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Talking Southern with Mary Steenburgen

Mary Steenburgen

Last summer, the much-anticipated culinary and cultural collaboration of Oxford American magazine and Chef Matthew Bell manifested in South on Main restaurant. The name is representative of the Little Rock neighborhood where it resides, the revitalized South Main (or SoMa, as natives call it) district, but it also summons the soul of the restaurant — the South. Actor and South on Main investor Ted Danson eloquently summarized the restaurant’s significance during a speech he gave at its grand opening celebration last weekend: “this restaurant is the South personified … with great music and great art.”

Danson isn’t a native Southerner, but he can attest to South on Main’s authenticity and aspirations because, in his words, he’s “married to the South.” His wife, actress Mary Steenburgen, was raised in Arkansas, where her family still lives. Family is incredibly important to Steenburgen; it’s why she and Danson invested in this restaurant run by Steenburgen’s niece, Amy Bell, and her husband, Matthew Bell.

Investing in South on Main meant more than a business venture for Steenburgen, who used the opportunity to collaborate with her niece on the restaurant’s interior. Steenburgen, who co-owns an interior design store in California, scoured the South to find the unique furniture and décor that is as much a signature of the restaurant as the food.

This is one of my favorite pieces of furniture on the planet,” Steenburgen said, placing a hand on the round, vintage chaise in the restaurant’s entryway. “I call it ‘Mr. Poof.’ It used to be in a hotel in Nashville, and evidently people there were very upset when it moved to a new city; but it will be treasured here.

“Mr. Poof,” formerly of Nashville.

On the brick wall facing the chaise are about a dozen artfully arranged framed pictures. “There are little bits and memories of me all over these walls,” she said, pointing to a photo of a dancing family member situated among watercolor portraits and mid-century clocks.

“We tried to focus on making sure our family ties were included throughout the restaurant,” Amy Bell said about their design scheme. “There’s a painting hanging of a train yard, and a train lantern propped on one of the bar shelves; these are for my grandfather and Mary’s father, Maurice Steenburgen. When you walk in you see photos that are stills taken from reel to reel footage of my grandmother, Nellie Mae, dancing with her sister while her mom plays piano and her brother plays guitar. … We wanted the spirit of our families to be in the restaurant with us because that’s where our love of food and hospitality was born.”

Steenburgen affirmed Bell’s testimony, citing her mother’s cooking and her Aunt Freda’s unsurpassable, made-from-scratch chicken and dumplings as her main inspiration in the kitchen. “I cook for everyone in my family. … by the way, I make killer chicken and dumplings,” she swore.

This family-focused mentality is one shared by chef Matthew Bell, who said his “biggest inspiration is the families of the South. Friends are always willing to show you their favorite recipes, if you just ask. … Old ‘church lady’ cookbooks are hidden gems.”

With a menu that includes roasted drum, catfish hoppin’ John and pork chops with creamed greens and fried hominy, it’s evident he’s borrowed heavily from heirloom recipes, reinventing them with brave, unexpected twists — a prime example is Steenburgen’s favorite, the vegan cauliflower steak with butterbean gravy.

Before continuing to make her rounds, embracing relatives and catching up with friends at the packed party, Steenburgen introduced us to Aunt Freda of the famed chicken and dumplings, and, holding to Southern tradition, she insisted we have that recipe.

 

Mary Steenburgen and Aunt Freda at South on Main’s grand opening.

Aunt Freda’s Chicken and Dumplings
Boil 1 chicken or 4 chicken breasts (remove from pot)

Dumplings:
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons Crisco
2 teaspoons baking powder
Cut Crisco into flour with a pastry blender. Add broth or hot water and blend with flour mixture. Make into ball and roll out on floured counter or board. Cut into strips and let dry awhile. Bring broth to boil and add 1 tablespoon butter and enough milk for color. Cook with lid off about 15 to 20 minutes.

Lou Haggard
Via Freda Nichols

 


Willa Dean played it cool when interviewing Mary and Ted, but really she was about to burst with fangirl glee. She thanks the couple for being two of the most amiable interviewees ever and thanks Aunt Freda for that fine recipe. Dean can be reached at willadeanwriter@gmail.com.

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