My mother was a consummate Southern cook. When she died, I inherited her collection of community cookbooks, the kind produced by churches and Junior Leagues, held together by plastic spiral spines. There were so many, I had to give a lot away, but I held on to a few, because they contain the recipes she made when I was a child. But, more than that, they contain her essence. It’s found in the notes she scribbled in the margins and the stains from ingredients she dribbled over the pages. (She was not a tidy cook.) I treasure those books for the stories they tell.
That is the concept behind Matt Terrell’s “The Magnolia Bayou Country Club Ladies Auxiliary Cooking and Entertaining Book.” With a grant from his alma mater, the Savannah College of Art and Design, the 34-year-old artist has created a 340-page, color-illustrated art book that mimics a community cookbook, complete with spiral spine and inserted faux personal items, like photographs and newspaper clippings, that tell the story of a cast of characters living in the fictional town of Magnolia Bayou. At its core, though, it is a real cookbook, with tried and true recipes home cooks will want to make.
Terrell, whose day job is communications director for Dad’s Garage Theatre, is a genre-defying artist, whose projects include “hate shields” created for the Pride Festival last year that deflected anti-gay protests. He also loves to entertain, and calls himself a beautifier.
“I like to make sure that myself, my friends, my guests — whatever situation we’re in, whether we’re having dinner or having cocktails — I have exactly what I need to have a great experience,” he said.
Those qualities come together in his “Magnolia Bayou” cookbook, which is populated with distinctive characters like William “Tico” Ticonderoga Jones, who developed Magnolia Bayou; town lush Kitty Conway; Drs. Elaine and Sid Punjabi; and pageant coach Duquesa Infanta Maria Teresa Pontalba de Barcelona y Andorra. Their backstories about the recipes they contribute to the book reveal them to be flawed — but good-hearted — people trying their best. Just as the town comes together to celebrate one of its own, a tragedy strikes that tightens the residents’ bond.
The recipes actually were culled from Terrell’s personal collection, from his mother and sister, and from community cookbooks, although the latter were “majorly revised,” he said. In addition to reducing the butter and cheese in a lot of the recipes, Terrell has added wine and fresh herbs, and “everywhere you expect celery, I replace it with fennel,” he said.
Some adaptations are more transformative. When Terrell came across a recipe for Cheese Salad Sherbet in “The Gasparilla Cookbook,” published in 1961 by the Junior League of Tampa, Florida, he was inspired.
“It was Roquefort ice cream over shredded lettuce,” he said. “It was in the salad section. My note to (recipe editor Rachael Needham) was to take the idea of Roquefort ice cream and make it a dessert with a red wine poached pear. It’s a really fabulous recipe. It’s such an interesting combination. It’s very delicious.”
Terrell credits insomnia for sparking his interest in old cookbooks.
“One of the best ways to help you fall asleep is to read old cookbooks,” he said. “They’re very calming, they always have happy endings, and you can start and stop pretty much anywhere. I started to collect old cookbooks because I made the mistake of telling my mother, and boxes and boxes of them began arriving.”
Since “Magnolia Bayou” came out in 2017, Terrell has been promoting it by holding private dinner parties for book buyers willing to provide the ingredients. He said the most popular recipes are Pitta Cooling Tea, made with coriander, fennel seeds, mint or cilantro and rose petals; Grape Delights, a chilled appetizer made from grapes, goat cheese and pistachios; and Southern Chicken Salad, which Terrell likens to a combination of chicken salad, egg salad and pimento cheese, all in one bowl.
While deeply rooted in the South, the cookbook features recipes that contain global influences, and the fictional community in which it is set is diverse and inclusive.
“My experience growing up in the South was very diverse,” said Terrell, who was born in Mississippi. “I went to high school in Arkansas, a place where a lot of Vietnamese refugees had moved to in the ’70s. I had so many Vietnamese friends in high school, and they were Southern. They had a Southern accent and everything.”
He pointed to a recipe in the book for Cream Cheese Egg Rolls that contains pickled daikon radish.
“That was something I had in high school, from my friends who were Vietnamese, but (because) they were Southern, they were putting cream cheese in things,” he said.
The first printing of 50 hand-assembled copies of the “Magnolia Bayou” cookbook sold out within two months, so Terrell reinvested his profits in a second printing, and is cultivating a word-of-mouth campaign that he hopes will lead to a publication deal with a company that can produce the book on a larger scale. He also envisions it as a kind of interactive theater production, like “Tina n’ Tony’s Wedding,” except set at a funeral wake.
“I think there’s a lot more to be explored in fictional cooking that’s not been done on a serious level,” he said. “I’m really intrigued by this idea of having a cooking show with characters and a narrative arc, but you’re also going to learn some great recipes and techniques throughout.”
— From “The Magnolia Bayou Country Club Ladies Auxiliary Cooking and Entertaining Book” by Matt Terrell. $50. itsjustmematt.com/magnolia-bayou.
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