Miss Mary Bobo’s Boarding House Cookbook by Lynne Tolley [great books]

  • Full Title : Miss Mary Bobo’s Boarding House Cookbook: A Celebration of Traditional Southern Dishes that Made Miss Mary Bobo’s an American Legend
  • Autor: Lynne Tolley
  • Print Length: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Thomas Nelson; 1st Printing edition
  • Publication Date: October 30, 1994
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1558533141
  • ISBN-13: 978-1558533141
  • Download File Format: mobi


Shortly before noon about sixty guests gather on the front porch and lawn of Miss Mary Bobo’s Boarding House in Lynchburg, Tennessee, for a mid-day dinner. Each table is cared for by a Lynchburg hostess, a lady from the town who sees to it that the bowls and platters are kept full, that everyone meets each other at the table, that the conversation is always flowing, and that everyone has a grand time. The dinner bell is rung and as each name is called, diners follow their hostess to the dining table.

Hot bowls of food are placed randomly on the long tables. Two entrees, such as fried chicken, meat loaf, country ham, roast beef, or Miss Mary’s Famous Chicken and Pastry, are served each day. Vegetables picked that morning are prepared in true southern tradition. Fragrant hot bread, rolls, or cornbread are made fresh for each meal.

Now you can give your guests the same delicious southern dishes served at Miss Mary Bobo’s Boarding House. None are difficult to cook, but all are best when prepared by caring hands and served with friendship?a recipe that all boarding houses have found to be foolproof!




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nt, a chance to meet new people and have fun. We were full of energy and very curious. Others who came were just like us. They wanted to dance till the sun came up, and pushed inside so they could.

I have many snapshots in my head of Gilbert and me as we made our life together. One I see often is there, at La Biscorne. Gilbert was still a boy, just eighteen, but already strong and full of himself. He wore his hair long, with a mustache, and he had a look that melted even the iciest French girls. I never knew anyone else who had that effect on people, women and men both. Everyone fell for him, I saw it happen again and again, his whole life. At La Biscorne, the bar would be smoky and loud from the moment we opened. The air would pulse. Then Gilbert, in his tight jeans, lacy sixties shirt, hair flying, would move onto the dance floor and the tempo would quadruple. I would be at the bar, or more likely on top of it, in my Carnaby Street—style miniskirt and go-go boots, moving as if I were Mick Jagger himself. The room would pick up our energy, and in minutes everyone would be dancing wildly. Later, in our twenties, we would run restaurants and bars in ski resorts, and it was always the same. We had the best crowds, the most fun. We were always looking toward the future, what to do next, what was new.

We had a painting done from this photo of Grandpère Durand, which still hangs in Le Bernardin.

Only later would Gilbert and I discover how precisely and deeply we had been shaped by our past, by Brittany, by the Rhuys, by the sea, and by the life we wanted to leave behind. Brittany is ar mor in Celtic, the land of the sea, and in our village, life was the sea. It started before dawn, when boatloads of men would set out to work. It stretched backward and forward for generations, with a hold on all the families of Port Navalo. The sea was the air we breathed and the food we ate. It was life, and sometimes death.

For the sea could take a body as quickly as it took a rig, and often did, sometimes a fisherman who’d misjudged a storm or sometimes a young boy hired out by his family as a mousse, or deckhand. The mousses came from the poorest families, to whom a child with a job meant one less mouth to feed, and these children were always too young for the dangerous work they did, climbing masts and repairing sails. Once in Port Navalo, they say, the body of a young boy washed up onshore. The village people mourned this boy so, they put up a tombstone in his honor, Le Tombe du Petit Mousse, right where his body was found.

It was an all-or-nothing way to live. You couldn’t escape the sea, so you embraced it, or you left. Gilbert was drawn in very young. He would trail after the fishermen, asking questions, eager to be like them, to know and enter the life of the sea. When he was persistent, Papa and Grandpère Durand, my mother’s father, would take him out with them. He did not mind getting up at 5 A.M.; he liked it better than going to school. Grandpère knew the sea, coming from a long line of fishermen: He started as a mousse and had taught Papa to fish. But the sea could fool even the best. One winter, Grandpère and Papa took Gilbert fishing and, out of nowhere, a wild storm rose up. Gilbert was only seven, and Papa and Grandpère were so worried he was going to be washed overboard that they tied him to the mast. Later in life, he would joke about the sea and its creatures. “What’s so exciting about eating a cow?” he’d ask. “She stands all day chewing, waiting to be led into the slaughterhouse to be made into steaks. That’s not exciting food. But a wild thing swimming in the water, now that’s passionant! C’est passionant!” That’s exactly how he felt about the sea. It was a passion.

