Im lucky to be part of a group of women who convene monthly to discuss literature and the state of the universe, and to assemble enough potluck food for 50.
In April, I arrived early enough to see the host, Betty, pull from her oven an object that looked like a singed basketball. She peeled off the browned, dough-like skin to reveal a glisteningly moist, ruddy ham. Then she smeared orange marmalade on the intoxicatingly fragrant thing and put it back in the oven.
Ive seen fancy salt-crusted fish and beef, but Id never seen a homely blanket on a ham and asked Betty about it.
The recipe was in a stained cookbook called She Cooks By Ear: Old Southern Cookery, by Frances S. James.
Betty got the book when the author was a guest on a weekday TV news show Betty produced in Memphis in the 1970s. She didnt know much more.
Bettys copy, with packing tape barely holding together its flaking binding, looked as overly beloved as a toddlers stuffed bear. I asked to borrow it and another by Mrs. James, Lets Have A Party, published in 1978. The usually sweet Betty became darkly protective, but agreed. Dont let anything fall out of it, she warned as she tucked in protruding scraps of paper, her own additions to the book.
Ive collected quite a few cookbooks from churches and individuals. But they often arent, shall I say, user friendly. Directions can be sketchy and ingredients unclear. Not this one. Its 200-some pages were as tightly designed and recipes well-written as anything a Food Network chef might produce.
Mrs. James wrote in the book about her Southern upbringing, but she also had lived all over the place. There was mention of a musical career and television. And she had children. Through the miracle of the Internet, I found one of them in Utah: Julie James Mozelle.
According to her daughter, Mrs. James was a blend of Martha Stewart and Julia Child, with a Southern accent and, in young days, a resemblance to the actress Linda Darnell. At various times, Mrs. James, a smart woman who entered the University of Houston at 16, was a florist, wedding designer, informal caterer and blues singer in addition to cookbook author. The name of the cookbook came from her ability to play the piano by ear.
Mrs. James was born in Mississippi in 1922 to farming parents known for their home cooking. The family moved to Texas, which she considered home. After converting to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, she married her husband, Virgil, who held various executive positions that kept the family moving: San Francisco, New York, Houston, Dallas, Austin, Richmond and Salt Lake City, where she sang in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir during the 1940s.
At each stop, Julie says, her mother learned more about cooking.
But everywhere she went, Mrs. James carried her love of Southern food and entertaining, and an entrepreneurial spirit. When her husband was in graduate school and funds were tight, Mrs. James swapped homemade pies for piano lessons.
She cooked a lot to earn money, Julie says. During their early married days, that was what she did, exchange food when they didnt have money.
As times improved, there were elegant dinner parties with famous guests. There were some huge events, where she cooked for dozens to several hundred.
There were family parties, too. Thanksgivings with as many strangers as family; Mrs. James didnt want anyone to be left out. And teen dance parties for Julie and her older brother and sister.
Around 1972, Mrs. James children talked her into writing down her recipes.
She spent three years writing recipes that she had carried around in her head for decades she had never measured ingredients. Her husband created a format to make the recipes consistent and easy to follow (and they still are). She labeled family favorites and often-requested dishes Golden Recipes. Some of the books recipes came from friends, but Julie says about 70 percent are ones her mother came up with.
A professional photographer took photos, and a family friend, who was an artist at Walt Disney Studios, provided illustrations. They found a printer. Then Mrs. James hit the road.
She did the circuit. She went all over, to B. Dalton and Waldenbooks, doing autograph sessions and noon cooking shows and talk shows, Julie says. This was a business for her. She took it very seriously.
That was probably the time that Betty met her and got the books.
She Cooks by Ear did well, Julie says. And Mrs. James still had recipes left, so she wrote Lets Have A Party in 1978. Julie says that the menus in it from Argentine Fiesta to Family Christmas Dinner are from parties she remembers her mother actually giving.
Theyre not made up, she says. She loved the art of entertaining, and she saw that the younger generation wasnt doing it as much. She wanted to help the younger generation want to entertain and make it fun.
Mrs. James stopped promoting the books to tend to her husband, who eventually died from cancer. She later got cancer herself, and died in 1993.
The books cant be purchased anymore, although Julie has a few for her children and grandchildren. I encouraged her to find a way to preserve and, perhaps, reprint them.
I confess that its pure luck that Im writing this in the month of Mothers Day. But since it is, Im going to let Julie have the last word:
Her parents were humble people, but they shared everything they had and my mother was the same way. Anywhere she lived, you could come in and shed fix you something to eat, day or night. She was the most charitable person Ive ever known, a very great, giving lady. And it shows in her love for cooking.
I love getting this book out, knowing that I can still have my mother around.
For a printable copy of the recipe, click the link:
Trim rind and all but a thin layer of fat from ham. Save excess fat for cooking beans. Blend the dry ingredients and moisten with undiluted orange juice to make a dough that can be rolled like a blanket over top and sides of fat part of ham. Cover ham with blanket and place on a rack in an oblong baking pan lined with heavy duty foil. Put in oven, then heat to 350 degrees, cooking for 20 minutes to the pound. As ham begins to juice, bast occasionally. After baking time, remove dough. Lattice top of fat with a sharp knife and glaze with apricot jam or orange marmalade. Return to oven for additional 30 to 40 minutes to brown.