By Elizabeth Bonner
Looking back, Denise Gee is unable to separate her upbringing from lessons in Southern entertaining. She grew up in Natchez, Mississippi, sharing a four-story Victorian manse with her mother, grandmother, and rotating groups of renters. The home doubled as the site of the family business: a boutique featuring clothing, antiques, and her grandmother’s renowned homemade jams and jellies. Helping with the eclectic shop, Denise learned the ways of the Southern hostess at an early age.
With Southern Appetizers, she brings this lifetime of experience to a collection of 60 crowd-pleasing recipes for laidback entertaining, along with seasoned advice for acting as a gracious host and pulling off a party to remember. “I was raised in a historic, party-loving Mississippi River town around family and friends who loved to cook, entertain, and tell a good story or two,” the author says.
After such a childhood, followed by years working as a food writer in the South, Denise has come to the conclusion that “food is the life of the party,” and in our region, no party is complete without a taste-tempting assortment of appetizers to welcome guests. “I devised a list of recipes that would stand the test of time—classics with an elegant or novel twist or a blending of Southern ingredients with timeless and tasteful flair,” she says of the book’s contents.
From “Pick-Me-Ups” like handheld snacks, dips, and spreads to heartier starters for sit-down dinners, Denise presents an assemblage of fine-tuned recipes that spans traditional favorites and innovative combinations of familiar flavors.
Readers will recognize delightful versions of Debonaire Deviled Eggs, Cajun-Seasoned Boiled Peanuts, and Fanciful Cheese Straws—spruced up with a voluptuous ribbon shape. But they’ll also find imaginative dishes such as Dr Pepper Brisket and Brie Quesadillas with Peachy BBQ Sauce, Wee Chicken and Waffles with Jezebel-Maple Syrup, and a creative Charleston Cheese Ball, shaped like a pineapple in tribute to the city’s icon of hospitality.
Additionally, Denise pairs the recipes with an abundance of tips and tricks for every aspect of party planning beyond cooking up the cuisine. She begins the compilation with a chapter on prepping for the gathering and finishes with a section full of ideas for themes and complementary menus. Offering her wisdom on the importance of balancing the menu, arranging flowers and other décor, organizing party flow and style, and simplifying the role of the host, Denise covers it all—right down to the history and proper preparation of finger sandwiches.
Ultimately, the author feels a true hallmark of this book lies in the genuine connection it seeks to foster between the Southern hostess and her guests. “I hope the recipes reflect the joy I get from creating inviting, flavorful, doable, memorable food connected to fun people and stories—and presented in ways that not only make them look special, but also make guests feel special,” she says.
Enter for your chance to win the cookbook, and continue reading for a couple of our favorite picks from Denise’s scrumptious compilation. Get more on Southern Appetizers, along with plenty of other entertaining inspiration, in our March/April issue on newsstands February 28.