by CLIFTON MARK photos by HEATHER BOHM-TALLMAN
When Jasper Alexander published The Hattie’s Restaurant Cookbook, he paid homage to one of Saratoga’s great institutions. Hattie’s has been a Saratoga fixture in good times and bad since 1938. Chef Jasper Alexander and his wife, Beth, are Hattie’s most recent proprietors. They have also made their mark on the city well beyond the delicious food at the restaurant.
The Alexanders’ Hattie’s Annual Mardi Gras Benefit has raised over $650,000 for local not-for-profits since 2001. Beneficiaries of previous benefits include SPAC, Saratoga Community Health Center, Saratoga Hospital and Saratoga Sponsor-A-Scholar. Proceeds from this year’s Mardi Gras Benefit on Jan. 14 will go to the Caffé Lena Endowment Fund.
Caffé Lena, which recently underwent a $2 million renovation, is the iconic and oldest continuously running folk music venue and coffeehouse in the country. The café is also Hattie’s landlord. A not for-profit dedicated to presenting talented musicians regardless of fame, Caffé Lena purchased Hattie’s building in 1989.
Lena Spencer opened the café in 1960. Past performers are a who’s-who in folk music. They include Arlo Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Don McLean, Dave Van Ronk, Jerry Jeff Walker, and more. When Hattie’s moved from Federal Street in 1968 to 45 Phila St., next to Lena’s, it was remarkable serendipity that two of Saratoga’s historic Grand Dames became neighbors.
Hattie Gray Austin Moseley was born in Louisiana. When she was a young woman, she visited her sister in Chicago. There she met A. E. (Gene) Staley and his family. Gene Staley owned a corn processing company and was known as the “Starch King.” In some circles, he is better known as the founder of the NFL’s Chicago Bears.
Hattie became the family’s governess and housekeeper. The family spent their summers in Saratoga. Meanwhile, Hattie saved her money and got married. In 1938, when her first husband died, Hattie opened Hattie’s Chicken Shack on Federal Street.
It was during the midst of the Great Depression. There were not many ways for anyone to make a living. Having been a former restaurant worker and using her family’s recipes, Hattie served fried chicken, biscuits and other southern treats. She was open 24 hours a day to serve Saratoga’s horseracing and nightlife crowds.
Hattie’s Chicken Shack was especially popular with folks, especially show biz people and society types, who spent the night carousing at Saratoga’s popular clubs and bars. She was so successful that she was able to expand into a full-service restaurant after a year. To this day, Hattie is still a role model for African-American women entrepreneurs.
Hattie’s restaurant was renowned for the food and ambience. Hattie was famous for her generosity. Anyone who was hungry received a meal and, if needed, a job. At her funeral, there were countless stories of how Hattie had treated people as sons or daughters. That was above and beyond the many charities that she supported. Her philosophy can be summed up with one of her sayings: “Whenever anybody comes to the door, give ‘em something to eat. That may be Jesus.”
To honor Hattie’s legacy, the Alexanders began their Annual Mardi Gras Benefit. A benefit is contrary to the usual perception of Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras, especially as it is currently celebrated in New Orleans where Hattie grew up, is all about debauchery and revelry. In Medieval times, Mardi Gras was a time for carnival and to eat fattening foods before the fasts of the Lenten season, which began on Ash Wednesday. Hence, the celebration was named Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday in English.
Jasper Alexander also pays homage to Hattie Gray Austin Moseley by staying true to the original recipes while imparting a modern chef’s touch to the food. Chef Alexander’s vitae is pretty impressive. He is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. In New York, he worked at Aureole, Gotham Bar and Grill, and Gramercy Tavern. He grew up in Washington state and received his bachelor’s degree from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.
Therefore, it made sense that he would return to Washington. He worked at famed Seattle restaurants such as Restaurant Zoe, Ponti Seafood Grill, and Axis. It was the late ‘90s and the West Coast food scene was booming with chefs’ creativity. Chefs were superstars. As he noted in his book, why would he buy a restaurant in Saratoga and make a living cooking fried chicken?
In 1995, Jasper Alexander decided to become a ski bum in Sun Valley but he also needed a summer job. When working at Siro’s in Saratoga was suggested, he asked, “What’s Siro’s?” The reply, from the cookbook, was “Summer camp for cooks—lots of booze and women and they pay a thousand bucks a week.”
Siro’s played a huge role in Chef Alexander’s life. It was there that he met Saratoga native and former ballet dancer Beth. Beth worked at various restaurants, including Hattie’s, when she wasn’t teaching. Beth is now his wife and partner at Hattie’s. And she was the impetus for buying Hattie’s.
It must have been agonizing for Jasper Alexander not to overhaul and chef-ize Hattie’s menu. But he understood the importance of maintaining the traditions of a historic restaurant. He did add little touches and updates to the menu. He did not change the fried chicken recipe.
Hattie’s fried chicken has been called the “Best” by Food and Wine magazine. Jasper Alexander beat Bobby Flay in a “Throwdown” with the fried chicken at the Saratoga Race Course. As he notes in the cookbook, the technique is all important in making great fried chicken and not the recipe.
The cookbook contains all the restaurant favorites and can be considered a primer for southern and Louisiana recipes. Chef Alexander does a great job in emphasizing technique. He also simplifies things for the home cook.
If items taste delicious but somewhat different from those served at the restaurant, it is because the book leaves out some of the chef flourishes. An example is the mac and cheese. As he explains in the book, the recipe is not particularly complex. He focuses on the importance of technique and obtaining really good cheddar cheese. He also stresses the importance of making your own breadcrumbs. However, in the restaurant, his breadcrumbs are made from his delicious buttermilk biscuits.
One of my favorite sides at the restaurant is the collard greens. The recipe was handed down to Jasper Alexander by his 35-year veteran employee, Ernie Waters. The recipe is fairly basic, but as he points out, “taste along the way and pronounce them done when you’re happy with the texture.” At the restaurant, the texture is a perfect tender crisp.
One of Hattie’s delights is the bar area in the back patio. So it was also a delight that the cookbook contains recipes for Hattie’s signature drinks and classic drinks. At this time of the year when Key limes are in season, one must make the Key lime pie. The recipe is simple to make and is simply delicious.
Hattie’s and Hattie Gray Austin Moseley are an important part of Saratoga’s history. Jasper and Beth Alexander, as he says in the cookbook, are the important stewards of that history and tradition. The cookbook that he created preserves the role Hattie’s played in the story of Saratoga.