The Full Story

The Full Story

Southern Belle: Derived from the French word for ‘beautiful’ a woman characterized by her love of Southern hospitality, cultivation of beauty, and charm.

Years ago, I found myself hosting the monthly book club in my home in the Netherlands. An array of homemade appetizers and desserts decorated my kitchen counters. Glittering tea light candles illuminated bouquets of fresh tulips on my wooden dining tables. TSF Jazz station out of Paris articulated the background music. Slices of fruit bobbed in a glass container filled with sparkling punch. Stemmed glasses accessorized by wine charms waited to be filled. My guests – from multiple countries – flitted into my home and giggled at the display. A shy smile tugged at my lips. My Florida friend, who had been at my house many times before, seemingly translated to the others “Oh yes, Celeste is a true Southern Belle,” and winked. With this new piece of information – my guests took a big breath, smiled, and nodded. Meanwhile – I stood in the corner of my kitchen, my head cocked to the side, still processing this exchange of knowledge. Southern Belle? Huh? Doesn’t everyone do this? Ah, I suppose. . . not. And then, the puzzle was complete.

Before I moved to the Netherlands five years ago, I had never lived outside the Great State of Texas. There is no other place like it. Texas is big, bold, and hot. Texas has a language, food, and hospitality uniquely its own. Born in Dallas and raised in a suburb, I grew up knowing and loving Texas and its many jewels. My family feasted on tacos, black-eyed peas, and cornbread. Summers were sizzling and lasted half the year. During Friday nights in the fall, half the town would cheer for the Wildcats at the high school football game. As a little girl, I dreamed about what my senior homecoming mum would look like. Years after graduation, I still have my white mum with ribbons that cascade from my shoulder to the floor.

Texas Bluebonnets
Texas Bluebonnets

College brought on new facets of Texas culture. My college roommate’s Hispanic family introduced me to West Texas enchiladas (served flat, not rolled up), menudo (uh, what did you say was in this?!), and chorizo (just don’t tell me). I learned about tumbleweeds, wind turbines, and West Texas sandstorms while visiting her family in the dusty town of Big Spring.

Big Spring
Road to my roommate’s childhood home in Big Spring, Texas

After I graduated college and landed my first job, I found myself auditing small-town banks in Central Texas. Again, the experience illuminated yet another subculture of the Lone Star State. I drove hours with my co-workers in F150s on two lane highways through fields dotted with cows and bluebonnets. The soundtrack for our daily commutes headlined Pat Green, Cory Morrow, and Wade Bowen. Most of our bank clients were in the types of towns that Texas folk joke about – “Don’t blink, or you’ll miss it!” – just large enough to have a bank, a post office, and one restaurant.  My co-workers and I lunched at local diners, the townspeople’s heads turning towards the ‘strangers’ in town. The lunch special was always chicken fried steak.

McGregor, Texas First National Bank
My backyard in Waco, Texas
My backyard in Waco, Texas

But Texas is more than food or sights off the highway. It’s knitted deeper into the family – and is true throughout the State. A true Texan woman, or Southerner, has a way about her – a way of caring for others, caring for her home, and showing her love through her cooking. I was influenced by two Texas women growing up. My mother was raised in El Paso and moved to Dallas after my Dad and her married. She stayed at home with my brother, sister, and I when we were young. She shuttled us from school, to practices and lessons outside the home, but more than that, she taught us the skills needed to run a household, too. As much as we may have protested, she taught at a young age how to keep a clean home and approach everything with organization. She was part of a women’s group and I still remember the frenzy our kitchen endured hours before the ladies would arrive for their monthly meeting – clearing pencil holders and piles of mail off the counters, arranging flowers and appetizers. My mother was always on the go, always taking care of something or someone and I swear she never sat down my entire childhood.  We always ended each day with a hot meal on the table and the family gathered around. We had rules like “No singing at the dinner table,” because yes, this was a problem (a generation later, I’ve refined the rule to “No singing OR dancing at the dinner table) but it’s these meals that kept and keeps the family together.

