By Robert St. John
It has been said that the four seasons in Mississippi are— almost summer, summer, still summer, and Christmas. I have friends who believe that the four seasons in Mississippi are— dove season, duck season, deer season, and turkey season. There are also people who would argue football season, basketball season, baseball season, and football pre-season.
The four seasons in my world are spring, summer, football, and holidays. The weather rarely matters. Local stores start selling sweaters and “fall” clothes in September. But, in South Mississippi, it’s usually 72 degrees and raining on Christmas Day. It’s hard to beat March, April, and October in this part of the world and fall football season is uniquely singular in the South. There’s just a different energy in the air when football is involved.
Within my seasons— spring, summer, football, and holidays— there are certain foods that I like, and many that I only enjoy during that season. Sometimes that’s because the food item is seasonal and only grows in this part of the world during that time, but other times it’s just what I associate with that time of year, or a particular holiday.
Spring is for lamb. If I were ever granted a last meal, the protein at that meal would be my grandmother’s roasted leg of lamb. We ate it once a month in my childhood. I don’t think there was any special ingredient or method she used, probably just salt and pepper with some onions and carrots in the roasting pan. She made a gravy from the pan juices. I do remember that she didn’t make a traditional roux. She dry-roasted flour in a pan until it started turning brown. There is a certain smell that is associated with making gravy in that manner. Occasionally, I’ll catch a whiff of toasted flour and it immediately takes me back to her kitchen. What a wonderful aroma. Gravy was the final step— in addition to the smell of those tiny biscuits baking in the oven— that always signaled that something important and memorable was about to happen, as lunch was about to be served.
Summer is for peaches. Peaches just taste like summer. They don’t have to be a cobbler or in ice cream, just give me a small bowl of lightly macerated peaches, and I’m good to go. If I have just finished a meal where freshly picked sweet corn was a component, all the better.
Football season and fall are synonymous. The weather is cooler, the air is crisp, and it’s the only time of year I find myself eating soups— gumbo, seafood bisques, vegetable-beef, and onion are my go-tos.
Though as much as I love football and football season— and I dearly love football and football season— there’s something about the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day that is so special to me. It’s a unique time of year in the Deep South. The holiday season is where everything seems to come together.
Eleven years out of the past 20 I have been on a promotional book tour during this period. It is always fun as I get to hang out in independent bookstores and to visit with people I sometimes see only once a year. Book signings are a favorite activity as I also get to visit with regular readers of this column who remind me of stories and details about my life and family that I have long forgotten. I had a breakfast cookbook coming out this fall but postponed it to next year’s holiday season due to a schedule that was more hectic than most year’s. The book will be released is 2023 and will be a better product because of the rescheduling.
The restaurants are always busy around this time of year and that’s nice. The weather is cooler and that’s a bonus. But beyond football, books, business, and weather, I think the reason this time of year holds such a special place in my heart is the Five Fs aspects of the Thanksgiving through New Year’s season.
I have written often of my philosophy of the Five Fs. It took me four decades to start figuring out the things that truly matter in life, but when I did, and when I started prioritizing those things, my life got so much richer. The Five Fs are— in order—faith, family, friends, food, and fun. To me, those are the things in life that truly matter.
Faith has always been a vital part of my life. I grew up in Main Street United Methodist Church in my hometown of Hattiesburg. In my youth I was there every Sunday morning, Sunday evening, Wednesday night, and whenever the doors were open. I was there yesterday, sitting in the pew where my family has sat for over 100 years, thinking back to the foundation I was given as a part of that congregation. It’s the same one my kids were given, and one that future generations of my family will have available to them. The fellowship and relationships that were ingrained in me in those early days made an impact that is still felt, today.
I don’t have many regrets in my life, but the main ones I have are family related. I feel as if I spent a lot of time with my extended family over the years but looking back, I still don’t think it was enough. There is nothing more permanent than losing a loved one and realizing that you might not have spent as much time as you could have with them. I would give a year’s salary for one more hour with my grandmother.
When it comes to friends, I think I have had this one nailed from the beginning. I have always valued my friendships. My grandfather used to say, “A rich man has his first dollar. A truly wealthy man has his first friend.” He also said, “You can judge a man’s success, not by the size of his bank account, but by the depth and breadth of his friendships.” I am a rich man today— not because I have a bunch of money in the bank, I don’t, but— because I have a multitude of friends.
Food brings us together like nothing else. When I think back to the best times in my life, food is almost always involved in some way. Sharing a meal is one of life’s greatest pleasures.
The fun is the easiest part. When I was a teenager, I looked for fun in a lot of the wrong places. It took me a couple of decades to realize that when I have several of the Five Fs in place, the fun automatically happens, and the best memories are made.
It’s my wish that you have a holiday season filled with and abundance of faith, family, friends, food, and fun, and may all your Christmas dreams come true.
Leg of Lamb with Raspberry Mint Chutney
Preheat oven to 375
1 Leg of Lamb, bone in, about 6-7 pounds
12 cloves fresh garlic
1/4 cup olive oil
1 Tbl fresh chopped rosemary
1 Tbl fresh chopped thyme
3 Tbl kosher salt
1 Tbl fresh ground black pepper
Using a paring knife, cut 12 small pockets, spread out in the lamb leg.
Insert one clove of garlic into each pocket.
Rub the leg with the olive oil, the rub the herbs, salt and pepper over the leg.
Place the lamb in a large roasting pan, and place it in the preheated oven.
Roast for 30 minutes, then reduce the heat to 325 and continue to bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes to achieve a medium rare temperature. If using a thermometer, it should register 145 degrees.
Remove from the oven and allow the lamb to rest for 10 minutes. Slice thinly around the bone and serve.
Raspberry Mint Chutney
1 Tbl olive oil
1 /2 cup shallots, minced
1 Tbl garlic, minced
1 Tbl fresh ginger, minced fine
2 tsp curry powder
1 /4 tsp black pepper, freshly ground
1 /2 cup sherry
3 cups raspberries, fresh or frozen
1 cinnamon stick
2 cups chicken broth
1 bay leaf
1 cup mint jelly
1 tsp cornstarch
2 tsp water
1 /2 tsp balsamic vinegar
1 Tbl fresh mint, chopped
In a small sauce pot, heat olive oil over medium-high heat and cook shallots 3-4 minutes. Stir in garlic, ginger and seasonings, and cook 3-4 more minutes, stirring often. Do not let garlic brown. Deglaze with sherry and reduce by half.
Stir in 2 cups of the raspberries, chicken broth and bay leaf and simmer 15-20 minutes, until reduced by half. Stir in mint jelly and cook three minutes more, stirring constantly. Dissolve the cornstarch with the 2 teaspoons of water and stir it into the simmering sauce. Allow the sauce to thicken then remove from the heat and strain. Stir in the vinegar, fresh mint and remaining cup of raspberries.
Serve at room temperature.
(Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur and cookbook author who lives in Hattiesburg, Miss.)