In My Mother's Footsteps
When I was in the third grade, my mother, Jane, took a job in the Southern Living Test Kitchen. I'd watch her get out of the car every night around 5:00 with a brown paper bag. The question was always: What's inside?
My sister and I knew it was leftovers from that day's tasting, always on a white oval Chinet plate in a zip-top plastic bag. It could be a casserole that had gone horribly wrong, poached fish, or—if we were really lucky—a dish that had gotten a high rating. The mystery of that paper bag is just one of the things I remember when I think of my mother.
I also worked for Southern Living as a Test Kitchen Professional, the same job my mother held for 10 years. My mother was always against my having a food career. In high school, I just mentioned the possibility of attending culinary school, and she said, "Absolutely not!" She wanted me to find my own path, which I definitely did. I was the girl with pink hair who dropped out of college and worked in retail.
But I've always loved food and entertaining. As a kid, I would sit on the beat-up kitchen stool, and Mom and I would talk as she cooked. She'd offer little tips like, "Marian, you never want to have more than one crunchy thing in your menu." I learned so much from her. We always discussed the contents of that day's brown bag during the meal. And when we went out to eat, we'd rate the food just like we were at taste testing! I just thought that was normal.
Jane, circa 1968
Mom was great at entertaining. Her food was always beautifully presented, though she sometimes went over the top. Once, as a house guest was leaving after a weekend of huge meals, she ran down the driveway after him, waving a package of her sausage biscuits for the road. She was very Southern and proper—she always, always wrote thank-you notes—but she knew how to loosen up and have fun too.
When she died in 2002, we were all devastated. I was a total mess. My dad had recently told me to find a career that mattered to me, so I knew I had to do that. I met my husband, Lee, six weeks before my mom died. He was the one who really encouraged me to go to culinary school. He made me believe I could do it and that it was worth doing.
When I was invited to interview for a position in the Test Kitchen, I had a real feeling of coming home. Here I was at the same dining table where my mother had taste-tested recipes for so many years, with editors who had known her. One of them said, "Marian's a legacy," just as if I were joining a sorority. I thought, "I want to be a part of that sorority." Now I am, and I absolutely love it.
I honestly think Mom would be glad I ended up where I am. She loved working with Southern Living and appreciated the caring that her co-workers showed. During her illness, one of them, Judy Feagin, would often call to say, "I'm dropping supper by." Her offering was all too familiar: an oval Chinet plate in a brown paper bag with leftovers from the Test Kitchen. I have no doubt Mom was silently rating those recipes right up until the end.
Enjoy Marian's fresh takes on some of her mom's signature recipes.
Simple Beet Salad
Recipe: Simple Beet Salad
Pickled beets were a point of contention between my mother and me, but I think we would have agreed on this fresher version.
Black Beans and Coconut-Lime Rice
I was probably the only child sent off to college with packets of yellow rice mix and canned black beans tucked into her dorm room necessities. This is my latest tropical version.
You May Be A Southern Mother-In-Law If...
If you're a master at picking your battles and stopping by unannounced with a casserole, you may be a Southern mother-in-law. We've compiled some of our favorite quirks that make these women some of the sassiest, spirited Southerners you'll ever meet. What would you add to the list?
Pavlova with Lemon Cream and Berries
My mother's signature dessert. Assemble it just before serving, but you can make the meringue up to two days ahead; store in an airtight container.
Recipe: Cava Sangria
Mom always served a big punch bowl cocktail for parties. I make this fast version for parties of 4 or 24.
Chocolate Chip Bundt Cake
Recipe: Chocolate Chip Bundt Cake
This is my sister Jennifer's favorite birthday cake. She has been known to ask for two on her special day (one for her and one for everyone else).