Fourth of July Grilling

T & G July 2015Town & Gown Magazine
July 2015
Recipes and photos

Sample recipe below. Click here for e-edition.

 

 

 

 

Pepper Jack Stuffed Burgers with Bourbon Caramelized Onions

For the burgers:

  • 2 pounds ground beef
  • ½ cup grated Pepper Jacks cheese
  • Salt and pepper to taste

For the bourbon caramelized onions:

  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • Half a medium onion, very thinly sliced
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon granulated sugar
  • ¼ cup bourbon
  • 1 teaspoon spicy brown mustard
  • ½ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

For the burgers:

Divide the burger meat into eight equal portions.

Form a patty from each portion, about four inches in diameter and about ½ inch thick.

Sprinkle about 2 tablespoons of grated cheese in the middle of four patties, leaving about ¼ margin around the outside.

Place one of the remaining four patties on top of a patty with cheese. Gently press the meat together so that it forms a single patty.

Preheat a gas or charcoal grill. Grill burger for approximately 15 minutes, flipping about halfway through, until burger reaches desired doneness.

Top with bourbon carmelized onions.

For the caramelized onions:

In a medium skillet, heat butter over medium high heat. Add the onions, reduce heat to medium, and sauté until they begin to soften, about 10 minutes.

Add the salt and sugar and continue to sauté for an additional 5-10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Slowly pour in the bourbon and add the mustard and Worcestershire sauce. Cover skillet, reduce heat to low, and allow to simmer for an additional 10-15 minutes.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Breakfast

 

T & G June 2015Town & Gown Magazine
June 2015
Recipes and photos

Sample recipe below. Click here for e-edition.

 

 

 

 

Spinach, Mushroom, and Feta Frittata

  • ½ tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 8 ounces button mushrooms, rinsed, sliced
  • ½ teaspoon minced garlic
  • 1 (10 oz.) box frozen spinach, thawed, drained
  • 4 large eggs
  • ¼ cup grated parmesan
  • ½ cup shredded mozzarella
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 ounces feta cheese
  • Salt & pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Melt butter in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the mushrooms and sauté for about 5-7 minutes until soft and most of their liquid has drained off. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

Spread the spinach into an even layer onto the bottom of a prepared pie plate. Top with the cooked mushrooms and the feta cheese.

Whisk the eggs together to break the yolks. Add milk, parmesan, and salt and pepper. Pour egg mixture over mushrooms and spinach. Top with shredded mozzarella.

Bake for approximately 45 minutes until the center is set and the cheese is melted and golden brown.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Jewel Fits for Chuck Cooper

Our Mississippi April May 2015ourMississippi Magazine
April / May 2015
Online version of  this article here.

Chuck Cooper’s jewelry career began with candy.

While most ten-year-olds are reading comic books or collecting baseball cards, the owner of Van Atkins Jewelry in New Albany was operating a successful candy business out of his family’s department store.

“There wasn’t a candy store anywhere around back then,” recalls Cooper. “I bought candy bars from a wholesaler and took them back to our store. People from other businesses would come in to the store and buy candy from me. I made about $100 a month by doing that.”

The Van Atkins name is one that is very familiar in Holly Springs, Oxford, and the surrounding areas. Cooper’s family opened the first Van Atkins department store in Mississippi 1959. The original Van Atkins store in Walnut Ridge, AR, had already been in operation for 10 years. In addition to selling candy, Cooper worked in the men’s clothing department throughout his childhood and well into college.

It was obvious, even from a young age, that Cooper had an eye for opportunity. In 1980, during his freshman year of college, he made a decision that would forever shape his future. He took some of his candy profits and essentially started the store’s jewelry department with $1200 worth of gold chains. Once the chains sold, Cooper took the profits and purchased more.

“We had a huge old cash register in the store back then,” Cooper says. “The bottom drawer in the register was mine. Whenever someone sold a gold chain, they put the money in the bottom drawer.”

At one point, Cooper thought he might go into the medical field. He even majored in pre-med at Ole Miss. But shortly after selling his first diamond, he realized where his true calling lay. He frequently sold jewelry to Ole Miss faculty and staff, even helped a few fellow students pick out diamonds for engagement rings. As soon as he graduated college in 1985, he established an official jewelry department within the Van Atkins store.

For five years, Van Atkins’s inventory consisted mostly of moderately priced jewelry. That is, until Cooper had a chance meeting with a wholesaler that specialized in estate jewelry. He presented Cooper with an ornate platinum ring and suggested Cooper add the ring to his collection.

Reveals Cooper, “I was very hesitant. It was beautiful, but it was more expensive than anything else we sold. I didn’t think anyone would buy it. But the guy told me, ‘Give it a try. If it doesn’t sell, I’ll buy it back.”

