When you get a bunch of food writers, cookbook editors, chefs and other foodies together for a couple of days, the subject matter is going to be very diverse. The opinions are going to be strong. And there’s going to be pressure to have great food to sustain the effort.
All this was the case when the Southern Food Writing Conference convened in Knoxville earlier this month for its third year. In addition to the important speech from John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, which was reported here yesterday (click here), these are some of the other interesting sights, bites and insights I came across.
Have you ever pondered the differences between Garden & Gun magazine and Southern Living, both bastions of Southern cooking and culture? Jessica Mischner, the senior editor of Garden & Gun, and Hunter Lewis, executive editor of Southern Living, both attended the conference. Edge got the two on a stage together at one point for a very enlightening discussion.
“These are the two reigning mirrors of our region,” Edge said to the editors. “Both your magazines started as shelter magazines, but today you are such big voices — you are a megaphone for our region.” Edge proceeded to draw from the two editors a discussion about what differentiates the two magazines. Here’s the bottom line.
Garden & Gun is more about storytelling, Mischner said. “Our stories are long form, built on a tradition of Eudora Welty and William Faulkner,” she said. “We use food as a vehicle to tell a story. Garden & Gun is more about the culture of food. We don’t have a test kitchen.”
“Southern Living is about recipes for the home cook,” Lewis said. “It is about the test kitchen. For the May issue, we baked hundreds of recipes in the kitchen to find the perfect biscuit. Our main duty to our readers is to delight and surprise them: to give them something to do, recipes to cook, a garden to plant, a renovation project to do.”
Mischner said Garden & Gun serves affluent readers. “They want authenticity,” she said. “We cover hunt clubs. We are trying to figure out how to cover all parts of the South in an authentic way.” Mischner said 43 percent of Garden & Gun readers do not live in the South.
Lewis said Southern Living, on the other hand, strives to provide recipes that are “shop-able.” “That means the ingredients need to be available at Publix or Walmart or Piggly Wiggly. We try not to have ingredients you need to get at Whole Foods,” he said, adding that 40 percent of Southern Living’s readers shop at Walmart.
Both Mischner and Lewis urged the food writers to pitch stories to their magazines. Both said they are surprised by how few story pitches they receive.
On other fronts, I thought Linda Carman, director of the White Lily test kitchen had a cute quote: “Biscuits are the little black dress of baking. You can dress them up or dress them down.”
Beth Kirby, author of the Local Milk blog, which won Saveur magazine’s 2014 award for best photography on a blog, made a point that definitely is true in my life. “People today are re-engineering recipes,” she said. “You don’t see a recipe and go buy the ingredients and make it. You go to the green market, buy what looks good, and then figure out what you can make from it.”
Lisa Donovan is the pastry chef at the very upscale Husk restaurant in Nashville. “I think about class all the time,” she said in response to a question. “It’s very obvious in Nashville. It’s very stark. But Southern food transcends a lot of that. Buttermilk pie is just as well received at Husk as at a church picnic.”
Joe Yonan, food and travel editor for the Washington Post, was a hoot when he described the negative reaction he got when he announced in the newspaper that he had become a vegetarian. “I refer to it as my second coming out!” he said. “The reactions I got reminded me of the reactions I got when I came out the first time: ‘Is it true what I’ve heard about you? How long has this been going on? Is this just a phase? Maybe you just haven’t met the right piece of meat!’ ”
Yonan said he received hundreds of comments on his stories and hundreds of emails when he made the announcement. “I am not promoting a vegetarian agenda in the paper,” he said. “It’s like a religion. You grow up going to a certain church, but at a certain age, you decide what you want to do.” Yonan noted that the South has always had a “reverential relationship” with vegetables.
Belinda Ellis, the former director of the White Lily test kitchen, is author of a book called, “Biscuits.” In the South, she said, people make biscuits at home, whereas in the North, they mostly are purchased at fast food restaurants. “Biscuits are love. Biscuits are magic,” she said. “But biscuits have a way of getting better with memory. Biscuits are better when Momma made them.” Even so, Ellis urged folks to make their own biscuits. “Bake them for yourself,” she said. “Not for some memory in the past.”
Edward Lee, chef owner of 610 Magnolia, in Louisville, Kentucky, was a riot when he took the podium to describe his pet peeve: today’s recipes and their “modern obsession” with precision and needless instructions such as, “Transfer the contents from the bowl into a frying pan.” There was a time, Lee said, when recipes were written for servants. Recipes were just supposed to be reminders. They were written for people who already knew how to cook and so, often, they were very short. Lee liked these recipes better. “Recipes are not just how-to instructions,” he said. “They are the story of a culture.” Today, every single step is written out. “Tell me, who doesn’t finish a recipe and ‘serve immediately?'” he asked. “Is that really necessary to say?”
Adrian Miller, who just won a James Beard Award for his cookbook “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine One Plate at a Time,” visited 150 soul food restaurants all over the country and came to these conclusions:
- Collard greens and black-eyed peas are such important ingredients in soul food because they were the easiest familiar food items to transport when slaves were freed and started moving to the North.
- Two of the most common misconceptions about soul food are that 1) it needs a warning label because it is so unhealthy, and 2) soul food is “slave” food, the master’s leftovers.
- Red Kool-Aid is the official soul food drink. (Ha.)
- The future of soul food: down home healthy soul food like creole broiled catfish fillets; upscale soul food such as the “country captain” chicken dish from the Carolinas; vegan soul food such as fried tofu, macaroni and cheese, vegetables and collard greens. “Rethink soul food,” Miller urged. “Give it another look.”
I’m looking forward to giving the Southern Food Writing Conference another look when it returns to Knoxville next year. Join me.
A highlight of this conference is dinner on the first day at Blackberry Farm. We boarded buses at the Crowne Plaza to take us there.
We got back to downtown Knoxville around midnight. But we were in our seats for the first session of the conference the next day, if you can believe!
And, even though we still were full from the night at Blackberry Farm, we were served breakfast by the good folks from Nashville’s Capitol Grille.