If food doesn’t actually occupy more of the cultural markers of the South than it does in other regions, we at least think it does, and perception’s half the battle. Our regional magazines linger over drool-worthy, high-gloss images of Southern food clichés: glistening-red barbecue, jewel-like slices of watermelon dripping in ice-cold summer sweat, plump oysters pregnant with the suggestion of sex.
This culinary navel-gazing is almost too loving, though. In this Southern Living and Garden & Gun-fueled vision of Southern food Olympians, we are gods and goddesses with the exact heritage hog matched with the appropriate life event. The lighting always catches that oh-too-precious dab of sauce next to the mouth of the pretty child in the spotless sundress, chicken leg balanced in hand, scrubbed feet preserved in a delicate pose. Am I right, Marc Smirnoff?
I’ve got no problem with food porn or self-mythology, but it’s not always so glamorous, this food pervasion. Every Southern experience is not to be viewed through a rosy lens of fancy hog parts and crawfish boils framed in church-lady lemon squares.
The contrary idea is a simple one: “Food and …” The food is always present, but it is the thing on the other end of that “and” that completes the experience as a cultural identifier, a marker of who we are. “Food and football,” “food and race,” …hell, “food and gardens and guns.” No discussion of either side of these equations yields a sharply focused picture. The most important word, then, is neither the “food” nor the other. It is “and.”
There is power in conjunction.
Turning to the historical authorities, in his 1885 cookbook La Cuisine Creole, Lafcadio Hearn addressed the role of food in life: “Hence, cooking in all its branches should be studied as a science, and not be looked on as a haphazard mode of getting through life. Cooking is in great measure a chemical process, and the ingredients of certain dishes should be as carefully weighed and tested as though emanating from the laboratory.” Frankly, I was expecting something a bit better from old Lafcadio on food and life. After all, this is the Mr. Hearn of “it is better to live here [in New Orleans] in sackcloth and ashes than to own the whole state of Ohio” fame.
My search for where to begin in writing about the “and” in “food and” had to get both more basic and more contemporary. I needed to visit with some folks who do these things for a living. I want to write about “food and”? Then I need to explore “food and writing.” I would need a writer who cooks, or a chef who writes. Preferably both.
In 2006, Jamey Hatley won the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Award for a novel-in-progress. As Jamey writes on her Modern Conjure blog, that novel “is still in progress.” “Dream Season,” a short story drawn from Jamey’s progressing novel, depicts the birth of twins in the Walker Homes neighborhood of Memphis on the day that Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, and the subsequent death of one of the babies. (The story was featured in The Oxford American’s Race Issue in 2009 (Issue 64).) Jamey’s work has also appeared in Torch, as well as in The OA’s 12th Annual Southern Music Issue (Issue 71). More importantly for my purposes, Jamey cooks and writes about that cooking. In Dream Season, she writes about the gathering of food by a community to celebrate life, and later death. On Jamey’s blog, she writes a series of posts profiling the food she cooks from her weekly CSA box.
Chef Chris DeBarr has cooked his way through the South, landing for the last twenty years in New Orleans. Before Katrina, he cooked at Commander’s Palace, then ran the kitchen at Christian’s. After Katrina, he elevated bar food at Delachaise to unrecognizable levels before opening Green Goddess in the French Quarter in 2009. On May 13 of this year, Chris exited the Green Goddess; he will open a new restaurant called Serendipity in a large space in the old American Can Company building in New Orleans in July. Chris’s cooking leaves behind the expected New Orleans tropes of fried shrimp, blackened redfish, pompano en papillote, and jambalaya, instead featuring a mind-boggling array of local and exotic ingredients while keeping the menu in the port city vein, with a funky vibe. Chris also writes. Since 2007, Chris has maintained the ChefCDB blog. At ChefCDB, Chris writes about a wide range of issues, from the social and historical underpinnings of the dishes he cooks, to New Orleans’ recovery from Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill, to the influence of literature on his cooking.