Grandpère and Gilbert on Papa’s boat.

I have another snapshot of Gilbert and me in my mind now. He was eighteen, shipping off for military duty in Tahiti, eager to discover the world. I can see him walking up the steps of the plane, one by one, in his army khakis, so nonchalant and carefree, so sure of who he was. There I was waving good-bye, with my own plans to move to Paris to try modeling. I knew we were both escaping Port Navalo, and I was thrilled. It was the moment I felt our future begin. We had made a pact that whatever happened, we’d end up together in Paris.

Now, when I read stories about Gilbert and myself, I always marvel at their fairy-tale quality, as if we went from Port Navalo to the Michelin Guide in one breath. In fact, it was more like a battle with the sea that ends with sunshine after years of storms. We both came to Paris in 1966, when Gilbert had finished his military service and I had put the thought of modeling aside. We had no plan for the future beyond having fun and staying together. We did whatever was necessary to make ends meet. I worked in restaurants and hotels, Gilbert bartended in different clubs. We were happy, we had the best life, we were now independent, we were having fun, not thinking of the future.

But after five years, Gilbert started getting restless. He’d say, “Were getting old, we have to do something.” We knew we wanted a success, not just anything, working in a shop or bartending. We wanted to have our own business, we wanted to be known.

The most natural choice was to open a restaurant of our own. When we saw an antiques shop on the Left Bank with a FOR SALE sign up front, we thought we could make it work. We’d helped Maman and Papa all those years, we’d run our own disco, bars, and restaurants. We certainly had the look. I was the epitome of Paris chic, in tiny bell-bottoms and platform shoes or Bonnie-and-Clyde maxi-skirts and berets; Gilbert was the perfect persona of the seventies, right down to his sideburns and droopy mustache. We didn’t have a nickel to our names, and we didn’t care. We borrowed from everyone: our Uncle Corentin, our parents, the bank. By the time renovations were done, there was nothing left to open with, and still we weren’t nervous. We came up with the name Le Bernardin, after an order of monks who liked to eat and drink, and a song dedicated to them that my father sang to us so often. We asked Maman and Papa to help out, we told our friends, and opened our doors. It was January 1972.

Gilbert and me at the time of the opening of our first restaurant, Le “Petit” Bernardin.

Since Port Navalo was a seasonal operation, Maman and Papa were able to come to Paris. On our opening night, Maman was cleaning the salad, Papa the fish, and the mother of Gilbert’s best friend was doing the dishes. I greeted clients and took orders. We had one dishwasher and one waiter. At closing, there was just $120 in the cash register. But things seemed to go well. One influential critic raved about us in a popular magazine. Our reservation book swelled. We had a full house almost every night. Life was wonderful, we had money in the cash drawer, but not for long…

All of a sudden we got a bad review from the food critic of Le Monde (who also wrote under different names in several publications, saying the same awful things. We never forgot—and barred him from ever returning). In less than one year, we’d be completely empty, fighting the tax authorities and bankruptcy. The truth was, we didn’t know how to run a restaurant, not even a family restaurant. We didn’t have a system. We couldn’t handle the crowds that we had and we couldn’t maintain quality. We didn’t keep track of purchases or expenses. The Gault Millau guide—fairly new, upcoming, and successful—was just as harsh, and suggested we start all over again, working our way back from the river’s edge. Papa was with us the day the review came out; he was so angry that he stormed to their offices, revenge on his mind, fortunately to find the offices closed! It was terrible.

The dining room of the first Bernardin.

In the middle of the fashion collections, when every other bistro was packed, we went completely dead. We fell behind in our rent. The French tax authorities threatened to close us down and take away our furniture. If French law hadn’t stipulated that the fiscal controllers couldn’t repossess beds, we’d have been sleeping on the floor.

Fortunately, the summer season was coming to Brittany. To hold things together, I started working eight days a week. I’d spend four days in Paris at Le Bernardin, then four in Brittany running my parents’ hotel. That would bring in some cash. Gilbert hired a sous chef for Paris, then left the kitchen in his charge so he could return to La Biscorne. That helped some more. We realized that we would not be successful cooking the way our father was doing in Brittany. Without the training of a three-star-restaurant background, it was tough. In fact, that is how Gilbert developed his own cooking style. We hired a consultant, who explained cost control and labor principles. I remember when he discovered that our wine costs were 45 percent of sales. We could not understand and did research. We were very naive—to the point of leaving our wine cellar door unlocked. We found the neighbors in the building taking advantage—they loved our generosity! We made our secretary head of inventory, and every morning before she started her office work, she’d go into the kitchen to make sure what we ordered was what appeared on our invoices and what was delivered.

