth, at Lake Chelan in Washington state.

Italian Rice Salad

Katie Button
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.”


Nate Whiting and his grandmother picking berries in 1982.

Zucchini Bread

Nate Whiting
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.”


“Mama Betty” with Vera and her siblings on Easter, 1960.

Egg Salad

Vera Stewart
Augusta, Georgia

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.


photo: Courtesy of David Guas

David (left) with his mother Linda and his sister, Tracy.

Poppy Seed Vinaigrette

David Guas
Arlington, Virginia

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.


photo: Courtesy of Alex Harrell

Harrell and his grandparents.

Egg Custard Pie

Alex Harrell
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.


Strawberry Preserves

When Georgia chef Jennifer Hill Booker was growing up, this treat was reserved for the adults. “Now,” she says, “I eat it as often as I like”

Makes about 3 pints


    • 4 lbs. fresh ripe strawberries, hulled and quartered

    • ¼ cup fresh lemon juice

    • 2–3 cups sugar


  1. Combine the strawberries and lemon juice in a large stainless steel saucepan over medium-high heat.

  2. Slowly bring the mixture to a full rolling boil, reduce heat to a low simmer, and cook until juices release from the berries; about 45 minutes to 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Add 2 cups of the sugar, stirring to dissolve.

  3. Increase heat to medium-high and bring the strawberry preserves back up to a full rolling boil and boil for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for an additional 15 minutes, or until preserves have thickened and thickly coat the back of a spoon. Taste for sweetness and add additional sugar to taste.

  4. Remove from heat and skim any foam floating on top. Ladle the hot preserves into clean and sanitized pint jars, leaving ½-inch of empty space between the preserves and the rim of the jar.

  5. Using a clean damp towel, wipe the rims of the jars clean, add the lid, and tighten until fingertip tight; do not overtighten. Allow the jars to cool, on the countertop, for about an hour. Refrigerate until ready to eat.

  6. Note: The Strawberry Preserves should be good for one month in the refrigerator.

Italian Rice Salad

When Asheville, North Carolina, chef Katie Button opened her elementary-school lunch box, this flavor-packed salad was often waiting inside—a homemade gift from her mother


    • 1 medium onion, diced

    • 4 tbsp. olive oil, divided

    • 1 large clove garlic, minced

    • 1 cup long grain white rice

    • 1 tsp. salt

    • ½ tsp. dried thyme

    • ¼ cup dry white wine

    • 2 cups good quality vegetable stock

    • ¼ cup julienned sun-dried tomatoes

    • 2 tbsp. toasted pine nuts

    • 1 tbsp. capers

    • 1 cup artichoke hearts, quartered (if covered in oil, lightly rinse off)

    • ¼ cup nicoise olives, pitted and sliced in half lengthwise

    • ¼ cup roasted red peppers, short julienned strips

    • ¼ cup hearts of palm, cut into 1/2-inch rounds

    • 2 tbsp. fresh basil leaves, julienned

    • ½ tsp. lemon zest

    • 2 tbsp. fresh squeezed lemon juice

    • ½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper

    • salt to taste


  1. Make the rice in a risotto style: Sauté onion in 2 tbsp. olive oil until transparent, add garlic, and cook for one minute. Add rice, stir to coat. Add salt, dried thyme, and wine, and cook a few minutes until wine is absorbed. Slowly pour in hot vegetable stock, stirring, and let simmer until rice is cooked.

  2. Pour rice mixture onto a baking sheet to cool.

  3. Combine ingredients from sun-dried tomatoes to basil leaves. Add to room-temperature rice in a large bowl. Stir in lemon zest, lemon juice, remaining 2 tbsp. olive oil, pepper, and salt. Serve at room temperature.

  4. Note: This salad can be made with multiple variations: cooked asparagus, cooked shrimp, diced salami—use your imagination.