On an evening in late April, Jamey and Chris met me on the broad concrete veranda in front of the construction zone that was quickly taking shape as Serendipity. Just next door to Serendipity is the Mid-City branch of the New Orleans Public Library: food and writing right next door to each other. Fueled by some damned tasty wine from the slopes of Mount Vesuvius (Lacrima Christi del Vesuvio, in the rare red form, from De Angelis winery in Calabria), some Bulleit rye whiskey, and cheap-but-free pizza, we explored the intersections of the creative processes in writing and cooking, the importance of food in writing, the importance of writing to food, the secret to making a wine sauce for one, magic, ghosts, hard work, and mushrooms.
Together, Chris and Jamey arrived at three primary themes common to cooking and to writing that, as opposed to Mr. Hearn’s more clinical approach, applies cooking literally and metaphorically to other areas of life.
1. Be a “terroir-ist,” defending holy ground, approaching truth.
Chris: I guess what motivates me is, “What are the inner secrets of ingredients?” And learning more about where things come from and where they grow, and what the soil is like and the culture that surrounds them, and the human interaction that protects and shepherds all those things that come to life, whether they be wine or food. It’s fascinating. The human geography is just as fascinating. But they both have to matter. The plant and the people, working together, and that’s what makes me a terroirist. You know, “terroir-iste.”
Defending holy ground: That’s, to me, the simplest description of “terroir.” Forget all the fancy French business about wine. It means “holy ground,” and I’m going to defend that land with my last breath. I know the magic that this land can produce, and that’s why Faulkner just has one little county, and that’s why Borges just does the back slums of Buenos Aires. I think that, in a sense, farming’s like words. Working your little forty acres, mining what your experiences are, and understanding how those work, that’s where you get the strength.
Jamey: With writing, it’s very similar. My mythical territory borders Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha: It’s where I come from. I tried to write outside of that, and make it very generic, and people kept saying, “This is Mississippi, this is Memphis, right here.” My ingredients were plants, through magic and voodoo. No matter how normal a story I tried to write, magic always crept in, because there is this beautiful poetry to ingredients in hoodoo. If you want to make a lover sweet on you, you use sweet things: sugar or cinnamon. If you want to break somebody up, you use iron and vinegar. That kind of thing that was taboo—“ooh, you going to Hell!”—is still tantalizing to me. I think that’s why I’m always looking at the magic of ingredients. My stories always try to bring those hidden, taboo things up, to make the magic real. I’m always trying to blow reality into the magic, and magic into the reality. I can’t help myself. No matter what, strange things always happen.
Chris: Boy, do they ever.
Jamey: With food, if you think about it, in Mississippi people didn’t have the shelter of Catholicism. Instead, their rituals were stripped down to the herbs, to the ingredients. It’s beautiful that the one place that a woman could have power is through her pantry, these ingredients, these things that she cooked with. That’s what I’m writing toward, that’s my territory. I had to claim that territory.
With my writing, I am just trying to present my characters and their lives as clearly as I can. Some people think about my stories: “I don’t get it—is this magic, is this real?” You decide. I’ve had to get comfortable with having spaces in my work where readers will say, “I don’t know what that’s about,” or, “What is that—is that real, is it a ghost, what is it?” I’m trying to depict these very human experiences that the people I grew up around actually have. Am I trying to decode culture? No, I’m just trying to present. My work aims to approach a truth, some kind of truth in these characters.
Chris: To give the experience clarity.
Jamey: Yes, to give clarity to what the character is experiencing in a particular moment. To some readers, a story will decode and demystify a culture or set of experiences, and for some people it will confuse. And that’s fine, because there are so many experiences. You just have to figure out what your territory is as a writer, or as a chef, and make the contours of that territory as clear and as true as you can. Ten human beings can read the same thing, and they’re not going to get the same thing out of it.
Chris: Right. If it’s transparent and clear, if my flavors are on the plate, the flavors sing, and it’s composed well, and everything on it strikes a chord...
Jamey: Someone will say, “Oh, that reminds me of when I went on this trip to France.” Somebody else will say, “Oh, that reminds me of my grandma.” That’s all true. And it’s all real.
