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Tasting the winners from this year's Whitland Avenue July 4 picnic

By Kay West

JULY 24, 2000:  I'm not sure how long the cooking competition has been a part of the annual Whitland Avenue Fourth of July Parade and Picnic, but it's been about five years since Slick Lawson asked me if I would be in charge of the judging. It took me all of three seconds to say yes, correctly assuming it was my entrée to one of Nashville's most popular and enduring holiday block parties.

The first year I went, the contest was a little, how do you say, laissez-faire. The food tables were set up on Slick's front yard, which was largely well-shaded--except for the tables holding the dishes to be judged, and they were sitting in full sun. That was a little alarming, considering the mayonnaise content of many of the entries, but it was no more frightening than some restaurant kitchens I have entrusted with my good health and my children's future.

I had corralled five other food professionals--as we like to call ourselves--into lending me a hand. We were handed six large spoons and told to dig in. What could we do? So we dug in, wiping off our individual spoons on a napkin after sampling each dish. I have no recollection of who or what took home the blue ribbon that first year, though the taste of other winning dishes through the years lingers; among them are Elizabeth Fox's tomato-basil pie, Cindy Steine's summer salad, and Judy Wright's garden-fresh tortellini.

For the past two years, the contest has been run quite professionally. The food area is tented, and we are supplied with disposable plastic tasting spoons, water, clipboards, pens, and a final judges' ballot. The six judges divide into two categories: Two others and I are in the picnic food category, and the remaining three do the desserts.

Still, much remains the same: the abundance of three-bean, black-bean, and pasta salads; a puzzling reliance on canned goods, even in peak fresh-produce season; cakes decorated in a patriotic motif. Here's a three-word hint for future competitors: fresh, classic, simple. In my view, the perfect summer food consists of thick slices of homegrown tomato on lightly toasted slices of good white bread, with salt, ground pepper, fresh basil, and Hellmans mayonnaise. It just doesn't get much better than that.

The winning entry in the picnic food category this year was the Iron Skillet Baked Beans, made and submitted by Al Thomas. If the name sounds familiar, perhaps you know his father, Houston Thomas, who with brother Marion founded and owned Sperry's until April of this year, when Al purchased it. Or maybe you know his sister, Anne Clayton, one-half of the Clayton-Blackmon dynamic duo. This was Al's first time to enter the cooking competition, so you could call it beginner's luck, or cite an unfair advantage given that he is a food professional.

Whatever the case, we were first impressed by the fact that he managed to carry the 16-inch iron skillet from wherever he was parked to the judging table. We could barely budge the hefty behemoth after he dropped it with a resounding thud on the table. We also liked the fact that it was a simple, classic picnic dish. But it was the flavor that got Al the blue ribbon; the robust dish tasted so good that we insisted our colleagues judging the sweets take a break from the fancy stuff and sample it. Everyone agreed the baked beans were killer. Unfortunately, they are not yet on the menu at Sperry's, so unless you make them yourself (see recipe below), you'll have to take our word for it.

Second place was claimed by Susan Spaulding, another first-time competitor, who submitted her tomato tarts. She first sampled the dish when it was made by a friend for a Steeplechase picnic. After obtaining the recipe, she began making it for the annual Hampton Avenue Block Party that her family cohosts every Labor Day. When she was invited to attend the Whitland Avenue soiree this year, she made the tarts with no intention of competing, but got talked into it by one of the food tent organizers, and we were glad she did. The tomato tarts are pretty much like a tomato sandwich in a pastry shell, with the addition of sour cream and cheese--a pretty unbeatable combination.

The blue ribbon in the dessert category went to Judy Gish for her orange poppy-seed cake. Second place was Melanie Yappon's beer cake. Following are the winning recipes for the beans and the tarts; the poppy-seed and beer cake recipes are still top secret.

Al's Iron Skillet Baked Beans

  • 2 large cans Bush's Best Original Baked Beans
  • 6 slices hickory-smoked bacon (thick cut)
  • 1/4 pound ground chuck
  • 1/2 cup diced yellow onion
  • 1/4 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup ketchup
  • 2 Tbs. yellow mustard
  • 2 Tbs. liquid smoke
Slice bacon into 1-inch squares and sauté in a 12-inch cast-iron skillet until almost done. Remove and set aside. Place ground chuck and onions into skillet and sauté in bacon fat. Break up ground beef while cooking and sprinkle with liquid smoke. When beef/onion mixture is done, remove from skillet and set aside. Combine beans, brown sugar, ketchup, and mustard in bowl. Stir in beef and onion mixture, return mixture to skillet, and sprinkle with bacon. Bake in skillet in 325-degree oven for approximately 40 minutes.

Tomato Basil Tarts

  • 16 mini-pie shells
  • 2 large tomatoes, seeded, drained, and chopped
  • 1/2 Vidalia onion, chopped
  • 1 bunch of fresh basil
  • 1 cup Hellmans mayonnaise
  • 1 cup sour cream (do not use reduced or nonfat)
  • 2 cups grated sharp cheddar
  • 1 cup parmesan cheese
Bake pie shells as directed until nearly done. Remove from oven, place leaves of fresh basil on bottom of shell. Sprinkle tomato and onion on top of basil. Mix mayonnaise, sour cream, and grated cheddar, then spoon on top of tomato and onion. Sprinkle all with parmesan cheese. Bake at 375 degrees for 20 to 30 minutes.

Picking berries

A couple of days before the Fourth of July picnic, my children and I went blackberry picking with a friend in Percy Warner Park. When I warned my friend to beware of snakes in the blackberry bushes, he scoffed at the very notion that a former New Yorker would know anything about blackberry picking. The very next day, I received the July newsletter from food-delivery service Food for Thought, and read him the following advice from Martha Stamps, an expert on blackberries if there ever was one "July is blackberry-picking month. Everyone knows that. But watch out for snakes. That's where they hide for unsuspecting birds."

Thankfully, our blackberry-picking outing yielded only fresh, sweet blackberries and no snakebites. With Martha's snake and berry advice uppermost in my mind, I consulted her wonderful cookbook, The New Southern Basics, for a cobbler recipe. Here it is, just in case you brave the reptilian threat and go blackberry picking yourself.

Fruit mixture

  • 6 cups fresh blackberries
  • 3/4 cup plus 2 Tbs. sugar
  • 1/4 cup plus 2 Tbs. butter
Pie crust:
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 cup shortening
  • Ice water just to catch dough, about 2 or 3 Tbs.
Sift flour with salt. Mix in shortening with your fingertips until the mixture resembles cornmeal. Add just enough ice water to form a dough. Gather into a ball and place in refrigerator for a few minutes before rolling out.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Toss blackberries with the sugar and place in a standard Pyrex baking dish. Cut 1/4 cup of the butter into bits and dot top of berries. (Add 2 Tbs. flour if a thicker juice is desired.) Roll out the dough in a rough rectangle and cover the berries. Trim excess dough, but don't make it look too neat. Cut slits in the dough and bake for 20 minutes. Pull cobbler out of the oven and rub crust with 2 Tbs. butter and sprinkle with sugar. Return to oven and bake 20 more minutes until pastry is nicely browned and the filling is bubbly. Serve with ice cream or lightly sweetened whipped cream.

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