The ring did sell ¾ quickly. Seeing yet another opportunity to expand his business, he invested in more antique jewelry. Most of the estate jewelry Cooper purchases today is between 50 and100 years old. Sometimes the jewelry is in need of repair, but Cooper is passionate about refurbishing each item and returning it to the show stopping piece of jewelry it once was.

“Antique jewelry is a lot like an old house,” he says. “Sure, it’s cheaper to build a new house. But once you restore an old house, there is nothing like it. They don’t make jewelry like that anymore and there are people out there that appreciate that.”

Today, Van-Atkins has evolved from department store to solely jewelry. It is known across the South as one of top estate jewelers, with clients coming in from as far away as Nashville. Van Atkins has even seen their share of celebrity clients, but as a true business professional, Cooper says he doesn’t give out any names.

Family still remains the cornerstone of the business. Cooper’s wife Rhonda, in addition to three of the couple’s four sons and their daughter-in-law all work at the store. Two of the Cooper’s sons, Van and Ray, both have degrees in gemology from Gemological Institute of America (GIA) in Carlsbad, CA. Van is currently studying jewelry design at GIA, while Ray is a skilled hand engraver.

In November 2014, Van Atkins moved from its home since 2001 ¾ the former Bank of New Albany building ¾ to a completely renovated location that used to house a hardware store in its heyday. According to Cooper, the new store provides three times the space, but still possesses the charm that they are known for.

As for the future, Cooper says he is going on focus on, “making this the best jewelry store in Mississippi. Our selection is what makes us competitive, even with bigger jewelry stores like in Memphis. But it’s our great employees that have made us so successful. They really care about the people who come in to our store and know how important the buying process is.”

Best Face Forward

Beauty 2015 SupplementMississippi Magazine
BEAUTY Supplement
Spring 2015

During the height of mid-winter, when the weather outside is truly at its most frightful, our natural instinct is to bundle up, cover up, and hibernate until spring once again comes gently knocking at our door. However, when the time comes to emerge from hiding, our skin doesn’t look quite as lovely as the flowers blooming in the garden.

There are numerous options available to prepare yourself for spring. After battling chapped, dry skin all winter long, a facial might be just the ticket to greet spring head on. Facials have come a long way from a mud mask and a couple cucumber slices. New treatments are being created everyday that can now clarify, remove toxins, smooth fine lines, improve texture – the list goes on. With all the options available, what are some of the most effective treatments?

Hollywood has pushed both oxygen facials and HydraFacials™ to the forefront of today’s beauty buzz. If you have never had one, or contemplating getting one, you may be wondering what all the hype is about. Unlike a normal facial, which is geared towards providing a relaxing experience in addition to cleansing the skin, these cosmetic facials are performed to achieve a specific goal utilizing products that provide a much more dramatic result than a normal facial.

If fine lines and wrinkles are your main concern, it may be worth giving an oxygen facial a try. True its name, oxygen facials use a stream of pure pressurized oxygen to push nutrients deep into the skin.

“We use oxygen in a different way, but oxygen is actually not the star of the show. It’s hyaluronic acid,” explains Deirdre Burke, director of sales at Intraceuticals, the company that that first introduced the technique and continues to lead in the oxygen facial market. “Hyaluronic acid is a lubricant that occurs naturally within the body. As we age, stress, pollution, and lifestyle factors deplete the amount of hyaluronic acid in our body. We apply different weights of hyaluronic acid directly onto the skin. The oxygen is used as a method of application. Once applied, it’s like a huge drink of water for the skin.”

The facial is completely customizable to provide each person with the most effective treatment. An aesthetician will start by asking a series of questions in order to evaluate the skin. Once the problem areas and objectives are determined, the skin is then cleaned and prepped. The aesthetician uses a small wand called an airbrush to deliver bursts of pressurized oxygen onto the skin. One can also elect to have a customized combination of serums containing anti-aging ingredients, vitamins, and moisturizers applied. The bursts of oxygen help push the serums into the skin at a deeper level than simply applying them topically.

How is this beneficial? First, many ingredients found in over-the-counter anti-aging creams contain molecules too large to effectively penetrate the skin and create a dramatic difference. The serums apply these exact same ingredients at a lower molecular weight. When combined with increased pressure, they are better able to penetrate the skin and increase their effectiveness.

During the procedure, which can take anywhere from 30-60 minutes, most people describe the sensation similar to a mini pressure washer applying cool air to the face. The results have been compared to that of Botox, only not as dramatic — smoother, more supple skin and an improvement in fine lines and wrinkles.

