The Queen of Southern Cuisine
"Oh, hello, you're here for the meringue lesson." The year was 1992, and just a few days earlier, I had presented Nathalie Dupree—cookbook author, queen of Southern cuisine, and my professional idol—with a plate of soggy meringue kisses while working behind the scenes on her PBS show, Nathalie Dupree Cooks for Family and Friends. In her typical way, Nathalie was gracious about my flop, saying only, "You know, Virginia, it's nearly impossible to make a meringue when it's raining," and then invited me over to her house for a one-on-one tutorial.
So there I was, in her Atlanta home stuffed with cookbooks, dishes, and folk art, learning to scour a large copper mixing bowl with a combination of kosher salt and lemon halves; to add the sugar in a slow, steady stream so it dissolves properly; and to whip the egg whites with a giant balloon whisk until they cling to the side of the bowl (which Nathalie demonstrated by holding it upside down over my head).
When the opportunity to work as an unpaid apprentice on Nathalie's cooking show came around, I jumped at it. When taping ended, I became a part-time apprentice in her home kitchen, testing recipes, shopping, and beginning the actual process of learning how to cook. My grandmother was excellent in the kitchen, and my mother is still an incredible cook, but Nathalie exposed me to things I had never seen and certainly never made, like homemade béchamel sauce and puff pastry.
Unlike many Southern women, Nathalie didn't learn to cook at her mother's or grandmother's elbow. Her parents' marriage ended when she was in elementary school, and her mother went to work to help support the family. So she figured out how to feed herself. After growing up in Virginia, she later moved to Texas for college. Nathalie transferred to George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Then she moved to Boston, where (at age 19) while living in international-student housing, she volunteered to step in for the house cook, who was ill. Not realizing that not all recipes can be scaled up to feed a crowd, on her first night, she produced a tuna casserole that she describes as layers of grease, tuna, and gloppy sauce. But she stuck out her troubled tour in the kitchen and realized she actually enjoyed it. Nathalie told her mother that she had found her calling. Her mother's reply: "Ladies don't cook."
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Thankfully, Nathalie didn't listen. Her marriage to David Dupree, whom she lovingly calls "her favorite former husband" set her on the path from home cook to trained professional. In the 1960s, his work took them to London. Nathalie used this opportunity to take a series of "bride's courses" at Le Cordon Bleu, which led her to earning an advanced diploma at age 30. David's work ended soon after, and a detour took them to Majorca, Spain. On her third day there, some-one approached her while she was swimming in a pool and said a local restaurant needed a chef for the season. The place had no window screens (so she was stung by wasps); she fought with the maître d'; and she served oversalted mussels to the owners. Though she once again had a rocky start, she persisted.
The couple moved to Atlanta, and Nathalie resumed cooking out of their tiny rental kitchen, supplying two carrot cakes a day to the historic Castle restaurant in Midtown. Soon after, she and David moved to rural Social Circle, Georgia, where they bought 15 acres of land with a warehouse that they transformed into a combination restaurant and antiques store called Nathalie's. In addition to cooking and managing the restaurant, Nathalie took on a newspaper route to help satisfy the bank loan.
Working with local farmers, neighbors with garden surpluses, and the nearby grocery store, Nathalie quickly developed a reputation for building a bridge between the Southern cuisine she grew up with and the European food she learned to cook while abroad. "I served the salad after the meal and bought sweetbreads from the local butcher," she says, adding, "I had only one menu a night, so the early guests got to decide what we were having each evening."
Satisfied regulars started requesting cooking classes, and soon after, Rich's downtown department store in Atlanta recruited her to open the Rich's Cooking School, where she taught for 10 years. Thousands of students (including author Pat Conroy and biochemist turned cookbook writer Shirley Corriher) learned her methods for French classics such as brioche and Southern staples like her light-as-air biscuits, which became one of her most beloved recipes. Nathalie was one of the first to talk about the gluten levels in flour and why Southern self-rising flour is ideal for making biscuits—ideas that are now widely known.
It wasn't long before the rest of the country took notice. Nathalie hosted television segments for Atlanta's PM Magazine and PBS (which led to shows on The Learning Channel and Food Network) while writing cookbooks, most famously New Southern Cooking and Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking, which she coauthored with Cynthia Graubart. While her work has earned her a slew of accolades and four James Beard Awards, her philosophy remains simple: "I've always wanted people to be able to cook easily using accessible ingredients."
Now, at 79 years old, Nathalie shows no signs of slowing down. She spends her days with her husband, author and journalist Jack Bass, in a Single House nestled in downtown Charleston, South Carolina. There, surrounded by an abundance of cookware (including an enviable collection of asparagus tongs), she continues her work, shooting food videos for The Post and Courier, testing new recipes, and hosting visiting authors as well as dignitaries.
Last spring, I found myself back in the kitchen with Nathalie. I was in Charleston on a book tour, and she was throwing one of her famous parties for me. I stay with her often when I'm in town, but I rarely see her, as she is always on the go. This visit, however, was different. She had a foot injury with doctor's orders to stay off of it. As she sat in her chair in the den, I was in the adjacent kitchen cooking for the 75 guests expected that evening. It felt like old times, when just the two of us were together in the kitchen.
As I prepped the menu, I realized I needed to modify my Peach Upside-Down Cake recipe to feed the crowd. Fortunately, Nathalie helped me troubleshoot. "What do you think about a caramel sauce to serve on top of the cake instead of caramelizing the peaches in a skillet?" I asked. "Oh, yes, that sounds wonderful," she replied, adding, "I don't think you have to peel the peaches." "That's brilliant. What about the pan? Instead of a cake pan, I think I should use the Pyrex and double the recipe," I responded. Nodding, she agreed. Our entire day was filled with culinary banter, and as the dishes were ready, I would take her samples to taste. This time, everything met with her approval.
Best Biscuit-Making Tips
- Whisk the flour while it is still in the bag to fluff it up before measuring.
- Use a large, wide, and shallow bowl (not a deep one) for mixing the dough ingredients together.
- Rub your fingers and thumb together in a quick snapping motion when working fat into the flour.
- Make folding and shaping biscuit dough much easier and keep your countertop clean with a flexible plastic cutting sheet.
- And never twist a biscuit cutter—it will make crooked biscuits.
Nathalie Dupree has taught countless readers and viewers the art of Southern cooking and has also helped generations of people, particularly women, start careers in the food world. Here, three cookbook authors share the most memorable cooking (and life) lessons from their mentor.
Nathalie is wonderful, creative, and extremely demanding. She expects things out of you that you never dream you could do, but in the end, you realize you can do them after all."
Shirley Corriher, author of BakeWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking with Over 200 Magnificent Recipes
"She taught me to never apologize for any food I serve. Be proud of what you cook, no matter what it is!"
Rebecca Lang, Southern Living Contributing Editor and author of The Southern Vegetable Book
"She showed me how to be a relaxed, gracious hostess; to always make room for last-minute guests; and to use my pretty things on the table, not keep them locked in the china cabinet."
Cynthia Graubart, author of Sunday Suppers: Simple, Delicious Menus for Family Gatherings