Bon Appetit, Y'all: Recipes and Stories from Three Generations of Southern Cooking

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Ten Speed Press

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Before she attended the prestigious French cooking school École de Cuisine La Varenne, Virginia Willis had been shelling butterbeans alongside her mother and grandmother in her Georgia family kitchen ever since she could stand on a stool. These divergent influences inform her passionate homage to the cooking of the South. From simple starters and slaws to generous entrées and desserts, Willis makes down-home cooking refined and haute cuisine friendly, with recipes like Vidalia Onion Soup with Bacon Flan, Pulled Pork Sandwiches with Mama's Barbecue Sauce, and Hot Vanilla Soufflés with Vanilla Ice Cream. Brimming with stories, tips, techniques, and gorgeous photographs, BON APPÉTIT, Y'ALL seamlessly blends Willis's Southern and French roots into a memorable and thoroughly modern cookbook.


Virginia Willis
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Ten Speed Press
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Ten Speed Press
Bon Appetit, Y'all: Recipes and Stories from Three Generations of Southern Cooking
Notes: Brand New from Publisher. No Remainder Mark.
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Ellen Silverman

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What happens when you take a girl, steeped in the southern culinary tradition, and send her off to France for formal training?

On the face of it, that sounds like it could produce a chef with a unique culinary worldview. Which is how Virginia Willis, author of Bon Appetite, Y'all, describes herself. "My own style of cooking," she says, "combines my Southern heritage with classical French training. The result is a mélange of new Southern and new American cooking with a heavy dose of classic French techniques."

My dictionary defines "mélange" simply as "a mixture." And Willis's style is, indeed that, a mixture of all her culinary influences. What's it's not is a particularly creative or exciting mixture. 

The first---of a dozen---dishes I made from the book was her Pecan Lamb Chops. This consists, at base, of taking some loin lamb chops, running them through a three-dip breading of which ground pecans is the final coating. She then pan frys them until browned, and finishes them in the oven.

Is it tasty? No doubt about it. But if this represents either new Southern or new American, I'm getting ready to move---both from the south, and from the country. To me, it's just an everyday method of cooking chops. Certainly nothing I need consult a $33.50 book for.

Similarly, her take on game hens, what she calls "Mama's Orange Glazed Cornish Game Hens," is tasty enough. It's just not worth the effort that goes into producing it. If you want to work extra hard, follow her steps, forcing herbed butter under the skin. Or, instead, just baste the roasting birds with the same butter mixture. The final results will be the same.

Of those recipes I've tried, about half are like that: the final result is good many times good enough for company as well as everyday. But nothing spectacular. The rest weren't worth the bother.

Take Baker's Potatoes, her take on the classic pommes boulangere. Substitute parsley for the thyme she uses, and it's a long way to go just for boiled potatoes precut in the style of Hasselback spuds. 

There are cases, too, where she makes a minor changes, but, rather than offering it as a modification, calls it something else. Then the two recipes are placed enough apart so, maybe, you won't notice. On page 187 she has a recipe for Green Beans with Tomatoes, which, truth to tell, is not a bad side dish. Three pages further, however, is a recipe for Green Beans Provencal which, basically, is the same dish minus the crumbled feta used in the first one. 

The book is rift, too, with typos and missing directions. One of the more egregious instances is her Chicken & Tasso Jambalaya, a recipe where it's obvious no attempt was made at proofreading. At one point, the chicken is slightly colored in a skillet, then  removed to a plate. Other ingredients are then added to the skillet, and the whole thing put in the oven. However, at no point in that recipe does she indicate that the chicken is supposed to go back in. And she tells us to bake for 40-45 minutes, but doesn't provide a temperature at which to do so. If you happen to enjoy  raw chicken and rice, follow her directions exactly. Otherwise, add the chicken back in when you bake the dish.

Each of the recipes is preceded by an intro that either provides some biographical material behind the dish, or discusses the ingredients, or talks about its antecedents. Some of these are really interesting, while others contribute little to the literature of the subject except bulk. And they tend to be repetitious. 

There are some cookbooks in which the running text, alone, is worth the purchase price. This is definitely not one of them.

What makes the book particularly disappointing is that, given Ms Willis's background, we reasonably expect better. She began her career as an apprentice to Nathalie Dupree, has cooked for music and Hollywood stars and at least one President, and has worked side-by-side with such culinary celebrities as Bobby Flay, Martha Stewart, and Julia Child. Along with her degrees from both L'Academie de Cuisine and Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne, those are impressive credentials. 

Sadly, those qualifications just aren't reflected in Bon Appetit, Y'all. 

Recipe from book: Mustard-Crusted Pork Loin with Herb Pan Sauce


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