Last week, I received the sad news that Barbara Thomas, of Barbara’s Home Cookin’ in Franklin, Tennessee, passed away.
Thomas opened the popular meat-and-three cafe in the formerly quiet suburb of Nashville in the late 1990s but sold her interest a couple of years ago. Thomas was a native of New Augusta but claimed my hometown, Hattiesburg — the nearest larger city close to New Augusta — as home.
She was a court reporter by trade who retired from that profession and got into the restaurant business, and the entire Nashville metroplex was better for it.
Barbara’s Home Cookin’ served typical diner fare and was frequented by a wide range of customers from day laborers to Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban and others from the Music City jet set. The food was 100% pure south Mississippi country cooking, but it also stood as a place where I ate some of the best mashed potatoes I had ever tasted.
I keep a running tab of all of the best foods I have eaten through the years, and I update it frequently. Barbara’s Home Cookin’ has stellar mashed potatoes, and they are in close competition with my grandmother’s mashed potatoes and Frank Brigtsen’s. They are all three on the list, though when I pull up my list of the “Best Things I Ever Ate,” the yeast roll category has one solitary entry: Barbara’s Home Cookin’.
The yeast rolls at Barbara’s Home Cookin’ were — and I guess still are — heavenly. Seriously.
On my first visit 12 years ago, I asked for thirds with yeast rolls. Thirds. I have come to a stage in my dining out career that, if I eat something that is out of this world good and extraordinary, I order that item again during the same visit. Sometimes, if it’s an appetizer, I’ll cancel the entree and just order another of the same appetizer.
My chefs and managers call it “The St. John Maneuver.”
In the early days of my food career, when I would eat a restaurant menu item that I thought was otherworldly, I would convince myself that I would return and eat the same dish in the future. But life gets in the way. Sometimes we don’t return. Other times businesses close, recipes change, people die. The St. John Maneuver is my version of culinary carpe diem. Get it while you can, seize the dish, order seconds, thirds even.
I grew up eating yeast rolls in school cafeterias and in meat-and-three joints around my hometown. But I had never — and still have never — tasted yeast rolls that were as tasty as those at Barbara’s Home Cookin’. I also took pride in the fact that something so fine originated in my little corner of the world. I am sorry that Barbara is gone, but I am glad I was privileged enough to have eaten her cooking and take solace in the fact that someone up there in Franklin is still running the joint and carrying on her traditions.
I am a bread-aholic. I know bread. I adore bread, which is to say, I am really, really, really in love with bread.
Nicole Kidman may have looked good in that movie where she was in a bikini trapped on a sailboat with that crazy guy, but on the day of that first visit to Barbara’s Home Cookin,’ she didn’t look as good as my third helping of yeast rolls tasted.
The news of Barbara’s passing put me in a reflective mood, and I began to run though my “Best Things I Ever Ate” notes and started reflecting on the best bread items I have eaten in my life.
Here are the top five:
• No. 5: Bread in Tuscany. It’s strange that this item makes the list because the Tuscans do not use salt when baking bread, and — to my taste and sensibility — salt is a must when baking bread, though the quality of the olive oil I dip their bread into makes the difference. I just add salt to the olive oil so that makes up for the lack of salt in the bread. Italians don’t really spend every pre-meal dipping bread into olive oil. That is probably more of an American thing. They certainly don’t add salt to the oil. But when I am over there, I do it with no reservation of worrying that I am going to seem like a visiting American (they already know I am a visiting American), but it’s just that the olive oil is so good, the bread just becomes a vessel to carry the oil.
• No. 4: Croissants. I have eaten croissants all over the world. When they are made properly, there is no better breakfast item. Period. When I was young and foolish, I would eat butter and jam on a warm croissant. A decade or so ago, I ditched the butter. There’s a ton of it already in a croissant. It needs no accompaniment, actually. But homemade jam is a nice compliment.
• No. 3: Warm French bread served with dinner in New Orleans, various restaurants. A friend used to have a magnet on her refrigerator that stated, “Nothing tastes as good as being skinny and lean feels.” I always thought that she had probably never eaten warm, freshly baked French bread with salted butter in any restaurant in New Orleans.
That combination is one of the food items that make me stop and realize how simple and joyful food can be.
• No. 2: Biscuits at The Carriage House in Natchez. I gave a speech to a group in Natchez years ago, and the hosts took me to lunch at The Carriage House.
The biscuits there were as close to my grandmother’s as anything I have ever tasted. I skipped the entree and dessert and did my best to not let my hosts see that I was making a meal out of the biscuits in the bread basket.
• No. 1: My grandmother’s biscuits. This is such a typical and obvious choice. Everyone’s grandmother’s cooking is always the apparent and over-used go-to for foodies (and certainly for me over the years), but it’s the actual truth. I have never eaten a single bread item that was better than my grandmother’s biscuits.
Her biscuits were small, little-old-lady luncheon-sized biscuits, not the large cathead country variety we serve in our breakfast joint. They were petite, light, slightly acidic with just a touch of salt. Perfect. Seriously, every time, perfect.
Bread is not necessarily good for you and is loaded with carbohydrates and fat. That’s true, and I acknowledge that I would probably live 10 years longer if I eliminated bread from my diet. But then again, those 10 years aren’t always the best years and are often filled with stints in hospitals and nursing homes. So, at least for now, I’m going to keep carb-loading and eating bread (sometimes third helpings of bread) and roll the dice when it comes to life expectancy.
Carpe diem, and pass the yeast rolls, please.
Hattiesburg native Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author. He has written a syndicated weekly newspaper column for more than 20 years.
LIGHT BUTTERMILK BISCUITS
• 2 cups self-rising flour.
• 2 teaspoons sugar.
• 1/4 teaspoon salt.
• 1/4 teaspoon baking soda.
• 1/2 cup shortening or lard.
• 3/4 cup buttermilk.
• 1/4 cup butter, melted for brushing the tops.
• Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
• Combine all dry ingredients. Add shortening and use a pastry cutter or fork to blend in the shortening. The mixture should look like course meal. Knead in the buttermilk; the mixture will be slightly sticky. (Adding more flour will result in a dense biscuit.)
• Place dough on a lightly floured surface. Using a floured rolling pin, roll dough to 1/2-inch thickness. Cut biscuits and place on baking sheet. Brush tops with butter.
• Bake for 14-16 minutes or until golden brown.