We recovered slowly, ten customers at a time, by word of mouth, by trial and error. I changed, and so did Gilbert. I was not friendly enough with the customers, through lack of confidence. It was easy for me to be dancing on the bar of our disco surrounded by friends, but I was not at ease in my restaurant. I started spending fifteen minutes at each table, drawing people out and learning names. Gilbert abandoned the traditional dishes he’d learned from Papa and started inventing his own, startling combinations no one had ever thought of—roast monkfish with cabbage; scallops and oysters with truffles; halibut in vinaigrette. Though it was exhausting, he also started hanging out at Rungis, the Parisian fish market, at 2 A.M. He just wanted to see who had the best fish, to get to know the vendors, to understand how it all worked.

Gilbert outside Le “Petit” Bernardin.

Little by little, our work paid off, we regained our confidence. It took close to three years, then “suddenly” we were hot. Overnight, after a piece in L’Express magazine, Gilbert became the most innovative chef in Paris, and I the most charming hostess. Everyone was raving about his fish, my smile. Le Bernardin was reborn; we never had a bad review again. In 1976, even the Michelin editors agreed and gave us our first star.

It was a shock, this kiss from the establishment. Gilbert was not a classically trained chef, he had never been to culinary school, apprenticed or trained in top restaurants. When he cooked, he made things he liked, and things he knew. He focused on the quality and freshness of the fish, which is what he’d learned in Port Navalo. He made nages and vinaigrettes because he’d never learned how to make the heavy sauces of the French culinary bible written by the great chef Auguste Escoffier. Gilbert focused on flavors that were delicate and subtle.

The two of us at the second Paris Bernardin.

France was on the verge of a new era. Chefs all over the country were experimenting with new approaches and tastes. They were discovering a world beyond Larousse Gastronomique and Escoffier, inventing a style that would soon be known as nouvelle cuisine. It was an exciting time to be in Paris. We’d sit around in our restaurants with chefs like Olympe, Alain Senderens, and José Lemprera, trying to impress one another with new dishes, exchanging ideas and gossip, eating and drinking. When we heard about a new place, such as Fredy Giradet’s in Switzerland, we would jump on a plane, be there for lunch, get drunk, and be back in Paris for dinner. We traveled to the Fête de la Truffe in Cahors. We’d go for the weekend to Michel and Christine Guérard’s in Eugénie-les-Bains. We would drive out to the countryside to discover small farms, some that distilled Armagnac. Needless to say, we were having fun sampling it over and over. We were always having a good time.

Le Bernardin did so well, Gilbert and I decided to expand. In 1981, we moved to a location near L’Étoile, quadrupling our space. We now had an international clientele, with Americans and Europeans, celebrities and politicians, all mixing with our regular customers. We were featured in food and lifestyle magazines. We were booked weeks in advance. We were on a creative high, working fifteen-hour days. Between our days and our nights, we barely had time to breathe. Within a year, we’d won our second Michelin star.

Gilbert in the kitchen (the second Bernardin).

Gilbert and I were able to do what we did because we had each other. We were our own family, exhilarated by each other and by our experiences. We were so similar—both daring, ambitious, emotional, sensual, full of life. Though we had a policy of not going out together, invariably we would end up in the same place at 5 A.M. Gilbert would look at me and say, “What are you doing here?” And I’d say, “What are you doing here?”

We made a perfect team. While Gilbert went to the fish market at Rungis at 2 A.M., I’d be picking up vegetables, fruits, and flowers. If he was brilliant in the kitchen, I now shone in the dining room; where he was the chef and creator, I was the arbiter, tasting and often inspiring new dishes. When I would describe to Gilbert tastes and textures I liked, he could turn them into reality. He transformed my obsession with raw tuna into the first seafood carpaccio, my thoughts on shellfish into a seafood fricassee; he worked miracles for me with truffles. I was always the “guinea pig,” but he trusted my palate.

We also balanced each another. When I made a mistake, Gilbert would be there to fill the gap. If he got angry, I stayed cool. If I couldn’t find our Jeep at 9 A.M. because Gilbert hadn’t come home yet, I would rent a car to make the fruit and vegetable pickups. When I got carried away dancing on a tabletop, it was Gilbert who talked me down. In retrospect, it’s not surprising that neither of us ever married. We each had the perfect partner.

Gilbert and me in Le Bernardin when it opened in New York, January 1986.