Chris: Right, right. If I give you a story or a dish as clear and transparent, then you fall into the page, you vanish. If I get your attention—with writing or with food—and you fall into it, and suddenly all you’re really paying attention to is the next eyeful of words or the next mouthful of food, then I’ve done my job. I’ve wiped your brain of all the trouble, all your preconceptions, all your worries, your everyday thing.
Jamey: It is magic. It’s the same experience you have when you read a wonderful book.
2. Time + Effort = Love
Chris: For me, when I go back to “Why write?” it’s not like I have a choice. I might can ignore it for a while, but when I got to the point of being an executive chef, when that was my world, it came out. I was on my terms with reality: Me and reality, eye to eye.
When I just don’t have time to write, it’s frustrating. You know you’re supposed to plant the seeds between this moon and that moon, and you don’t do it, well you know your crop is not going to be proper. If you don’t get it down in the dirt by then, it’s not coming up.
Jamey: That’s right. If you’re not watching your almanac, it’s not going to be right.
Chris: For a lot of people, to become a good cook, it’s the same thing. It’s time and effort equals love. That’s what cooking is. I put the time and the effort in to give myself the space, the physical dimensionality of sautéing, chopping, cutting, braising, slow cooking, or making my five-easy-pieces that I know I can knock out when I’m hungry, well, you still had to take the time to do it. And that time and effort equals love.
People think that there’s an easy answer. Well, there isn’t. It took Walt Whitman until he was thirty-six before Leaves of Grass in the slim version was published.
Jamey: And Toni Morrison—I keep trying not to tell my age, but I still keep doing it—Toni Morrison didn’t start publishing until she was thirty-nine, so that’s probably been my curse. If Toni Morrison couldn’t write until she was that age, then who the hell am I to think that I can?
3. The secret to both cooking and writing is found in mushrooms.
Chris: You have to put yourself in harm’s way to understand the blessing of how tough it is to create things. Sometimes it comes in the course of your work. But sometimes, writing is absorption and release. Just like cooking a proper mushroom. You’re cooking that mushroom and it gets kind of tight, and then all of a sudden it’s just like, “oh, you got me,” and then it just gives it all back. The key is to wait until that mushroom gets, “Oh, I need that, wait a minute, give me that heat back,” and then it starts to suck the moisture back in. That’s when it’s almost done. Hit it with a little butter, or red wine, “Drink that, fool, now I got you.” And then it’s like, “I’m drinking the red wine, and myself, and now I feel better.”
You find flavor and create ingredients by being alive for those moments. When cooking, you’re waiting for that moment, and it gives you your senses back.
Jamey: Some people don’t wait for the moment. I read books all the time, and most are perfectly competent—there might even be some surprise there—but it feels like the clock was ticking. You never want to feel the clock ticking with a book. You see all of these ingredients, and it could be an amazing dish, and it’s a good dish. But my test is, does this thing live with me? Will I think about it a year from now, when I close this book?
It’s like that mushroom. You could cook that mushroom before it’s screaming for the red wine, and it could be good, it could be tasty. But if you wait until that point—and it’s a tiny, narrow window—you can feel it.
I keep going back to this idea that there are many kinds of writers. Some writers have forward motion, and they write through. They write through, and the writing is good, and sometimes it’s perfect. But some people need to wait, and they don’t.
Tad: I’m thinking about it more from a poetic sensibility, in thinking about rhythm. When you’re writing a sentence, and you’re developing tension, you have to let the rhythmic tension continue to develop. If you let it pop too early, then you’ve wasted the tension. If you wait too long, then you’ve wasted the tension. But if you let the tension release at exactly the right time—whether it’s rhythm, whether it’s semantics….
Jamey: I think people wait, in general, especially new writers, way too long to release the tension. We think you have to explain everything, get it all out.
Tad: Right, there’s a general failure by new writers to give the reader enough credit.
Tad: At times, is it like you have to give the eater enough credit, as a chef?
Chris: Nah, they get all the credit. They’re paying the bill.
The recording of the full conversation with Chris and Jamey can be downloaded here.