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Byline: Deborah S. Hartz Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

Martha Pearl Villas remembers Sunday mornings at her childhood home in Charlotte, N.C. After church, her mother would whip up a batch of yeast rolls and place them on a stool in the back yard, cover them with a tea towel and leave them in the heat of the sun to swell.

"It was my sister Jane's and my job to watch those rolls to be sure they would rise right. In my mind's eye, I can still see us tending those rolls," said Villas, who with her son James (she calls him "Jimmy,") has written "My Mother's Southern Kitchen" (Macmillan, 1994; $25).

Margaret Agnew has a different vision from her youth in Bainbridge, Ga. She remembers watching her mother making corn bread in a cast-iron skillet. "You can cook it in any pan you want, but a cast-iron skillet gives it a wonderful crust," said Agnew, the author of "Southern Traditions" (Viking Studio Books, 1994; $29.95).

And Daisy King, author of "Miss Daisy Cooks Light" (Rutledge Hill Press, 1994; $17.95) grew up on a farm just outside Atlanta. She recalls her grandmother rolling out biscuits with a glass rolling pin - a wedding present.

Today, Villas still treasures her grandmother's stool that held the yeast rolls; Agnew cooks corn bread in her mother's cast-iron skillet; and King has her grandmother's rolling pin , which must be 75 years old.

In the South, good breads and the tools to make them are a legacy.

"In fact, the difference between the North and the South is cold bread and hot biscuits," said Lynne Tolley, proprietress of Miss Mary Bobo's Boarding House in Lynchburg, Tenn. She was recently in Fort Lauderdale to publicize her family's other company, Jack Daniel's Distillery.

In the era after the War Between the States, people were poor and had to eat what they could grow or harvest. Their corn and wheat was milled into meal or flour and traded for a bit of sugar. The cows provided milk, cream, buttermilk and butter. Pigs rendered their lard and cracklings. Then these ingredients were used to make inexpensive yet filling breads.

Cornmeal, buttermilk and a little lard were used to make corn bread and corn sticks. But rarely was sugar part of this recipe.

"It's only those damn Yankees who do that," said Eason Dobbs, who grew up in Crossville, Ala., but now lives in Fort Lauderdale.

Villas doesn't go quite that far but she does concur Southerners don't like their corn bread sweet.

"It's a little like adding a little sugar to turnip greens - you don't taste it, but it takes away a bit of the bitterness," she said in a telephone interview from her home in Charlotte, N.C.

Speaking of turnip greens, you'll rarely be served vegetables in the South without corn bread to sop up the pot liquor. "In fact, when I was growing up we thought corn bread was a vegetable," said Agnew in a telephone interview from her home in Birmingham, Ala.

Villas remembers sitting on her grandmother's lap enjoying corn bread crumbled into the vegetable pot liquor. "It was so good," she said.

In summer, corn bread would be served with lots of fresh vegetables. In winter, after the hogs were slaughtered, it would be flavored with cracklings (bits of pork fat or skin left after the pork is rendered). Never a scrap of the pig was wasted.

"We'd slaughter our hogs the day after Thanksgiving - we'd kill about 10 of them - and enjoy crackling bread throughout the fall and winter," said King in a telephone interview from her home in Nashville, Tenn. That time of year, hush puppies - deep fried bits of corn meal batter - also would be popular because lard would be available for frying.

And, even in more prosperous times, corn bread was the food of last resort. Dobbs remembers evenings when her mother didn't feel like cooking and there'd be some corn bread left over from dinner (the main meal served at noon). If there was nothing else in the house, they'd eat the leftover corn bread dunked in milk. But not all Southerners enjoyed this tradition.

"I always thought it was disgusting," Dobbs said.

But even when corn bread graced the table, there was a good chance biscuits - made from flour, buttermilk and probably lard - would be right alongside. "It wasn't unusual to have both biscuits and corn bread on the table because they are both so wonderful," said James Villas in a telephone interview from his home in New York. "Biscuits are an absolute staple throughout the South and they aren't just eaten for breakfast," he said.

At age 6, King learned to make the perfect biscuits from her grandmother, who would prepare two batches a day. The secret ingredient, said King: "love."

But Pearl Villas said she never could teach her son to make good biscuits. "He fusses with them too much, so they are tough."

At breakfast, biscuits would be enjoyed with eggs, lots of butter and some preserves made from strawberries or peaches grown in the yard.

