SPRING IS HERE! The seeds that we’ve planted and nurtured have been growing beautifully. I’m happy to announce that I now have the opportunity to make the Department of Salad my full-time job. I’ll be relying more than ever on my paid subscribers—but I treasure the support of all subscribers, which is how we got to this great place. It’s a bit scary, but this new phase is also thrilling, and it will make our content richer and even better.
So! We’ve been doing some spring cleaning. I’ve discussed it with the boys in the salad lab, and we all think that the best way to make sure we keep all of you in salads is to send out bulletins more often. Which means we’ll have more Department of Salad for our free subscribers, too. (Basically, we couldn’t stand the thought of anyone missing out on more salad.) So, from now on, every subscriber, free or paid, will receive at least one bulletin per week with at least one great recipe. Lucky you! But Paid subscribers will get bonus bulletins and extra recipes, full access to the archive, giveaways, and special treats including Q&A sessions and comment thread conversations, where we’ll chat with you, learn from you, and take occasional salad requests.
ONE MORE NOTE: As some of you may know, I started this newsletter because I love writing, I love salad (obviously), and I love sharing both with you. But creating it was also my happy, sneaky runaround of the damaging and counterproductive problem of ageism in hiring in journalism. As much as I’ve loved my career, it has been difficult to realize again and again that over-40 journalists are put out to pasture in their prime by the management at newspapers, magazines, and websites, who rarely bother interviewing older journalists for their open jobs.
But me? I’m just getting started. Why would I waste everything I’ve learned? (One must always wake up to reality! And move forward!)
And speaking of all ages: let me say again how very grateful I am for the Department of Salad’s diverse group of salad-loving subscribers. Meaning you. Thank you so much. Now, let’s make something delicious.—Emily
CHEF SALAD: Portia Payne Hendrick
ONE OF MY FAVORITE SOUTHERN HOSTESSES is Portia Payne Hendrick, who grew up in Atlanta and now lives on St. Simon’s Island. But she’s not the kind of southern hostess you’re probably thinking of.
Rather than a coiffed perfectionist wearing a stiff smile and a flowing hostess dress (and holding a giant mint julep), Portia is in a category of her own, a kind of Free to Be. . . You and Me hostess. You don’t worry about etiquette at Portia’s, or whether you’re wearing the right thing. You worry about whether there will be second helpings and dessert.
I’ve known her since we were both 18 and freshmen at the University of Georgia, in the 80s. We joined the same sorority and conducted ourselves according to what was, back then, a set of unspoken rules about how we should act. We also drank, a lot. I dropped out of the sorority, began rolling my own cigarettes, started working at the campus radio station (where I called our underwriters capitalist pigs to their faces), and hung out with art students dressed in black—I’m a sorority girl! No, I’m a punk! I’m confused!
I lost touch with Portia for decades, during which time I moved to New York and then Chicago, where my independent free-spiritedness evolved (or devolved) into a kind of 1950s housewife’s life. I found myself occasionally wondering, like Peggy Lee, if this was all there was. But thanks to an absolutely devastating tragedy, I discovered that there was even less of true worth in that life than I ever could have imagined. It was terrible, but you’ll have to read my book if you want to know more. It has been described as a tragedy with recipes and jokes.
Portia, on the other hand, had started making beautiful art (inspired by religious iconography and her own personal transformations) which was included in the annual Howard Finster Fest juried art show in Summerville GA, along with the likes of Mary L. Proctor and Woodie Long. She’d begun growing a giant garden full of beautiful vegetables and flowers and raising chickens. And she was always surrounded by animals: cute donkeys, goats, dogs everywhere. Plus, she’d turned into one of the best home cooks I’d ever met. (Her husband, Buddy, is also a really good cook, who makes gnocchi and fantastic pizzas on the grill with smoked gouda and a fried egg).
