By Donna Cornelius
Leslie Byars Register’s first book is called “Leslie’s Party Diaries,” and that’s exactly what it is.
Register, a Mountain Brook resident, has been documenting her own parties in a trusty yellow notebook and in accordion files stuffed with menus, photos and invitations. She shares what she’s learned in her book, which not only has her favorite recipes, but also tips for party themes, do’s and don’ts for entertaining, and must-haves for the smart party-giver.
The book’s most charming section is a collection of photos and descriptions of her own celebrations, including a “Gobble Until You Wobble” Thanksgiving feast, a pre-Christmas “Got Tree, Come See” gathering, and birthday bashes for her daughters. “Slide Sallie Slide” was for her daughter Sallie Simpson’s 10th birthday, which had a waterslide as its main attraction. Her older daughter, Lily Simpson, was the guest of honor at a 5th birthday “Dunkin’ Donuts Party” with a dunking booth and doughnut cake.
Register, who has a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the University of Alabama, once put her artistic talents to work to create “Bug Show,” a backyard party and exhibit of her insect-themed artwork. She even parked a 1979 Volkswagen Beetle in her driveway and put together a fruit and cheese tray in the shape of an oversized – but appetizing – bug.
Her interest in art started early, as did her love for cooking. She grew up in Mayfield, Kentucky, where her grandmother lived just down the street from her family’s home.
“My mom likes to cook, and so did my grandmother,” she said.
While her mother, Alice Byars, knows her way around the kitchen, her father, Bob Byars, is no slouch when it comes to cooking. One of his recipes in “Leslie’s Party Diaries” is simply called “Scratch,” which his daughter describes as “Chex mix on steroids.”
“My dad is famous for his eggplant fries,” Register said. “Eggplant is not one of my favorite things, but these fries are great. You peel and cut the eggplant and then soak it in salted water. The ice water makes the fries airy.”
Register left Kentucky to attend UA.
“My older sister went to Alabama, and it sounded like so much fun,” she said. “A lot of our friends went to the University of Kentucky and Vanderbilt, and we wanted to do something different.”
After graduating from college, Register thought she’d probably look for a job at an art gallery, she said. But on the advice of her mother’s friend Nina Griffith, a former editor at Southern Accents magazine, she took a different direction, freelancing as a photo stylist at Oxmoor House, a Birmingham-based publishing company, and then joining Southern Living magazine, where she was a senior photo stylist for nine years.
Since leaving Southern Living, Register has worked as a freelance stylist for Cooking Light magazine, Oxmoor House, Cooking with Paula Deen magazine, Birmingham Home and Garden magazine, and special interest publications for Pillsbury and Betty Crocker.
Register’s family also includes her husband, Jon Register, and two stepdaughters, Kate and Grace Register. Her daughter Lily, who’s now 19, is a sophomore at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Daughter Sallie,16, is a junior at Mountain Brook High School.
Register began thinking seriously about writing a book last summer, she said.
“I was going back and forth to SMU and would take my notebook with me,” she said.
While she had recipes, old photos and plenty of source material from past parties, she was missing one of the book’s most important ingredients: food photos. The sunny breakfast room of the Registers’ house became her studio.
“Most mornings, I had to shoot pictures by 11:30 while the light is still good,” she said. “My husband would say, ‘You’re cooking this early?’ I’d tell him, ‘Yes – and this is what we’re having for supper.’”
Register already was an expert photo stylist, having learned the skills at Southern Living.
“All the photos in the book, except for older party photos, were made on my iPhone,” she said. “I got an iPhone 6s for Christmas. I now have about 30,000 photos in the Cloud.”
Register said she used what she had to set up the photos.
“I’d go to my closet and pull out dresses to put on the table,” she said. “When I needed props, I used a Louis Vuitton book, scarves and even some lottery tickets that were sitting out on the counter. I wanted it to be personal.”
To stay organized, Register made a detailed work schedule.
“I’d make grocery lists and say, ‘This week, I’ll make this, this and this,’” she said. “I was the book’s writer, cook, stylist and photographer.”
