Jennifer Nettles has been entertaining since she was a kid in Georgia. At seven years old, she was "singing at almost every church and civic-club luncheon," she saysand experimenting with recipes for her grandmother's family suppers. The 36-year-old country-music star, half of the Grammy-winning duo Sugarland (with Kristian Bush), still loves cooking for a crowd, just like her grandmother did. "My grandmother used to say, 'Young'uns, I don't have a lot, but y'all can come over.' There'd be a huge spread of fried chicken and pie." But Nettles doesn't serve fried chicken ("I don't even own a deep fryerthey'll probably revoke my Southern card for that"). Instead, she often organizes her menu around delicious soups.
Nettles explains that the soup party is a family tradition. "It's an easy way to feed a large group, plus it guarantees leftovers," she says. She also finds hosting a soup party to be a clever way to please picky guestsvegetarians, for instance. (She herself has been a pescatarian since 2006.) Nettles invites friends to bring different soups, then sets out a table of toppings. "It's like a baked-potato bar," she says. "The meat eaters can add crumbled bacon, and the dairy-free people can skip the sour cream."
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In Atlanta recently, while taking a break from a tour to promote Sugarland's latest album, The Incredible Machine, Nettles decided to throw a soup party for a group of friends that included fellow country stars Karen Fairchild and Jimi Westbrook of the band Little Big Town.
But instead of a potluck, she opted to do the cooking with her friend Steven Satterfield, chef and co-owner of Atlanta's Miller Union restaurant. "We're mutual groupies," Satterfield explains. "Jennifer used to eat at Watershed when I worked there. Watershed was about Southern historical dishes." At Miller Union, Satterfield says, "We're looking at where Southern food's headed and working with a lot of local farmers and artisanal cheesemakers, like Decimal Place Farm and Sweet Grass Dairy."
At the restaurant, Satterfield often serves local cheeses and seasonal vegetables on bite-size toasts. He prepares three varieties for guests to snack on as he and Nettles cook, including a winter-squash-and-kale with parmesan. Nettles is a fellow cheese lover and equally proud of her Georgia culinary roots. "What I like about what Steven does," she says, "is that his food is Southern but not heavy. I get the nostalgia without the guilt."
The singer still craves childhood dishes like hoecake. "It's just a beautiful, big, flat biscuit, made with Crisco, of course," she says. But she only eats it once in a while. "I want to be confident onstage. I call it 'fitness vanity.'" To that end, Nettles tours with a yoga teacher and a chef. "Sometimes our chef puts out cheese grits and bread pudding, and I have to give her the stink eye. They're so hard to pass up."
When Nettles is at home, in Atlanta or Nashville, she cooks lightened versions of family recipes. For the party, she makes a version of her mother's chicken casserole, finished with a Ritz-cracker topping. "We are Southern, my dear, so we're unafraid to use Ritz crackers in a casserole," she says.
« Classic soups with mix-and-match toppings. Photos © John Kernick.
In the kitchen, Nettles and Satterfield prepare four classic soups: white bean, cauliflower, chunky tomato and split pea. Satterfield emphasizes that to make a great soup, it's important to sauté the vegetables for the base thoroughly: "Cook them over low heat in a little fat until they soften and cook in their own juices." When the soups are ready, Nettles sets them on a table on the deck alongside bowls of toppings. Seared scallops, herb salad and Dijon-roasted cauliflower go near the cauliflower soup; onion rings, parsley pistou and crumbled bacon sit near split pea soup. Guests gather around, mixing and matching.
As everyone eats, the conversation turns to Nettles's playlistan eclectic selection that ranges from Al Green to Coldplayand the link between cooking and music. Nettles pauses to consider her response. "Both food and music have what I call terroir, like wine. The place where you're from ends up being a part of the music. It also shows up in the food."
For dessert, Nettles serves a recipe that speaks to her Southern childhood: her great-grandmother's Impossible Pie, a riff on the sugary Southern classic chess pie. "We called it 'impossible' because you can't figure out how it develops its own crust as it bakes. Somehow it magically settles and gets this crusty bottom."
Nettles reveals that the secret ingredient to the custardy pie is shredded coconut, which gives the dessert its impossibly toasty edge. The pie, like many of her favorite dishes, is also impossibly simple to make. "When you're hosting dinner, you're not an event planneryou're a friend. I don't want to be fussy. If a dish doesn't turn out, that's OK. Food is about the shared experience, whether it's haute cuisine or fried chicken." Or even a bowl of soup.
Kim Sunée is the author of the memoir Trail of Crumbs. She has written for Cooking Light and The Oxford American.