Allow me to introduce you to Elizabeth Heiskell, better known at the Debutante Farmer in Oxford, Mississippi. I first met her at a “Taste of Oxford” event held in Birmingham, Alabama, and was delighted and intrigued from the moment I heard her Southern drawl. I could tell she was unpretentious, smart and very passionate about cooking in general and vegetables in particular.
Elizabeth is a product of the Mississippi Delta and all of the culinary heritage oozing from that rich soil. She has no formal training as a chef, but she took classes at the Culinary Institute in New York and always, always watched and learned from the good cooks in her family. She owned her own catering company, Elizabeth Heiskell Catering, before becoming the head chef for the Viking Range Corporation. She finally had her dream house, thanks to husband Luke and his home construction business, and they were happily raising their three young daughters. Then, quite unexpectedly, they were asked to move to Oxford, MS and partner in a large farming enterprise called Woodson Ridge. Luke grew up farming, and Elizabeth, in her role as a chef, knew what chefs needed from farmers. Their roles seemed tailor-made. He would grow the vegetables, and she would sell them and create recipes for them. Heirloom tomatoes quickly became one of her favorite products at the farm, and she produced a heritage brand of bloody Mary mix with her Debutante Farmer label on it. Find the link to ordering some for yourself here.
Elizabeth sees herself first as a teacher, but she’s also an author. She and Susanne Young Reed co-authored the book Somebody Stole the Cornbread from My Dressing: A Hilarious Comparison Between the North and South Through Recipes and Recollections and her solo cookbook, What Can I Bring?: Southern Food for Any Occasion Life Serves Up will debut on October 17, 2017.
One of Elizabeth’s long-time, not-so-secret desires was to meet Matt Lauer and appear on NBC’s The TODAY Show. Her big break finally happened when she was catering a small dinner party at Rowan Oak in Oxford, the legendary home of author William Faulkner. In attendance was Andrew Lack, Chairman of NBC. He was wildly impressed by her cooking and entertained by stories from the other guests about Elizabeth’s long-time quest to be on the TODAY Show. He promised to be in touch with her, but a month went by without a word. Elizabeth, with her indomitable spirit, sent Mr. Lack a gift basket with lots of her favorite goodies in it along with a funny note about how he could go about having her on the show. The first step he took was sending Erica Hill to the farm to tape a segment about Woodson Ridge for the show, but then, at long last, Elizabeth received her invitation to prepare her grandmother’s Pillowcase Turkey recipe in front of the TODAY Show audience. You can see that segment here.
The spot was so popular that she was invited to become a regular on TODAY. Her next appearance will be on October 19th when she launches her cookbook at the 8:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m. hours.
Elizabeth prepared her famous Tomato Pie for us in Birmingham with a few tweaks on her recipe that appeared on TODAY. Get the recipe here. For an easy approach, use a store-bought pre-made pie crust, but in the video segment that goes with the recipe, Elizabeth explains how to make a quick and easy homemade crust, so it’s very tempting to go that route.
In the demonstration in Birmingham, Elizabeth took time to explain the importance of slicing the beautiful tomatoes (she likes to use several varieties to make the colors and flavors more interesting), laying the slices out, salting them thoroughly and then letting them sit for about 15 minutes. Then, she blots them thoroughly before putting them in the pie crust. The idea is to drain as much water out of the tomatoes as possible before adding the other ingredients. Her recipe calls for mozzarella, parmesan and goat cheese, but she admits that you can use other cheeses if you prefer (such as cheddar or gouda). Mix the cheeses with the mayonnaise and then use this mixture to “frost” the tomatoes. Cover the tomatoes all the way to the edges of the crust. For extra decadence, make two layers of tomatoes and cheese mixture. Then, sprinkle the top with freshly-grated parmesan cheese and pop it in the oven at 350-degrees for about 20 minutes or until lightly browned.
What a delicious way to showcase Woodson Ridge Farm’s products. Elizabeth, her husband and their partner Sandy Sharp are key players in the farm-to-table approach in restaurants and markets throughout the South, particularly in Oxford and Memphis. All who live in the region are beneficiaries of their hard work.
To learn more about Elizabeth Heiskell and Woodson Ridge Farms, go to www.debutantefarmer.com.