Dixie’s Blue Cheese Dressing

Dixie Grimes is chef de cuisine at The B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery in Water Valley, Mississippi. She and Alexe van Beuren wrote The B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery Cookbook, a brilliant encapsulation of the foods of my homeland .

This sinfully delicious and beautifully iconic blue cheese dressing will make your mouth water and your taste buds sing: silky and salty with a hint of sweetness, a perfect showcase for your favorite Maytag or Stilton. It is a beautiful thing; that is, until you have had to make it for a fine dining restaurant on the fly. This recipe is by far one of the most temperamental that I have ever used. Everything has to be just right, including proper alignment of the stars and planets, and even then it might not work. However, I highly recommend giving it a whirl. The depth and flavor of this dressing is not like anything I have had before or since I worked at the Downtown Grill. We eventually retired it, and I came up with an easier alternative for the prep cooks to make; it would do, but it’s nowhere near as good as this one.

I started my professional culinary career at the Downtown Bar and Grill. I was a prep cook which meant I was the low man on the totem pole, the grunt; it was my job to do whatever the chefs needed me to do and get yelled at constantly for either not doing it properly or quick enough or both. That being said, I could hold my own and for the most part the guys gave me as much respect as a chef will give a prep cook (which ain’t much). I was allowed and expected to make everything and anything the guys needed for service, except of course the blue cheese dressing. Why would they not let me make it? And why did I never see it being made and why was only one person allowed to handle this recipe?

I would soon find out when I saw my name on the prep sheet aside the blue cheese dressing on a football Friday of an Ole Miss home game, in other words no room for error. Had I finally moved up to the upper echelon and was so bad ass that I was going to be allowed to make the sacred and secret blue cheese recipe that only Alison Wilkes was allowed to make? Alison was the Queen of the Downtown Grill and the most difficult recipes were given to her and her alone. It was at that moment I realized that for the first time during my shift Alison was off that night; she had worked earlier in the day and during the chaos the blue cheese was overlooked. The chef forgot to put it on the prep sheet! It was not the call to greatness I thought I had earned, it was out of pure necessity that I was allowed to make this recipe for the first time, much to the trepidation of the chefs as well as me.

There was really no room for failure now, all eyes were on me. I had no idea of the tediousness of executing this recipe, how everything has to be perfect: the measurements, the order of the ingredients as you add them, the temperature of the kitchen and the weather (not even kidding). I had no idea that this recipe had a 99% failure rate for anyone who tried to make it besides Alison. As I was reading through the recipe I remembered two things that Alison had told me prior to my employment at the Downtown Grill when we were just lifetime buddies. I remembered Alison talking about this recipe and that it gave her great pleasure basking in the joy of being only 1 of 20 people in a professional kitchen who could make this dressing that the Grill was so famous for; I also remembered her telling two key pieces of information as to why her always turns out, two things that were NOT written in the recipe. One, that there are three separate ingredients which are incorporated in one at a time, and they have to be added in alphabetical order: EOV; eggs, oil and vinegar. Two, everything has to be basically the same temperature, the bowls for the mixtures, the ingredients, air temp, all the same. Again, these instructions were not included in the recipe, so who knew? Well, Alison, of course.

So armed with this key information, I started the process, praying the whole time; please God let the dressing turn out. As I added the final mixture of vinegar the angels started to sing. ‘Holy crap!’ it’s working, I thought. I could see it coming together. To my surprise, I had done it, but instead of jumping up and down and screaming, which is what I wanted to do, I quietly tucked into my corner, not saying a peep, just getting the sacred dressing ready for service and storage. Then I casually walked up to the chef, container in hand. “Here you go chef. Do you need any on the line?”

Y’all, his jaw literally dropped. “What the hell!” he said. “You actually got it to turn out! We were planning on cussing at you for your futile attempt to make something that couldn’t be made.”

“Guess I just got lucky chef!” I said, remembering something else I learned from Alison: “Never tell the bastards anything.”

Downtown Grill Blue Cheese Dressing

2 eggs, whole
2 cups vegetable oil
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried mustard
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon white wine
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
Dash tabasco
4-8 ounces blue cheese, crumbled

In a blender whip the eggs for a minute, then slowly pour in the vegetable oil, a little at a time, until it starts to come together. Then add the vinegar in which the spices and seasonings have been whisked until it’s the right consistency. Remove from blender and crumble blue cheese into mixture.

