Tuesday, May 17, 2022

On Cooking Southern: Memorial Day Marks the Start of Summertime Feasting


Bite the bullet
: Dating back to primitive medical conditions during the Civil War, the expression means to toughen up and endure the situation without complaining… like all residents of the Magnolia State who can’t leave town to escape the heat of summer.

Memorial Day is a very special date for us Americans. It’s the secular, Federal holiday most of us target for our Spring deadlines. It’s the holiday that workers know will enable them to make it through another fiscal quarter without total burnout.

Memorial Day marks the unofficial start of summer, coinciding with the end of the school year for many communities. It’s one of seven calendar dates flagged for retail sales extravaganzas by the Mad Men of advertising. It’s the official safe date for planting the last of the summer garden.

But in fact, Memorial Day has a somber reason for existence: It is the date for commemorating all soldiers who have died in service to our country.

The holiday originated during the Civil War, when women on both sides of the Mason Dixon line began decorating the graves of fallen soldiers. By the end of the war that claimed more than 600,000 lives, communities in both the North and South were holding Decoration Days in May to commemorate the war dead.

The most widely publicized such event was held in Charleston, SC, on May 1, 1865, when more than 10,000 residents – including 3,000 children of freedmen of color, along with teachers and missionaries – gathered to clean up and lay flowers at the unmarked graves of almost 300 Union prisoners of war at the former Hampton Park Race Course. The event was covered in national newspapers.

By 1869, more than 300 communities in 27 states were holding late May Decoration Days to commemorate war dead. In 1866, Columbus, Mississippi, was one of the first Southern communities to commemorate Decoration Day by laying flowers on the graves of both Confederate AND Union soldiers.

World War I signaled a shift from emphasis on Civil War soldiers’ service to honoring all soldiers who died in service. But the name didn’t officially change from Decoration Day to Memorial Day until after World War II. It was declared the official holiday name as a Federal holiday in 1967. The date was changed from May 30 to the last Monday in May in 1968. All 50 states grudgingly shifted to the Monday celebration by the mid-1970s.

Memorial Day is not to be confused with Veterans Day, which commemorates all soldiers who served in wars, coinciding with the World War I Armistice and Remembrance Days.


Our turbulent Spring weather seems to have settled early into the fires of Summer. But we Southerners just use this as an excuse to get a head start on our grilling and barbecue-ing and picnicking. Whether celebrating in the back yard or at our favorite beach, lake, river or mountain sites, we love our summertime get-togethers.

Memorial Day is the annual holiday launch pad for our summertime fun, when the crowd food is all about making life easy, American style. So what better way to get in the spirit than by preparing layered salad and a summertime twist on everybody’s favorite American comfort food: mac n’cheese.

Who says the tomatoes HAVE to be in the salad, or that the strawberries HAVE to be in the dessert? And what’s to keep a savvy cook from prepping molten chocolate lava cake AHEAD … in jumbo cupcake liners?

Feel free to improvise the contents of this stacked salad. Note that there are no tomatoes in this variation (we used them in the hot casserole instead). But it would be just as tasty with chopped tomatoes and cucumbers. And instead of peanuts, pecans, walnuts or sunflower seeds, we added chickpeas for the protein-laden crunch. Use either a 9-by-13-inch dish (serves 8-10), or an 11-by-9-inch dish (serves 6).


Spring mix greens or chopped romaine lettuce
Kernels of corn cut from 2 boiled ears
1 c of canned chickpeas, rinsed and drained
Cubed fresh mozzarella
Green onions
Four sweet mini peppers, seeded and sliced into thin rings
Dill sprigs
1 c sliced strawberries
2 T white granulated sugar
5 T white balsamic white wine vinegar
1 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
1/3 c extra virgin olive oil

Layer the first 6 ingredients in listed order, spreading evenly in each layer. Combine strawberries and sugar in a bowl. Add vinegar, salt and pepper and puree either in a blender or with immersion blender stick until smooth. While blending, add olive oil in a slow steady stream, until emulsified. Drizzle over salad. Refrigerate leftover vinaigrette covered, up to a week.

This recipe rates in my all-time winners category. It hints at Italian roots without overpowering the tastebuds.


