With the holidays fast approaching, Joann Ealey of Stillmore, has plenty going on in her kitchen. Turns out, she likes it low-key and personal, something many people will envy as they try to time their meals just right for family gatherings. Fear not, however, as the mom of six and owner of Southern Taste Catering shared in an interview her best tips for making time in the kitchen less stressful and the food delicious.
Ealey began by sharing where she believes her love for cooking comes from and why she’s good at it—and neither of those (her passion and skill) are by chance. On the contrary, she had a great example growing up, and she has been a student of the culinary arts for years.
“My mom was a great cook. She could make anything. I kind of fell into it while in high school. I took home economics. My first dish, the teacher had us prepare meals from different countries. I was assigned Thailand, and I had to fix something with peanuts of all things,” Ealey said with a laugh. I did it, though, and I guess you could say my interest in cooking and baking just expanded from there.”
She went on to say she was clueless about the world of opportunity out there beyond the basics of what home economics taught her, but she’s not bitter. After all, she has led a successful career in the kitchen.
“Looking back on it, I think I’m a little disappointed. Home ec taught us how to cook and take care of a family, but I didn’t know there was a such thing as culinary school. I could be in France by now!” Ealey continued with a chuckle. “But God has His way. He has plans for us, and I’m living His purpose every day.”
Since high school, Ealey has held down a number of jobs, all focused in the culinary field. She moved to Emanuel County in 2001, and she has been a chef at Flat Creek Lodge, had her own restaurant in Stillmore, opened a catering business, and is presently the dietary manager at Cedar Plantation.
Most near and dear to the 62-year-old’s heart, however, is preparing food for her family, especially for the holidays. She’s good at it, too, and has experience in preparing for small gatherings as well as large crowds.
Before the pandemic hit, her family had huge gatherings for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Four years ago was the biggest turnout she has ever seen. Approximately 250 family members showed up, and the family had to rent a space in Santa Claus, Georgia big enough to accommodate everyone. Ealey and her sisters prepared all the food entirely on their own. She alone prepared a whopping two turkeys, four restaurant-size pans of homemade creamed corn, the same amount and size of dressing and giblet gravy (her famed dish among the family), and a few fill-in sides.
This Christmas, she expects about 75 folks for the family gathering, which, according to the rotating host schedule, will be held at her sister’s house in Hinesville. Although it will be scaled down compared to years past, Ealey has already been making preparations for the 2021 gathering—and she’s got her work cut out for her in helping feed her children and their significant others, her nieces and nephews, and a host of grandchildren.
She and her sisters have split the menu, like usual, and Ealey is well aware of what’s expected of her. Nothing has changed in that regard for years. First and foremost, she is responsible for the dressing and gravy. Secondly, she is expected to come with a “showstopper cake” in tow, although she also contributes other sides like greens, butterbeans, and cheese and macaroni (a dish she explicitly dubbed that way for a reason later explained).
While she admits holiday cooking is a lot of work, she wouldn’t have it any other way. Any southern woman knows the way to someone’s heart is through the stomach, and pleasing palates is something that warms Ealey’s heart.
“I like to cook, so I don’t necessarily think of it as work. I like to see the expressions on everybody’s face. I like to hear when something I made is good. I love seeing people go back for seconds, and I love how everybody knows what dish was made by whoever. I love having enough food to go around, I love seeing people have a good time at the table together, and we always do,” she explained. “The fellowship around the holidays, it’s second to none. Cousins reminisce about old days at Grandma’s house, and if you listen closely, you’ll find out things they did when they were younger that are comical now. Meanwhile, the youngest generation is outside making memories. You can’t put a price on those things, no matter how stressed you feel when you gotta go shop or how tired your feet might be when you’re cooking. It’s worth it at the end of the day.”
That’s why when the pandemic hit, Ealey was upset. Gone was the holiday get-together she knew and loved preparing for.
“We couldn’t get together, and that made me extremely saddened. I know it was the same for everybody because of COVID, but that doesn’t make it any less bearable to spend the holidays in a different way than you’ve been used to your whole life,” Ealey continued. “We got on a Zoom, though, and chatted virtually so the fact that we found a way to be together anyway is remarkable in itself, and I’m grateful for that.”
Ealey’s cheese and macaroni tips
For many families, this is the staple dish. If you’re trusted to bring it, you’re being counted on in a way that cannot be overstated. While Ealey isn’t the cheese and macaroni maker for her family, she knows her way around the dish.
