John Currence is not the first chef to note that food is the greatest transporter of the human spirit. One taste, he points out, can shoot you back to that moment in life when everything seemed terrific or terrible.
Holiday tables are particularly powerful transporters. But what a weird ride it is. Every family’s Thanksgiving menu is heavy with food memories, but the actual dishes are often the culinary equivalent of the Island of Misfit Toys. Tradition demands a great-aunt’s creamed onions or that odd rice stuffing only your brother loves.
“To me, holiday food is particularly interesting because it’s this great collision of all the things about food I love,” Currence says. The chef, who grew up in Louisiana but who for twenty years has been cooking in Oxford, Mississippi, recalls a table with his mother’s mash-up of sweet potatoes and blue cheese, oysters, and a version of spinach Madeleine.
The original Madeleine recipe, first published in 1959 in the Baton Rouge Junior League’s famous River Road Recipes cookbook, is a Louisiana classic built with processed cheese and jalapeños. The casserole was particularly influential for the young chef, who thought spinach was awful until he tasted his grandmother Lucy Currence’s rendition, which she made with bacon. “I completely turned the corner on spinach,” he says. “I just planted my face square in the middle of the dish. It was the bacon in it I remember going gaga for.”
That memory drove a creation that combines the cheesy awesomeness of that first spinach Madeleine with the best of an oyster pan roast. And just because he likes oysters Rockefeller so much, Currence added fennel and the sharp notes of Parmesan cheese. Red pepper flakes give it some heat. But don’t pull back on the fat. Barely steaming the spinach with a knob of butter helps build the richness of the dish from the start. A roux made with bacon fat continues the job and adds the right touch of Currence-approved nostalgia.
“This is a Frankenstein of a dish,” he says. “But it becomes a great Thanksgiving throw-together. All you do is get a bucket of oysters and a bag of spinach and you’re off to the races.”