December 2, 2010 12:17:00 PM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
Stepping into Nancy and Carol Carpenter's historic Columbus home during the holidays brings to mind a more gracious time. Bay leaf wreaths at the windows and mantles dressed in swags of greenery blend with warm colors, decor and furnishings that comfortably meld the present with the past.
A beautifully-set dining table crowned with a natural centerpiece Nancy crafted herself awaits family and guests. Tantalizing aromas from a plump turkey and marinated pork tenderloin promise a feast for the palette, as well as the eyes. The main dishes are equaled only by a side table replete with tempting homemade desserts.
From entrance to exit, the experience exudes genuine hospitality, a gift the hostess gained from her parents and has been sharing for decades, wherever she lived.
"For years Carol and I have felt that our home and any blessings that we have were given to us to be shared," said Nancy, who, with her husband, has hosted countless gatherings for groups ranging from garden clubs to the Columbus High School football teams and Mississippi State University's Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
Now, the project director of the Columbus Cultural Heritage Foundation is bringing her sincere love of cooking and inherent talent for entertaining to a brand new cookbook. The collaboration with her longtime friend, Robyn Farber of Jackson, has been years in the planning.
Genesis of a cookbook
Nancy and Robyn share a flair for hosting celebrations large and small, and often did so together when Nancy lived in Jackson, from 1971-1990. When their mothers passed away, leaving a wealth of handwritten recipes, the friends thought of compiling a cookbook. They realized, too, they'd gathered a trove of recipes and advice from some of Mississippi's best cooks throughout years of entertaining.
"For example, I've got a great recipe from Olivia Manning (Archie Manning's wife) and a wonderful recipe for corn pudding from Sonny Montgomery," said Nancy, who directs Columbus' annual Spring Pilgrimage, Fall Tour of Homes and the Decorative Arts Antiques Show and Sale, in addition to multiple other events. She also oversaw the recent restoration of the Tennessee Williams Home and Welcome Center.
The cookbook, expected out in late 2011, promises to be a "blend of Steel Magnolias and Southern seasoning." Sections currently planned include appetizers, salads, comfort food, tailgating, healthful living and whole grains, farm-to-table, poultry, desserts and more. It will include "some wonderful stories about the South and growing up in Mississippi," pledges Nancy, whom Farber succinctly describes as " ... Martha Stewart before there was a Martha Stewart."
Nancy's culinary curiosity and instincts as a hostess were first sparked by her upbringing in Union, where her father once served as mayor.
"I think you have a lot of good cooks in small towns because you don't have a lot of restaurants ... it's your mother's kitchen, or your aunt's or your grandmother's. I do think it has something to do with family meals and cooking being a form of entertainment."
Her mother was a popular hostess. Her father, too, influenced her. To this day, one of her very favorite recipes is one she calls simply "Daddy's rolls."
Another thing she inherited from her parents, however, is a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes about two years ago.
"Both my parents were insulin dependent. ... From watching them during my late teens and early 20s, I learned what pitfalls I should avoid if ever I was diagnosed with the disease. I'm very health conscious, and my diabetes is well under control."
Careful with food choices, Nancy eats virtually nothing sweet herself, even though she continues to bake for family and friends.
"I've learned there are hidden sugars in certain foods, and I know how important exercise is. I have finally learned to take time to care for myself. Being one who is a caretaker, that has been hard to do," said the chair of the Mississippi Diabetes Foundation Walk in October at the Riverwalk.
Some things, a good cook can't be without. Nancy's list of five essentials consists of Land O'Lakes butter, Duke's Mayonnaise, kosher salt, cracked black pepper and fresh herbs. An avid gardener, she grows her own Swiss chard, parsley, mint, rosemary, thyme and oregano. She likes to use organic foods when possible and patronizes local growers, including those at the farmers' market.
"When you incorporate that goodness of someone else's hard work, I just think your food is blessed by that," she shared.
Nancy prides herself on learning the art of substitution. "With years of cooking comes the knowledge of what substitutes would be flavorful and what herbs really marry," she said.
Other favorites in her pantry include Dr. Pete's Burgundy Marinade, from Party and Paper in Columbus. "They have a good selection of specialty foods, as does The Front Door," noted Nancy.
Kosher salt is a staple. "I always use kosher salt, not table salt. It makes a huge difference; it's more pungent," shared the accomplished cook, who also makes her own breads -- sourdough, cranberry, rolls and French bread. She's well-known for her cheese straws, as well.
"There's something about kneading bread; it makes me feel like a part of myself is going into what I'm cooking. That's why I love making it. There's an art to making breads and baking other things," she added. "Like don't over-stir or over-process. I think I've learned how to release ... and that's true in life, as well as in baking."
And then there is husband Carol, the acknowledged "sous chef" of the Carpenter household.
"Carol helps me tremendously," praised Nancy. Carol, a former Ole Miss football player, married the former Mississippi State majorette in 1981. They were actually introduced by cookbook collaborator Farber and her husband Hap, was once a teammate of Carol's.
The Carpenters' three children, Luke, Hunter and Molly Jane, kept them tailgating and entertaining throughout their school years. Molly Jane, according to her dad, has been a good cook "ever since she was big enough to burn her fingers." So, cooking has frequently been a family affair. Just another blessing that has come from the kitchen.
"I dearly love cooking; it's a stress reliever for me. And I dearly love being able to cook for others," said Nancy. "I feel like hospitality is a gift God has given to me, and that it's my responsibility to share it."
Several of the Carpenters' favorite recipes are included today in print and online. Some of these "cookbook previews" may find a place on your holiday table.
MARINATED PORK TENDERLOIN
Four pork tenderloins, slender cut, cleaned and patted dry with paper towels
One bottle Dr. Pete's Burgundy Marinade
1 teaspoon garlic powder
2 teaspoons cracked black
Eight slices bacon, uncooked
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup Wesson oil
2 cups milk
One package yeast
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
4 1/2 to 5 cups all purpose flour, divided
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.