hile walking through a gift shop I noticed a magnet attached to a refrigerator door that read, “Nothing tastes as good as being lean feels.” I would venture to say that the creator of that magnet has never tried Benton’s bacon.
Granted, I haven’t been “lean” since the George H.W. Bush administration, but I still know how it feels. Trust me, I wouldn’t trade a bodybuilder’s figure for the past three decades of dining.
That led me to thinking about my eating career. Research and development is a big part of what I do. I eat and write about it. I eat and gain ideas and bring them back to the restaurants. I eat and, well you get the idea. I eat a lot.
The Chief Operations Officer in our company and I ate six lunches in New Orleans last week. He’s a skinny, fit fellow, I am not. We started at one restaurant around 11:00 a.m, and finished six hours later at our final destination, R&D complete. He and I once ate four separate four-course meals one night in Chicago. We finished the evening at Girl and the Goat and walked the three miles back to the hotel at 1:00 a.m. It’s the only thing that saved me from a world-class food hangover the next morning.
The magnet got me thinking about a career in the food business and how fortunate I have been to have done the things I’ve done, been to the places I’ve visited, eaten the foods I’ve eaten, met the friends I’ve made and lived a life much better than I deserve.
As I was looking over the past 30 years I started thinking about the places and meals I’ve experienced. I’m a list person and thought about ranking all of my food experiences, but that would be way too difficult, and might ruin the spirit of the past dining experiences. Someone once said the first thought is the one that counts, so instead of ranking meals in a numerical order, I decided to recall the meal I remember most.
All great food memories for me begin and end in my grandmother’s dining room on Fourth Avenue in Hattiesburg. Eunice Holleman St. John was a great cook and an excellent hostess. Her leg of lamb is a meal I still remember almost 50 years later. We ate in her formal dining room almost every Sunday after church. The menus alternated between roast beef, turkey and dressing (she liked Thanksgiving meals so much that she served the typical turkey and dressing meal all throughout the year), and leg of lamb with rice and gravy. On the fourth Sunday, she’d take us to the Hattiesburg Country Club buffet to use up her monthly minimum.
I could pick any meal served in my grandmother’s house and it would top any meal I’ve eaten anywhere. Seriously. The preparation and ingredients might be better at The French Laundry, the breads might be better in Paris, the scenery might be better in Tuscany, but I wouldn’t trade a decade’s worth of dining in my grandmother’s house for anything. Nothing.
My son and I spent a week eating breakfast on the roof of the Royal Olympic Hotel in Athens overlooking the Temple of Zeus and the Acropolis. Those were memorable breakfasts, but all I can think of now is that I’m sorry he never got the privilege of meeting his great-grandmother and was never fortunate enough to share a meal in her dining room. I regret that my daughter wasn’t able to ever meet her namesake and spend time in the grand home where so many of my childhood memories were forged.
I have my grandmother’s dining room table, the chairs, silver, china, crystal, and even the chandelier that hung above the table. I can cook a pretty good leg of lamb. Though I never will be able to recreate that moment in time for my children. It was more than the food. It was the people, the place, the time, and the food, all together in one moment in time that I will always remember. I wonder if my grandmother knew she was creating such indelible memories in her young grandson. Likely not. She was just doing what people did back then.
What I can do — and what I have tried to do throughout the years — is to create a new set of memories and experiences that will be meaningful to my children. My hope is that one day they end up sharing stories about meals they’ve shared with my wife and me, and that their kids will share similar memories about ding with them.
Sharing a meal is crucial to the healthy fabric of a family. It’s what I do. It’s what I love. It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to chew it.
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 father, husband, restauranteur, chef, author, columnist, world-class eater.