Grandma’s Zucchini Bread

Charleston, South Carolina, chef Nate Whiting shares the recipe for his grandmother’s sweet summertime treat


    • 2 cups grated zucchini (you'll need about 2ea/1 pound of zucchini)

    • 2 tsp. vanilla extract

    • ½ cup vegetable oil

    • 3 large eggs

    • 2½ cups sugar

    • 1 cup nuts, chopped *optional

    • 1 cup raisins or dried fruit *optional

    • 3 cups sifted all-purpose flour

    • ½ tsp. baking soda

    • 1 tsp. baking powder

    • 1 tsp. salt

    • 3 tsp. cinnamon


  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

  2. Butter the inside of a 9 by 5-inch loaf pan, and lightly dust with flour. Knock out the excess and set aside.

  3. Split the zucchini in half lengthwise, and scrape out the seeds with a spoon. Discard the seeds. Using a grater or a food processor, grate or pulse the zucchini flesh until it looks like slightly chunky applesauce. Measure 2 cups of the grated zucchini and place it into a large mixing bowl along with the vanilla extract, vegetable oil, eggs and sugar. Whisk the ingredients until smooth and homogenous.

  4. In a separate bowl, add the sifted flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon. Using a dry whisk, dry blend the ingredients to evenly disperse them.

  5. With a whisk, gradually add and mix the flour mixture into the bowl containing the wet (zucchini) ingredients. Mix until homogeneous and completely blended. If using, fold in the nuts and dried fruit.

  6. Transfer the batter to the prepared loaf pan. Bake on the center rack for approximately 20 minutes. Turn the pan and continue to bake until finished, 20-30 more minutes. Use a toothpick and check the center until it comes out clean. Or to remove any subjectivity, use a probe thermometer, and bake until the internal temperature reaches 200ºF. Remove the bread from the pan and allow to cool on a wire rack, as desired.

  7. Notes: For a crisp crust, allow to cool uncovered. For a moist crust, immediately wrap the loaf in plastic wrap and let cool. For a denser bread, cool overnight in the fridge.

Mama’s Egg Salad

The secret ingredient? Durkee sauce, a tangy sandwich spread. “You’ll never open my refrigerator without finding a jar of it,” says Augusta, Georgia, caterer Vera Stewart


    • 8 large eggs

    • ¼ cup mayonnaise (plus more for a fluffier texture)

    • 1 heaping tbsp. Durkee Famous Sauce

    • ⅓ cup sweet pickle relish, drained of juice

    • ¼ tsp. kosher salt

    • ¼ tsp. ground black pepper


  1. In a medium saucepan, cover the eggs completely with water and cover. Cook over high heat until the water comes to a complete boil and you can hear the eggs “dancing.” Turn off the heat and let the eggs sit for 20 minutes. At the end of that time, take off the lid and run cold water over the eggs until they are cool to the touch. Peel immediately.

  2. Roughly chop the eggs. (They should still be chunky.)

  3. Mix the remaining ingredients together in a large bowl. Add the chopped eggs and gently mix until incorporated evenly.

  4. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 6 days.

  5. Serve as a spread, or on a sandwich with toasted white bread, bacon, and tomato.

Linda Louise’s Poppy Seed Dressing

A “sacred” (and delightfully easy-to-make) family recipe from Arlington, Virginia chef David Guas


    • 1/3 cup wine or balsamic vinegar

    • 1 tsp. salt

    • 1 tsp. dry mustard

    • 3 shallots

    • 2/3 cup honey

    • ¾ cup olive oil

    • 1½ tbsp. poppy seeds


  1. Combine vinegar, salt, mustard, and shallots in a blender or food processor. Blend on high. Add honey. Blend. Add olive oil. Blend. Add poppy seeds. Blend.

Ma Ma’s Egg Custard Pie

Chef Alex Harrell learned this dessert from his grandmother, “Ma Ma.” Today, it’s on the menu at his New Orleans restaurant, Angeline


    • 3 eggs, beaten

    • ¾ cup sugar

    • ¼ tsp. salt

    • 1 tsp. vanilla

    • 1 premade pie shell

    • 1 egg white

    • 2½ cups milk, scalded

    • ¼ tsp. ground nutmeg


  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

  2. In a large bowl, combine eggs, sugar, salt, and vanilla. Whisk in scalded milk.

  3. Brush the inside of the pie shell with the egg white to prevent the shell from getting soggy.

  4. Pour filling into crust and sprinkle the ground nutmeg over the top.

  5. Bake for 40­­–50 minutes until set. Allow to cool to room temperature before serving. Top as desired—with fresh berries or fruit.