Muriel Battle prepared meals “fit for a king,” according to her widower Eliot Battle.
She also made food fit for a dog.
Max, the toothless, abused Shih Tzu adopted from an animal shelter, undoubtedly appreciated the extra effort Battle took to put his food through a food processor before serving it. Along with countless others who were fortunate enough to taste Battle’s culinary handiwork, Max is certainly feeling the loss of one of Columbia’s most well-known cooks.
Battle, who died in March at the age of 73, was known in Columbia for her work in education. As a teacher and principal at West Junior High School, associate superintendent for the Columbia school district and member of numerous boards and committees, Battle made several important contributions to the community throughout her life. While those who were not close to Battle will remember her more than 40 years of hard work for the city, her family will remember her determination, curiosity and unrivaled Southern cooking.
“I think cooking will always be something the children remember her for because she made eating enjoyable with the food she made and the way she prepared the table,” said Eliot Battle.
As a young girl growing up in Mobile, Ala., Battle was taught the importance of cooking and food presentation by her mother and grandmother, who taught her a number of family recipes.
“Mobile is a city where food preparation is very important to families,” said Eliot Battle, who also grew up in Mobile.
When Battle moved to Columbia with her husband in 1956, she brought her Southern traditions and recipes with her, some of which were foreign to those in her new community.
“When we were growing up, no one in Missouri knew what Creole cooking was,” said Donna Pierce, Battle’s daughter.
Creole cooking can be described as a mix of Caribbean, Spanish and French cuisines, and it often uses a variety of fresh seafood.
Finding fresh seafood in mid-Missouri can be difficult, but Battle was determined to make the food she loved, and she found ways to get around the slight setback.
“She knew everyone in charge of every seafood department in town, and they used to call her when they got in anything fresh,” said Pierce. “She would make everything right when the seafood was fresh to make sure it tasted the best.”
While Battle’s six grandchildren loved her homemade macaroni and cheese, the dish Battle was best known for was her gumbo.
“I’ve never tasted gumbo like Muriel made it. It was just delicious,” said Eliot Battle, who referred to his wife as “the gumbo queen.”
“She knew how to put the ingredients together in just the right way, and she had a special way to season and prepare dishes,” he said.
Battle did not prepare only Creole foods, however. She often spent time attempting to replicate recipes she had tasted while traveling. Battle traveled extensively, both throughout the country and abroad. Visiting 43 states and venturing to countries such as Spain, Italy and Japan, Battle found joy in trying new recipes with flavors from around the world.
“Anywhere she went, she came home with a cookbook and spent time working on dishes she had enjoyed while she was there,” said Pierce.
Battle wasn’t shy about sharing her culinary skills. She taught several adult Creole cooking classes and made special efforts to teach her children and grandchildren how to navigate the kitchen and prepare some of her favorite recipes.
“She taught the things she loved and wanted to share her appreciation for food with other people,” said Pierce, who learned many culinary skills from her mother and taught some adult cooking classes alongside her.
Pierce now works as the assistant food editor and test kitchen director for The Chicago Tribune. Pierce previously served as the taste editor for the Columbia Missourian.
Food wasn’t Battle’s only passion, though. Battle tried her hand at a number of hobbies and tried hard to become an expert at everything she attempted. Tie making, tailoring and candy making were among a few of her many endeavors, all of which she became intensely involved in until she felt that she had mastered them.
Battle was also very skilled with computers, a talent she often helped other teachers master.
“She always said that if she had a previous life, in it she must have been a computer operator because she was so good with them,” said Eliot Battle.
But Battle’s greatest passion remained in the kitchen, where she enjoyed cooking Creole recipes that had been passed through her family over the years. In 1983, Battle and her two sisters compiled a cookbook entitled “We Remember Mama,” which contains a number of family recipes spanning more than three generations.
1-1/2 pounds shrimp and/or 1 pound crab claws and/or 1 pound oysters
1/4 pound of either stew beef or a soup bone
Remainder of a chicken or turkey carcass
1 large can of tomatoes
1 package of frozen okra
3 large onions, chopped
6 pieces celery, chopped
2 bell peppers, chopped
Garlic salt of garlic
1 package hot link sausages and file spice (optional)
To make the stock, boil the beef and poultry until tender in 4 cups of water with 1 celery stalk and a quartered onion.
In another pan, sauté 1 celery stalk, 1 quartered onion, a sprig of parsley and one-fourth of a pepper (diced carefully) in 1 tablespoon of oil for 30 minutes over low heat. Add sliced okra and cook until “slime” is gone. Stir often, almost constantly. When okra is no longer slimy, add the can of tomatoes (chopped or blended). Stir well and set aside.
Make the roux by browning 2 tablespoons of flour in 2 tablespoons of oil.
Take all the bones out of the pot. Add the okra mixture and the roux. If there isn’t enough broth, add water and let it cook.
The last 15 or 20 minutes you cook it, add the seafood, salt and pepper to taste.
After heat has been turned off, add hot links and file.
Serves 12 to 18.
Serving suggestion: Serve over long-grain, white or brown rice.
8 slices bacon
1 large onion, diced (1 cup)
1 large green pepper, sliced (1 cup)
1 cup diced celery
1 clove garlic, minced
2 cups regular uncooked rice
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 can tomatoes, chopped well
1 bag frozen, de-veined, shelled raw shrimp
1 1-pound canned ham
3 1/2 cups boiling water
1 bay leaf
Sauté bacon in medium-sized frying pan until almost crisp, then before removing from pan roll each slice around tines of fork to make a curl; hold in place with a wooden pick if needed. Drain on paper towel, set aside for garnish.
Sauté onion, green peppers, celery and garlic until soft in drippings in pan; set aside for step five.
Combine rice, sugar, salt, cayenne, Worcestershire sauce and tomatoes in a 12-cup baking dish.
Pour just enough hot water over the shrimp to separate them. Rinse, drain and then add to rice mixture.
Scrape gelatin coating from ham and add to baking dish. Dice ham; stir with onion mixture into baking dish. Cover and chill until ready to cook.
When ready to bake, slowly pour the 3 1/2 cups boiling water into baking dish; stir with fork to mix well; lay bay leaf on top and cover the dish.
Bake in moderate oven (350 degrees) for 1 hour or until rice is tender and almost all liquid is absorbed. Remove bay leaf; fluff up mixture with a fork, pulling a few shrimp to top. Garnish with bacon curls and green pepper rings.