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Southern Cooking with New Friends

“I live in Ohio and I’ll be traveling through Tupelo tomorrow on my way to the Baton Rouge area and I’m interested in doing a Southern cooking class.”  

I’m standing in the concert hall in the Gertrude Ford Complex on Millsaps College Campus, right after my daughter’s orchestra performance.  I’ve just answered a call from an unknown number from someone wanting to know if Cooking as a First Language is a cooking school.  I explain that no, it is a nonprofit organization and that I coordinate public cooking classes in my home. 

The voice on the phone belongs to Jennifer Freshwater and she’s telling me that when she travels, she wants a local experience. To her that means staying at Airbnbs in local neighborhoods, getting a library card if she's in a place for an extended period of time, and of course, making sure to try the local flavors and learning how to recreate that experience once she's back at home. Basically, she's speaking my travel language!  So I tell her that since there is no public cooking class scheduled for that time, I can pull something private together for her. 

As I thought about which Southern recipes I would want to share with someone from a different place, I couldn’t help but land on Poppyseed Chicken.  It is just my family’s ultimate comfort food. It is a dish that I take to people who don’t feel well or who are going through something hard.  It is welcoming and homey and good for weary travelers who have been in the car all day.  Seven Layer Salad is another perfectly Southern recipe that you would find at pretty much any deep South church potluck.  I also wanted to make sure they experienced fried okra.  My mom makes gorgeous dinner rolls and she made some to contribute. 

If I've learned one thing from coordinating almost a hundred cooking classes (seriously about to hit our 100th event!...more info on that to come in the near future!), it's that you always provide appetizers or snacks immediately upon arrival! People come hungry and you have to give them something to munch while learning new recipes. So what do you do for deep South apps?... deviled eggs, pepper jelly over cream cheese and crackers and a cheese ball! I didn't say this was a healthy cooking class. Ha!

I invited my friends, Tim, Shelia and Leslie to participate in the fun and to help show these ladies a lovely Southern experience.  Jennifer, her business partner Jenny and her daughter, Sarah arrived shortly after, looking ready for a break from the long car ride.  We all washed our hands, rolled up our sleeves and prepared the meal together…as always happens in Cooking as a First Language cooking classes.  

Our conversation over cooking was so interesting.  Our new friends from Ohio, run a custom vestment making business.  If you don't know what a vestment is, it is a ceremonial robe worn by clergy and is usually very elaborate. They were passing through Tupelo on their way to Immaculate Heart Convent in St. Gabriel, Louisiana to take a sewing class from Sister Mary John.  They shared some pictures of their past work with us and it was nothing short of amazing! The name of their sewing business is Serendipity By Sarah and you can contact them at

A Priest's vestment made by Serendipity by Sarah

The magic of the joint effort of creating and sharing a meal, is the way it fosters familiarity and camaraderie among any group of people. Though Tim, Shelia, Leslie and I had only just met these talented ladies from Ohio, we were old friends by the time we cooked and then sat down and ate a meal together. I've been asked before, what's the point of Cooking as a First Language? This and every experience I ever have with CFL classes is the reason I have the drive to do what I do. I'll always seek to break down the barriers that separate us from others and create community over something we all!!

Poppyseed Chicken

3 large chicken breasts (slow cooked in the crock pot all day with salt, pepper and a cup of chicken broth)

2 (8 oz) cans Cream of Chicken Soup

2 cups sour cream

2 sleeves Ritz Crackers

1/4 cup melted butter

2 Tbsp poppyseeds

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

  2. Shred the chicken in a large bowl and add the cream of chicken soup and sour cream and stir well.

  3. Spread mixture into a greased baking dish.

  4. In a ziploc bag, crush the crackers. Pour in the melted butter and shake to coat the crumbs in the butter.

  5. Spread the cracker crumbs evenly over the chicken mixture and sprinkle on the poppyseeds.

  6. Bake for 30-45 minutes...until heated through and starting to bubble.

  7. Serve warm (over rice if desired).

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