st john

 Author’s Note: Portions of the following column are included in a foreword I wrote for the upcoming book, “Life Lessons for Our Grandchildren,” by Marilyn Tinnin. You’ll be able to find the book in all of usual places this fall.

My paternal grandmother, Eunice Holleman St. John, was the greatest influence in, and on, my life.

I have been a business owner for over 32 years and have worked in my chosen profession — the restaurant business — for almost 40 years. Over the decades, I have attended a dozens of business seminars and corporate conventions, where I have heard hundreds of speakers and experts shell out advice on what constitutes a successful life and career. I have met most of the titans in this industry and many in other fields. All of the words, from all of those specialists, in all of their fields, with all of their degrees, and all of the various letters, designations, and titles after their names pale in comparison to the lessons I learned from my grandmother in the first quarter century of my life.

Mam-Maw, as I called her, was an extremely intelligent, sweet, well-travelled, kind, compassionate, and caring Christian woman, who graduated as Valedictorian of her college, and spent a few years as a teacher before marrying my grandfather and becoming a full-time mother, dedicated church  member, and civic-minded citizen.

She was born in 1894, even before the Interbellum Generation. She never left her bedroom in the morning without being completely dressed for the day, looking as if she was ready to host a bridge club or garden party. She never failed to visit a friend in the hospital, and once— after experiencing a mild heart attack— drove herself to the beauty parlor to get her hair “done” before driving herself to the hospital. If you caught her on her birthday and wished her a happy birthday, she would always reply, “Well happy birthday to you, too” not wanting anyone to be left out.

My wanderlust came honestly. She loved to travel. My grandfather was a workaholic who only ventured out of town to watch the Chicago White Sox play baseball. However, he sent my grandmother all over the world, and she always came home with stories of other places and other people.

My grandmother was probably one of the most selfless, pure, and good-hearted people I have known— a perfect example of a gracious southern lady. If the doors of Main Street United Methodist Church were open, she was there, and active. Within an hour after the last note of the doxology was hit on the massive pipe organ of the Sunday service, she somehow had a full spread on her formal dining room table ready for family and friends to enjoy. It seemed so effortless to her, probably because it was done out of unadulterated, selfless love and devotion to her family and friends. Those Sunday meals I enjoyed as a child are still the gold standard for me, and probably had a lot to do with the profession I chose— the hospitality industry.

In addition to being a gracious hostess and a model citizen, she was wise. And the wisdom came— not only from her 96 years on the planet and her innate instincts and intelligence, but— from living a devout and principled life.

For years I thought the greatest gift my grandmother ever gave me was a love for food and entertaining. Over the past 20 years, readers of this column have read tens of thousands of words about the meals I enjoyed in her house. The passion for southern food, hosting, and entertaining that she instilled in me is greatly appreciated. I am thankful. Though, now a little older and slightly wiser, I realize that the greatest gift she ever gave me was the living lesson and practical example she set in her everyday life. Through living, not lectures, she showed me how to live a full, rich, and meaningful life, thinking of others more than herself. It is a high bar and I fail daily.

In my college years, and during the early years after opening my first restaurant, I lived in a detached garage apartment behind her house. The apartment had been built for an uncle who never moved back to town. It served as a storage warehouse until I fixed it up and set up camp for seven years beginning in 1984. I lived in that one-room garage apartment until I was 30-years old. I loved it, and wouldn’t have lived anywhere else, mainly because it was near my grandmother. She and I were able to spend a lot of time together— quality time— where she always gave me her complete and undivided attention.

Late at night, after the end of a long day working at the restaurant, I would drive down the alley to the garage behind her house. I could see her sitting in her chair in, what she called, “the sunroom,” watching television or reading the paper. Many nights I would go inside the house and visit with her. We would spend 20-30 minutes talking about what each other had done during our day, or of family history. Then I would kiss her goodnight, excuse myself, and go out to the garage apartment. She loved those chats. I loved those chats. And I suspect she stayed up later than she wanted each night hoping I would come into the house for a visit.

Many nights I was tired after a rough day of kitchen work and didn’t feel like a lengthy visit. Those nights I would go straight up to my garage apartment. Sometimes, feeling slightly guilty, I would peek through the blinds of my apartment across the driveway and into the sunroom to see if she was still sitting in her chair, waiting on me. She always was. Always. She would usually give it 15 minutes or so after she saw my car pull up to see if I was going to come inside for a visit, and then when I hadn’t, she would turn off the light and go to bed.

As I sit here and write this today— almost three decades later— I can easily say that not going back inside of that house every single night to spend time with my grandmother every chance I had is my main life regret. Period. End of story. Nothing else even comes close in the regret category. It’s not the girl that got away, or the business deal that never happened, or the money I lost on an investment. No. My number-one greatest regret is not spending more time with my grandmother when I had the chance. There is nothing more permanent than lost time with departed loved ones. I would give anything I own for one more 30-minute visit.

If you are still blessed with living relatives, take the time, make the time. It’s been my experience that you’ll be a better person for it.


Bridal Pudding

My grandmother used to bring this dish to people she visited.

2 envelopes Gelatin

1/2 cup Cold water

1/3 cup Boiling water

6 egg whites

1/4 tsp Salt

3/4 cup Sugar

1 1/2 cups Heavy cream

1 tsp Vanilla

1 cup Flaked coconut

Soften gelatin in cold water.  Pour in boiling water and stir to dissolve.

Beat whites stiff, add salt and gradually beat in sugar. Fold gelatin into whites.

In a separate mixing bowl, whip cream stiff and add vanilla. Fold cream into whites (don’t stir). Rub bottom and sides of spring form pan (or glass bowl) with butter. Sprinkle bottom of bowl with 1 /2 cup coconut and pour in cream mixture. Top with remaining coconut and chill four hours or overnight. Unmold and serve with custard sauce and sweetened strawberries.

Custard Sauce

3 cups Milk

6 Egg yolks, beaten to lemon colored

1/2 cup Sugar, add gradually along with 1/8 tsp salt

Scald milk. Pour scalded milk into a double boiler. Add eggs and sugar, stirring constantly (do not boil), until thickened. Strain and cool. Add 1 tsp vanilla and almond. Chill thoroughly. Beat sauce with egg beater.

ROBERT ST. JOHN  is a father, husband, restauranteur, chef, author, columnist, world-class eater.


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