My mom, sister and I bringing home my baby brother

I am thankful my Grandmother (my Dad’s mother, Willaphene) infused my life with beauty and charm. A remember spending a week during the summer with her when I was about ten. It was special – to leave my siblings at home. Grandma shared with me her artistic talents – we made a quilt together (with her antique treadle sewing machine) and painted salt and pepper shakers. Over the years, she taught me to cook fried chicken and fudge in her Lubbock kitchen (chicken I have mastered, fudge not-so-much). Her house, although small, was decorated with beautiful taste, the details still like photographs in my mind – florals, antiques, tiny bottles of perfume on a mirrored tray. Every time my family would visit her furniture would be rearranged. She was always adding a splash of something new – a seasonal bunch of fabric flowers or a stained-glass lamp – to make her antique furniture look fresh. Before she retired, she was a buyer for Hemphill Wells department store in Lubbock – she traveled to New York City, wore high heels, big earrings, and bright red lipstick. The furniture, lamps, and love of heels and earrings may have been passed on to me, but to this day, Grandma, at 92 years old in her assisted living home, still wears red lipstick.

It was Texas itself, and its diversity of landscape, culture, and food that can probably be blamed or credited for my passion for wanting more – to explore, see, and experience more. Expanding my horizons past the plains of West Texas or the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, I wanted to not only travel, but understand. After college, I met my husband while we were walking our dogs. Yes, that old, buy-a-puppy-to-attract-a-girl-trick actually works. He was born in the Netherlands, but raised in Louisiana. He opened my eyes to a whole new world in the state right next door. I met each experience with confusion but appreciation. I gawked at the floats at Mardi Gras balls, tailgated (all day long!?) at LSU games, and struggled to peel crawfish at boils with his old fraternity brothers. I didn’t take long to fall in love – with him and Louisiana. We were married at a plantation home outside of Baton Rouge – complete with jazz band, the second line, and crawfish etouffee.

Second Line at our wedding
Second Line at our wedding

My passion for travel really exploded when I landed a job with American Airlines in their auditing department. I basically flew around the world, auditing all the different airports American Airlines serviced. It was a very cool gig, especially for an accountant. General Managers would show us the sights, recommend the best restaurants in the city, and share stories about their cultures over morning coffee. I loved the job not only because I was able to travel, but also because my home base was in Texas. It was a great job to have before we started a family.

My husband and I ‘settled down’ briefly in a beautiful home in my hometown after our daughter was born. I traded my jet-setting ways for a predictable job in the accounting department of another Dallas-based company. I’d stare out my window at the Dallas North Tollway, missing adventure, but happy that I could zoom home after work and hold my baby girl every night. I became pregnant with our second child, a son, when our daughter was nine months old. It was on one of those steaming July days in Texas when I stared out the window of my cube, the grass parched and brown in the field below and mirages sizzling on the highway, when I received a phone call from my husband with news. Just when I thought our lives were becoming predictable, came something very unpredictable. He told me that we were going to move to the Netherlands – the rotation we had applied for months earlier had been accepted. I was shocked, scared, and thrilled. Our love of travel had been taking to the ultimate level – and our children were going to experience it, too. Three months after our son was born – we packed it all up. Two adults, two dogs, a toddler, and a baby and headed for the unknown – the Netherlands.

When I first moved overseas, I was excited about the opportunity to leave everything behind, to start anew! I quickly discovered that while I loved traversing new streets, perusing new shops and museums, and making new friends – at the end of the day, inside my home, what I craved most was the familiar. We lived with cardboard tables and new Ikea goods for months before our container arrived. The day our furniture arrived was one of my happiest days and I went to work with gusto to recreate the feeling of home. My grandmother’s antique furniture, which had been passed along to me, looked fantastic in my 100-year-old Dutch home.