16 oz (4 c) large elbow noodles
4 slicing tomatoes, two chopped and two sliced
4 thick slices of bacon, crisp cooked and crumbled or chopped
1 c coarse-chopped basil leaves, plus 9 whole leaves
4 c whole milk
4 c grated sharp cheddar, reserve 1/2 c
8 T salted butter
8 T all-purpose flour
1 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
1 c crushed butter-garlic croutons (from a 5-oz pkg)
3/4 to 1 c shaved Parmesan

Preheat oven to 350˚F. Lightly grease a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with nonstick cooking spray (I use the olive oil version).

Cook noodles in lightly salted water until al dente — do NOT overcook. Drain and set aside in a large mixing bowl.

Melt butter in saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour, a tablespoon at a time until blended with no lumps. Continue stirring for one to two minutes until it begins to thicken and darken slightly. Slowly add milk, whisking, to blend completely. Continue simmering, whisking at regular intervals, for about 3 minutes, until mixture begins to thicken.

Add the cheese, stirring until it completely melts and blends. Reduce heat to low, add the basil and cook, stirring, for another 3 to 4 minutes.

Remove sauce from heat and stir in the chopped tomatoes and crumbled bacon. Pour over the noodles. Toss to coat. Add reserved cheese and toss again.

Ladle mixture into the baking pan. Sprinkle with most of the shaved Parmesan. Position 9 tomato slices in three rows and top each slice with a basil leaf. Sprinkle with crushed croutons and remaining shaved Parmesan. Bake 20 to 25 minutes until bubbly.

I adapted this recipe from Chris Morocco’s version in “Bon Appetit” magazine. The ganache filling is what forms the “molten” chocolate. It is the classic ganache recipe that we all use for filling or for making truffles. The cake itself is delicious; how could it NOT be, incorporating brown sugar with melted bittersweet chocolate and eggs? Instead of a cake pan or ramekins, I used a jumbo muffin tin with doubled jumbo cupcake liners. The recipe is perfect for six jumbo cupcakes and may be made ahead.


1/4 c heavy whipping cream
7 oz bittersweet chocolate, divided 2 and 5, and each part chopped
6 T salted butter, plus more for the cupcake liners
White granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1/3 c light brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 T all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp kosher salt

Preheat oven to 425˚F. Line a 6-slot jumbo muffin tin with jumbo muffin liners. Grease bottoms of liners with butter and sprinkle each with about 1/4 tsp sugar to coat.

To make the ganache filling, place 2 ounces of chopped chocolate in a small bowl. Heat cream in a small saucepan until it begins to simmer, rolling the pan to prevent scorching around the edges. When the cream is hot to touch, pour over the chocolate. Allow to sit for about a minute then stir vigorously with a spatula until the chocolate has completely melted and blended. Refrigerate for at least one hour until firm.

Combine 6 tablespoons of butter and 5 ounces of chopped chocolate in a double boiler bowl set over saucepan of low-simmering water. NOTE: To prevent chocolate from seizing, be sure bowl doesn’t rest IN the water. Allow to sit for about a minute to heat the butter and chocolate, then stir with a spatula until completely blended. Remove bowl from the saucepan.

While chocolate is resting, beat eggs and brown sugar in a mixing bowl on high until mixture triples in volume. I used a hand mixer in order to better control access to all of the bowl contents. It takes about 3 minutes to achieve proper volume.

Turn mixer to medium and scrape in the melted chocolate, beating until completely blended. Fold in the flour and salt until smooth.

Divide the batter in half. Ladle about 1/3 cup into each cupcake liner. Scoop a rounded teaspoon of ganache into the center of each. Cover each ganache-filled cupcake with remaining batter. Bake on center rack for about 15 minutes, until tops are firm and beginning to crack. Remove and serve immediately with vanilla ice cream, or allow to cool and store until ready to serve.

Laurie Triplette is a writer, historian and accredited appraiser of fine arts, dedicated to preserving Southern culture and foodways. Author of the award-winning community family cookbook GIMME SOME SUGAR, DARLIN’, and editor of ZEBRA TALES (Tailgating Recipes from the Ladies of the NFLRA), Triplette is a member of the Association of Food Journalists, Southern Foodways Alliance and the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. Check out the GIMME SOME SUGAR, DARLIN’ website and follow Laurie’s food adventures on Facebook and Twitter.

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