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  • MANNY CRISOSTOMO / mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

    Test cook Melody Elliott-Koontz of Sacramento looks over a recipe for Charleston seafood gumbo in "Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking" by Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart.

  • MANNY CRISOSTOMO / mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

    Melody Elliott-Koontz tested 60 recipes, including this one for Charleston seafood gumbo, for "Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking." She was also instrumental in getting cookbook co-authors Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart to visit Sacramento.

Local cook's unlikely recipe for friendship with Southern chef Nathalie Dupree

Published: Tuesday, Mar. 26, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1D
Last Modified: Tuesday, Mar. 26, 2013 - 12:04 pm

To cooks throughout America, Nathalie Dupree is the grand dame of Southern cuisine. Nicknamed the "Julia Child of the South," the longtime teacher, TV host and author of a dozen cookbooks has fans worldwide who love her down-home approach to favorite foods.

An old-school cook with a New South perspective, the 73-year-old author embraced the Internet as a way to keep in touch with her fans.

So when Dupree recently needed a big favor – people to test recipes for a new book – she turned to Facebook. And that social media link brings Dupree and co-author Cynthia Graubart to Sacramento next week for two special appearances, celebrating their opus "Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking."

"I love Facebook and my Facebook friends," said Dupree by phone from her home in Charleston, S.C. "I'm very grateful and fortunate Facebook came about. It gave me a whole new way of reaching people all across the U.S. to test a book."

Although they've never met in person, Melody Elliott-Koontz of Sacramento is one of Dupree's 5,000-plus "friends." That Facebook connection put Elliott-Koontz, a 60-year-old health care professional and cook, in the midst of a masterpiece, testing recipes before publication. She also was instrumental in bringing the authors to Sacramento.

"It's surreal," Elliott-Koontz recalled while sitting in her kitchen over a plate of gumbo. "I was honored to be part of the process. The book was a huge undertaking for a great many people. It takes a village to write a cookbook."

Particularly this book, which was recently named a finalist for the 2012 James Beard Award for best American cookbook. At 722 pages, "Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking" (Gibbs Smith, $45) weighs more than 6 pounds and contains 750 recipes plus 650 variations.

Said Dupree, "We wanted to create something home cooks could use – if they could lift it."

"It was a big baby," Graubart said. "I'll never write a book this big again. I pulled my shoulder out while angling out a box (of them); it weighed 40 pounds."

The project started in 2007 with "a simple idea, but like rabbits, it kept growing and multiplying," said Dupree, who has taught Southern cuisine since 1970. "It took us five times as long as we thought it would."

First, they had to define: What is Southern cooking?

"This region covers an area bigger than France and Italy put together," Dupree said. "This book could easily be twice as big when you consider all the distinct cuisines (from different states). Yet, people think of (Southern cooking) as just one cuisine."

The biggest myths?

"That it's all fried chicken," Dupree said.

"People think Southern cooking is unhealthy," Graubart added. "But it's not. Our largest chapter is devoted to vegetables."

Combining history with their own expertise, the authors tried to find the common threads that hold Southern cooking together while teaching the basic skills that many home cooks may not have learned firsthand.

"Take biscuits and gravy," said Dupree. "Everyone has a variation. But you can't teach biscuits and gravy without teaching béchamel sauce."

And biscuits? After compiling 32 different recipes, the co-authors broke them out into a separate cookbook (called, of course, "Southern Biscuits").

Southern cooking is a true melting pot; Scottish, British, Spanish, Irish, French, German, American Indian and African cuisines all influence its taste. Ingredients vary by region, but rely heavily on vegetables and flavorful meats.

"We wanted to connect the dots," Graubart said, "so people could find their own connections."

Dupree and Graubart have worked together for 25 years. Graubart served as producer for Dupree's popular PBS series, "New Southern Cooking With Nathalie Dupree."

For their new book, both co-authors tested the recipes themselves, then asked interns and apprentice chefs to test them again.

Then Dupree called for volunteers on Facebook for one more round of testing and proofreading. About 60 people answered the call to test without pay. (A planned acknowledgment to them in the book was inadvertently left out.)

Elliott-Koontz, who grew up in Montana and Wyoming, was among that volunteer army of home cooks. An avid blogger, Elliott-Koontz had chronicled her own discovery of her Jewish heritage and cuisine online through "Cooking, Schmooking … No Problem" (http:cookingschmooking. blogspot.com).

The daughter of a Texas oil worker, Elliott-Koontz acquired a fondness for Southern cooking via relatives.

"I was looking for a new project," she said. "I watched Nathalie on TV for years – I thought she was a hoot. So, I applied and was accepted."

That started a nearly two-year process of testing and tinkering.

"We could choose whatever recipes we'd like to test," said Elliott-Koontz, who worked on more than 60.

After each recipe, the testers answered questionnaires that picked apart the ingredients and directions.

"My favorite question: 'How did you know when a recipe was done?' " she recalled. "That seems so simple, but it's not. But that's the attention to detail in this book. They really wanted to make it work for everybody."

Elliott-Koontz challenged the authors on ingredients and suggested her own substitutions. For example, for "fish in a pouch," pompano isn't readily available in Sacramento, but halibut works well as an alternative.

Dupree and Graubart loved the effort and the results.

"Melody really knocked herself out for us," Dupree said. "We're thrilled by what she's done."

Said Graubart, "Our testers were absolutely fabulous. People think, 'I'd love to be a recipe tester.' But it's a discipline that not everybody is cut out to do. Reading and following directions exactly can be extremely difficult. People don't give enough credit to that skill."

Elliott-Koontz fell for several recipes she tested, including the Charleston seafood gumbo.

"There are so many great ones," she said before reciting several examples. "Pecan-crusted mahi mahi, beignets, hush puppies with okra, skillet-cooked sweet potatoes, lime and beer short ribs, zucchini goat cheese tart, squash casserole – they're all so good.

"Many don't sound Southern," she added. "But that's part of what makes this book so wonderful. It shows the many aspects of Southern cooking and why it's the mother of American cuisine."

After the cookbook debuted in November, Elliott-Koontz saw the authors' online schedule for a spring book tour. They were coming to California in April. Why not visit Sacramento?

So, the local tester suggested a Sacramento swing. After several phone calls and emails, the details were confirmed. Dupree and Graubart will make appearances at American River College and The Porch restaurant.

"I'm really excited," said Elliott-Koontz, who will serve as a hostess during their visit. "I've learned so much through this whole process. I might try to write some recipes myself."


Meet Southern masters

Authors Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart will meet their fans in the Sacramento area and talk about their new book, "Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking." Books will be available for sale at both locations.

Where:Oak Cafe (Room 506), American River College, 4700 College Oak Blvd., Sacramento

When: 11:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. April 3

Details: (916) 484-8526

Highlight: The cafe will offer two seatings for a special lunch featuring Dupree's recipes; call for reservations. At 3 p.m., Dupree and Graubart will demonstrate biscuit making and answer questions in the culinary lab (Room 505) during a free presentation.

Where: The Porch, 1815 K St., Sacramento

When: 11:30 a.m. April 5

Details: www.theporchsacramento.com, (916) 444-2423

Highlight: In addition to hosting a book signing with the authors, The Porch will offer a special lunch featuring recipes from "Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking"; call for reservations.

Recipe: Charleston seafood gumbo


Slideshow: Local cook answers the call

Call The Bee's Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Debbie Arrington



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