by Fanny Slater
Once upon a basket of cornbread, I made a decision that would forever change the course of my life. I slouched into the cozy, familiar booth at Margaux’s Restaurant and asked my family: “What about some kind of tangerine chicken?”
My mom looked up from her Caesar, puzzled. It was now three days before the finale of Rachael Ray’s Great American Cookbook Competition. I was one of two remaining contestants, and we had been sent home and given one week to choose our final recipe. For some bizarre reason, I couldn’t let go of tangerine chicken. I had never even made tangerine chicken before in my life. This was clearly the moment when I began grasping for anything. Anything at all. In this case: tangerine chicken.
My boyfriend Tony slid the shiny basket of still-warm cornbread under my nose. I peeled apart a crumbly, golden square and swiped it through a ramekin of whipped butter. I looked up at my dad – whose expression was solemn (unusual for someone who wears cartoon rotisserie chicken socks). “Why don’t you end where you began?” he suggested.
I thought back to the first recipe I’d submitted for the competition: “The Tin Foil Surprise.” It was my spin on our family’s favorite to-go English muffin breakfast sandwich. My updated version featured creamy taleggio cheese and floral, homemade orange lavender fig jam. I stuffed the fluffy cornbread into my mouth and grinned. “If the rest of my life is riding on an English muffin,” I declared, “I think everything is going to be okay.”
Many of my richest memories have taken place over a basket of Margaux’s cornbread. I grew up with a dad who prepared top-notch homemade meals on a near-nightly basis, so naturally, my family’s restaurant expectations have always been high. But it’s never been pretentious, complicated cuisine we’re after – just good food made with soul. And butter, of course.
Margaux’s opened its North Raleigh doors in 1992 and instantly became our second kitchen. It was where we boogied for my sister Sarah’s post-Bat Mitzvah brunch (and for mine four years later). It was where my parents celebrated birthdays and anniversaries. It was where we even broke our cardinal ritual of a homestyle Thanksgiving to unapologetically surrender to the sinful buffet one memorable year. And it was Margaux’s where we took “Macho Man” Randy Savage to dinner. No, seriously. But that’s another story.
In 1975, my mom founded the nationally-acclaimed bakery business Rachel’s Brownies. In the beginning stages of her eventual business partnership with my dad, she would tenaciously re-wrap the brownies he’d dutifully tried to wrap to meet her impeccable standards. For her, each chocolate morsel was a work of art. My dad, while not a whiz-bang brownie-wrapper like my mom, was a highly-experienced marketing guru and self-taught kitchen wizard. He kept a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking on his nightstand. When I was four, he scooted a chair up to the stove and handed me a spatula. In first grade, he came into my class at Ravenscroft and taught us all how to braid and bake homemade challah. That’s pretty much all I remember from first grade. Needless to say, I grew up on good eats, and it was only a matter of time before I took the cooking into my own hands.
My last year at Peace College (now William Peace University), I was assigned a final writing project to fulfill my English major. Sitting in my advisor’s office, I talked in circles until I somehow convinced him to allow me to intern at my favorite Raleigh restaurant and write about it. Several weeks later, I found myself standing in that esteemed kitchen, looking out onto the dining room where I had spent many meals enjoying cornbread, peppered duck, and delicate profiteroles. In Margaux’s kitchen, I felt as though I had been granted entrance to a mystical universe where few elite members were allowed. I silently bowed my head at the crab cakes.
A few years later, right around the time I turned 25 and moved to California, the restaurant movement in the Triangle began to erupt. When I came home to visit, I thought I’d be eager to dive into the trendy new hot spots. But it turned out it was familiar flavors I craved. Between my dad’s sublimely-seared scallops and Margaux’s expertly-wrapped shrimp summer rolls, I was happy. After all, I had a short window of time at home and only so many pairs of stretchy pants in my suitcase.
I eventually returned to the East Coast (downtown Wilmington to be exact), where I got close enough to sample the exquisite fare of Raleigh’s most gifted chefs. This is how Ashley Christensen became my best imaginary friend. As Julie Powell, of Julie & Julia, once said, “I have this fantasy that she comes for dinner and I show her my new lemon zester. We become very close.”
Maybe it’s because Ashley’s food is full of imagination – but also reminds me of home – that I daydream of this citrus-inspired friendship. Because at the root of it all, I am still influenced by the flavors that have stuck with me all of this time.
The anecdotes and recipes you’ll find in my cookbook,
Orange, Lavender & Figs: Deliciously Different Recipes from a Passionate Eater, are modern tributes to the food moments that have shaped my life. Case in point: to honor Margaux’s succulent, butter-slathered cornbread – which has provided me with countless memories – I crafted these honey cornmeal pancakes with vanilla bean-fig butter.
But first, back to the beginning…
I decided to submit “The Tin Foil Surprise” as my final recipe for Rachael’s competition. I think you can guess how it all turned out. I knew that if I stayed true to myself, my love for nostalgia, and my whimsical spirit, I couldn’t lose. After all, coming from a family who relentlessly encouraged my silliness and my love of cooking, it’s no surprise I come up with eclectic, playful food. Can you blame me? Because, well, with a name like Fanny – it’s pretty hard to fit into the crowd.
But I’m okay with that.