De Valk Windmill in Leiden, Netherlands
De Valk Windmill in Leiden, Netherlands

After battling rain and wind while pushing a double stroller through the streets of Leiden (and running up and down my steep Dutch stairs throughout the day) I was more hungry than I had ever been in my life. I wanted food, comfort food. Food, like music, is an artform that transcends time and space. I started with the basics – crock pot recipes and fried chicken. I found that Grandma’s chicken tasted just as good in my kitchen in the Netherlands as it did in my Texas one – sometimes even better. But I needed more.

With Drive-thrus non-existent and dining out in Europe being an ‘event’ which lasted for hours (not so handy with a couple of kids), I knew it was up to me to figure out the dinner issue. So I started to cook. Every night. I looked through cookbooks and recipes that had been passed to me from my mother, grandmother, and great aunt. I found new recipes in the books I had brought with me from the United States – Food Network hostesses, books created by my friends from Waco and Minnesota, and cookbooks gifted to me for Christmas I’d always intended to, but had never opened. With new European grocery stores to explore – I learned the Dutch words (zuur room for sour cream!) and substitutes for American products. Where I always used box mixes back in the states for cornbread, cakes, and muffins – theses were no longer found (or super expensive) in my local Dutch grocery stores. I learned how to make things from scratch – and it always turned out better – with little more effort than the box. I learned that Americans use volume measurements as opposed to European’s method of weighing everything. My cookbooks are now graffitied with butter conversions into grams.

We moved back to Texas after our third child was born and after living in the Netherlands for three years. We loved and missed our European lifestyle – the travel, the friends we’d made, riding around on bikes – but we were happy to be back in Texas, too. We reconnected with old friends, celebrated birthdays with grandparents, and introduced our kids to American culture. We swam in outdoor pools, ate Tex-Mex, and traveled comfortably in an SUV. The kids saw their first baseball game, fell in love with Paw Patrol, and checked out armfuls of English books from the library. We explored Texas – road trips to Austin, San Antonio, and Big Spring. We visited Louisiana where they met Mike the Tiger, ran around the gardens of the plantation home where we were married, and feasted on crawfish.

Kids at Houmas House Plantation
Kids at Houmas House Plantation

After eighteen months of being in Texas, my family and I had the opportunity to move back overseas – this time to Belgium. We accepted. When we broke the news to my mother, her first response was, “Well, I knew you weren’t going to let the grass grow underneath your feet,” a nod to a basic ingredient in southern culture – the Magnolia Tree. The magnolia tree is indigenous to the south. It’s a wide and solid tree, with large waxy leaves that provide so much shade, even the heartiest of grasses have trouble growing underneath them. But despite it’s hearty and strong nature, the magnolia tree produces gorgeous and fragrant white flowers. I smiled back at my mother and nodded. Keep moving, with strength of character, and grace. I packed up her recipes again and headed east. This time armed with a lot more knowledge –  where to buy cornmeal and Crisco, but also the courage required to make such a move, especially with three kids in tow.

My two great loves in life – Texas and travel. This website comes from a love of all things Southern – food, decorating, and hosting, with a few entertaining travel stories in between. So with that – I am not a trained chef. I’m not a professional interior decorator. I’m not an events coordinator. I’m just like you, dear reader. I come from a line of feminine and strong women. I don’t claim to have the perfect measurements or the most glorious photos (although, I’ll try to remove that wine glass from the background of any dinner-prep photo). I’m just making a go at it in whatever country I find myself waking up in – cooking, decorating, and exploring. I’ve been through a few things and still stumble and fall, but I’ve learned to walk in those heels and bring an umbrella for rain. Everyday, I’m just doing my best to mesh the old and the new and have a few friends over for brunch and dinner to celebrate. Besides, you can take the girl out of Texas, but you can’t take Texas out of the girl.

At the horse races!
At the horse races

Steel Magnolia: a southern woman who has weathered tragedy and heartache while retaining pride, dignity, and a love of life; often used to describe an experienced woman who has taken it upon herself to teach others the Southern way of life.

Feel free to contact me at: BelleinBelgium@gmail.com

Note: You can still find stories of my previous adventures in the Netherlands at Courageous or Crazy

About Celeste Bennekers

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