By Robert St. John
For the past couple of months, we have hosted a special guest in our home. Feline Been is the daughter of our good friend Marina Mengleberg. Marina, Feline and her brother Alec all live in the small Tuscan village of Barberino-Tavarnelle. In addition to being friends with Marina, we work together hosting tours in Tuscany and other Italian locales. I have gotten to know her children over the years and — even though I didn’t go through the official ceremony — I consider them both my godchildren.
Marina, Feline and Alec are Dutch but have lived in Tuscany for two decades. For the past several years, I have told Feline and Alec that they need to come to America for an extended visit when they graduate high school. Feline, an excellent student, just finished her final year — second in her class — and is taking a gap year before attending college in the Netherlands. Her first gap-year stint was spent in Amsterdam. The final leg of her gap year will be spent in Bali. In between she is in my hometown of Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
A cynic would say, “How does Mississippi belong in a grouping of Amsterdam and Bali?” We’ll cover that later.
The Dutch-Italians had a blast during their initial visit to Mississippi in the summer of 2019, and we are glad to have Feline back with us. In 2019, we covered New Orleans, Mississippi and the Panhandle of Florida. This trip has mainly been in Mississippi with a few jaunts into New Orleans.
There is something deep inside of me that enjoys hosting people. I think that is why leading tours in Europe has been so rewarding and in demand. For Feline’s visit I wanted to cover all the bases in my hometown and the surrounding area — food, art, culture, events and entertainment.
The food area has been an interesting challenge. In my mind, our local cuisine holds up to the cuisine of Holland, but it’s tough when we’re up against Italy — specifically Tuscany. I’ve forced a lot of gumbo into her diet. One doesn’t realize the shortcomings of their own diet until hosting someone from another country. Cream-based dressings and sauces are virtually non-existent in Tuscany. American teenagers live on Ranch dressing.
Her favorite meals have been the times we have sat around the table as a family. Though I have never realized that chicken pot pie looks like it’s already been eaten and come back up until I served it for dinner the first night. I don’t think she noticed, and she ate it all, so we passed that test.
We haven’t had as many at-home dinners because I am in the middle of recipe testing for the new breakfast cookbook that will be released this fall. Three nights a week we have been in The Midtowner after closing eating all manner of breakfast foods. She loves muffins, acai bowls and adores French toast.
Feline has joined me for breakfast most mornings at table 19 in The Midtowner. That’s where she fell in love with the acai bowl and French toast, but her main go-tos were avocado toast and the Skinny Elvis (wheat toast, peanut butter, granola, bananas, honey and fresh berries).
She was able to attend several Mardi Gras parties with us and has recently fallen in love with crawfish. The local cuisine seems to be what she loves most — etouffee, jambalaya and pecans. She really likes pecans, and she fell in love with chicken and dumplings. She has been a joy to be around and has been a perfect house guest.
It appears that we’re on some strange exchange program over here these days. Marina’s daughter is over here and our son, Harrison, is in Florence and working for a friend of mine who owns a restaurant in Marina and Feline’s little Tuscan town.
Harrison wants to go into the restaurant business, and I set out an eight-year plan that he needs to accomplish if he’s going to come back and work in our restaurants. After this stint cooking in Tuscany, he’ll go to culinary school to become a chef, and then he’ll get out and go to work for other people for two years. That will include another stint cooking in Italy and then down to New Orleans for three six-month stints (stages in chef talk). Then, and only then, will he be able to come back and work in one of our restaurants. But I have told him, “No matter what your degree says and no matter where you have worked and what your titles were, you are going to start at the bottom. But you’ll have the opportunity to work your way up.” He seems to be down with the plan.
In the meantime, Feline’s days in Mississippi are numbered. But so are ours. She’ll fly back home to Tuscany Saturday where she’ll spend a little time before heading to the South Pacific. My wife and I are headed to Spain to host one of my travel groups and to film a season of my new television show, “Yonderlust” in Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Majorca, Seville and Malaga. It’s a trip that was supposed to happen in March of 2020, and then rescheduled to March of 2021. We are finally going. From there we will head to Tuscany to host three groups before having some friends join us for a week. The bonus is we’ll get to see our son often, as he works in the Tuscan town where our villas are located and we get into Florence often, where the apartment he’s renting is located.
Back to the cynical thought that many Mississippians might be thinking, “How does Mississippi belong in a grouping of Amsterdam and Bali?” Mississippi is an exotic land to most of the Europeans I have met through the years. We get down on ourselves and sometimes can’t see the forest for the pine trees, but we are truly the state that birthed America’s music. We’ll give New Orleans credit for jazz. But the blues grew straight out of the Mississippi Delta, and if you believe Muddy Waters — and I do — that “The blues had a baby and they named the baby rock and roll,” you don’t have to go too far east of the Delta to arrive at Elvis Presley — the king of said rock and roll’s — birthplace. A short trek down Highway 45 from Tupelo will land you in Meridian, home of Jimmie Rogers, the father of country music.
The Europeans know that we gave that music to the world, and according to Feline Been the food is pretty good, too.
Chicken and Dumplings
2 quarts Water
2 quarts Chicken broth
1 large Carrot, peeled and cut into large pieces
1 large Onion, peeled and cut into large pieces
1 stalk Celery, peeled and cut into large pieces
1 Bay leaf
1 Tbl. Salt
2 -3 lb Chicken, whole
Place all ingredients in a large stockpot and simmer for two hours. Gently remove chicken, cool and pick the meat from the carcass. Cut into bite-size pieces and set aside. Strain the chicken broth and return to a large saucepot.
3 cups Flour
1 Tbl. Poultry seasoning
3 /4 cup Crisco
3 /4 cup Cold milk
Combine flour and seasoning. Use a fork to cut the shortening into the seasoned flour. Add cold milk and mix until a ball forms. Place dough on a floured surface and knead it for five minutes. Divide dough into two parts. On a generously floured surface, roll dough to 1 /8-inch thickness. Cut dumplings into one-inch squares and sprinkle with flour to prevent sticking while you roll out remaining dough. Place dumplings in refrigerator and repeat the process with the other half of the dough.
Reheat chicken broth on high, to a rapid boil. Quickly drop dumplings in broth (make sure they are separated to prevent them from clumping). Once broth returns to a boil, lower heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Add cooked chicken into pot and simmer for 10 more minutes. Remove from heat and allow the mixture to rest for 15 minutes before serving. Yield: 8-10 servings
(Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur and cookbook author who lives in Hattiesburg, Miss.)
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