Jennifer Hill Booker cooks in the place where the South meets France. She arrived there on a trail that took her from a Mississippi Delta farm to culinary school in Oklahoma and then, by virtue of her marriage to a military man, a year studying at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. The vissult was her cookbook, Field Peas to Foie Gras: Southern Recipes with a French Accent, published in 2014.
“Southern and French food really are different sides of the same coin,” Booker says from her home in Lilburn, Georgia, the Atlanta suburb where she raises two teenage daughters and works as a personal chef and caterer. “The French love their pig just like we do. And they don’t throw away anything. If you’re a farmer or rely on the land for your food, you are very careful with what you do with it.”
That’s one reason why succotash, the classic mix of beans and corn that makes great use of two of summer’s most prolific crops, is a staple in her kitchen, though it wasn’t always. As a child, she never really liked the dish—at least when it appeared studded with waxy lima beans. (“I still dislike them,” she says.) But she had grown up eating tender butter beans cooked with salt pork or pieces of smoked ham. One summer day, Booker realized she could use them to reclaim succotash, and give it a nice French twist, too.
Succotash has always been the most adaptive of recipes. An early version of it was most likely on the table at the pilgrims’ Thanksgiving, courtesy of their Native American guests, and some credit the Narragansett word for broken corn kernels—sohquttahhash—for giving the dish its name. For Booker, French-style lardons of bacon echoed the salt pork her family used as seasoning. A pour of cream and plenty of soft, anise-flavored tarragon leaves add more Gallic flair. The trick is to think like a chef when chopping the vegetables. Precise knife work will result in a more beautiful dish and further elevate what is, at its heart, a humble plate of beans and corn cooked together.
“Everyone has the thing they are good at, and mine is balancing color, texture, and seasoning,” Booker says. “My grandmother and my mother always had color on the table. I just enjoy beautiful food.”