“People notice the results immediately,” adds Burke. “They notice a minimization in fine lines and wrinkles, a freshness around the eye area, lips look more plump, facial contours are enhanced. It provides the best version of yourself.”

HydraFacials™ are targeted towards individuals that desire a deep cleansing. The procedure uses a combination of microdermabrasion, chemical peel, automated extractions, and a final application of antioxidants to resurface and renew the skin. The entire procedure is conducted using the 4-in-1 Vortex Technology™ tool.

“We are a multi-benefit treatment,” says Ellen Markus, director of marketing for Edge Systems LLC, the developer of the HydraFacial™. “That’s what sets us apart from other facials on the market. The vortex tool provides greater control during application, which allows you to achieve the maximum benefit.”

The HydraFacial™ procedure is effective on most skin types, including ethnic, dry, or oily. First, skin is prepped by cleansing and exfoliating to open the pores. A light chemical peel is then applied to loosen impurities. Once the peel is removed, the vortex suction tool – which acts just like a mini vacuum for the face – extracts dead skin and bacteria from the pores. Finally, antioxidants are applied via the vortex infusion tool.

Says Markus, “The gentle suction during the extraction process opens pores, allowing the skin to be more receptive when the serum is applied during the last step. The serum contains a mixture of antioxidents, peptides, and hyaluronic acid.”

As with oxygen facials, HydraFacials™ offer a wide variety of serums that can be combined to provide a completely customized facial experience. Depending on the skin type and needs of the patient, HydraFacials™ can improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, clear congested pores, treat hyper-pigmentation, promote cell renewal, and treat acne-prone skin. Some people with sensitive skin may experience mild discomfort during the chemical peel application, but typically the entire procedure is relatively pain free. Results usually last 5-7 days.

“We don’t just focus on short-term aesthetics. We really strive to restore skin to a healthy state, which is key to long-term skin health. Once your skin is healthy, you will find that you don’t need as much maintenance down the road when you get older.”

Most aestheticians recommend either of these treatments monthly to receive the maximum benefit and see sustained results. However, if monthly facials aren’t in your budget, they are a great option when prepping for a special occasion.

It’s time to break free from the winter doldrums and embrace spring head on. By treating yourself to one of these cutting-edge facials, your outward appearance is sure to match the season.

Houses Change; Memories Never Fade

390_thumb_1

Mississippi Magazine
Home & Garden Insert
March/April 2015

While growing up in Jackson, James Blackwood always admired the stately houses in Eastover. His goal was to one day call one of these residences home.

“The neighborhood was my first priority,” Blackwood explains. “With all the old trees and the history of the houses, it’s the most beautiful neighborhood. Second priority was finding a house with good bones.”

Finding his dream home wasn’t easy. In fact, it took almost two years before an opportunity arose. Westerfield’s realtor, Shari Lackey called him one day and instructed him to meet her on Lake Circle Drive immediately. A home had just been listed and they would have to act fast.

Blackwood immediately fell in love with the floor plan and large rooms within 3,200 square foot ranch-style home, which was constructed in 1959. An avid gardener, he was also able to see potential in the home’s backyard and surrounding property.

Upon acquiring the home, Blackwood planned a series of renovations to turn the mid-century house into his own. However, at closing, the adult children of the former homeowners, Mr. B. E. “Corky” Grantham, Jr., and his wife Sarah, made a special request. The Grantham children shared many fond memories of growing up in the house on Lake Circle Drive. Their daughter Sally requested to tour the home once renovations were complete.

“This [request] really touched me in a special way,” Blackwood reveals.  “Having spent my entire childhood in the house my parents built and still live in, I often wonder what will become of that house one day.  With all the memories of my childhood, I want that special house to always exist. This inspired me to create a remodeled house that will stand the test of time, with hopes that my childhood home will one day be updated as well for another generation to create their own memories.”

The house has approximately 12 rooms, including a formal living and dining room immediately off the foyer, in addition to a den that leads into the kitchen. Blackwood enlisted the help of Kim Inzinna to coordinate the design elements of the project. Turns out, Inzinna already had a connection to the home. As a young designer, Inzinna was the was the protege of designer Jim Westerfield, who oversaw the house’s partial renovation in the 1970’s.

The home already featured several classic Westerfield details, such as signature molding, eye-catching wallpaper, and black and white marble flooring in the foyer. It was these details that Blackwood and Inzinna decided to incorporate into the overall design. Drawing on her experiences while working with Westerfield, Inzinna was able to create a plan that complemented his updates while creating a fresh and modern feel.

Blackwood selected Mack Chunn of Structural Solutions to oversee construction. The team immediately began working on the layout of the sitting room and kitchen. Because the kitchen had been given a facelift recently, no major changes were planned other than removing the wall that divided the kitchen from the sitting room and replacing it with a bar area, creating an open floor plan perfect for entertaining guests. A half bathroom and laundry room was also added.