A Culinary Classic from Water Valley

The B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery Cookbook spotlights small town Main Street South and focuses on good, real people creating real good food and helping to make the world a better place. With this book the authors, entrepreneur Alexe van Beuren and chef Dixie Grimes, celebrate their home in north Mississippi. Like many towns in the rural South, Water Valley has languished; once busy squares and streets are lined with broken sidewalks and historic buildings are being sold for bricks. But in Water Valley, community is in focus, and though the B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery has become a vibrant element in the town, Alexe and Dixie will be the first to tell you that the B.T.C. Grocery did not revive Water Valley: “Water Valley revived us.” Their book pulses with heart and glows with the warmth of their revival: a cornucopia of extraordinary food, exceptional writing and bountiful spirit.

The B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery Cookbook often ranges far from the table, but first and foremost it is about food, beautiful food. Chef Dixie Grimes cut her teeth in local restaurants, and her talents are enriched by time. In the B.T.C. cookbook, Dixie’s foods can be divided into two broad categories: traditional Mississippi recipes, many she learned in the Oxford kitchen of her grandmother Vetra Stephens; and progressive dishes that are the product of years of experience and an exceptional feel for the ingredients and how they work together in any given recipe. Dixie says that the food of Mississippi is too easily overlooked or dismissed because of its simplicity and her respect for and propagation of the traditional ingredients and time-tested methods of Southern cooking are a dominant theme.

Any Mississippian, especially one from north Mississippi, will feel as if they’re at their own grandmother’s table with many of these dishes, or at any family reunion or church homecoming, where you’re bound to find such favorites as three bean salad, chicken spaghetti and sweet potato pie. Dixie includes a perfect cornbread recipe (yes, of course it has bacon grease), along with instructions on how to swipe your hot skillet with that grease before pouring in the batter. Such details distinguish a really good cookbook from one that’s simply rote recitation with pretty pictures. (Speaking of which, take it from someone who knows; food photography is tricky and takes a lot of care and thought. My hat is off to Ed Anderson for his beautiful work in The B.T.C Old-Fashioned Cookbook.)

With the corn bread recipe comes one for corn bread dressing, a Southern staple, along with a dictum for our fellow countrymen beyond the Mason-Dixon Line to understand that “There is no stuffing in the South.” Dixie makes her Thousand Island dressing with mayonnaise and chili sauce, tomato sauce, ketchup and other things just as everyone did before Wishbone. (Note: in central Mississippi, this same concoction is called “comeback”, and is used on anything you can put on a plate.) Yellow “crookneck” squash casserole is another summer standard, and let it be known that Dixie, like her fellow Mississippian Craig Claiborne, offers a chicken spaghetti recipe as well as one for pickled eggs. It is also altogether fitting and proper that the B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery’s pimento and cheese is “red rind” cheese with pimento, which for me brings to mind the vivid image of a hoop of red rind cheddar sitting on the counter of a small country store under a wrap of wax paper ready to be sliced and eaten with saltines and a hunk of baloney or a can of Viennas. Being in Ole Miss’ back yard, of course the B.T.C. has a Hotty Toddy Beer Chili, which is a best-seller even when the Rebs aren’t slugging through the S.E.C.

When Dixie spreads her wings, magical dishes come to the table. Water Valley is in the Catfish Belt, and the book offers three recipes. One, with a nod to our neighbors in New Orleans (there’s a grillades recipe as well), is a blackened catfish that Dixie takes to higher ground with a Tabasco beurre blanc tanged with lime. This recipe is an exquisite example of what a top-rate chef who knows her methods and ingredients can do with a modern-day classic. Dixie’s honey pecan catfish is also a splendid work of innovation, and her catfish gumbo will stand up to any in the South. Her asparagus strawberry salad is an inspired combination of seasonal favorites, her watermelon salad (Water Valley’s Watermelon Carnival draws over twenty thousand people every year) is just brilliant, and her Brussels sprouts casserole is a winner. The roasted pear and zucchini soup was featured in The New York Times, so I’m pretty sure it’s good, too.

