The Junior League of Mobile takes its cookbook operation very seriously. They’ve published four since 1962, Recipe Jubilee, One of a Kind, Bay Tables, and Best of the Bay (a compilation of greatest hits from Recipe Jubilee and One of a Kind). The first two are regarded as classics of regional cookery, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Bay Tables, published in 1999, someday joins their ranks. This cookbook gets some heavy rotation here at the Potts/McCoy house, and is not your typical spiral-bound Junior League cookbook. It’s a hardcover, filled with glossy, sun-drenched food photography, and looks more like it belongs on a coffee table than in a kitchen cupboard.
But don’t let the Food Network layouts fool you – Bay Tables is more than a pretty dust jacket, and its design fits in with the cookbook’s overarching theme. In the introduction, Sallye English Irvine writes, “While Mobile has long been famous for its delectable gumbo, fried fish and crab claws, recent decades have brought a splendid redefinition of cooking style. This current focus celebrates the glorious profusion of produce and natural resources with fabulous, creative dishes and updated twists on the traditional along with fresher, healthier techniques.”
Don’t worry, nobody’s trying to take away your jambalaya or your cheese straws, but alongside those hearty staples are more elegant dishes that still utilize ingredients that make Mobilian cooking so distinctive – slow-cooked meats, fresh seafood, game, and regional delicacies like Stansel Rice, grits and Conecuh County sausage. As a result, you’ll find the likes of Fettuccini with Caramelized Scallops and Rosemary Beurre Blanc and Venison Steaks with Black Currant Sauce within pages of recipes for Butter Bean Cakes and Marinated Grilled Chicken with Mama Dot’s Sauce.
The book also incluudes hundreds of sidebars, which contain some short recipes and foodie tidbits (their illuminating “Crostini vs. Bruschetta” cleared up some things that had been bothering me for quite awhile), but are mostly dips into Mobile’s odd and fascinating local history.
A profile of Mobile’s most famous hostess, Octavia Walton La Vert, describes how the sophisticate’s unwavering hospitality led to her public shunning and an obscure death in Augusta. It seems that when Union troops occupied Mobile, Ms. La Vert invited them into her home, just as she would any other high-profile, interesting newcomers to the city, and the upper crust took exception.
In another sidebar, Bay Tables also takes the opportunity to inform readers that Mardi Gras originated in Mobile in 1711 (while New Orleans wasn’t even founded until 1718…. total noobs). Over the years, I’ve learned that if you talk to any Mobilian for longer than five minutes, they will feel obligated to tell you this.
I’d originally scheduled Bay Tables for this week as a reward to myself for eating Sauerbraten (which actually wound up being delicious, so maybe I should have saved it…). We’ve cooked a lot of fantastic meals from this cookbook, and I’m really excited about sharing a few of them here. Also, the Junior League of Mobile kind of rocks. They’ve run a thrift store in the community for over 70 years, run a writer’s workshop for teens, help out at the public library, and sponsor a number of arts enrichment programs for children and teens, to name just a few of their local involvements.
That’s probably a point I haven’t been making enough here. The Junior League does some really good stuff. That they also put out these cookbooks makes them pretty much aces in my book.