Portia became an entire chapter of my book, and not just because she fed me so well that first time I visited, back in 2011. By that time, we were both gratefully in AA—she for a long time (almost 18 years today) and I, for the second time, after blowing up my unhappy life in Chicago in order to escape it. She taught me to be open and unashamed. Rather than judging me when I fell, she helped me get up and start over. I wish I could say I’d returned all the comfort she has given me, which includes making me laugh a lot.
When we discussed some of her recent favorite salads, she’d just she’d gotten back home from volunteering for her local church—visiting isolated elderly people and delivering meals to them during the pandemic.
“It’s not a You’re Going to Hell Church,” she said.
“What kind of church is it?” I asked.
“The kind where some of the congregation is in AA with me,” she replied.
So, okay, you get it now: I love Portia and she is important to me!
“I’m not some great cook,” she claimed, once we started talking about her latest favorite salads, even though she is. “I just throw stuff together.”
I reminded her that when I visited her for the first time in ages, time back in 2011, she served me homemade brioche for breakfast with Benton’s bacon and an egg she’d pulled from underneath a French Black Copper Maran chicken that morning, gorgeous seared scallops on creamed corn for dinner, and winter squash soup with rouille croutons for lunch, among other delicious dishes.
And then she proceeded to tell me about a pineapple salad that she learned from some local friends in Nevis, which you can turn into a cold soup. I’m going to give you that sensational recipe.
The same way she’s a self-taught painter, Portia is a self-taught cook. Her mother was known among all her friends as a dazzling, eclectic Southern cook who threw spectacular parties and who carried cookbooks around with her the way other people do novels. So: Chicken Divan, fried chicken, tea cakes, miniature quiches and pecan pies, a famous ham, Swedish meatballs. But she was also an alcoholic who died very young, and whose kitchen was always off limits—a private domain for her and a chaotic mystery to Portia. And they didn’t eat dinner until 9, usually on TV trays.
So, when she was a young, poor wife in student housing, while Buddy was in law school, she knew so little about cooking that when her mother did send her a recipe, for meatloaf, Portia didn’t know you put the meat in the loaf pan raw. “I cooked it first!” she said, cracking up.
It wasn’t until she met Buddy in college and went home with him to his rural hometown that she got her first real exposure to a family that gathered around a table every single day.
“I just wanted to bring up Payne to have that,” she said of her now grown son. “A family that sat together at a table, no matter how busy or chaotic the day had been.
“And they always said a blessing. So today whether you’re a Buddhist or Jewish or Catholic or whatever, there’s a blessing. That’s why I always try to find a non-denominational church. It’s just about being grateful. I’m about everybody. If your God is a tree that’s fine at my table,” she said.
So, Portia created a kind of hybrid of the two family lifestyles, to fill a hole from her past life, incorporating what was good from both: the delicious southern party food her mother made in the city and the welcoming family table she saw in the country. It’s a divine combination.
Today, even though Portia has become a casual but creative home cook, the food is almost incidental to her. “I just love having people over, setting the table, entertaining,” she said, as she excitedly unloaded a grocery bag full of jellybeans and chocolate eggs and bunnies to decorate the table for her group of core vaccinated AA friends coming over before Easter. I noticed she didn’t seem stressed. “Everything doesn’t have to be a 10, it can be an 8,” she said. “It’s the company, the table, that makes it a 10.”
A lot of Portia’s paintings have a literal message, about faith in all its various forms and the idea of finding peace. And so does her food. “What I’m saying is ‘I'm glad you’re here. Be at ease. You’re special to me.”
*RECIPE: Portia’s Nevisian Salad with a Twist
Serves 4 or so
I love this amazing, sparky, refreshing salad that Portia adapted from friends in Nevis, and it has a bonus: She turns the leftovers into pineapple gazpacho! Which is why you must pass around the nut garnish at the table. The leftovers from the big bowl go into the blender, are chilled, and served with various toppings. This is absolutely fabulous.
