Being a food writer has few material compensations. Many people think it is some kind of magic path to fame, glamour, and fortune, but unfortunately the odds for becoming wealthy with pen and pan are slimmer than one’s chances with the lottery.
It does, however, have its compensations, one of the best being the people that one gets to know and count as friends.
“Don’t change your phone number,” Marie Rudisill once told me. “Half the fun you’re gonna have is the phone calls you’ll get.”
The very fact that Truman Capote’s feisty Aunt Tiny was already calling me gave ironic truth to the observation. While it was long before she’d spun her unique brand of opinionated sass into a career as The Tonight Show’s Fruitcake Lady, Marie was well known as a controversial biographer of her famous nephew and, more to the point, a legend among food writers for Sook’s Cookbook, her memoir in recipes of Capote’s famously eccentric family, and as a tireless champion of traditional Southern cooking.
I’d written Marie with a few questions about her book and there must have been something in that letter that made her recognize a kindred spirit. From that first call, she took me under her wing, becoming a mentor and advisor, a touchstone to my roots, and a conscience that kept me on the straight and narrow. It was the beginning of a cherished friendship that would last nearly two decades.
No matter where we started—illness, disappointed love, professional frustration, or the time Truman Capote’s ashes went missing—the conversation always came back around to food. If you remember Marie’s first appearance on The Tonight Show, when she hilariously cut Jay Leno and Mel Gibson down to size with a highly vocal and entertaining defense of fruitcake, landing a permanent spot on the show and place in our hearts, then you have some idea about what our phone conversations were like.
From the pretentious and misguided re-interpretations of Southern cooking by the nouvelle chefs of that day to the sad state of supermarket tomatoes, Marie would hold forth in salty language that made her Fruitcake Lady seem tame.
One thing that could set her off quicker than a bird dog in hunting season was the undeservedly bad reputation that Southern vegetable cookery had earned no thanks to all those roadside diners advertising “country cookin’” consisting mainly of canned vegetables boiled to unrecognizable mush with a hunk of greasy bacon.
One of our shared favorites was freshly dug new potatoes, the kind whose skin is so new and fragile that it rubs right off in your hands. We both loved those simply steamed on top of slow-cooked pole beans, but this simple way of preparing them was another favorite of hers. Light, fresh, and earthy, yet refined enough for the best Sunday dinner table, they capture the essence of the woman I loved—a woman so few people really got to see.
The Fruitcake Lady’s Sunday Dinner Herbed New Potatoes
1½ pounds new potatoes
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3 tablespoons parsley, snipped
1 tablespoon fresh chives, chopped
2 heads fresh dill, snipped (about 2 tablespoons)
Whole white pepper in a mill
Scrub the potatoes with a coarse brush under cool running water. Peel away a strip of the skin from around the middle of each potato, leaving the remaining skin intact.
Put the potatoes in a large pot and add enough water to cover them by an inch. Remove the potatoes, cover the pot, and bring the water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add a small handful of salt, and carefully return the potatoes to the pot. Loosely cover, let it come back to a boil, adjust the heat to a steady simmer and cook until the potatoes are just tender, about 12-25 minutes, depending on their size. Drain and return them to the pot.
Melt the butter in a small pan over medium low heat and add the lemon juice, parsley, chives, and dill. Pour it over the potatoes, add a light grinding of white pepper, and gently shake the pot (or stir) until they are evenly coated with the butter-herb mixture. Pour the potatoes into a warm serving bowl and serve at once.
Damon Lee Fowler is a culinary historian and author of six cookbooks, including Classical Southern Cooking, Damon Lee Fowler’s New Southern Baking, and The Savannah Cookbook. His work has also appeared in Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, and Relish. He lives and eats in Savannah, Georgia.
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