Inzinna opted to open up the den by removing the original slanted ceiling and replacing it with an arched pickle-pine barrel roll ceiling. The painted cypress paneling was removed while the original brick floors were replaced with rustic, antique heart-of-pine floors.

One of the focal points of the room was the large brick fireplace and hearth. This was also given a facelift by adding stacked black granite stones over the existing brick, which coordinates with the black granite countertop used in the bar. Floor-to-ceiling windows were added, in addition to raising all the door casings, to let in additional light and create more height.

Elizabeth Gullett, interior designer for Summer House, was recruited to provide the decorative touches needed to complete the newly renovated den. Because Blackwood enjoys entertaining, it needed to have ample seating for guests. However, the large scale of the space also made functionality a challenge. Gullett solved this dilemma by dividing the room into sections and creating multiple seating areas.

In the center of the room, four deep, white armchairs are centered around a large white leather ottoman. A brindle cowhide rug layered over a large sisal and wool area rug sets the space apart while providing dimension and texture.

“Doing a group of four chairs in a room rather than a sofa is unexpected,” explains Gullett. “However, it allows guests to move around the room more freely.”

The armchairs are accented with kelly green velvet pillows, which tie into  two tufted, olive green, benches situated along the far wall of the den. A pair of striking, 40 x 60” black and white paintings done in the style of Franz Kline, combined with oversized wall sconces, brings the large wall down to scale. The most interesting element of the room is the carved wood and marble table created by New Orleans-based designer Tara Shaw. The table, which took almost a year to procure, combines both Baroque and French elements.

Finally, the huge oversized chandelier that hangs from the arched ceiling adds drama to the design and complements the gold in the wall sconces and the Tara Shaw table.

Once the den was complete, Blackwood still had two large rooms – the formal living room and dining room – to tackle. These are the first rooms a visitor sees upon entering the house, so they both had to have a major wow factor. Blackwood decided to incorporate a French-Old World theme into the design and approached designer Matt Nicholas to create the look Blackwell hoped to achieve.

The final phase of the renovation was updating the exterior. The entire house was repainted and the original red brick steps were overlaid with Pennsylvania Blue Stone. However, Blackwell’s most important project was installing a courtyard and open-air shower.

Blackwell dreamed of having an open-air shower after vacationing in both Cabo and Lake Michigan. Landscape architect Rick Griffin was consulted on the design, while contractor Monty Montgomery and Wright Plumbing headed up implementation and construction. Other outdoor elements include the addition of a deck and parterre garden.

During the nine-month renovation process, Blackwood never forgot the request made by the Grantham’s daughter Sally. During the renovation process, Sally was invited to tour the home she grew up in.

“It was one of the special moments during the renovation,” Blackwood adds. “I was so pleased to see her reactions to the updates that were being made. Once, while in the attic, I found an old invitation inviting Sally to an after-prom breakfast. I think the time frame was the mid-1970’s. As a reminder of the history in the house, I placed the invitation on the bedside table in the room that was once Sally’ childhood bedroom.”

Debra McGee: Thinking of Others is Key to Success

Our Mississippi Winter 2014ourMississippi
Winter 2014
View article here.

When Debra McGee, senior vice president and director of minority business development at BankPlus, is asked about the key to her successful career in banking, she humbly replies, “It’s not all about me.”

“Doing things for others, that is what’s important,” she goes on to say. “It’s the little things that make our communities and our state a better place.”

It’s that philosophy that drew McGee to BankPlus almost 15 years ago. Born and raised in the Palmer’s Creek community of Hattiesburg, McGee attended Petal High School and later received a degree in Business Administration from William Carey. After college, she intended to follow some friends out to Texas to get a job in the oil industry, but looking back she says she realizes God had other plans.

McGee’s first job after college was as a teller with Citizen’s Bank in Hattiesburg, now Trustmark. Through hard work and determination, she continued to grow with Citizen’s, eventually transferring to a branch in Jackson. After an impressive 18 year career, McGee was approached by BankPlus to manage their Adkins Boulevard branch, which was being constructed. At the time, McGee says BankPlus was still a small institution diligently expanding into other markets.

“BankPlus had that small, community bank feel,” she explains. “They were all about providing customer service, no matter what walk of life you came from. It is a great place to work. They believe in giving back and making a difference. It’s like a breath of fresh air in that we are not just a name.”

Shortly after becoming manager of the Adkins location, Nissan North American announced they were building an assembly plant in Canton. McGee was asked to work with the management team at Nissan to establish BankPlus as its bank of choice. She eventually formed long-standing friendships with members of Nissan’s management team, which lead to McGee’s appointment as Nissan project manager. Her key role – establish a full-service BankPlus branch within the plant.