Chef Dixie shares the B.T.C. kitchen with sous chef Lori Ward, the Breakfast Queen of Water Valley, and with Cora Turnage Ray, the in-house baker and owner of Mississippi Mud Bakery. Cora, a native “Vallian” makes everything from scratch. Cora’s recipes tend to run to the traditional as they very well should in a small Mississippi town, with “old school” three-layer cakes such as coconut, strawberry and Lane, but she too breaks with tradition; her sweet potato pie rests in a rosemary crust, and her chess pie includes buttermilk. More notably, her “fried” pies are baked, “a practice that sets many an old-timer nodding and saying that’s how his or her mother did it,” resulting in light, flavorful pastries. But that’s not all; Alexe and Dixie put another leaf in their table by sharing the recipes of friends, neighbors and significant others. They include Coulter Fussell’s red beans and rice, Miss Vetra’s chicken noodle soup, Mrs. Jo Turnage’s banana pudding and Cliff Lawson’s hominy San Juan. Alexe’s husband, Kagan Coughlin, gets into the act with a pickle recipe, but Kagan’s biggest contribution is his renovation of the old building, which took five years and uncounted hours, working nights and weekends cleaning, moving stairwells, restoring thousands of square feet of heart pine flooring, throwing up walls, installing plumbing, building counters and hauling in appliances from all over north Mississippi. (Did I mention he makes pickles?)  The writing is in Alexe’s voice; warm, often intimate, charming in its candor and gentle in its humor. The introductory essay, “Welcome to the B.T.C.”, sets the stage for an adventure. “Everybody Asks” explains what B.T.C. stands for (and more), and the three essays in the “Soup” section, “Winter”, “Summer”, and “Fall (a.k.a Football)” are delightful. My favorites are “Where Food Comes From”, “Friends and Neighbors”, “Let There Be Leeks: Brother Ken and Co.”, “Billy Ray Brown” and “Mississippi: A Long, Slow Seduction”, which offers a thought-provoking outsider’s view of my homeland.

The B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery Cookbook stands out in the motley crew of current works on food with both recipes and writing, but what lifts the work to an even higher plane is that this book has voice, and not just one. Most cookbooks aren’t written so much as they are compiled by some editorial body with recipes and accompanying quotes from the purported author, who is usually some griddle Napoleon or oven Antoinette with a sufficiently high media profile to justify the printing costs. Unlike those efforts, this work isn’t eaten up with ego: there is no “I, me, my”; instead you find “we, us, and ours”. Any book of length written about food should mirror a time and place, and this work does all that in full. Alexe and Dixie set out to write about “the magical place where we have found ourselves” and “to give back to the people and community that has given us so much”, echoing a welcome spirit unheard in a very long time, a spirit of independence, enterprise and love.

Cookbooks of the Pros

These are the first responses received in a query to food professionals (chefs, cooks and restaurateurs) across the state about cookbooks that have inspired, informed and entertained them from their earliest years.

Dan Blumenthal: (BRAVO!) La Technique by Jacques Pepin—step by step intro to classic French cooking with many helpful photos; On Food and Cooking by Harold Magee-The Bible of food chemistry; just loaded with knowledge about food in general; The Classic Pasta Cookbook by Giuliano Hazan—Wonderful intro into the world of Italian pasta making

Taylor Bowen Ricketts: (Fan and Johnny’s) The River Cottage Cookbook by Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall because I love him and the way he cooks, my great-grandmother’s well-documented, preserved and used notebooks that somehow I was lucky enough to inherit, and the St. Stephens’ Episcopal chicks of Indianola, Ms. cookbook, Bayou Cuisine. Delta women are by far and away the best cooks and hostesses, more particular, demanding, and expecting of any women on earth, and rightly so; almost every one of us bitches can cook.

Alex Eaton: (The Manship) Donal Link – Real Cajun -This is a bad ass book that is spot-on with his recipes.  He really is teaching how to cook real Cajun food.  From boudin to fried oysters it’s my go to when cooking rustic Cajun food. Mike Solomonov – Zahav Cookbook– In the world of Middle Eastern cooking Arab chefs are so secretive; I once tried to learn how to plate hummus and the chef would not let me come back in the kitchen and watch.  This book is useful and extremely helpful with his techniques in the secretive cooking of Middle Eastern food. Hot and Hot Fish Club, Chris and Idie Hastings; I love this book not only because it goes season by season… but I actually worked here and was impressed that the cooks and prep cooks used the book for their work; often times chefs seem to just guess at these recipes and they never come out right.

