It is funny the things you remember from your childhood—the familiar smells, sounds, flavors that take you back to a specific time and place. In the kitchen yesterday, I had a flashback memory as I was cutting up a cucumber for our nightly salad. I was taken back to sitting on a tall stool in the kitchen of The Farmer’s Daughter Restaurant in Fayetteville, Arkansas, when I was about 8 years old, cutting a cucumber for the evening’s salad. Let me take you there.
My grandmother, Doris, was a character. She was loved by everyone she came in contact with. She was a storyteller, a comedian, a wife, a mother. She was the queen of hospitality and entertaining, though her style was to put out a tray of Ritz crackers, topped with cream cheese and a drop of spicy Pickapeppa sauce.
Doris wasn’t a great cook or very fancy, but she knew how to put out a spread, keep the cocktails cold and flowing, and make everyone feel special.
When my grandparents retired from their lives in Houston to the hometown of my grandfather, Fayetteville, Arkansas, Doris decided that the “retirement” phase of her life would mean opening a restaurant. With that, The Farmer’s Daughter was born.
The Daughter, as she referred to it, was magical. It was one of the “fancy” restaurants in town at the time, with southern charm exuding elegant comfort and cordiality.
I believe Doris wanted to open the restaurant because she wanted to become the entertainer she had dreamed of being as a child when she began writing stories and delivering them with grandeur to family friends over evening meals.
When this fancy restaurant opened, in the glorious days of SWC football in the college town, Doris sat sandwiched on her barstool in-between two up-right pianos, singing funny songs she wrote with her long time accompaniest Morris, and up-and-coming musician, John. She wasn’t a singer, she was a poet and lyricist, who matched great words to easy songs that captivated the crowd.
Man, she could sell a song.
The menu at the Daughter was a mix of southern favorites and French delicacies. Though she helped formulate the list, Doris didn’t cook. She was a front-of-the-house gal, knowing that success would come with a reliable team behind you. She had a trusted collection in the kitchen, sending out aromatic plates of Sole Almondine, Beef Bourginone, Chicken Marsala, roast pork tenderloin with apples, Vichicoise, Quiche Lorraine.
One of those on that team, at my young age, was me.
It was here that I had my first inspirations to cook. I watched, learned, soaked in the energy and the movement, began to develop a palate, and learned the appreciation of the artistry that comes out of a kitchen.
Yes, I was young, but I wanted to be a part of the fun.
My older sister and cousin had become hostesses for the restaurant, as did my mom for a bit. But, as I was younger, the kitchen became my home. Assisting in the prep for the evening’s meals became my task.
This included preparing the nightly chopped-salad option that accompanied every meal. I suppose Doris knew that because it was an add on, complimentary dish, that it was alright if it wasn’t the most perfect dish, as my knife cuts were all over the place, chopping one cucumber with two-inch slices and the next with half-inch slices. Mainly, it allowed me to be a part of what we all loved so much.
The Daughter closed over 30 years ago, and my grandmother passed in 2002. But, memories of her sitting on that barstool still flash in my mind. I see her drinking a Jim Beam, and Coke poured by Harry the bartender, and delivered to her by one of her University of Arkansas rugby team waiters, most likely her favorite, Big Joe, while singing one of her songs.
And with that, the memory of me sitting in the kitchen, amazed by the action, happily chopping my crooked vegetables.
The Farmer’s Daughter Chopped Salad
Note: You mainly want to make sure your veggies are hearty enough to stand up to a marinade over a long period. You can really mix any favorites, but don’t include delicate lettuce or leafy greens as it will wilt over time. And, it is really best to make this early in the day, so everything has time to meld and marinate together before you enjoy it. It is a seriously simple salad (I did master the preparation of it when I was 8). Though Doris used a store-bought Italian dressing (she loved a brand called Ott’s), I now prefer a quick mix of fresh lemon, vinegar, olive oil, and a ton of fresh herbs.
2 – English cucumbers, chopped into 1″ cubes
2 – Beefsteak tomatoes, cut into 1″ cubes
1 – zucchini or yellow squash, cut into 1″ cubes
2 – stalks celery, chopped into 1/2″ pieces
1/2 small cauliflower, chopped into 1″ pieces
3 large radishes, shaved
8 – Baby Bella or white mushrooms, cut in half or in fourths (so they are around the same size as the cucumbers
1 small onion, white, red, or yellow, diced
10 stems cilantro, chopped
10 large basil leaves, julienned
5 stems parsley, chopped
For the dressing:
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 stems thyme, chopped fine
juice and zest of 1 lemon
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/2 tablespoon each salt and pepper
splash of agave nectar or a pinch of sugar (optional, but the sugar enhances the sweetness of the veggies)
Preparation: Add all the vegetables together with the herbs in a large mixing bowl. In a mason jar, add all the ingredients for the dressing, top with the lid, and shake until thoroughly combined and slightly emulsified. Drizzle over the veggies. Using a large wooden spoon, stir to combine. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Every now and then, remove from the fridge and give the salad a stir to help everything meld together. Adjust your final seasonings to your taste before serving. Spoon the salad into a pretty dish and top with crumbled feta, sliced avocado, a dollop of Greek yogurt, or warm crusty bread.