FOOD WISE: Enjoy the delights of a Southern Christmas

By CHEF RENEE MORGAN

Enjoy a southern favorite this holiday season — Chef Renee’s Sweet Potato Pie. (Photo by Chef Renee)

I see it everywhere I look lately. As we are headed into the holiday season, it seems like every magazine and food blog has an article about the merits of a “Southern Christmas.” How to set a southern table. What southern Christmas memories are your favorites? How to decorate the perfect southern tree. This term is quite curious to me. Since I am southern born and bred, I’ve only ever experienced what these writers refer to with new found wonder, as a Southern Christmas.

Oh, I’ve spent many a Christmas in other places, up north, out west, overseas. In fact, I spent several Christmases in North Pole, Alaska. Back then, we lived in an apartment complex right behind a tourist attraction called Santa Claus House, where one could buy gorgeous, one-of-a-kind ornaments. The proprietors lived upstairs and came down on occasion dressed as Santa and Mrs. Claus. You’d think there could be no more perfect Christmas. And yet, the neighborhood always showed up at our house for what they called deep-south Christmas. You haven’t lived until you’ve enjoyed Christmas at 50 degrees below zero.

There were many years spent in beautiful Colorado with its snow-capped mountains and rows of silvery Aspens as far as the eye can see. I have many a happy memory of holidays spent on the ski slopes or curled up by the fire back at the lodge with a hot chocolate and Bailey’s. It was like something from my favorite Christmas movie, “White Christmas”. Once again, the Yanks in my life hung out at my house for the Southern Christmas. What’s the big hubbub? I mean they all had some nice traditions, too. Popovers, Crown Roasts and Mincemeat Pie. Well, maybe not Mincemeat Pie.

The truth is, you can take the girl out of the south, but you can’t take the south out of the girl. Heck, I couldn’t even take the girl out of the south for very long. I was never so relieved as when the company I worked for transferred me back to the south….home!

What is it about a Southern Christmas? Is it the décor, the lights, the way we set a table? No doubt, there is a certain genteel quality about the way a Southern lady sets her table and decorates her home for the holidays. I think we take great pride and joy in “puttin’ on the dog” as they say at this time of year.

As for me, nothing gives me more holiday happiness (and my husband more consternation) than to drag out all the boxes of ornaments amassed over the years, beginning with the perfect symbolic ones my mother and grandmother collected for me when I was young, which I’ll pass down to my own daughters someday. I’ll spend hours fussing over which table linens go best with my grandmother’s Christmas china, the red or the green. Yes, my grandmother had Christmas-themed china. They have beautiful little red birds and holly berries on them and are all trimmed in gold. I was a child when she collected that china. Every birthday, anniversary, Christmas and any other occasion, each of her friends gifted her one piece until she had service for 12 and every serving piece they made.

Then, there is the tree. Don’t even get me started on the tree. I get almost obsessive about it. No one in my family will help me decorate it because they know I’ll get crazy over making sure the lights are just right, there are enough of them, it’s all color coordinated and there are no bare spots. It simply must sparkle and glow from the inside out. When I’m done, it looks like something from a high-end boutique. Maybe that’s because I used to own a high-end boutique where we sold fancy Christmas trees. And of course, the perfect tree leads to the perfect door wreaths, the perfect garlands, and so on. If all this seems overwhelming to you, it’s really not that bad. You just have to break it down into manageable bits and make lists. John always finds something to be really busy with when he sees me making lists.

Now that we’ve laid the foundation, we can turn our attention to the food. I can tell you, and I’m sure you know it’s true yourself, there is nothing like Southern food at Christmas. We can make a smoked turkey, a pot of Chicken and Dumplin’s, a Sweet Potato Pie (which I like way better than Pumpkin), or a mess of greens better than anybody. How about cornbread dressing? Yep, the south rules there, too. My grandmother always used to make ladyfinger peas and my grandpa’s specialty was Ambrosia. If you’re from Texas, Christmas Tamales are a must. I’ve been saving some hog cheek in my freezer ever since the Wild Boar hunt for the tamales.

Even with all these yum-yum’s, I have to say, confections is really where Southerners shine. I’m thinking of all the dreamy sweets I have made for Christmases past with my grandmother and her friends. Many of them are the treats my clients still ask for now. Flavors born and forged in the south that never goes out of style. Heavenly things like divinity candy, pralines, fudge, peanut brittle, and every flavor of pound cake imaginable. Anything made with bourbon. Can I get a witness on Red Velvet Cake with that packing’-on-the-pounds Cream Cheese Frosting? I even saw a recipe the other day for a Tiramisu made with classic southern Red Velvet Cake and raspberries. Our influence is everywhere. I’m pretty sure my friends would feel let down if I didn’t give them a food gift at Christmas, which you know if you’ve ever done it, is a lot more work and effort than buying a present, but so worth it when you see their reaction.

All of these elements certainly make for a lovely holiday, but the truth is, there are two things that make a Southern Christmas so special.

First, nobody can rivel the south in the area of hospitality. A movie quote comes to mind. In the movie “The Firm”, which takes place in Tennessee, one of the firm’s wives is welcoming the main character’s wife, who is a little overwhelmed by all the almost oppressive “help.” The firm wife says to the newbie, “Abby, it’s the south. We encumber you with hospitality.”

Not only do we make sure the decorations and food are perfect, but also that each gift is thoughtful and that no guest goes away empty-handed. Every visitor is treated like family.

Second, as you can see, I’m a bit prejudiced, but I truly believe no one cooks with as much love as we do in the south. Marie, on the show “Everybody Loves Raymond”, always talked about love being the secret ingredient in the food. Of course, she was the mother-in-law from you-know-where, but she was right about cooking with love. It is an intangible quality to be sure, but a necessary one for food to be at it’s best.

I used to cook for Olivia Restaurant, down on South Lamar in Austin. The chef/owner there, James Holmes, once wrote me a letter of recommendation in which he said that I cook with love. I cried. It was the best thing he could say about me and I knew what that compliment meant, coming from him, as it was an ideal he held in high esteem.

I know we all get tired this time of year with all the extra effort we make for the holidays, but stay strong, my friends. It will be worth it when you see their faces. It will be worth it years from now when your family and friends are telling stories and recall their memories of favorite times together.

This holiday, please enjoy my take on a favorite southern dessert, Sweet Potato Pie.

Sweet Potato Pie

Makes one 9-inch pie

1 (1 pound) sweet potato

1/2-cup butter, softened

1 cup white sugar

1/2-cup milk

2 eggs

1/2-teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/2-teaspoon ground cinnamon

1-teaspoon vanilla extract

1 (9 inch) unbaked pie crust

1. Boil sweet potato whole in skin for 40 to 50 minutes, or until done. Run cold water over the sweet potato and remove the skin.

2. Break apart sweet potato in a bowl. Add butter, and mix well with mixer. Stir in sugar, milk, eggs, nutmeg, cinnamon and vanilla. Beat on medium speed until mixture is smooth. Pour filling into an unbaked pie crust.

3. Bake at 350 degrees for 55 to 60 minutes, or until knife inserted in center comes out clean. Pie will puff up like a soufflé, and then will sink down as it cools.