Southern cooking legend Nathalie Dupree turns 80 on Dec. 23. This year, though, she’ll have double the fun blowing out candles, because her “chickens” are throwing her an early birthday bash at the James Beard House in New York.
“Chickens” is Dupree’s term of endearment for the women she has taken under her wing and then watched fly the coop to chart their own culinary careers.
“The women I know couldn’t have found a place to learn or work except through me,” Dupree said in a phone conversation from her home in Charleston.
Dupree’s own entry into the food world was highly uncharted. The year was 1959. She’d spent the summer attending college classes at Cambridge, awakening to a calling of a career in food. “Ladies don’t cook,” her mother curtly replied.
But, her mother was willing to compromise. All that young Nathalie had to do was “find another lady cooking at a restaurant other than a diner.”
“It took me another 10 years,” Dupree said.
She married and moved to London with her former husband, David Dupree. While there, she attended Le Cordon Bleu. One thing led to another. Now, as her 80th birthday approaches, Dupree has more than a dozen cookbooks and 300 TV shows to her credit, honors and honorary degrees left and right, as well as numerous young’uns who credit Dupree for their own success.
“I would not be the cook or woman I am today if not for Nathalie Dupree,” said Virginia Willis, who befriended Dupree 25 years ago.
It was Dupree who pushed Willis to enroll in culinary school, to stick with a three-year stint cooking in kitchens in France, and who helped her get her foot in the door as a kitchen director for Martha Stewart in the early 2000s.
“She’s mentored me every step of the way,” Willis said.
Willis, who has authored six books on Southern cooking, appeared umpteen times on TV, and risen to be a respected voice for Southern food and culture, is spearheading the Oct. 5 shebang at the Beard House with Cynthia Graubart, who produced “New Southern Cooking With Nathalie Dupree,” the first nationally syndicated TV series to come out of Georgia. Graubart went on to co-author the “Mastering the Art of” Southern cookbook series with Dupree. Their most recent book, “Nathalie Dupree’s Favorite Recipes & Stories,” will be released the night of the Beard dinner.
Willis and Graubart will be joined by fellow Dupree followers Anne Byrn, Kelly Litton and Rebecca Lang to prepare a multi-course meal featuring some of Dupree’s most beloved recipes. There will be golden beet soup, pickled okra with Virginia smoked ham, shrimp and grits, buttermilk quail with hot pepper jelly, chicken salad, cornbread and angel biscuits, pork chops and a trio of dainty Southern cakes for dessert.
There’s a story behind each dish, but pork chops hold special meaning to any woman who has been under Dupree’s tutelage. She has a “pork chop theory” that boils down to this: “One pork chop in a pan goes dry; two or more, and the fat from one feeds the other.”
Lang, a cookbook author and Southern Living contributing editor, explained how the theory applies to women in the cooking field: “Instead of women being catty about each other, let’s work together and support each other.”
It was more than 20 years ago, as a journalism student at the University of Georgia, that Lang had the courage to pick up the phone, dial 411, and ask the operator for Nathalie Dupree in Social Circle. Dupree answered the call, and Lang began apprenticing with her the following week.
Byrn, aka the Cake Mix Doctor (her latest cookbook, “Skillet Love,” will be published Oct. 29), feels similarly indebted to Dupree. Byrn’s first job out of college was with The Atlanta Journal in 1978. Young and intimidated, she needed to get up to speed.
“I find out there is this cooking school in Rich’s Department Store around the corner from the newspaper,” Byrn said of the culinary school that Dupree started in 1975. A story about soufflés that she made alongside Dupree was among the first that Byrn wrote. Soufflé after soufflé flopped after 10 seconds, but Dupree’s handholding did not.
Dupree’s disciples praise the power of sisterhood that their mentor preaches, but they also hold her in high regard for advancing the culinary arts. Chef Kelly Litton of Litton’s Market and Restaurant in Knoxville (a Rich’s cooking school alum) said Dupree’s greatest contribution is “her deep-seated knowledge of Southern cooking — of the traditions, the method, the past, and weaving that into the future.”
“She helped America understand that Southern food really is at the root of American cooking,” Graubart said.
Dupree did that through cooking classes, TV shows, cookbooks, even her own dinner parties at her Ansley Park condo.
“It’s hard for me to separate her personal self from her culinary self,” said culinary journalist and community activist Toni Tipton-Martin, who developed a relationship with Dupree during the founding of Southern Foodways Alliance in 1999.
Tipton-Martin also can’t help thinking of Dupree anytime she takes a group photo. Dupree doesn’t say “cheese.” She shouts “sex!”
It was Dupree who introduced Graubart to her husband, Cliff Graubart, and even cooked at their wedding reception — in Rome, Italy — in 1988.
And, it was Dupree who welcomed Lang’s grandmother, Claudia Thomas, into her home in Social Circle for a day of cooking when she learned that the elderly woman adored all things Nathalie.
“She has an innate gift to know what role to play — your friend, mentor, therapist,” Lang said.
“It’s a sixth sense, I guess,” Dupree said. “I can tell what they should be doing. I never mind saying the hard stuff, if it will help people in the long run. I’ve made so many mistakes. I know exactly what not to do.”
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