Caroline Randall Williams has no idea what time she went to bed the night of her Moveable Feast dinner. All she knows is that it was well past midnight and that people were still dancing in the downstairs parlor of her 1913 Prairie-style manse on Blair Avenue when she headed upstairs to kick off her high heels and fall into bed.
And who could blame her guests for their late-night reveling? Earlier that day, the majority of the group — which included several dancers from the Nashville Ballet , a handful of musicians (one of them with a Grammy to her name), three poets, an historian, a fashion designer and more than a few published writers— had wrapped the inaugural run of Lucy Negro Redux, a multi-discipline performance based on the poems in Caroline’s book of the same name.
In the book, the Nashville native imagines the life of the Elizabethan brothel owner known as Black Luce, aka Lucy, a dark-skinned woman whom scholars have determined was well “acquainted” with Shakespeare and his merry band. The book debuted in 2016, as a small run of 300 copies, one of which ended up in the hands of Nashville Ballet artistic director Paul Vasterling, who imagined a dramatization of the storyline that included dance, live music, and Caroline as narrator. Flash forward three years, and the show is a big hit, selling out of its Nashville performances and getting ink in the New York Times. (Lucy was given its second run last week, at Knoxville’s Big Ears Festival.)
Indeed, there was a lot to celebrate the evening of Sunday, February 10, when a group including cast members Kayla Rowser, who danced the part of Lucy, and Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi, the acclaimed musician couple who scored the show, joined a group of Caroline’s proud family and friends for a congratulatory meal prepared by City House chef/owner Tandy Wilson and pastry chef Rebekah Turshen.
On the subject of food: upon entering the house, guests were greeted by a huge rectangular palette crafted from 1,000 cookbooks in the entrance hall. If that sight sounds odd, consider that Shakespeare is far from Caroline’s sole topic of expertise: much of her professional writing has been in the food sector. In 2015, she joined her mother, author Alice Randall, to write Soul Food Love, a book presented healthy approaches to dishes traditionally identified with black culinary traditions hailing from the American South.
It was Alice who commissioned Nashville artist Herb Williams to construct the entry area art piece, which incorporated just over half of the titles in the massive (and quite well-known) congress of cookbooks that Caroline inherited years ago from her godmother. The rest of the collection lines a long wall in the kitchen.
Alice and her husband, historian David Ewing, moved into the Blair Avenue house in 2000, when Caroline was barely a teenager. The Ewing-Randall household has always been a party-hearty place. The couple’s annual parties were legendary, with each commemorated with a Hatch Show poster. The collection now hangs in the kitchen, over the wall of cookbooks.
After a drinks hour featuring “Dark Lady” cocktails, one made with local Belle Meade Bourbon and another a non-alcoholic version concocted in honor of the occasion (check out recipes from the dinner below), guests headed to the dining room, dominated by a long table custom-built to sit 18 (though that number seems almost quaint, considering that Alice shared that she once hosted a dinner for over 90). There, bowls heaping with Tandy’s soup beans and turnip greens, roasted sweet potatoes, late-winter cabbage sprouts, and braised chicken with grits and cheese were passed family-style.
As the third dish made its way around the table, Alice introduced the chefs to the table and shared some anecdotes about entertaining on Blair Avenue. “These dinner parties are a tradition,” she said. “And with this dinner, I’m turning it over from my generation to the next.”
Caroline was happy to assume the mantle. “It feels like the house is back to doing its job,” she said, as the dinner wound down and guests headed to the entrance hall to take selfies on the book pallet. “This is what this house is for. And it feels good to have Lucy pass the torch.”
Speaking to the table, Caroline admitted that she never imagined that a story like Lucy’s would have a life outside the pages of her book, let alone a ballet. “I don’t expect the world to say yes to weird black girl stuff,” she said, going on to thank Paul, her fellow performers, and Chet Weise of Third Man Books, who re-released the book last month.
“I thought that I was going to live a life that wasn’t my dream, because that’s what most people do,” she said. “You just don’t know how big people will help your dream grow.”
ABOUT THE FEAST
At The Table
Adia Victoria, Chet Weise, Chris Scribner, Ciona Rouse, Doug Fitch, Francesco Turrisi, Jason Facio, Kayla Rowser, Mason Hickman, Nicholas Scheuer, Nick Tazik, Owen Thorne, Patrick Luther, Paul Vasterling, Poni Silver, Rhiannon Giddens, Stephanie Wilson, and Virginia Henry.
In The Kitchen
Chef Tandy Wilson and pastry chef Rebekah Turshen, both of City House.