1 whole pineapple, peeled, cored, and cut into bite-size chunks
1 cucumber (English or regular), seeded and cut into bite size chunks. If the peel is bitter (taste it), peel the cucumber
2 scallions, chopped, with some of their green tops
Juice of 2 limes with their zest
2 tablespoons fish sauce (nam pla)
2 teaspoons regular sugar or palm sugar
2 chopped chili peppers. Portia used bird’s eye; I used 1 jalapeno and 1 aji
½ cup chopped fresh mint, or to taste
½ cup cilantro leaves, roughly chopped
1 cup chopped roasted peanuts for garnish
Place pineapple, cucumber, and scallion in a large shallow container and set aside.
In a jar with a lid, shake together the lime juice and zest, fish sauce, and sugar. Let the sugar dissolve completely, then add the peppers.
Pour over the pineapple mixture and allow to marinate in the fridge for at least an hour, tossing occasionally. Toss in the herbs a few minutes before serving.
Serve with crushed nuts on the side. (I also added
NOTE from Portia: “Any leftovers, without nuts, I toss in blender and purée. Chill. Gazpacho. Boom. Swirl in yogurt or crème fraîche, etc., and top with a salsa concoction of diced pineapple and avocado.”
It had barely gotten cold when I tipped the bowl up and drank it. I might make it a bit chunkier next time. And there will definitely be a next time.
*RECIPE: Portia’s Simple Greek(ish) Salad
This next recipe just kills me. It’s dead simple, but so delicious. One of the things I love about Portia is she’s utterly unpretentious, and she told me I had to use a bottled dressing on this salad, even though her homemade dressings are fantastic. So I bought some Garlic Expressions dressing, which is what she uses, even though I preach constantly against bottled dressing. And it was delicious. This would be fantastic with other Greek salad adornments, such as good olives. But the thing you can’t leave out are the little Sweetie Drop Peppers. Portia buys a big can and decants them into smaller jars, so that’s what I did. And now I can’t stop eating them. This is a fantastic use-what-you-have salad to throw together last minute, for the dinner parties we’re all going to have once this stupid pandemic is over.
1 head iceberg lettuce, cut in half lengthwise then sliced crosswise into very thin shreds (“like angel hair’); you can also add shredded romaine for more color
1 sweet / Vidalia onion, sliced very thinly on a mandoline
Garlic Expressions salad dressing (I have included a recipe for garlic dressing at the end here, but this stuff is so good and it’s in grocery stores)
Big chunk of good feta cheese (don’t buy that dried out pre-crumbled stuff; Trader Joe’s has one in brine that I love)
Good dried oregano
Freshly ground black pepper
Sweety Drop Peppers
Place the shredded lettuce in a bowl and toss with dressing—just enough to moisten, not to drown. Be careful not to overpour
Lay the dressed lettuce prettily on a platter, then pave the top with the sweet onion slices. You probably won’t need the whole onion. Shake a whole lot of oregano over this. (Portia said I didn’t use enough, judging from my photo.)
Season with freshly ground pepper. Then ply the entire enterprise with your good crumbled feta and as many of the Sweety Drop Peppers as you like: use a lot! (Portia told me she also uses jarred whole peppadew peppers, sliced up, with or in place of the Sweety Drops.)
Note from Portia: “This is to die for. I will sometimes add thinly sliced poached chicken, all around edges of the platter, to turn it into a light meal.”
*Recipe: A Simple Garlic Dressing
¼ cup white wine vinegar
Juice of 1 lemon
½ cup olive oil
1 teaspoon honey
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and well smashed with the blade of a chef’s knife
1/2 teaspoon salt, more to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, more to taste
Combine all ingredients in a jar with a tight-fitting lid, shake well, and let sit overnight on counter. Shake again, adjust salt and pepper, adjust acid to oil. Don’t include the cloves in your salad. Do I have to tell you that?
That’s all! We’re finished here.
NEXT WEEK: Not sure yet what will be happening at the DOS, but we have a lot in the hopper to choose from. Thank you for subscribing. And please make all your deserving friends subscribe, too. Or give them a gift subscription!