Says McGee, “It was different than what I was used to because we had never opened a branch inside a manufacturing facility.  I had to oversee building the bank, hiring staff, and making sure the branch was able to service all the plant’s employees.”

The venture turned out to be a success. Later, BankPlus approached McGee about working with Jackson State University to establish the same type of relationship she had forged with Nissan. Together, BankPlus and JSU have developed a unified alliance that brought banking services to the campus in addition to a $1 million endowment to the School of Business to establish an accounting professorship. At the bank’s Dalton Street branch, located adjacent from the University, McGee oversees small business development for individuals and minorities in addition to financial literacy classes and mentoring for students.

In addition to business development, McGee is responsible for bringing new banking products to the market for BankPlus customers. She is particularly passionate about finding ways to teach people how to help themselves and become more financially savvy. One program McGee helped to establish is the CreditPlus program, which teaches participants how to make wise financial decisions through seminars and products that assist with establishing good savings habits and effective credit management.

“I really enjoy my job,” McGee adds. “I am a people person and I like taking part in providing resources that allow people to help themselves.”

Pastry Queens

Ms MAg Jan 2015Mississippi Magazine
January /February 2015

The sun won’t be up for at least another three or four hours when Alejandra Sprouts arrives for work. The head pastry chef and co-proprietor at the newly-opened La Brioche patisserie in Jackson unlocks the doors to her 1200 square foot kitchen in basement of Fondren Corners around 3:30 a.m. By the time the horizon turns pink from the first hints of a sunrise, Sprouts is pulling her first round of breakfast pastries from a stainless steel commercial oven. The pastries quickly make their way upstairs to the bakery storefront, where a few early bird customers are waiting to get their worm – or in this case, a freshly baked, from-scratch croissant still warm from the oven. It’s an experience that, until recently, most Jacksonians never had the opportunity to experience.

La Brioche is the brainchild of Sprouts and her sister Cristina Lazzari. Originally from Argentina, the girls arrived in the United States as preteens, but have since traveled and lived all over the world. They came to Mississippi to help their parents establish a farm that would later become the first certified organic farm in the state.

In 2010, a tornado destroyed the farm’s greenhouse. What might seem like a devastating event to most became the opportunity Sprouts needed to pursue a different dream. She decided to attend L’Art de la Patisserie program at the French Pastry School in Chicago, Ill. There she learned the fine art of making pastries under the direction of renowned chefs Jacquy Pfeiffer and Sébastien Canonne, M.O.F.

“The minute I stepped into the school, I said to myself, ‘Yes, this is what I want to be doing,’” recalls Sprouts.

Sprouts completed a six months internship at the school and gained experience through jobs at various hotels, restaurants and bakeries in Chicago.

“It was extremely hard, but I worked with some amazing chefs and the lessons I learned were invaluable,” she adds.

Sprouts left the Windy City in 2013 to rejoin her sister in Mississippi with the hopes of launching a new business venture.

“I like coffee and Alejandra has always liked sugar and pastries,” Larazzi explains. “We knew if we ever went into business together, it needed to be something focused around that.”

The sisters started with a 900 square foot commercial kitchen space on Highway 80 in Jackson. They sold their confections at the Mississippi Farmer’s Market on High Street, eventually landing a few commercial accounts including Sneaky Beans coffee and Whole Foods.

Adds Larazzi, “The business grew much faster than we expected. We always sold out at the farmer’s market and people were constantly asking us where our store was.”

The sisters looked at several storefronts around the Jackson area before fellow Fondren business owner Ron Chane convinced them to visit an empty retail space in Fondren Corners.

Says Sprouts, “He told us ‘I have the perfect place for you.’ When we saw this location, we knew that Fondren was the right place to start.”

“This is a great business community. You feel very welcome and a lot of people in this area support local business,” Larazzi adds.

When it came to the storefront design, Larazzi and Sprouts wanted customers to feel like they just stepped off the streets of Jackson and into a Parisian café.

“In Sweden and Italy, they have places where you go and sit down and enjoy coffee and a pastry,” Larazzi says. “I missed that kind of ambiance and we wanted to introduce it to Jackson and give everyone an opportunity to have access to something like this and be able to appreciate it.”

La Brioche officially opened its doors in October 2014 to overwhelming support. In fact, for the first month they sold out every single day. The sisters have done some tweaking to their business hours and Sprouts has since hired two additional chefs to help her keep up with the demand. However, Sprouts does still recommend that customers come early.