Support came from family members and former co-workers, including Judy Feagin and Susan Alison, who did copy and recipe editing; Alyce Head, who used her two-week hiatus between an old and new job to create the book’s logo and work on its design; and her own aunt Patricia, who was an English teacher.
Register self-published her book and had it printed by Hoffman Media.
“Greg Baugh, the executive vice president at Hoffman, was so helpful,” she said.
Register said the recipes in the books are “my favorites – ones that we use over and over.”
Her husband, whom she said is “great on the grill,” contributed “Foolproof Beef Tenderloin,” which includes a little-known tip that involves wrapping the meat in beach towels. Her sister’s chocolate chess pie is in the dessert section. From a friend came the recipe for “Wade’s Mother’s Slaw.”
While Register is a whiz at parties, her family loves casual meals at home, she said.
“We call it Five Star T-Shirt Dining,” she said, laughing.
With clever ideas for hostess gifts, cocktails and table-setting, “Leslie’s Party Diaries” is very much an up-to-the-minute manual for anyone who entertains – or who wants help learning how.
But Register wanted the book to be one that her family would value and cherish in the years to come.
Maybe that’s why the book is dedicated to her daughters with these words: “To Lily and Sallie, may you always remember.”
You can order copies of “Leslie’s Party Diaries” for $39 plus tax through her website, lesliespartydiaries.com.
Register will sign copies of her book at Table Matters in Mountain Brook Village from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Oct. 19; Henhouse Antiques in English Village from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. Oct. 20; Kyle Fine Stationery in Tuscaloosa on Oct. 27, check her website for times; and Williams-Sonoma at The Summit from noon to 4 p.m. Nov. 5.
Leslie Register has lots of great recipes, but these are two that seem just right for fall. In “Leslie’s Party Diaries,” she writes that Weeknight Gumbo “comes together quickly and tastes like it took hours. It can be made ahead and reheated, too.” She calls her Sweet Potato Casserole a “must-have for Thanksgiving dinner and writes that, if your diners include people with nut allergies or young children, the filling can be topped with marshmallows and baked in small ramekins.
Serves 6 to 8
½ pound Andouille sausage, sliced
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
½ pound skinned and boned chicken
breasts, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 cup chopped onion
½ cup chopped green bell pepper
½ cup chopped celery
1 tablespoon Creole seasoning
½ teaspoon salt
5 garlic cloves, minced
1 32-ounce container chicken broth
1 16-ounce can whole tomatoes, und
rained and chopped
1 cup frozen okra
3 cups hot cooked rice
Cook sausage in a Dutch oven over medium heat, stirring often, 5 minutes or until browned.
Remove sausage with a slotted spoon; drain on paper towels. Set aside.
Melt butter in Dutch oven with olive oil and pan drippings over medium heat. Gradually whisk in flour, and cook, whisking constantly, 3 minutes. Add chicken and next 6 ingredients; cook, stirring constantly, until vegetables are tender and chicken is done. Add broth; bring to a boil.
Stir in sausage, tomatoes and okra. Return to a boil; reduce heat and simmer 10 minutes. Serve over hot cooked rice.
Sweet Potato Casserole
Serves 8 to 10
Ingredients for casserole:
4 medium-size sweet potatoes
¼ cup butter, melted
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Dash of salt
Ingredients for topping:
1 cup light brown sugar
¾ cup all-purpose flour
2/3 cup butter, cut in cubes
1 cup pecan pieces
To make the casserole: Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Place sweet potatoes on a baking sheet; bake 1 hour or until tender. Cool slightly (about 10 minutes). Peel potatoes; place in a large mixing bowl. Mash with a potato masher until smooth.
Stir in butter, sugar, vanilla and salt; pour into a greased 2-quart baking dish. Reduce temperature to 325 degrees.
Sprinkle topping over potato mixture. Bake 30 to 40 minutes or until thoroughly heated.
To make the topping: Combine first 3 topping ingredients in a bowl with a pastry blender until crumbly. Stir in pecans.