The 100 Greatest Desserts of the South
by Mary Leigh Furrh and Jo Barksdale
Pelican, 168 pp., $14.95
When recounting that a certain relative was not infrequently tipsy at dinner, I generally have to add, for the benefit of Yankee friends, that dinner in the Deep South of my childhood was not at eight. It was in the middle of the day. No, we didn't need candlelight, but we wouldn't have dreamed of leaving the table without a sweet finale.
"Desserts have been popular in the South since the first settlers arrived in Virginia with visions of English puddings and double-crusted pies," Mary Leigh Furrh and Jo Barksdale, two Mississippians, write in this excellent collection of Southern recipes. Furrh and Barksdale note the erstwhile Southern habit of mid-afternoon dinner and capture the ambience and taste of that era.
The authors manage to get most of the desserts I remember from my childhood in Mississippi. What I wouldn't give for a nice slice of Red Velvet Cake, a largish helping of Bread Pudding with Rum Sauce (the recipe here comes from Mary Mahoney's Old French House Restaurant in Biloxi, which stands proudly even in the awful wake of Katrina), a piece of Lane Cake, named after Emma Rylander Lane, an 1890s lady and cook from Alabama-it is "tall and showy with a rich nut and fruit filling"-or Aunt Carol's Chocolate Pie.
Aunt Carol, the notes inform us, was postmistress in a small town who, after years of begging from the entire community, finally succumbed and gave the recipe to a young bride, with the caveat that she would not reveal it until Aunt Carol had gone to her just dessert in the sky.
More than once I came upon a recipe that made me feel what I imagine Mr. Proust must have experienced when he encountered that Petite Madeleine. Especially memory-provoking was the recipe for Charlotte Russe's-I am fond of it for an obvious reason-the quintessential Sunday or holiday dessert. As a child, I always felt that ladyfingers, the key ingredient, took the cake. Perhaps less felicitously, I also remember that many of my fellow Southerners refer to this divine confection as "Charlotte Roush"-you know, as in the Russian Revolution. The Apple Charlotte with Brandy Sauce, from a former chef at Commander's Palace, the famous restaurant owned by the Brennan family in New Orleans, doesn't sound half bad, either.
Although the authors live in Mississippi the recipes come from the entire South. Included is the King's Cake from Louisiana and other recipes from the Upper South. The introductions to each chapter are lively and informative, with delicious historical tidbits and a good overview of the sweet side of Southern cooking.
Did you know, for example, that fudge was unknown in the South until the late 1880s, when Southern girls began going to eastern schools such as Vassar and Wellesley where their peers introduced them to it? "Later, fudge making was adopted at Southern female colleges like Wesleyan in Macon, Georgia." (We made up for lost time with the fudge by producing specifically Southern variations, with buttermilk, peanut butter, and caramel. There's also divinity, without which we can't have Christmas in the South.)
Also, I had always assumed that the benne wafer had been invented by somebody named Benny; turns out "benne" is an African word for sesame, a main ingredient of these wonderful crunchy cookies. Charleston cooking is especially well represented, so I was surprised at one of the rare omissions: The Huguenot Torte, a Charleston favorite, with apples and whipping cream, certainly belongs in any top 100 list.
But that is a minor quibble. Since this volume will undoubtedly be taken up by cooks who don't hail from below the Mason-Dixon line, I do wish they had taken the time to point out that real Southerners do not say Pra-lines or Pee-kahns; these deviant pronunciations drive us nuts. (Which reminds me, Joe Middleton's Praline Souffle, with roasted pecans, sounds sublime.)
I have a more serious bone to pick-that's not quite the right metaphor, is it?-with regard to one of the most important Southern desserts there is: ambrosia. With eggnog and divinity, ambrosia is the sine qua non for Christmas in the South. Mesdames Furrh and Barksdale describe it as "an early marriage of coconut and tropical fruit."
Where I come from, the Mississippi Delta, this is rank heresy. Mama always said that ambrosia had only two main ingredients: oranges and coconut. There was, of course, a third, sherry, and sugar. (But alcohol is such a staple that we just assume it will manifest itself in some form in almost every dish and don't even need to mention it.) The Furrh/Barksdale rendition, alas, includes bananas (!), pineapple slices (!!), and-maraschino cherries. Dear God.
But everything else in this delightful cookbook is splendid, and truth to tell, their ambrosia recipe looks like it would be delicious. Just not what Mama stipulated.
Charlotte Hays, editor of In Character, is the author, most recently, of The Fortune Hunters: Dazzling Women and the Men They Married.