Moving to New York was as natural for us as leaving Port Navalo—how little did we know! The first time we came here, it was 1978. We were well established in Paris but ready to try a new venture. New York seduced us even before we arrived. For me, it was the excitement, the intensity, and pulse of the city. Those were the days of Studio 54 and Xenon, and for three weeks we were out dancing every night. We went to every fish restaurant, from the Oyster Bar to Seafare of the Aegean to the Gloucester House.

New York in those days, however, was not sophisticated about food the way it is now. When Gilbert cooked dinner in a friend’s restaurant kitchen, we couldn’t find fresh herbs, not even basil. Good-quality fresh fish was just as rare; many varieties weren’t even available. If we could bring Gilbert’s cooking and Le Bernardin’s philosophy to New York, we could change the way New Yorkers ate.

It seemed like such a good idea that we started looking for a location. We even drew up a two-page business plan. But after three weeks, Gilbert threw up his hands. “No, it won’t work,” he said. I thought we were ready, but he had admitted to himself that we weren’t, that to open a restaurant in New York took more experience than we had. But he didn’t tell me that. So I persisted. Over the next six years, I negotiated a series of deals, all of which fell through. In the end, it was Ben Holloway of The Equitable who made us the right proposal. He was looking for a restaurant tenant for the company’s world headquarters on Fifty-first Street. Within weeks after our first meeting, we signed on. In January of 1986, we quietly opened Le Bernardin in New York.

Gilbert brought his menu from Paris—fricassée de coquillages, salmon with truffles, salmon with sorrel, oysters dusted with curry—and incorporated American fish like grouper, served thinly sliced, sautéed, on a bed of melted leeks, or pompano sautéed with Italian parsley. I brought our style, working with Philip and Gaele George to transform a cavernous space into an elegant dining room. We worked in the deep blues of Brittany’s waters and the teak woods I fell in love with in Nancy Friday’s living room.

Gilbert and Eric in the kitchen of Le Bernardin.

We hung nineteenth-century paintings bought in France on the walls, and my signature antique mirrors where I could. We even brought the portrait of Grandpère Durand from the Paris restaurant, and hung it near the entrance, for good luck.

It was the calm before the storm. In February, Gael Greene wrote in New York magazine that “gourmands were fainting over the halibut.” And Bryan Miller of the New York Times wrote, “A **** is born.” Sometimes we got over twelve hundred telephone calls a day for reservations. I tried to keep the head count at dinner to eighty, but couldn’t say no to friends, and friends of friends like Dustin Hoffman, Warren Beatty, and Isabelle Adjani. We were posh, clubby, and “in.” We had great food. We were the brother-and-sister team that conquered Manhattan overnight. We had made it in New York!

Unfortunately, I had to leave the fame to go back to Paris. What a shock to find out, upon my return, that there was “trouble in paradise.” It was tough to make the adjustment to being back. I worked very hard to restore the magic that Gilbert and I had created before, which was now in New York. I was frustrated with the thought that Gilbert was where my heart was. As for Gilbert, it was difficult carrying the weight of the whole operation by himself—a huge undertaking. With this in each of our minds, and after fifteen years, we sold Le Bernardin in Paris. When I returned to New York, it was just as in Paris, Gilbert in the kitchen and I out front. But I sort of hid behind the manager and maître d’ again. I did not feel comfortable, I had to adjust myself.

In retrospect, I know that much of our success was due to Gilbert. He didn’t speak a word of English, but his great sense of organization and his capacity for work—from directing the kitchen to supervising the office—ensured that service standards were maintained. He worked like a madman. It amazes me even today, running this big operation by myself, doing what he himself managed to do twelve years ago, when we opened.

He had become famous for his early morning forays to the Fulton Fish Market, scouring the stalls for skate, squid, red snapper, and talking up fresh, exquisite fish to anyone who would listen. A lot of people did—food writers, restaurateurs, clients, culinary institutes—and we became, and have remained, leaders in teaching Americans about fish. The way Gilbert cooked was becoming the way America cooked. As in France a decade earlier, the United States was undergoing a food revolution. Frozen fish disappeared from menus and, thankfully, so did fish sticks and tartare sauce. Fresh herbs began to replace dried ones, olive oil took its place next to butter. Tuna carpaccio and salmon tartare became staples on menus across the country. Literally, we witnessed a sea change in the way Americans ate, and felt proud to have had a role in effecting the change. In 1991, we were so secure in our success, we expanded, opening a brasserie in Miami (and two years later, one in Atlanta).

That’s when Eric Ripert, who joined Le Bernardin as executive chef, came into our lives. Gilbert hired Eric on the word of Washington chef Jean-Louis Palladin, without a tryout. He had also come by way of Joel Robuchon and seemed to be the perfect foil for Gilbert.


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