Saturday, February 27th, 2021

Shopper Client Stories


Personal stories and beloved recipes from Southern Cooking's Grande Dame

by Rob Lauer

Nathalie Dupree

Nathalie Dupree

Once there was a little girl who, feeling unnoticed and unwanted by her quarreling parents, decided to run away from home. She carefully prepared a lunch to sustain her on the journey ahead: a peanut butter sandwich (her favorite comfort food), a banana, some ginger snaps, and some Coke in her school thermos. Placing the meal in a brown paper bag, she left the house unnoticed. On the bicycle that her father had recently given to her, she pedaled off in the heat of the day toward the new life she imagined for herself. Her destination was a big house with white columns that she had often seen from the highway. She imagined a wealthy family lived there who would want a little girl like her. But as she pedaled up the hill and down the road, she realized that the house must have been farther away than she thought.

Pulling onto the dirt strip beside the road, she decided to eat her lunch. But the hot, dry peanut butter sandwich tasted like banana and stuck in her throat. The Coke was also hot, and her thermos had squashed the banana.

She began to doubt that the family in the big house would want her. Maybe they already had children. Toward the end of the day, the little girl returned home, hungry, tired, and broken in spirit. Her family hadn't even noticed she had gone. Her parents divorced soon afterward. As life went on, the girl discovered other foods that were as comforting to her as her beloved peanut butter sandwich. She came to realize that food could not only nurture but bring solace to herself and others.  When she grew up and moved to another country, she introduced the foods she loved to the people there.

That little girl was Nathalie Dupree- now internationally renowned as the Grande Dame of Charleston. The author of 14 cookbooks and the host of more than 300 cooking shows that have aired on PBS, Food Network, and The Learning Channel, she is best known for her approachability and her deep understanding of Southern Food. Her books New Southern Cooking and Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking (co-authored with Cynthia Graubart) are on Southern Living Magazine's list of the 100 best cookbooks of all-time. Nathalie's memory of her attempt to run away from home is one of the treasures that readers will discover in her newest book, Nathalie Dupree's Favorite Stories and Recipes.

"We timed this book to come out for my 80th birthday," Nathalie explains, speaking from the Charleston, South Carolina home that she shares with her husband- author and journalist, Jack Bass. "In it, I tell stories about foods and relationships, broken love affairs, my parents reuniting after years of divorce, and dinner parties I've given over the years."

Nathalie first experienced cooking for others while in college. Tasked with preparing meals for her dorm, she quickly discovered the priceless value of learning from mistakes made in the kitchen. When she confided in her mother her desire for a career in cooking, she was told, "Ladies don't cook."

Nathalie was undeterred. When her first husband, David Dupree, was transferred to London for work in the late 1960s, she set up a dessert business out of their flat. This gave her the experience she needed to gain entry at Le Cordon Bleu, where she earned a prestigious advanced diploma at age 30.

"It was while living in London and attending Le Cordon Bleu, that I realized how much I loved Southern food," Nathalie recalls. "I missed the depth of its flavors.  Except for curry dishes, well-seasoned foods were rare in London during the late 1960s and early 70s. I missed Southern home cooking, and I longed for grits. Of course, no one there had any idea what grits were."

"Southern cuisine is music at the table.
Its rhythms are those
of that region's seasons and people."
- Nathalie Dupree

At the time, the British had some notions about Food that Nathalie found odd. "I learned that, according to the British, one was not supposed to put gravy on mashed potatoes - something that I found completely incomprehensible," she says with a laugh. "I remember on one quiz we were given we had to complete the phrase, "As American as' Of course, I wrote, "As American as apple pie.' My grade was marked down because of that answer. The teacher thought of apple pie as being British. There's much in English cooking that is at the roots of American cooking. Maybe my teacher didn't realize that."

Nathalie graduated from Le Cordon Bleu, the only American in her advanced certificate class. It was at that time that she first met one of the institution's most famous graduates, Julia Child. "I didn't watch much television at the time," Nathalie explains, "so I didn't realize what an impact she was having on popular attitudes about cooking. When I asked her what she thought I should do, she told me to become a teacher."

Although Nathalie went on to work as a chef in Majorca, Spain, before moving to Social Circle, Georgia, in the early 1970s to open her own restaurant, she ended up following Child's advice. She became the first woman since Julia Child to host more than one hundred cooking episodes on PBS. Her first show, New Southern Cooking with Nathalie Dupree was followed by eight more series.

Nathalie has sometimes compared Southern cooking to another beloved creation of the region: Jazz. "Like Jazz, Southern cooking draws from multiple cultures," she says. "It's tied to geography. What's growing in the ground? What ingredients do the people have on hand? It grew out of improvisation. Southern cuisine is music at the table. Its rhythms are those of that region's seasons and people."

Whatever cuisine one may prefer, Nathalie firmly believes that everyone should learn how to cook.

"If someone loves to eat and doesn't know how to cook, sooner or later, they're going to realize that they are controlled by whoever is doing the cooking," she points out. "Food is a control issue- the most powerful control issue there is.  Look at world history. Rulers have controlled millions by controlling the food source. People are not truly in control of their lives until they control how they nurture themselves. Everyone should find at least one thing they can cook without thinking. There's a deep sense of satisfaction that comes from knowing you can feed yourself."

That's valuable advice for everyone- whether they're running away from home or staying right where they are.

Nathalie Dupree