Vinaigrette visionary Melissa Ann Barton, aka Mod Squad Martha, makes a holiday meal worth celebrating
(Left) Melissa Ann Barton; (Right) Barton and family.
Ask Melissa Ann Barton about her culinary achievements, and she’ll demur. “I’m just an ordinary girl whose incredible parents told me I could do anything,” says this Kentucky-bred John’s Islander. Dubbed “Mod Squad Martha” by a friend who found her to be the rock ’n’ roll version of Martha Stewart, what began with jobs in Nashville operating craft service tables on country music film sets evolved into a wildly successful catering business, then into a sought-out retail sauce company. And that’s not the half of it. Thanks to the success of her Mod Squad Martha brand, today Melissa Ann donates a portion of her sales to her Grammy Award-winning friend Emmylou Harris’s Crossroad Campus, a nonprofit dedicated to ending animal cruelty while helping foster children find meaningful employment. Nothing ordinary about that.
But let’s back up. Before Melissa Ann began making products like Music Row Moroccan Salmon Marinade and Bluebird Vinaigrette, she was making sure folks on sets of country music videos were properly fed.
“I started in the film business,” she explains. “I did 56 country music videos, working set design for a few and production management for others.” But it was when she took a chance on craft services that things began to click. Rather than offering the typical fare of coffee and junk-filled cookies, Melissa Ann laid out spreads of delicious, fresh foods, and naturally, film crews loved it. From there she launched her own catering business, which led to the Mod Squad Martha line of vinaigrettes.
“You know, I’m Southern; I’ve got a double name—I know food,” she says.
After Melissa Ann’s husband, Alan, sold his food manufacturing business in Nashville, the couple and their son, Graham, decided to move to the only other place they loved as much as Music City—Charleston—and it’s on John’s Island that Melissa Ann runs her vinaigrette business today.
Around the holidays she likes to make dishes that could be prepared any time of year, but look festive. Cornish game hens with cherry wine sauce make for a photo-worthy centerpiece, but it’s 15-year-old Graham who provides her real source of inspiration. “My son loves cherries!” she says. Brussels sprouts and spaghetti squash also get starring roles, a dietary choice Melissa Ann makes as a nod to her family’s efforts to eat flavorful albeit healthier meals. But the saying “everything in moderation, including moderation” is worth remembering when tucking into Melissa Ann’s dessert. Her Caramel Glazed Kahlua Gingerbread Loaf with Peppermint Ice Cream comes courtesy of Emmylou.
“She makes me gingerbread every time I go back and visit. This is based off her recipe,” says Melissa Ann. And pro tip from a Southern gal who knows how to throw a great dinner party: “I put booze in all my desserts,” she says. “It makes them taste delicious.”
Lives: On John’s Island with her husband, Alan, and son, Graham
Works: As the creator of Mod Squad Martha vinaigrettes
On becoming best friends with her musical icon, Emmylou Harris: “Before I could drive, I had to pay a friend’s brother to take me to her concerts and buy him two cases of beer in exchange. I met her at a party, and we started talking. She’s like family.”