The Fruitcake Lady and Her Herbed New Potatoes

  • Pin It
  • print
  • email to a friend
By Damon Lee Fowler

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
Serves 6

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.

Read More From Southern Recipes.

You May Also Like These Blogs:

You May Also Like These Recipes:

  • Cream Cheese Pound Cake with Grilled Plums Cream Cheese Pound Cake with Grilled Plums
    View Now
  • Cajun Seafood Balls Cajun Seafood Balls
    View Now
  • Lady and Sons’ Salad Lady and Sons’ Salad
    View Now
  • Sweet Potato Chili Cakes with Cilantro Lime Sauce Sweet Potato Chili Cakes with Cilantro Lime Sauce
    View Now

Leave a Comment

Reader Comments:

Hi Damon… are such a “smooth” writer…it is a pleasure reading your stories.. I wish I could write like you ........About the herbed new potatoes - they are much like my mother’s - she was from Croatia/Austria…..but she steamed them and then poured the herbed butter over them….
Loved reading your words!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

By Maria Springer on September 18, 2010

Damon, you never cease to amaze me! After reading this article, I read all of the ones you wrote previously. Your writng is superb! I guess that’s why, when I buy one of your cookbooks, I go home and read them like a novel. Keep up the good work…I look forward to the next column.
Lynn Hagan

By Lynn Hagan on September 18, 2010

Sounds wonderful. My grandmother always fried her new potatoes in bacon grease.

Thanks for the heads up on Sook’s Cookbook, I ordered one today!

Excellent submission, as always, from Mr. Fowler!

By Lt. Sanders on September 13, 2010

Paula Deen
Paula Deen
The Lady's Blog
The Queen of Southern Cuisine muses about her recipes, life and family. See Posts

Brooke Deen
Brooke Deen
Deen Mother
Advice on raising two boys (three counting Jamie). See Posts

Brandon Branch
Brandon Branch
Southern Style
Decorating Inspiration from Paula's Design Director. See Posts

Julia Sayers
Julia Sayers
Hot off the Press
Step behind the pages and let the Associate Editor of Cooking with Paula Deen fill you in on what goes into creating every issue. See Posts

Lisa Scarbrough
Lisa Scarbrough
Thrift Store Mommy
Mom on a dime advice from Paula's Digital Properties Manager. See Posts

Andrea Goto
Andrea Goto
Mom 2.0
Tips from a real-world mom with comedic tendencies. See Posts

Martha Lee
Martha Lee
Earth Mother
Practical, earth-conscious ways to live and parent in the 21st century. See Posts

Susan Greene a.k.a BUBBLES
Susan Greene a.k.a BUBBLES
Bubbles' Corner
Ideas and advice from a 21st Century young at heart Grandmother. See Posts

Cindy Edwards
Cindy Edwards
Southern Proper
Etiquette advice from a true Southern belle. See Posts


Paula, I love watching you and your family. I miss seeing your show, I watched you everyday. My son lives in Charleston S.C. He took me to the Lady & Sons to eat. Oh my goodness! People are always telling me that I look just like the cooking lady Paula Deen. I always tell them that you are my hero. May God Bless You Mary Ann
Mary Ann Tharp in A Summer of Burgers on August 15, 2014 at 10:48 pm

Add a few spoonfuls of parmesan cheese to the flour and cornmeal breading and it kicks the tomatoes up another notch. Bev
in Crispy Fried Green Tomatoes on August 15, 2014 at 10:33 am

I just bought Paula's Peach Salad Dressing and wondered if anyone has a good recipe that they use it in?
Melissa in Taste Testing 101 on August 13, 2014 at 8:36 am

Congrats Bobby. Loved the family picture miss you Paula on TV will be watching online. Jack is getting big. Looks like his mom but Matt aka moose has your face. Your eyes cheeks hair even falls to his face like yours except to the left. Good luck on your next venture. You give us other 60+ yr women strength to move on. Keep up the good work.
Carol Bryant in Love at Last on August 11, 2014 at 6:12 pm