Days before the first guest steps through the holly-decorated doorway, my chef, Art Smith, begins dicing, chopping, mincing, and brewing to stir up a menu with some of my all-time favorite fixin's: slow-roasted chicken with wild rice dressing (the perfect "I'm sick of turkey" choice), pantry tomato tart (a dish I've always loved), and sautéed greens with shallots (a scrumptious way to get those veggies in). Art always knows to start the meal with soup. As a child, I would watch Lassie, and there was always a Campbell's soup commercial where Timmy's mom would feed him soup that was "M'm! M'm! Good!" Ever since, soup has been my favorite thing to have for lunch, and in winter I have it almost every day. For this special dinner, I ask Art to mix up the soup I most often request: spicy winter squash. He makes his with butternut squash (it's absolutely de-lish!), but he tells me that any kind of winter squash will do: calabaza, hubbard, or, in a pinch, even a sugar pumpkin.
Few people get more excited about a party than my best friend, Gayle King. "I've just seen Art's menu," she exclaims hours before our dinner. "I can't wait." One by one, soon after dusk, the eight other guests arrive: Stedman's daughter, Wendy Graham; my father, Vernon Winfrey, and his wife, Barbara; my godmother, Rosalind Eddins (I call her Mrs. E), and her husband, Calvin; my longtime pals Mary Kay Clinton and her husband, Tom O'Brien. And of course, there's my one very special guest who steps in working her new do: my goddaughter, 8-year-old Katy Rose, child of Mary Kay and Tom—whose flip is fabulous.
After a champagne toast accompanied by a taste of the South—drop biscuits with ham—we take our places around the dining room table. Some of my fondest early memories were around a table like this one. My grandmother, Hattie Mae, would stand over a hot stove for hours, preparing cheese grits, homemade biscuits dripping with butter, home-cured ham, red-eye gravy—and that was just breakfast! During Sunday supper—the one day when the preacher from Kosciusko Baptist Church down the road was sure to stop in to join us—our table was heaped with smothered chicken, black-eyed peas, fried okra, and buttered cornbread. Food was the guest of honor, covering so much of the table there was hardly room for plates. As Stedman gives thanks for the bounty before us and the spirit of those gathered, I am grateful, more than 40 years after sitting at my grandmother's table, that I can offer the same gifts of abundance and care that she passed on to me during our feasts—all of the love, less of the butter.