In addition to freshly baked croissants, bagels, Danish pastries, and brioche buns, La Brioche’s menu includes a variety of items not commonly found anywhere else in Mississippi. Patrons can also enjoy gourmet cookies from all over the world such as Argentinean alfajores and German linzer cookies, brightly colored French macarons, bite-sized cheesecakes and tartes, and a wide assortment of homemade gelatos. Everything served in the bakery is either made from scratch or sourced locally. All the breakfast pastries take at least two days to prepare and are made the morning they are sold.

“You cannot have a day-old croissant,” she points out.

The bakery also sells freshly baked bread from Gil’s Bread in Ridgeland, milk from T&R Dairy in Libery, Miss., and coffee from North Shore Specialty Coffees in Brandon. All of the bakery’s eggs come from Brown Egg Company in Bentonia, Miss.

While their business has proved to be wildly successful, the sisters have no plans of slowing down. They are still working on adding additional menu items and expanding the catering side of the business.

“I put in a lot of long hours and it is a lot of work,” says Sprouts, “But no matter how tired I am, this has been my dream and I love it.”

Deserted Dwellings to Cozy Cottages

Ms MAg Jan 2015Mississippi Magazine
January/February 2015

When Chris Rakestraw left the University of Mississippi with a bachelor’s degree in finance in hand, he never intended to become a designer. In fact, the seed wasn’t planted until a few years later when Rakestraw purchased his first “fixer upper.” Less than a year later, he sold the house for a profit and began the search for another house he could redesign.  By then, he knew he had found his true calling. Shortly after, he left his job as a credit officer at a local bank and enrolled in design school at Mississippi State, where he received a bachelor’s in design in 2010.

One of Rakestraw’s latest endeavors has been the renovation of three, one bedroom shotgun houses in the heart of downtown Tupelo on North Green Street.

“I passed these little houses all the time while out running errands. They had been vacant for years and I just kept watching them decay. I remember after a really bad storm one of the front porches fell off,” he recalls. “Something about these houses spoke to me.”

In 2012, Rakestraw was just completing one of his biggest projects to date when he learned the price of the three cottages had been reduced by half. After giving it a lot of thought, he called his real estate agent and was able to secure a deal for the properties within 2 hours.

The homes – each ranging from 700-750 square feet – were constructed in 1936. While unsure of their exact origins, Rakestraw believes they were built to house displaced families after a devastating tornado hit the area. He admits the 76 year-old-houses were the oldest he had ever worked on. No surprise, they came with their fair share of problems.

“Sometimes when you purchase a house, you assume a certain level of risk,” says Rakestraw, who purchases 75-80% of his homes at auction. “You have to do your due diligence. The houses had a lot of issues, things we take for granted. Every inch of these houses had to be redone.”

For instance, none of the dwellings had central heat and air. The plumbing, electrical, roof, and foundations had to be completely overhauled. When it came to designing the interior, Rakestraw tried play off the uniqueness of each unit.

Says Rakestraw, “Each house had a different personality. It tried to keep things simple to appeal to a wider variety of tenants.”

Because the houses were in such terrible shape, much of the original details had either been scrapped or were not salvageable. However, in the unit known as the Tupelo House, Rakestraw discovered original heart-of-pine floors and ceilings. He chose to compliment the wood with neutral light grey walls accented with darker grey trim and moulding. He also removed an out-of-place coat closet in the living room and replaced it with a built-in desk. All of the doors in the cottage had to be replaced since none met today’s codes. However, instead of tossing the original doors, Rakestraw refurbished them into a mantle for the fireplace.

The original layout of each house was somewhat awkward by today’s standards, so Rakestraw decided to redesign the floor plans to improve the flow. This included swapping the kitchen and the bedroom. Typical shotgun-style plans include rooms stacked one behind the other – living room, bedroom, and kitchen in the back. Rakestraw didn’t feel like tenants would want to walk through their bedroom to get to the kitchen. Since the house had to be completely rewired anyway, crews were able to complete the transformation in just a few days. The kitchen was updated with marble countertops, new stainless steel appliances, and a moveable island topped with butcher block.

In order to maximize space, Rakestraw chose sliding barn doors to transition from the kitchen to the bedroom. A queen sized platform bed gives tenants extra storage underneath. The bed’s high headboard is adorned with the numbers 1936, a nod to the year the cottage was constructed. Rakestraw also incorporated a proper bathroom with a walk-in closet and washer and dryer into the redesign, eliminating the lean-to addition that served as the home’s only bathroom previously.

Outside, a few architectural details were added to give the cottages the curb appeal they needed. New front porches were constructed, beautiful arbors were added, and each cottage received new siding and a fresh coat of vibrant paint. Lush landscaping, including a courtyard with seating tucked away between two of the cottages, adds the finishing touch. Since completion in early 2013, Rakestraw has had 100% occupancy.

