Remembering East Hampton Southern Gentleman James Villas

Image: Andreykuzmin/123RF
“My Mother’s Southern Desserts,” Image: Andreykuzmin/123RF

As we set about rapidly breaking our new year’s resolutions and planning another fabu summer in the Hamptons, I can’t help but take a look back. The foodie firmament lost a bright star on August 17, 2018, when longtime East Hamptonite James Villas died at age 80.

Winner of a staggering six James Beard awards and author of over 20 books, Villas was known for his sharp tongue when it came to what he regarded as missteps in the kitchen. Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, to a legendary home cook and the son of a Greek restaurateur, he knew cooking, Southern cooking, Greek cooking, from the ground up. He was well groomed to assume the Food and Wine Editorship of Town & Country magazine in 1972, where he stayed for 27 years. Villas rubbed shoulders with his culinary heroes including James Beard, Julia Child, Craig Claiborne and Marcella Hazan.

I suppose our only real connection is that we were both East Hampton homeowners, James Beard fans and—unbeknownst to him—Villas was on my short list of dream interviews. In fact, when he passed, I was polishing up my knowledge, re-reading some of his works, for that dream interview. We were also both raised to be Episcopalians, and shared a love of peanut butter and beagles.

My favorite Villas book is perhaps the most pedestrian, the most accessible. It’s one of three that he wrote with his mother, Martha Pearl Villas. (She died on January 29, 2009, at age 93.)

My Mother’s Southern Desserts: More Than 180 Treasured Family Recipes for Holiday and Everyday Celebrations came out in 1998, the same year that his bestseller Villas at Table was re-issued in a 10th anniversary edition, and just four years after he and Martha Pearl released their first tome written together, My Mother’s Southern Kitchen. My Mother’s Southern Desserts is sure to “develop a fine Rebel sweet tooth” in any reader.

Known locally for his breezy entertaining style and for his support of the Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons (ARF), Villas is sorely missed by his friends and fans.

Villas has left me, a stranger, with a legacy, a short list of desserts I must try making. I hope this will be the year that I attempt his (and his momma’s) Holiday White Fruitcake, Banana-Rum Ice Cream and Baptism Coconut Pound Cake. I’ll think of him as I savor a mother’s love in every bite.

Stacy’s first cookbook, co-written with Hillary Davis, is due out from Countryman Press in 2020.

You can follow Stacy’s informed and opinionated foodie adventures on Twitter @hamptonsepicure.

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