Jon and I were lucky enough to celebrate dozens of holidays at Julia Reed’s loving and lavish tables in New York and New Orleans and Mississippi, but one of our most memorable meals was the Thanksgiving somewhere around 2001 when all three of us – for reasons I can’t remember at this distance – were stuck in New York for Thanksgiving and longing to be home in Mississippi or Tennessee. After a few weeks of bitching and moaning about not being able to make it south to take up our rightful places at the family table, we decided to gather a rag-tag band of Southern expats who were similarly stranded in Manhattan that Thanksgiving and to cook up a decadent feast.
The day started early, with Bloody Marys and a walk to Central Park with friends to lay a wreath at the feet of The Pilgrim, the famous statue that I didn’t know then but do know now was sculpted by John Quincy Adams Ward and erected in 1879. Back at Julia’s 78th Street apartment, it was all hands on deck. Always the sous-chef, I was on chopping duty with our pal Mary Thomas, while Jon’s one job was to keep the champagne flowing. Our friends Thomas Jayne, world-renowned decorator (responsible for many of Julia’s gracious rooms) and his husband Rick Ellis, whose collection of Southern cookbooks numbers in the thousands, brought the most exquisite pies I’ve ever laid eyes on, the edges of which were formed by an assemblage of tiny pastry leaves and acorns.
Julia commanded the kitchen and the conversation, and we drank champagne and ate cheese dreams – those low-brow and completely delicious hors d’oeuvres made through a special alchemy of Pepperidge Farm white bread, butter and cheese – until dusk settled on the City. By the time the first course was put out – the most delicious sauteed oysters on buttered toast points – we were all well and tipsy as I recall. The remainder of the meal, delicious I’m sure, fades in memory. It’s the cooking with friends, the prelude to the main event, that stays with me even now. So I leave you with the recipes for cheese dreams and sauteed oysters on toast, both favorites in Julia’s extensive repertoire, and now, lucky me, in mine too.
2 cups finely grated sharp Cheddar cheese
1 cup butter, softened
2 tablespoons heavy cream
1 large egg
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
½ teaspoon table salt
½ teaspoon dry mustard
Ground red pepper or hot sauce to taste
1 (16-oz.) package firm white sandwich bread slices (such as Pepperidge Farm White Sandwich Bread)
Step 1: Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Beat cheese and butter at medium speed with an electric mixer until blended. Beat in heavy cream and next 5 ingredients.
Step 2: Cut crusts from white bread slices; cut each bread slice into 4 squares. Spread cheese mixture on half of bread squares (about 1 tsp per square); top each with 1 remaining square. Spread remaining cheese mixture over top and sides of sandwiches. Place sandwiches 1 inch apart on a lightly greased baking sheet.
Step 3: Bake at 375 degrees F for 15 minutes or until golden brown.
Sauteed Oysters on Toast
8 tablespoons (1 stick ) butter, plus additional for toast
6 slices homemade white bread or Pepperidge Farm sandwich white
¼ cup chopped Serrano or prosciutto ham (about 1 ounce), thinly sliced and minced (Smithfield, or any good country ham, can be substituted)
⅓ cup finely chopped shallots
¼ cup finely chopped green bell pepper
1 pint shucked oysters (about 18 oysters), drained
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Juice of one lemon, preferably a Meyer lemon
Finely chopped parsley
For the toast, preheat oven to 450 degrees. Trim the crusts from the bread and discard. Spread the softened butter on both sides of bread slices. Place the bread slices on a cookie sheet and grill for 8 to 10 minutes, turning once so that both sides of the bread are golden brown.
Meanwhile, melt the remaining butter in a large heavy skillet over medium heat, add the ham and sauté for two to three minutes, until it is slightly crisp. Add the shallots and the green pepper, then turn heat to low and cook for another two minutes. Add the oysters and cook until they have plumped up and are beginning to curl on the edges. Quickly swirl in the salt, pepper, Tabasco and lemon juice. Spoon over toast. Sprinkle with the parsley and serve.