Chapter 16
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Take it From Mama Rena

When it comes to comfort food, Pat and Gina Neely are onto something

Though I relish the art of cooking—at least in theory—I am not the chief cook in my home. My husband handles the everyday vittles, ensuring that our daughter eats more than yogurt and baby carrots, and that I do better than ice cream and cereal. When I do approach the oven, my mission is typically a simple sugary affair: big fat chocolate-chip cookies or a quick bread. Not that we aren’t a team: I make menu suggestions and pass along recipes that have caught my eye, and occasionally Todd and I collaborate in the kitchen. These are the meals I enjoy most, though there haven’t been enough of them lately.

That’s what most appeals to me about Back Home with the Neelys, a new cookbook by Pat and Gina Neely, owners of a Memphis restaurant and hosts of their own Food Network show, Down Home with the Neelys. A couple-in-the-kitchen charm distinguishes the Neelys from an increasingly crowded field of Southern-food stars, and for me it also makes them the inspiration to a renewed commitment to culinary teamwork with my mate.

At my house we were already big fans of the Neelys’ Old-Fashioned Mac and Cheese, a recipe we picked up from an NPR piece on budget-cooking during the Great Recession, though the version in Back Home calls for a topping of crushed Ritz crackers rather than radio version’s kettle chips and bacon. Take your pick, and get ready to indulge dairy-style: the Neelys do not play around.

I pointed out some of my favorites in the new book, and I had a strong hunch which of them Todd would warm to. Weekday Not Fried Chicken? Blackened Catfish with Creole Rémoulade? Three-Cheese Pasta Bake with Spinach?

Sure enough: “Let’s do the catfish!” he said. Catfish is the first meal my husband ever cooked for me. He served it to me on a couch in his basement apartment, a place barely suited for breathing, let alone a meal. “You want to find out about someone? Have him cook a meal for you,” Pat and Gina Neely write. One could add: you want to find out something about your relationship with someone? Cook a meal with him.

“We have long had an appreciation for down-home cooking and fresh ingredients, and it all goes back to the wonderful memories we have of growing up in Memphis,” write the Neelys in the introduction to this, their third cookbook. “Those were the good old days, when everything was fresh and plentiful.” There are recipes straight out of the Southern canon—Hot Pepper Jelly, Easy Buttermilk and Cream Biscuits, Crunchy Fried Okra—and a section titled “Smoked and Grilled,” including Grilled Salmon with Peach Relish, Smoked and Spicy Chicken Wings, and Smoky Grilled Corn in the Husk. The Neelys also offer their spin on comfort-classics and contemporary standards, such as Bourbon French Toast, a Remixed Green Bean Casserole, and Gina’s Favorite Black-Eyed Pea Hummus. Juicy, saturated color photos of Oven Roasted Ribs, Chicken Pot Pie, and a Summer Fruit Cobbler seem to bubble up and drip right off the page.

Back Home with the Neelys is, as the title suggests, a celebration of handed-down traditions, of memories preserved through meals. Throughout the book, Pat and Gina share reflections on the cooking histories of their parents and grandparents, as well as anecdotes from their own family’s adventures in eating. (They have two daughters.) In the intro to the Blackened Catfish, Pat tells of fishing with his grandfather, Dye, with “old cane poles … so long they hung out the back window of Dye’s ’68 Chevrolet.” When the guys arrived home with the fish, Pat’s grandmother, Mama Rena, would be “waiting with a hot skillet ready to cook the catfish for dinner.”

Our catfish came much less ceremoniously from Kroger. Todd handled the spice dredging (smoked paprika, dried thyme, onion and garlic powder, and cayenne) and frying. I prepared the rémoulade and the Neelys’ Vinegar Slaw. This was a quick-prep dinner, only about fifteen minutes to the table.

And how did it taste? Delicious, though we didn’t have peanut oil for frying (we used canola), and my husband neglected to use the cast-iron skillet the recipe calls for. When I pointed out the error, he argued that the skillet served only to shore up the folksy narrative: “For this recipe, make sure you use a cast-iron skillet, just like Mama Rena.”

Why, I argued back, couldn’t he acknowledge that chefs and home cooks the world over revere cast-iron skillets for a reason?

But we agreed that our results were pretty darn delicious. The catfish was just spicy enough, the rémoulade a perfect complement. (Tip: the recipe makes far more sauce than needed for four servings of fish; consider cutting it in half.) After dinner, with all that rémoulade left over, we discussed doing the catfish again the next night—this time with peanut oil and cast-iron skillet, for comparison’s sake.

But there’s so much more I want to try: Hot Honey Peach Chicken! Banana Pudding Ice Cream! Breakfast Pot Pie! Clearly, Pat and Gina Neely are onto something: a little spicy, a little sweet, and sopped in Southern tradition. What their food isn’t, ever, is fussy. It is deeply comforting fare, and—to use the adjective around which they’ve built their brand—indubitably down-home. Do try that Mac and Cheese.