Martha Foose: (Screen Doors and Sweet Tea) The Inverness Cookbook, The Time-Life Picture Cookbook, and The Better Homes & Gardens Look and Cook Book.

Dixie Grimes: (The B.T.C Old-Fashioned Grocery) These are in no particular order, as I adore all three equally. White Trash Cooking– Ernest Matthew Mickler. This book speaks to my very soul as a southerner from rural Mississippi. One has to understand that this is not a book mocking a poor class of people but a shout out to the most real and righteous cooking of the south. Recipes for Potato chip sandwich, Cooter Stew, 1-2-3-4 cake as well as or most importantly Fried Squirrel, Butt`s Gator Tail and Aunt Donnah`s roast possum.  It is all about necessity, using what you have, not what you want and making it taste good. Betty Crocker`s Picture Cook Book circa 1950. This book was geared towards the 1950`s house wife, a era of three martini lunches, church socials, afternoon bridge games and cocktail parties and the perfect Ozzie and Harriet housewife/mother who flawlessly executed them without so much as a wrinkle in her skirt; simple, yet elegant. The recipes consist of all things souffléd, scalloped, congealed and supremed. Canapes and sparkling punch with sherbet is what’s up.  As a chef I adore the nostalgia this book holds and the old school feel of classic recipes no longer in use like Pompano En Papillote and Seafood a la Newberg. The Joy Of Cooking: The title says it all, cooking can be fun and easy it does not have to be a chore or dreaded task. This is the book that I give to all young couples starting out and to anyone who says, “Hey, I would love to learn to make some basic dishes but just do not know where to start.” I consider this book a staple in my own kitchen. It pretty much has a recipe for ANYTHING one might want to cook as well as covering all basic techniques baking and cooking, i.e. roasting, boiling, braising, sautéing etc. It explains why things work the way that the do, like why butter needs to be cold for biscuits and pie crust or softened for cakes and frostings. Also included is a fantastic conversion chart for measurements which believe it or not I still use regularly, because like most chefs math is not my strong point.

Jesse Houston: (Saltine) Three cookbooks that had a large influence on my career are Momofuku, The Lee Brothers Southern Cookbook, and Under Pressure. I read them all cover to cover and absorbed as much of their knowledge as possible. I’ve cooked more recipes out of Momofuku than almost all of my many cookbooks combined. I was a kid right out of culinary school when it came out, and picked it up because I heard it was a fresh way of looking at food. In the opening pages they were dropping f bombs, and I knew this would be unlike anything I had read before. Being a Dallas native, Southern food wasn’t really easy to come by and I didn’t know much about it, but was about to relocate to the South to open a revolutionary Southern restaurant, Parlor Market. I read every word in the Lee brothers’ book, and I was able to get comfortable with ingredients I had never used before in my life. It should be considered a Southern cook’s bible. Under Pressure is a book all about advanced cooking techniques used in a modern kitchen, most noticeably sous vide. Although I don’t use sous vide much anymore, it taught me so much about modern cuisine. Currently I’m influenced by books from Noma and Rene Redzepi for their beautiful simplicity and natural approach. They use a lot of modern techniques as well, but hide them in ways that will surprise you, but also seem incredibly natural, as if it were found in nature that way.

Lou LaRose: (Lou’s Full-Serv) I can tell you that Larousse Gastronomique was the first book I ever got. My dad gave it to me back in the early 90’s. From there I was intrigued by lots of the recipes. Old school French was definitely a favorite of mine. I was also very fond of the early “great chefs” shows. I collected all of the books from San Francisco, New Orleans. Chicago etc. James Beard’s Beard on Bread was a hand me down from my grandmother, and I cooked many things from that as well.

Randy Yates: (formerly Ajax, now at large) The Joy of Cooking and the Jackson Junior League cookbook, Southern Sideboards, were always in our kitchen, as was the Baton Rouge, River Road Recipes, and I learned how to read from a book version of the song “On Top of Spaghetti”.