Food and Conversation 

Martha Hall Foose brings Southern tastes to the Book and Author Dinner.

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Martha Foose's new cookbook is "A Southerly Course: Recipes and Stories from Close to Home." The popular chef and author will appear at the Richmond Junior League's Book and Author Dinner this week.

Oxford, Miss., can be a tough town for a writer. At every turn there seems to be someone who's written, is writing, or thinking about writing a book. Many of those books are published; more of them never see the light of day. The specters of Larry Brown, Willie Morris and Barry Hannah haunt the town square, smoking and tippling glasses of beer and bourbon. There, too, is the inevitable confrontation with an ever-present William Faulkner.

Tchula — or any other tiny town in the Mississippi Delta — can be an equally tough town for a chef. Great Southern cooks abound, serving classic soul-food plate lunches to farm workers from anonymous houses and portable buildings, providing heirloom dishes for church potluck dinners or grilling magic for family and friends.

Martha Hall Foose lives, writes and cooks comfortably in these places. She earned her apron stripes and learned to craft words in these environments; she has the stories and recipes to prove it. Her first book, "Screen Doors and Sweet Tea: Recipes and Tales from a Southern Cook," took the culinary world by storm in 2009 and earned her a James Beard Foundation cookbook award in the American cooking category. Its much-anticipated follow-up, "A Southerly Course: Recipes and Stories from Close to Home," was released April 12.

"In many areas of the South you'll find people working hard to get to some place else," she says. "The people here who I love and who influence me the most are working hard to stay exactly where they are."

Foose's creative base is her family home at Pluto Plantation, a working farm near Tchula of cotton, soybeans, corn and catfish. Folks see her car there and stop by to say hello, have a beverage and swap news and tell tales.

Often they bring with them fresh turtle meat or sweet corn, perhaps some extra tomatoes or a Ziploc baggie of bream filets. All are welcome, and at the hands of Foose the gifts of food and conversation become treasures for cooks and readers. At home in Greenwood, Foose and her husband, baker Donald Bender, and son, Joe, 8, are surrounded by a bevy of creative friends and children. It's a halfway point between the literary climate of Oxford and the culinary inspiration of Pluto. Foose's recent book-release event at TurnRow Book Co. in Greenwood featured entertainment by her pal George McConnell, formerly of Widespread Panic, and his band, the Nonchalants.

In addition to being a classically trained chef — she studied at the acclaimed École Lenôtre in France – she's a gifted storyteller with the Random House speakers' bureau and the Mississippi Humanities Council. Recent and upcoming appearances on ABC's "Good Morning America," PBS's "A Splendid Table" and the Food Network's "Paula's Best Dishes" are indicative of her desirability as a funny, insightful guest who knows not only her way around the kitchen but also how to tell a tale.

"For me, it's impossible to separate the food from its narrative," she says. "Every recipe I know is associated with someone or some situation that has had an impact on my life, and I feel compelled to include that as part of sharing it."

While "Screen Doors and Sweet Tea" focused primarily on classic Southern cuisine, "A Southerly Course" presents more refined recipes such as doe loin with winter biscuits and mirliton or chayote squash stuffed with ham, shrimp and bread crumbs, while also including staples such as skillet-fried corn. And, of course, each is presented in context of the people and places that inspired it.

"I can't help it," Foose says. "I love the food, but I just have to tell the story, too." S

Martha Hall Foose will be appearing as part of the 66th annual Richmond Junior League Book and Author Dinner on Tuesday, May 3, at 7 p.m. at the Greater Richmond Convention Center. It will be followed by a cooking demonstration and tasting on Wednesday, May 4, from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at Classic Kitchens of Virginia, 12535 Patterson Ave. Tickets and information at 643-4886.

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