Steel Magnolias and Southern Food

From Burlington Free Press, Burlington, VT

by Melissa Pasanen, Burlington Free Press correspondent

October 1, 2010


Shelburne – The basement of Jennifer Warwick-Sokolowski’s home had been transformed into a small-town Louisiana hair salon for a Monday evening rehearsal of “Steel Magnolias,” which starts its four-day run Thursday at the Black Box Theatre at Main Street Landing Performing Arts Center in Burlington.

As the cast ran through a scene, upstairs in the kitchen the show’s props manager, Sue Wade, peeked into the oven and the rich scent of cream cheese pound cake filled the air.

On the counter sat an eye-catching creation decorated with pale grey icing and red licorice: the fabled armadillo-shaped groom’s cake described in Robert Harling’s 1987 off-Broadway play and brought to life in the high-profile, star-studded movie version that followed two years later.

Next to that was a baking dish of something pale and sticky, splotched with chunks of canned fruit. It was the famous “cuppa cuppa cuppa” cake about which Clairee, one of the characters, says, “That’s so easy you don’t have to write it down. Cup of flour, cup of sugar, cup of fruit cocktail with the juice. Mix it up and bake at 350 ‘til gold and bubbly.”

Apparently it’s not quite that easy, the cast and crew of “Steel Magnolias” have decided. This was the second time they had whipped up the cake and they had a strong suspicion that an ingredient or two might be missing.

“After one of our first read-throughs here, we just decided to make it,” explained Warwick-Sokolowski. “It was a bonding thing. The problem was I didn’t have regular fruit cocktail, only tropical blend.”

“That was the least of its problems,” observed Janet Stambolian, co-founder with Warwick-Sokolowski of Girls Nite Out Productions.

Perhaps it is just that the gooey, super-sweet concoction is not exactly to the group’s northern tastes even though they did, as Clairee suggests in the play, “Serve it over ice cream to cut the sweetness.”

“We all had a forkful and that was enough,” said Geri Ann Higgins, who plays Truvy, the hair salon owner made memorable by Dolly Parton in the Oscar-nominated movie, which also starred Julia Roberts, Sally Field, Olympia Dukakis, Daryl Hannah and Shirley MacLaine.

Regional food tastes aside, the script addresses universal themes of friendship and support among women through the cycle of life, including marriage, birth and death. It is smart, sassy and funny – and pretty much guaranteed to make you cry.

The play also offers six well-drawn and distinctly different female characters, roles not always found in abundance on the theater scene, explained the co-founders of Girls Nite Out, both longtime local actresses at both the community and professional level.

“There are limited women’s roles out there,” agreed Higgins. “It’s great that Janet and Jen started this.”

The actors plus director Kathryn Blume and another couple dozen crew members are self-described “theater geeks” who mostly hold down day jobs in other professions. The cast alone ranges in age from 29 to 66 and has deep theater and performance experience in Vermont and beyond.

Blume, who teaches theater at Burlington College and has built a successful national career as a solo performer, makes her directorial debut with “Steel Magnolias.”

Like many others involved in Girls Nite Out’s “maiden voyage,” as Stambolian calls it, the co-founders approached Blume to ask her to participate. “We were putting together our dream team,” said Warwick-Sokolowski.

“I had never directed before and wasn’t sure about it,” Blume admitted. “But to my great surprise, I love directing. This project has let me cut my teeth on directing…and it’s a great women-power thing.”

After running a few scenes under Blume’s watchful eye, everyone headed upstairs for dessert and discussion.

The counter was loaded with the beautiful bundt cream cheese pound cake (a family recipe from a southern-born friend of a cast member); the armadillo, soon hacked apart to reveal its tender red velvet cake interior; a white chocolate-cherry cheesecake, which is also mentioned in the play and made by Miguel’s on Main in support of the show (see box) and the “cuppa cuppa cuppa.”

“The play is about six women of different ages from different classes,” Stambolian explained. “It’s about them as a community. What better thing for women to share than food?”

Within the first few minutes of the play, Truvy and her old friend and hair salon client Clairee (played by Ruth Wallman) are chatting over recipe cards, discussing the merits of Bisquick and the “cuppa cuppa cuppa” cake while Truvy’s new assistant, Annelle (played by Jane Beaumont Snyder), makes coffee with her own special twist.

“Food is the great connector. Women through all time have shared food, made it for their families and for friends,” Stambolian continued, listing off her own character Ouiser’s popular shrimp meat pies, along with the pecan tassies and barbecue among other southern specialties mentioned in the play.

And when things take a sad turn, everyone gets cooking. You can only hope that red beans and rice, as one character says, “will make everyone feel better.”

In rehearsal, Wallman was actually using recipe cards from a recipe box a friend gave her more than 30 years ago when she got married, she said. The friend’s mother was from Tennessee, Wallman recalled, as she flipped through classics like Bourbon balls, something called “magic crust broccoli pie” and even the pecan tassies her character is known for.

In addition to channeling their characters through their cooking, the cast has worked closely with a dialect coach to capture “not just the sound of the words, but the rhythm of language” in rural Louisiana, explained Blume.

They even met with a local health and chronic illness life coach who has Type 1 Diabetes herself like the character of Shelby played by Taryn Noelle, who was inspired by the playwright’s own sister.

Girls Nite Out’s first production, said Stambolian, has been self-funded so far with ticket sales and a raffle during the show expected to cover the bulk of the costs.

In addition to smaller beauty-related prizes that will be raffled off at each show, the grand prize will be a southern-style meal catered and served by the cast in full costume and character at the winner’s home.

There might be red beans and rice, shrimp meat pies or barbecue plus an array of tooth-achingly sweet desserts.