“I really wanted to design a high caliber home with these units. The style is a little eclectic, transitional, with influences of modern,” Rakestraw adds. “I am absolutely pleased with how these turned out. I have always loved these cottages and the turned out wonderfully.”

Fighting for the Family Farm

December January 2015eat.drink.MISSISSIPPI
December 2014/January 2015

If you were to strike up a conversation with Ben Burkett in the supermarket, knowing nothing about him, you might assume at first with his Southern drawl and hands that look like they’ve put in a hard day’s work out in the field, that he was your typical, down home Mississippi farmer.

If you stopped there, Ben Burkett would probably just have you believe that he is nothing more than that – a farmer. You would never know that Ben Burkett has traveled around the world. That he’s a fourth generation farmer growing crops on a piece of land that has been in his family since the late 1800’s. Or that Mr. Burkett, in his faded overalls and salt and pepper hair, has a James Beard Award at home. He’s not just any farmer. He’s one heck of a farmer.

Burkett grew up outside of Petal on land that his great grandfather homesteaded shortly after the Civil War came to an end. Coming from a farm family, it’s probably no surprise that as a boy he was active in 4-H and grew his first successful crop at the age of 12. After earning a degree in agriculture from Alcorn, his plans were to leave Mississippi far behind.

“In 1973, everyone was going to Chicago. That’s where I was heading too,” Burkett explains. “But my father got sick and my mother asked me to come back and help with the crops.”

It was only supposed to be for one season. But yield was good that year and prices were even better. The lure of money enticed him to stay one more year, then another, then another. One more year turned into over 40 forty.

In the late 1970’s, the price of crops fell and many farmers began losing their land. It was around this time that Burkett and seven other farmers decided to pool their resources to form what would later become the Indian Springs Farmers Association. In the 1980’s, Burkett took a position with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives (FSC) and through his connections, helped his small rural farmer’s association become a full-fledged cooperative.

Today, the cooperative is 34 members strong. It’s one of ten groups that make up the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives (MAC), the local extension of the FSC and where Burkett currently serves as state coordinator. Like the local cooperatives, MAC provides its members with the support and security they need to improve their lives and communities, including a state-of-the-art packing facility where farmers can bring their produce for shipment.

As a young 21-year-old fresh out of college, Burkett probably never imagined that farming would take him to places much farther than Chicago. Burkett became involved in the National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC), a non-profit that works with local coops to bring sustainable, economically just, healthy, safe and secure food to consumers on a national level. He currently serves as president of the NFFC executive committee, representing the organization internationally during his travels to Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America. The trips afford him the opportunity to share his knowledge of farming while bringing home new techniques that he is able to introduce to his fellow farmers back home. Had Ben Burkett decided to stay in Chicago and not come home to become a farmer, it’s likely the landscape of farming in Mississippi would be completely different.

“My main goal has been to keep the family farm in business,” he says. “Ninety-five percent of the farms in Mississippi are family farms. I hope they will always be around.”

In March 2014, Burkett’s contributions to agriculture were recognized in a way that he could never have imagined. He received a call from Susan Ungaro, president of the James Beard Foundation.  Based in New York City, the non-profit seeks to celebrate, nurture, and honor America’s diverse culinary heritage through programs that educate and inspire. Their highly coveted restaurant and chef awards have long been considered “The Oscars” of the food industry.

Ungaro informed Burkett that he was one of five individuals slated to receive a James Beard Foundation Leadership Award, which recognizes visionaries across a broad range of backgrounds who influence how, why, and what we eat. Honorees are chosen by past Leadership Award recipients. Among them include chef, author and restaurateur Alice Waters and First Lady Michelle Obama.

Burkett received his award on October 27, 2014, at a dinner ceremony co-hosted by Good Housekeeping at the Hearst Tower in New York City. His fellow recipients included New York Times journalist Mark Bittman; food justice activist Navina Khanna; writer, journalist, and University of California, Berkeley professor Michael Pollan; and urban farmer and community activist Karen Washington.

“There are probably 100 more people more deserving of this award than me, but I am honored that I was chosen,” Burkett adds. “This is a highly respected award and I’m blessed to be one of the recipients.”

Adds Ungaro, “The James Beard Foundation Leadership Awards honor innovators who are making a difference and shedding light on the important issues that our food world faces, from fighting hunger to public health. We recognized Ben Burkett, a life-long family farmer, for his support of the American family farm and advocacy for the rights of every individual to wholesome food, clean water, air, and land.”

Back home, it’s business as usual. It’s harvesting time and Burkett has several members of his family out in his fields helping him bring in the crops. He’s pleased that his daughter Darnella has decided to join him as the fifth generation on the family farm.