Some houses were made for entertaining — and 2126 Blair Avenue is one of them. Alice Randall and David Ewing have thrown countless parties in the house; Caroline has taken up the mantle with a personal flair. Before-dinner cocktails were served in the main living room, where guests gathered for conversation in formal seating vignettes or clustered around a record player spinning Americana and rock albums. In the dining room, the central table was strewn with red roses (a la the kind that get thrown at the feet of curtain-calling ballerinas) and lined with 18 place settings including French glassware and silver that has been in David Ewing’s family for more than three generations.
Locally made Belle Meade Bourbon was the hearty base for a tipple called Dark Lady II, which featured straight liquor served in a martini glass with three twists of orange peel. Teetotalers were not left out, thanks to Dark Lady I, a smoky tea-based drink that sprung from a collaboration between food writer Julia B. Bainbridge and D.C.-based bartender Evan Zimmerman.
Dark Lady I
Steep an excellent quality lapsang souchong black tea at a ration of one heaping teaspoon of tea to one cup of water. (Use an extra heaping teaspoon for a pot for five to six minutes.) Chill. Mix with equal parts cold-pressed unsweetened cherry juice, chilled. Pour into an old-fashioned stemmed champagne glass. Express the oil from one lemon peel strip into the drink; drop in the peel. Serve.
Tandy is a longtime friend of the Randall/Ewing family. At dinner, Alice shared that for the last 15 years, every time she finishes the draft of a book, she celebrates by asking him to cook her dinner.
Tandy’s MO for Caroline’s Moveable Feast was to cook foods that she loves to eat and that he loves to make. “I believe that I cook soul food in many ways, be it the ingredients that I choose, the love that’s behind them, or the constant desire for a meal to be sustenance, physically and mentally,” he said. “Many of the thoughts of who I am as a chef have come through talks with Alice and sometimes Caroline. So the opportunity to cook in the house where our friendship began was a special one.”
For Rebekah’s part, she paid homage to the world of a ballet by making individual pavlovas, a traditional dessert named for the Russian dancer Anna Pavlova that is often served at celebratory meals.
Soup Beans, Hearty Greens, Sorghum Dressing, Hot Water Corn Crunch
Roasted Sweet Potatoes Tahini, Crispy Rice, Peanuts, Lemon, Herbs, Chilies
Frico, Tomato Braised Cabbage Sprouts
Braised Chicken, Tomato, Cauliflower, Grits and Cheese
BRAISED CHICKEN, TOMATO, CAULIFLOWER, GRITS AND CHEESE
Tandy is well-known for his use of braising and roasting methods to prepare meat. “I like to cook the chicken until it’s tender but not over-cooked and stringy, and then let it rest in the cooking liquids,” he said. “I brown the chicken and then build the flavor with onion, garlic, anchovies, oregano, chilies, white wine and tomato.”
As for the all-important base: “Grits and cheese are something I grew up with and will always love,” he said. “I have reduced the cheese in this recipe and we mill our own grits. But other than that, this is Nana’s recipe.”
2 cups good quality grits
3 eggs, slightly beaten
6 cups water
1 stick butter (½ cup)
12 ounces sharp cheddar cheese
Cook grits at a simmer until tender and thick. Stir regularly and season with some salt. Just as they finish stir in the butter and cheese. Check salt and then temper in the eggs. Transfer to a greased baking dish and bake at 350 for 30 minutes.
Eight large meringues plus 32 small for crushing
1/2 cup egg whites (usually 3-4)
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup white sugar
1/4 cup light brown sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/2 cup toasted crushed pecans
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
Preheat oven to 300. Combine sugars and cornstarch. Put egg whites and salt in stand mixer. Whisk on medium high until whites have turned opaque and you see slight whisk pattern on the surface of the mixture. Add sugar mix 1/4 cup at a time and increase speed to high. Meringue will continue to thicken and become glossy and strong peaks will form as whisk is removed. Dump nuts and vinegar on top of meringue and fold in with a wide rubber spatula. Scoop 8 meringue with a 1/4 cup sized cookie scoop at least an inch apart onto the first parchment-lined baking pan. Pan spray the back of a kitchen spoon to press divots into the middle of meringues. Scoop remaining meringue with the tablespoon-sized cookie scoop onto the other baking pan. Bake approximately one hour. Meringues should be light tan with a peek of white inside the very middle when ready to pull.
To assemble the dessert: Spoon desired fruit and preserves, sherbet or ice cream, and whipped cream into divoted meringues. Crush smaller meringues for garnish, save in airtight container for snacks or share with guests in tiny gift bags. Meringues can be baked ahead and will keep for several weeks in an airtight container.