12/03/2004 at 01:00 AM EST
It's not that Maya Angelou didn't know how to turn out a turkey with all the trimmings. "I do a very serious Thanksgiving," she says, "with lots of people coming from different parts of the world. I serve turkey and corn bread dressing." But when she hosted her first Christmas after moving from California to North Carolina in 1981, she mixed things up a bit. "I did a South American dish of roasted meats—beef, pork, lamb, chicken, duck and all sorts of sausages," she says. "I thought everyone would be all turkey-filled." She thought wrong. Her guests—professors from Duke and Wake Forest universities—arrived expecting a traditional feast. "When we walked into my dining room and I saw their faces," Angelou says, laughing, "oh my gosh, I had blown it!" After their initial disappointment, her guests enjoyed the meal, she says, "but it was not the giblet gravy and corn bread they had prepared their taste buds for. I will never do that again. " Here, a recipe from Hallelujah! The Welcome Table (Random House, $30).
Makes 2 dozen biscuits
4 cups all-purpose flour
½ tsp. salt
6 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 cup lard
2 cups buttermilk
1. Preheat oven to 375°.
2. Sift flour with salt, baking powder and baking soda. Cut in lard until mixture resembles coarse cornmeal. Add buttermilk, and stir until dough leaves side of bowl.
3. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured board and knead until smooth. Roll out to½-inch thickness, and cut into 2-inch rounds. lf there is no biscuit cutter at hand, use a water glass. (Turn glass upside down, dust rim in flour und cut biscuits.)
4 Bake on ungreased cookie sheet for 20 to 25 minutes, or until biscuits are golden brown.
Sometimes the warmest memories are the most bittersweet. In 1997 Pat Conroy's 76-year-old father, the model for the abusive patriarch in the bestseller The Great Santini, was ailing. Mellowed by the years, the man his children had once feared was now the center of the family celebration at Conroy's Fripp Island, S.C., home. "We did Christmas morning exactly the way we did it when we were kids—with Dad passing out presents," says Conroy. "We would all have to watch each person unwrap the present. This took hours, but it turned out to be the last time he would ever do that." For breakfast, Conroy prepared his father's favorite dish, shrimp and grits, adapted here from The Pat Conroy Cookbook (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $26), written with Suzanne Williamson Pollak. "It always tasted great," he says, "but it never tasted as wonderful as it did that last Christmas."
Breakfast Shrimp & Grits
1 cup coarse white grits
2 thick slices country bacon, cut into matchsticks (about½ cup)
1 small shallot, finely minced
2 tbsp. unsalted butter
1 lb. shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 tsp. strained fresh lemon juice
Coarse or kosher salt
2-3 drops Tabasco
1. Slow-cook grits per package directions, about 60 minutes. Set aside.
2. Place medium, heavy skillet over moderate heat. When hot, add bacon and cook until crispy, 5-8 minutes. With slotted spoon, remove to bowl, keeping pan as is, fat and all.
3. In low oven, warm four heat-proof plates.
4. Return skillet with fat to moderate heat. Add shallot and cook until soft but not colored. Melt butter and add shrimp; cook until just pink, about 3 minutes. Add lemon juice and a pinch of salt and toss to coat.
5. Spoon about½ cup grits into middle of each warm plate. With slotted spoon, place shrimp on top. Add bacon and Tabasco to pan juices, swirling skillet to create a thin sauce. Pour over shrimp and grits.