“Farming is all I have ever done, but I can’t say anything bad about it. There are good years and there are bad years, but that’s part of it,” he reflects. “It has been a good life.”

The Cake of Christmas Past

December January 2015

eat.drink.MISSISSIPPI
December 2014/January 2015
Article, recipe and photos

When I was asked to write an article about the Amalgamation Cake, I had no idea that this grand dame of Southern desserts would prove to be so elusive and mysterious. Here in the South, a family recipe is almost as treasured as the family Bible. Often, there is no recipe. Just a technique passed down generation to generation. If a recipe does exist, sometimes it is nothing more than a hastily written list of ingredients and vague instructions. Many recipes are closely-guarded secrets that certain members of the family are sworn by blood to protect.

The Amalgamation Cake is one such recipe. I began my investigation by asking friends, family members, and even perfect strangers if they knew our cake in question. Half of those I polled had never heard of the dessert. The other half all told similar stories. Each had a family member – father, brother, uncle, grandfather – who considered Amalgamation Cake to be their favorite dessert. And each had a mother, sister, aunt, grandmother who made it every year – usually around the holidays. The origin is unknown. States all across the Southeast each claim her as their own.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

However, when I began my research for a tried-and-true Amalgamation Cake recipe, I discovered dozens and dozens of recipes, each one varying widely. Ingredients ranged from 5 eggs to ten. Jam or no jam for the filling. Some recipes included detailed instructions while others were so vague they didn’t even list a baking time or temperature. One thing they all agree on – freshly grated coconut was best.

I finally settled on this recipe. It seemed to have all the necessary ingredients and step-by-step instructions. The more involved I got in the process, the more I understood why this decadent dessert only makes an appearance once a year. It is a labor of love to create, requiring many steps and just as many mixing bowls. Merriam-Webster defines amalgamation as, “to unite two or more things into one thing.” I can only assume the cake got its name from the process required to combine raisins, coconut, and a whole lotta butter and eggs.

I have to admit, once my creation was complete, it’s an impressive dessert. Tall, regal, sugary sweet and flanked by sweet potato casserole or your Grandmother’s recipe for cornbread dressing, this lady would look right at home on a Christmas dinner table.

Amalgamation Cake

For the cake:

  • 2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup whole milk, room temperature
  • 5 egg whites, room temperature

For the fruit filling:

  • 5 egg yolks, room temperature
  • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter
  • 1 cup raisins
  • 1 cup sweetened grated coconut
  • 1 cup chopped pecans

For the boiled white frosting:

  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 1 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 2 egg whites, room temperature

For the cake:

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Prepare two 9-by-2-inch round cake pans. Set aside.

Place butter in the bowl of an electric mixer. Cream on medium-low speed and gradually add the sugar. Continue mixing until pale yellow.

In a medium mixing bowl, sift together 3 cups flour, baking powder and salt.   With the mixer on low, add about a third of the dry ingredients. Follow with half of the milk. Repeat the steps, ending with the remaining dry ingredients. Continue to mix, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed, until ingredients are thoroughly combined.

In another clean mixing bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form, about 3 to 5 minutes. Take a cup of the beaten whites and whisk it into the batter. Then gently fold the remaining whites into the batter. Divide the batter between the prepared pans. Bake until the tops are pale golden and a toothpick inserted into the center comes clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Remove to a rack to cool slightly. Invert the cake layers onto a rack to cool completely.

For the filling:

Combine the egg yolks, sugar and butter in a medium, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until the sugar is completely dissolved and the mixture is thick, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and add the raisins, coconut and pecans. Set mixture aside and keep warm.

For the frosting:

In a small, heavy saucepan, combine the sugar, water and cream of tartar. Heat over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until sugar has dissolved. Increase heat to a boil. Do not stir anymore. Boil, washing down sides of pan with a pastry brush dipped in cold water from time to time to prevent the sugar from crystallizing, until a candy thermometer registers 240 degrees, about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, whisk the egg whites on medium speed until soft peaks form, about 2 1/2 minutes.

Remove the sugar syrup from the heat when the temperature reaches 240 degrees. Pour the syrup in a steady stream down the side (to avoid splattering) of the bowl containing the egg white mixture, with the mixer on medium-low speed. Beat frosting on medium speed until cool, 5 to 10 minutes. The frosting should be thick and shiny.

To assemble the cake, place one of the cooled cake layers on plate. Spread the top with half the fruit filling. Top with the second layer, bottom side up, You may have to trim little of the rounded part off the top of the cake to ensure it sits flat and secure.  Spread the remaining fruit filling over the top of the cake only. Ice the sides of the cake with the reserved boiled icing.

Serves 14