My advice is to skip the “cuppa, cuppa, cuppa” and go with the red velvet cake, armadillo-grey icing optional.


Contact Melissa Pasanen at

BOX: If you go –

What: Girls Nite Out Productions presents “Steel Magnolias” written by Robert Harling and directed by Kathryn Blume

Where: The Black Box Theatre at Main Street Landing Performing Arts Center on Lake Street in Burlington

When: Thursday, October 7 through Sunday, October 10 with performances at 8 pm on Thursday and Friday, at 2pm and 8pm on Saturday, and 2pm on Sunday.

Tickets: $18 for adults and $14 for seniors/students and can be purchased online at or by calling the Flynn Regional Box Office at (802) 86-FLYNN, and in person at the Flynn Box Office on 153 Main Street in Burlington or at Copy-Ship-Fax-Plus on Pearl Street in Essex Junction. Group discounts are available for 10 or more and must be purchased in person at the Flynn Box Office or by calling (802) 86-FLYNN.

For more information: “Girls Nite Out Productions” on Facebook.


BOX: “Steel Magnolias” menu at Miguel’s on Main

Both personal and neighborhood connections brought together Girls Nite Out’s inaugural “Steel Magnolias” show with the restaurant Miguel’s on Main just across the street from the theater in which the play will be performed next week.

Adrienne Henzel of Miguel’s is an old childhood friend of Jennifer Warwick-Sokolowski, co-founder of Girls Nite Out Productions.

“We thought it would be a fun collaboration,” said her husband, Michael Henzel, “and we like to support the arts and things going on in our neighborhood.”

During the show’s run, Miguel’s will be offering a southern themed “Steel Magnolias” menu with cocktails like the Bleeding Armadillo Martini and Hurricane Ouiser as well as southern classics like a deeply flavored jambalaya and oyster po’ boys.

Slices of a full-size version of the “bite-size” white chocolate-cherry cheesecakes that the character Shelby brings home to her family’s Christmas open house will be on the dessert menu.

Although Miguel’s is largely a Mexican-themed restaurant, Michael Henzel points out that the two cuisines share Caribbean influences and a focus on seafood, and that Miguel’s has previously run southern dishes as specials.

In addition to pre-show dinner (or brunch on Sunday), Miguel’s will be open until 11 pm on show nights (Thursday through Saturday) serving a late-night menu featuring appetizers, gumbo, jambalaya and desserts from the “Steel Magnolias” menu. The bar will be open until midnight.

For reservations or more information, call Miguel’s at 658-9000.


BOX: Recipes from “Steel Magnolias”

Cuppa Cuppa Cuppa Cake

Adapted from Clairee Belcher, character in “Steel Magnolias”
1 cup self-raising flour (see testing note)
Three-quarters cup sugar
1 egg
1 cup (8.75-ounce can) fruit cocktail with syrup
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Stir together all ingredients in a bowl until thoroughly combined. Scrape into a greased 8 by 8 square or 8-inch round cake pan. Bake about 30 minutes or until cake is golden brown and cake tester comes out clean.

Free Press testing note: This is still super-sweet and a tad gluey even with a little less sugar and the addition of the egg, but it is edible and even palatable for those with a sweet tooth. If you don’t have the self-raising flour that is commonly used in the south, use regular flour and add 1 teaspoon baking powder and one-quarter teaspoon salt.

Shrimp Meat Pies

Specialty of Ouiser Boudreaux, character in “Steel Magnolias” and adapted from a recipe for Natchitoches Meat Pies from “Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking” (The University of North Carolina Press, 1985). See testing note.
1 tablespoon lard or cooking oil
One-half cup finely chopped onion
One-quarter cup finely chopped celery
One-quarter cup finely chopped green pepper
1 pound raw Gulf Coast shrimp, shelled and finely chopped (see testing note)
1 teaspoon minced garlic
One-quarter teaspoon cayenne pepper
One-half teaspoon paprika
One-half teaspoon dried thyme
One-half teaspoon salt
1 and one-half tablespoons flour
Pie pastry, preferably lard-based, for a double-crust pie rolled to between one-eighth and one-sixteenth-inch thickness
1 cup peanut oil if frying or egg wash made from 1 egg mixed with a little water if baking
Heat lard or oil in a heavy skillet set over medium high heat. Add onion, celery and green pepper and cook until just tender, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. Add chopped shrimp, garlic, cayenne pepper, paprika, thyme and salt to skillet and cook, stirring occasionally, just until shrimp is pink, 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in flour and cook until excess liquid evaporates, another 1 to 2 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired.

Cut 16 4-inch rounds of pie dough and fill with 1 tablespoon filling. Dampen edges of rounds and fold closed into a half-moon shape, sealing edges with tines of a fork. Either fry pies (quickly!) in a deep pot filled with oil brought to a temperature of 360 degrees, or brush with egg wash and bake on a lightly greased cookie sheet in a 400-degree oven for about 15 minutes until golden brown. Makes 16 small pies.

Free Press testing note: Although these are called shrimp meat pies, research and consultation with Vermonters with Louisiana roots revealed that they are actually a shrimp version of a traditional southeastern Louisiana fried meat pie, similar in shape to an empanada, and contain no meat. The hometown of “Steel Magnolias” playwright, Robert Harling, Natchitoches, Louisiana is known for these meat pies. See

“Most important of all,” says Tom Bivins, executive chef at New England Culinary Institute and a Baton Rouge, Louisiana native, “the recipe should use some of the millions of pounds of frozen shrimp sitting in warehouses all over the Gulf Coast states or at the very least US domestic white shrimp.”

~ recipes selected and tested by Melissa Pasanen, Free Press correspondent