By Kim Choe

“So much of what we learned had nothing to do with the ingredients. It was more about the experience.”

RECIPE: NO-BAKE OATMEAL FUDGE COOKIES

As a child, Jennifer Justus’ dining room was the local meat-and-three restaurant in McCaysville, Georgia. Her parents owned a hardware and lumber store in the small town and often worked until late, meaning home-cooked meals were a rarity.

The family had a barter arrangement with the meat and three – a style of restaurant originating in the southern United States which, as its name suggests, serves homely meals of one meat dish with a choice of three sides.

“My brother and I, even when we were little, we could go down to the meat-and-three, eat, and then just sign the ticket and they worked it out with my parents,” Jennifer says. “We ate there a lot and we knew that family very well.”

The meat-and-three’s rotating offerings were comfortingly predictable: “You knew on Friday it was fried chicken, and on Wednesday it was meatloaf.”

Perhaps because of their unfamiliarity, kitchens and cooking became sources of curiosity and inspiration for Jennifer, who has gone on to build a career as a food writer based in Nashville, Tennessee.

Jennifer Justus

Jennifer Justus (Photo: Andrea Behrends)

She discovered her interest in food culture while working as an ethnographic researcher. One project for a pizza company client tasked her with getting teenagers to go without pizza to try and understand what triggered cravings.

“I really got into food then, because I saw that deep emotional connection. And so much of what we learned had nothing to do with the ingredients, it was more about the experience.”

A chance encounter on Facebook inspired a storytelling project exploring that connection in more depth. Jennifer’s friend had posted a photo of a recipe stained by wayward ingredients after years of heavy use, prompting another woman to remark, “I tell my daughters that when I go, they’ll know the good recipes by the dirty pages.”

That comment was the genesis of Dirty Pages, which saw Jennifer and two fellow food writers gather the favourite dirty recipes and stories of 20 Nashville women for an exhibition which debuted earlier this year.

Jennifer’s own dirty page comes courtesy of her mother, Marcie Culpepper. Her no-bake oatmeal fudge cookies can be made “in exactly 11 minutes from start to finish”, Jennifer says, a reflection of how economical her mother had to be in balancing work and family life.

“Growing up, I spent a lot of time at the holidays spooning various sugary concoctions onto sheets of wax paper. We covered every counter and the kitchen table with paper for dropping date balls (made with rice krispies) or cornflakes held together with melted marshmallow and doused with green food colouring to look like florescent holly leaves.

“I realise now that a lot of the spooning had to do with my mother’s busy work schedule. Her holiday baking was all about the one-pot mix and no bake time.

“I had no idea that in other family kitchens people were building layer cakes or rolling out pie crusts. And I would have probably passed those things up at the Christmas buffet table for an oatmeal fudge cookie at the time (and maybe even now).”

The cookies proved an effective cure for homesickness when she was away at college. The recipe’s origin is unclear, although Jennifer is certain it’s not original, having likely been found on the back of an oatmeal box. Nevertheless, it now has a unique place in her story.

“In my own history, they have me thinking about Mum’s work ethic and how she taught me by example to hustle. She mostly went about work cheerfully, too, even though she was probably tired and stressed out a lot of the time. She would brilliantly convince my brother and me to participate in ‘clothes folding parties’ while she did the laundry, and she treated unloading the dishwasher like a honour to be bestowed on one of us. So of course when it came to cookies, we were standing at attention to help stir, drop and taste.”

RECIPE: NO-BAKE OATMEAL FUDGE COOKIES

Jennifer Justus is the author of ‘The Food Lovers’ Guide to Nashville‘ and the forthcoming Nashville Eats – a collection of more than 100 recipes from noted local proprietors, which will be released in October 2015.