Vui Hunt in Dirty Pages
The ongoing Dirty Pages Exhibit assembled by Jennifer Justus, Erin Byers Murray, and Cindy Wall preserves the heart and soul of our kitchens.
The best recipes are the ones dusted with cocoa powder and ringed with wine stains, evidence not only of time-tested dishes, but of the presence of those who have lovingly prepared them.
The quote has inspired its own exhibit, Dirty Pages—a celebration of handed down recipes. Oh, if these recipes could talk.
The original Dirty Pages exhibit, which debuted at the Nashville Farmers’ Market in 2015, now lives at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans. A second version, “Dirty Pages: 10 Roads to Nashville,” is on display at Casa Azafran, a multicultural community center on Nolensville Pike.
For Mother’s Day, we rounded up a few stories here from both exhibits that honor the kitchen influence of the moms among us.
A third Dirty Pages exhibit is planned for later this year. For updates, follow Dirty Pages at dirtypages.org (where you can sign up for email updates), and on Facebook, Twitter (@DirtyPgs) and Instagram (@DirtyPages).
SHRIMP PAD THAI
Vui Hunt credits her half sister for getting her family to the United States. Born in Vietnam in the ’70s, Vui is one of five children, and their mother held several jobs, like trading coffee with a tribal unit in the area, and working at an embassy. Her sister’s father was American, making her Amerasian and through the Amerasian Homecoming Act, the family was able to emigrate to the U.S.
It was a long process, Vui says. “We moved to Saigon, to Ho Chi Minh City. We stayed in Thailand for awhile, stayed in the Philippines for awhile. It was an amazing time—I loved it. I thought, why do I have to go to U.S.? It’s great here!”
The family arrived in Atlanta in 1986. Vui was 12 and vividly remembers her first trip to the grocery store. “Everything was so neatly lined up and already made—canned food! It was just eye opening. In Vietnam, we’d go to the wet market every day to get our fresh seafood. Here, it was ‘what’s this?’ Canned corn, canned beans,” she says. The family survived on ramen noodles at first, as they figured out how to adapt. Eventually they settled in Smyrna, just outside of Atlanta.
She moved to Nashville with her husband, John, and started her own juice bar business. She remained a vegetarian until she got pregnant with her first daughter—that’s when she started craving the tastes of home. Specifically, pigs’ feet dipped in raw fish sauce. She finally found some and two hours later, “called my mom up and said, ‘hey, guess what I’m eating!’”
Vui started asking her mother for more recipes, and writing them down. “My mom doesn’t have anything on record because she doesn’t read or write. Everything is up here,” she says, pointing to her head.
This recipe for shrimp pad Thai, which Vui has adapted by taking out the MSG her mother uses, has become a way for her to recreate that communal feeling they had in Vietnam. Her two daughters, ages 5 and 7, love eating it, too.
PERSIAN SAFFRON PUDDING
Java Hemmat grew up in the United Arab Emirates with parents who had friends from around the world. She specifically remembers a woman named Sholeh Zard, whose background was both Iraqi and Iranian—and who brought a Persian saffron pudding to dinner.
“She used to make this beautiful, colorful, aromatic pudding, and it would have cardamom and cinnamon and would be garnished with pistachios,” Java says. “It was a feast with your eyes. It has always stayed with me.”
Years later, when Java left home for Middle Tennessee State University, her mother gave her a copy of the Persian cookbook that holds this saffron pudding recipe. “When I first started to learn to cook, it was sort of like chasing that dragon to make that recipe exactly as it was.”
Java describes the author of the cookbook, which is written in Farsi, as “the Julia Child of the Middle East,” blending European techniques with Middle Eastern flavors. And in the process of making these recipes and others, Java found her own passion. Though she worked in the corporate world for about six years, she began to study the history of hummus and its connections to Egyptians and Syrians. After a layoff from her job—and with just $40 to her name—she opened the Hummus Chick business. By 2014, she was working the business full-time.
“I cook everything,” she says, listing her favorites from cheeseburgers to Italian and French cuisines. “The basis is the same. The effort and the love—it’s universal.”
MOM’S SPAGHETTI AND MEATBALLS
Mom, Mickey Margulies has been making “Mom’s Spaghetti and Meatballs” for 45 years. Every couple of months it’s the centerpiece for her family’s weekly Sunday supper, a tradition she’s kept up through the years in spite of everyone’s busy schedules. Daughters Ellen, Karen, Jan, and granddaughter Kaiti, call and say, ‘What time is lunch?’” Mickey says. They join as often as they can—and the door is always open.
“Growing up, we’d all go to mass on Sundays with my dad while my mom stayed home and got started on Sunday dinner,” says the youngest daughter, Ellen. “That was always her excuse for staying home, but it was probably a nice way for her to get some peace and quiet.”
As for the origin of this particular recipe, it came from her daughter’s friend’s mother, who said she got it from an “older Italian lady.” We’ve been using it ever since.
Margot Café and Bar, Marche Artisan Foods
PEANUT BUTTER BARS
When chef Margot McCormack of Margot Cafe and Bar thumbed through her grandmother’s recipe box, she found Mrs. Roger’s Chocolate Cake and Aunt Gerdie’s Devil’s Food. But her favorite is the Peanut Butter Bars.
“They’re a lot like my recipes,” she says. “No method, just the ingredients. They assume that you know how to make the cake and what temperature to make it, and how to fix the pans.”
Margot’s mother procured the recipe from Brookemeade Elementary School which Margot attended as a kid. “I loved the food there. The rolls. The macaroni and cheese. But my favorite thing was these peanut butter bars.”
Though the original recipe fed a crowd of 300 or more, her mother broke it down for a 9-by-11-inch pan. “That took some doing,” Margot says. “She used to make them periodically for me.” A longtime fan of peanut butter, she says her mother also made her a peanut butter birthday cake. “I have one every year. Even now,” Margot says.
As for the peanut butter bars? On occasion you can find them at Marche Artisan Foods, made by the restaurant’s pastry chef Tom Huber.
“It’s written in a bunch of places,” she says. “I have it written in my recipe book at home. It’s at work, and it’s at Marche. There’s a trail of peanut butter bars.”