“First of all, it’s not ‘macaroni and cheese.’ You want more cheese than macaroni, and you gotta start with the name. It’s ‘cheese and macaroni,’” she said with a laugh. “No, but for real… You can make this dish a lot of different ways, but I use milk, eggs, sour cream, cream cheese, and a variety of shredded cheeses. The key is not to overcook it. You don’t want dry cheese and macaroni, and the way I make sure that doesn’t happen is by looking at the amount of liquids in it before it goes into the oven. I also construct this dish in layers.”
First, cook the pasta, then mix in the liquids of your choice. Add the macaroni noodles and re-check the liquidity, adding milk as necessary, then add more cheese. Repeat this process, layering to build the dish to a volume of your choosing. Then, pop it into the oven.
“Don’t overcook it. It’s pretty much already cooked. The cheese you put on top is going to help you determine when it’s done. You want it to be a golden color. If it starts turning dark, it’s starting to dry out so go ahead and remove it.”
This year, however, thanks to vaccines, antibodies, social distancing, and other safety measures, it’s back to business. Whether you’re getting ready to help contribute to the family meal for the first time, preparing for a larger crowd than usual, trying a new dish, or simply want to know how she rolls, Ealey shares her best tips below.
Step 1, she says, is quality preparation. Pick a menu and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Designate specific people for specific dishes. Once you’ve done that, move into the next phase: planning your personal responsibilities. This includes figuring out your budget, what ingredients you’ll need, creating a schedule, and sticking to it.
Typically, Ealey begins preparing for the holidays almost a week ahead of time, tracking down the best deals on bulk buys, making shopping lists, and going to make her purchases. Then, once she has everything in hand, she starts cooking about three days before the gathering.
“Most of my stuff, I buy from Sam’s and Walmart, but don’t forget to check locally. Always figure out how much you’ll need, then compare the prices across the board. I’ve found it’s best to start doing this as far as a week or two in advance so that you’re getting it at the best price and most availability compared to when the holiday shoppers start buying,” Ealey said. “Another thing I would suggest is go to the farmers market for vegetables. If you know someone who grows fresh vegetables, give them a call and see what they have. Fresh vegetables are always best.”
When it comes to planning the menu, she has a surprisingly useful bit of insight. Skip the finger foods and just go with a meal. Doing so will be more cost-effective, and the food will go further.
“Because of meat prices today, finger foods can actually be more expensive, believe it or not. Serve a plated meal instead if cost is a factor you have to think about. Because finger foods are smaller, you’re going to need more of those to feed a crowd, be it small or large. If you absolutely have to have finger foods, go with a smaller variety in a bigger quantity.”
Next, in regard to the schedule, the professional says you need to allot time for certain menu items, like thawing the turkey, cleaning the chickens, and so on. Once you’re ready to really get into the heft of cooking, the order in which you prepare the courses will heavily effect the amount of stress you’re feeling.
“Go ahead and knock those desserts out first. You can fix those, wrap them, and put them up,” she explained. “Sides go next. You’re going to heat them back up when you get to where you’re going or when your guests start to arrive, anyway, so the sides should be your second thing in line to do. Your meats need to be the last on your list. You don’t want to start them too early because if you have to reheat them, you might dry them out… But you also don’t want to start them too late because if you do, your guests might arrive and you’ll be waiting on the food to finish cooking.”
If the latter has to be the case, Ealey continued, it’s not a bad idea to have some snack food waiting.
The sweet spot, however, is starting the meats before you head off to bed. A turkey, for example, would be perfect to pop into the oven for a few hours and remove the next morning. Overall, knowing the amount of time each dish will take is extremely beneficial. For instance, her dressing is the most complex dish she prepares. It requires her to bake cornbread and make broth from scratch, cut up vegetables, cook and shred chicken backs, and mix all of those ingredients together before it can be cooked. Thus, she creates her entire schedule around that one menu item.
When asked what the key to ensuring all these dishes are tasty, Ealey says the secret is quality seasoning. A common go-to for her is smoked meat taken from the main course and integrated into appropriate sides, like smoked pork or poultry in the greens. She also recommends “the three amigos,” salt and pepper, garlic powder, and onion powder, be used in nearly everything.
In closing, Ealey has a few final pieces of general advice that can be mind-easing while in the kitchen.
“The holidays are a special time. It’s for celebrating Christ and family, sacrifice and love, togetherness… I know it can be hectic, but just appreciate this time of year for what it is. When it comes to cooking, try to be mindful of the reason you’re in the kitchen to begin with. Make everything with love. Manage your time to the best of your ability, use the internet to your advantage, and don’t be afraid or embarrassed or too prideful to ask for help. FaceTime that friend and ask for their recipe. Call that family member and ask questions if you have them,” Ealey said. “Just know that no matter what happens, when you finally get to sit down with your loved ones around the table and share that meal, it’s going to be worth it… And if you’re lucky, it’s going to be real good.”