Ladies Who Do Much More Than Lunch
Austin’s Olamaie honors the women of Southern food with a delicious dinner series
By Laurel Miller
In the Deep South, women have long held an almost mythic status as home cooks, often transcending the complexities of race or social status. Leah Chase, who passed away in June at age 96, was known as the “Queen of Creole Cuisine;” her New Orleans restaurant, Dooky Chase, was a culinary and cultural institution known for its food, African-American art collection and role as a gathering place for activists in the civil rights movement. Chase’s contemporary, Edna Lewis, who died in 2006 grew up on a Virginia farm, the granddaughter of an emancipated slave. Lewis went on to open Manhattan’s Café Nicholson, where she cooked for the most famous artists, actors, writers and other luminaries of the day, despite being a black woman known for unembellished country-style food.
Lewis also wrote best-selling cookbooks (The Dooky Chase Cookbook, And I Still Cook, Down Home Healthy: Family Recipes of Black American Chefs), as did Chase and a number of other notable black and white female Southern cooks both living and dead, including Ashley Christensen, Carol and Norma Jean Darden, Sema Wilke’s, Toni Tipton Martin, Anne Quatrano, Karen Hess, Mary Bobo, Jessica B. Harris, Mary Randolph. Austinite Mary Faulk Koock, who passed away in 1996, was the founder of Green Pastures (now Mattie’s at Green Pastures) and author of The Texas Cookbook.
“All of these women have influenced me professionally,” says Texas native Michael Fojtasek, of Austin’s acclaimed Olamaie. “Their books connected me with dishes that remind me of my mother and grandmother, who also had a huge impact on my childhood.”
As a tribute to these early influences, Fojtasek created “Defining Women: Celebrating the Women of Southern Food,” a weekly Tuesday night dinner series featuring a different chef, her respective cookbook and a partner farm. The four-course menus are inspired by each book and include wine and cocktail pairings for $65.
The series, which kicked off in late June, culminates September 24 with a meal honoring The Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook. “People were always asking me where our recipes come from,” says Fojtasek. “I thought this would be a good way to tell the story of how menu ideas happen and where the produce comes from. The books that the dinners are based on have been in my collection for years.”
A few of the featured living authors have served as real life teachers. Says Fojtasek, “Ashley Christensen (Poole’s: Recipes and Stories from a Modern Diner), from Raleigh, North Carolina has become a friend and mentor, and we’ve also cooked together. Toni-Tipton Martin, author of The Jemima Code, lives in Austin part-time and attended her dinner. I also consider her a friend.”
An August 27 dinner was inspired by Edna Lewis’s, The Taste of Country Cooking. The keepsake menu noted, “Lewis takes us on a journey through the seasons. Her evocative descriptions, steeped in her own experiences of rural life, convey her affection for nature’s bounty, both glorious and unpredictable.”
A starter of corn pudding paired with a Spa Water cocktail (Hayman’s Gin, St. Germain, Chareau, honey, lemon, sparkling wine) was followed by a bowl of lady cream peas (a type of cowpea) topped with a pat of herb butter and biscuit crumbs. True to Lewis’s ethos, the ingredients were humble yet incomparably rich in flavor and historical relevance. (The cowpea is native to Africa and came to America on slave ships, eventually becoming an important crop in the South.)
No meal at Olamaie would be complete without Fojtasek’s righteously famed biscuits; here, they came with pan-fried chicken with Hamery Tennshootoe Ham, green beans and whipped potatoes. A vanilla pound cake finale struck a perfect end note with Edna’s Nightcap (Old Grand-Dad Bourbon, Superthing Colombia Huila Timaná coffee, demerara sugar and cream).
Lewis once said, “One of the greatest pleasures of my life has been that I have never stopped learning about good cooking and good food.” At Olamaie’s Defining Women series, it’s possible to do both.
For upcoming dinners and reservations, visit olamaie.com.