At dinner, another batch of biscuits would grace the table. And when King was old enough for school, her grandmother would tuck a little country ham into one and King would take it to school for lunch.

"The other children were eating peanut butter and jelly, so I felt poor," she said. Today, however, she appreciates those sandwiches and the wealth of experience she gained growing up on a farm.

Pearl Villas said she never ate a sandwich on white bread until she went to school - she, too, was used to biscuits.

As we said, in the South, nothing goes to waste. Any leftover biscuits - which tend to be too dry to eat as is - would be split, buttered and broiled the next day for breakfast.

In fact, to this day when Pearl visits her son in New York, James asks his mother to make biscuits in the evening so they'll be "leftover" and ready for toasting the next morning.

But Pearl doesn't mind. "I can make biscuits as quick as I can open a jar - I can make them in nothing."

As the South became more prosperous, people could afford luxuries such as yeast. And yeast rolls quickly became a part of the South's baking legacy.

"It wasn't Sunday without my mother's Parker House rolls," Dobbs said. And, of course, Pearl spent Sundays tending those rising rolls. Tolley remembers her mother making Pocketbook Rolls, rounds of yeast dough folded in half so they resembled a woman's purse and brushed with butter.

As the South became more cosmopolitan in the latter half of the 20th century, fruit breads and muffins became popular, King said. She found her muffins in demand at Miss Daisy's Tea Room, a restaurant she opened in Nashville in 1974. These sweet treats are a good way to use leftover bits of fruits and native pecans, James Villas said.

And over time, not only the breads available in the South have changed, but also baking styles. King said that when she was a child, breads were made with lard. When she moved from the farm to the city, she started using vegetable shortening in her biscuits. And today, cooking for a diabetic husband who has to watch his saturated fat intake, she uses safflower oil.

But some things never change.

Martha Pearl Villas is still trying to teach her son James to make perfect biscuits; King is teaching Patrick, her 17-year-old, to make yeast breads; and Agnew's 7-year-old son, Robert, watches her make corn bread - in her own mother's cast-iron skillet, of course.


1 cup buttermilk

1 package (1/4 ounce) active dry yeast

1 teaspoon sugar

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup solid vegetable shortening

1/4 cup chilled butter plus 2 tablespoons melted butter

In a small nonreactive saucepan, heat buttermilk over low heat, stirring, until lukewarm (do not let boil). Remove pan from heat and stir in yeast and sugar; set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, stir together flour, baking soda and salt. Cut shortening and 1/4 cup chilled butter into flour mixture with a pastry blender or 2 knives until it resembles coarse cornmeal. Stir in buttermilk mixture until blended. Dough will be very soft.

Turn dough onto a floured work surface and pat out to 1/2-inch thickness. Brush top of dough with half of the melted butter. Cut dough into rounds with a 2- to 2 1/2-inch biscuit cutter. Place rounds, buttered side down, on a well-greased baking sheet, close together but not touching. Repeat with scraps.

Brush tops of cut biscuits with remaining melted butter. Cover with 1 sheet of plastic wrap and set aside to rise in a warm, draft-free place 60 minutes.

Bake in preheated 425-degree oven about 20 minutes or until tops are golden brown. Serve immediately. Makes about 17 biscuits.

NUTRITION INFORMATION PER BISCUIT: 161 calories; 2 grams protein; 10 grams fat; 14 grams carbohydrate; 11 milligrams cholesterol; 245 milligrams sodium.

From "Miss Mary Bobo's Boarding House Cookbook" by Pat Mitchamore with recipes edited by Lynne Toley, Rutledge Hill Press.


1 1/2 cups cornmeal

1/3 cup all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 eggs, beaten

1 1/2 cups buttermilk

1/4 cup vegetable oil OR bacon drippings

Combine cornmeal, flour, baking powder, baking soda, sugar and salt. Stir well. Combine eggs, buttermilk and oil; add to cornmeal mixture, stirring just until moistened.

Place a well-greased 8-inch cast-iron skillet, 8-inch square pan or cast-iron corn-stick pan in preheated 450-degree oven 4 minutes or until hot. Remove pan from oven; spoon batter into pan, filling indentations in corn-stick pan three-fourths full. Bake 15 to 20 minutes or until lightly browned. Makes 6 to 8 servings; 1 1/2 dozen corn sticks.

NUTRITION INFORMATION PER SERVING OF CORN BREAD: 200 calories; 5 grams protein; 9 grams fat; 24 grams carbohydrate; 55 milligrams cholesterol; 432 milligrams sodium.

NUTRITION INFORMATION PER SERVING OF CORN STICK: 89 calories; 2 grams protein; 4 grams fat; 11 grams carbohydrate; 24 milligrams cholesterol; 192 milligrams sodium.

From "Southern Traditions" by Margaret Agnew, Viking Studio Books.


1 package (1/4 ounce) active dry yeast

1/2 cup warm water plus 1/2 cup boiling water

1/4 cup solid vegetable shortening, at room temperature

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) room temperature butter plus 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) melted butter

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 cup boiling water

1 large egg, beaten

3 cups all-purpose Southern flour (Martha White)

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

In a small bowl, combine yeast and 1/2 cup warm water, stir and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, cream shortening, 1/4 cup room-temperature butter and sugar with an electric mixer on medium speed. Then gradually beat in 1/2 cup boiling water (butter and shortening will melt). Add yeast mixture and stir until well blended. Add egg and stir until well blended.

Sift in flour, add salt and stir to mix well.

Cover bowl tightly with plastic wrap and chill until ready to use. Dough will be soft. Mixture will keep up to 1 week in refrigerator.

About 3 hours before ready to use, pat dough on a floured surface to 1/2-inch thickness and cut into 2- to 2 1/2-inch rounds with a biscuit cutter. Fold each round in half and place on a large greased baking sheet. Brush each roll with melted butter, cover with a towel and let rise in a warm place about 2 1/2 hours.

Bake rolls in preheated 400-degree oven 15 minutes or until golden brown. Makes about 20 rolls.

NUTRITION INFORMATION PER ROLL: 144 calories; 2 grams protein; 8 grams fat; 16 grams carbohydrate; 23 milligrams cholesterol; 228 milligrams sodium.

From "My Mother's Southern Kitchen" by James Villas with Martha Pearl Villas, Macmillan.


2 cups all-purpose Southern flour (Martha White)

1 1/2 cups yellow OR white cornmeal

3 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup fine-minced onion

1 1/3 cups milk

1 cup water

1/3 cup vegetable oil plus more for frying

1 large egg, beaten

In a large mixing bowl, sift together flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder and salt. Add onion, milk, water, oil and egg; stir just long enough to blend ingredients.

In a deep-fat fryer or deep cast-iron skillet, heat about 2 1/2 inches oil over medium-high heat to 375 degrees F. Drop batter by tablespoonful into oil. Do not crowd skillet; deep fry in batches. Fry hush puppies 4 minutes or until golden brown and cooked through.

Drain briefly on paper towels and serve immediately. Makes about 40 hush puppies.

NUTRITION INFORMATION PER HUSH PUPPY: 65 calories; 1 gram protein; 2 grams fat; 9 grams carbohydrate; 6 milligrams cholesterol; 82 milligrams sodium.

From "My Mother's Southern Kitchen" by James Villas with Martha Pearl Villas, Macmillan.


1 large orange

1/3 cup orange juice

6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) butter, at room temperature, cut into chunks

1 large egg

1/2 cup seedless golden raisins

1 tablespoon light rum

1 1/2 cups all-purpose Southern flour (Martha White)

3/4 cup sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

Butter and flour 12 muffin cups.

Grate peel from orange; reserve. Remove and discard white pith from orange and cut peeled orange into quarters, removing seeds.

In a blender, combine peel, orange quarters, orange juice, butter, egg, raisins and rum; blend 5 seconds. Transfer mixture to a large nonreactive mixing bowl.

In another bowl, sift together all dry ingredients. Add dry ingredients to orange mixture and stir just until blended. Do not overstir.

Spoon mixture into prepared muffin cups, filling each cup 2/3 full.

Bake in preheated 400-degree oven 15 to 20 minutes, until muffins are golden. Makes 12 muffins.


NUTRITION INFORMATION PER MUFFIN: 187 calories; 2 grams protein; 6 grams fat; 31 grams carbohydrate; 33 milligrams cholesterol; 386 milligrams sodium.

NUTRITION INFORMATION PER LOW-FAT MUFFIN: 136 calories; 2 grams protein; 0.62 gram fat; 31 grams carbohydrate; 18 milligrams cholesterol; 328 milligrams sodium.

From from "My Mother's Southern Kitchen" by James Villas with Martha Pearl Villas, Macmillan.



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Article Details
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Recipe
Date:Feb 15, 1996

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