Category: Southern Cooking

Author Q & A with Robert St. John & Wyatt Waters

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (December 10)

Mississippi natives Robert St. John and Wyatt Waters have teamed up once again to create yet another “coffee table cookbook” worthy of the attention of good cooks and art admirers far beyond the boundaries of their home state.

ms palateIn A Mississippi Palate: Heritage Cuisine and Watercolors of Home, St. John and Waters serve up another full plate of exceptional recipes and watercolor scenes–and this time it’s all about the Magnolia State. Included are 105 recipes and 66 watercolors, all representing the Delta and Hill Country, the Central Region, and south to the Gulf Coast.

A syndicated weekly food columnist, St. John has authored 10 books (three with Waters) and is the owner of four noted eateries in his hometown of Hattiesburg. He has been named the state’s top chef three consecutive years and has been honored with the title of Mississippi Restauranteur of the Year.

Waters grew up in Florence, began art lessons as a first-grader, and is now widely recognized for his “Southern culture” watercolors and plein air paintings. He has received the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Art, the Mississippi Library Association Special Award for Art and the Mississippi Arts Commission Governor’s Award for Excellence in Arts. In addition to his collaborations with St. John, he has released five other books, and his work has been featured in numerous regional and national publications. Today, he lives in Clinton, where he owns an art gallery.

How did you two meet and begin creating books together?

St. John: It all started as a suggestion by one of our restaurant customers. She had been bugging me for months about writing a cookbook. I had no interest in writing a book, but she persisted. One day, she was sitting in the restaurant with a man and called me over to the table. She said, “Robert, this is so-and-so with so-and-so publishing company. Tell him about your cookbook.”

I had no cookbook, and, seriously, had never ever thought about doing a cookbook before that moment. So, trying to think quickly on my feet, I said, “If I were to do a cookbook, I would have recipes I have developed here at the restaurant over the years, stories like in my newspaper column about the South, growing up in the South, and food in the South, and watercolors by Wyatt Waters.”

Without missing a beat, the publisher said, “Well, if you get Wyatt Waters, you’ve got a deal.” The problem was that I didn’t know Wyatt. I was a big fan of his work and the two books he had released at that time. So, the next day, I hopped in my car, drove to Clinton to his gallery, introduced myself, and told him that I had an idea for a book that would be like a coffee table cookbook, and a publisher willing to publish it. We hit it off, and here we are.

Waters: Robert and his wife Jill came to my gallery. He had this idea for a book that used stories, food, and heart to describe Southern culture. The idea intrigued me. I went to visit and meet with him further at his restaurant in Hattiesburg. I was impressed at how everything was done in an excellent way. Robert relates everything to food. I knew he was someone I wanted to work with and know better. Right before we met, my father had a stroke, and during the work on the book, he passed away. Putting the book together was a bonding experience, and I knew this was someone who would be a friend for life. I think Robert invented the coffee table cookbook genre. Most of the time, I don’t know if we’re working or just having a good time.

Tell me about the collaboration process.

St. John: This is our fourth collaboration. The process for each one has been different. When we worked together on our first book, A Southern Palate, we had just met each other. We had a lot in common–musical interests, family backgrounds, childhood memories, and the like–but we were two guys without a work history.

Today, we are best friends who have been collaborating for over 17 years. It’s way, way better. I love collaborative projects. There is a point where you reach when you’re working in a type of shorthand and a lot goes unsaid and unspoken. It’s familiar in a good way.

We have a blast hanging out with each other and working together. We have driven all over Mississippi for years, with the radio turned up way too loud, and we still encounter people, places, and things we have never seen before.

Waters: First of all, Robert has what I would call generosity of spirit. It’s not always clear whose idea it is. The project always take more importance than who came up with it. Another thing that helps is that i don’t pretend to know the food part. Robert has been a very good guide in that world.

The word most associated with artist is “starving.” Not something I have to worry about with Robert. When we get together and talk about ideas, I frequently grab a pencil and an envelope or a napkin and draw out ideas. When we are making final decisions about the book, another thing we do is spread out all of the paintings in consideration and begin culling the ones we don’t think fit. We also try to figure out what gaps need to be filled. There are several versions before we land on a final draft. It’s mostly based on intuition.

(L) Robert St. John and (R) Wyatt Waters

(L) Robert St. John and (R) Wyatt Waters

A Mississippi Palate is your fourth book together, but it’s your first that is strictly about Mississippi. Tell me how you approached this book.

St. John: In all of my–and our–other books, I have known going in what the structure would be like and how the recipes would be listed by chapter. I didn’t know on this project until we got into the recipe-testing phase of the thing. I wanted to have heritage recipes that reminded me of my childhood, but I also wanted up-to-date preparations. Ultimately, I chose things that were “Mississippi to me.” I’m happy with the end result.

Waters: This was like the most difficult of all art forms: the self-portrait. You never really can say exactly who you are. The best you can do is say at that moment what you believe you see. I’ve tried to be honest with my eyes and honest with my heart. This is the most personal of the books we have done together.

What is life like when you’re on the road for a book tour?

St. John: I love going to book signings and speaking events. I get to meet people who have read my newspaper column for almost two decades who remember stuff about my family and me that I had forgotten years ago.

But what I really enjoy is hanging out with my best friend. I drive. He rides. We listen to a lot of music. There’s a lot of me laughing at Wyatt. He cracks me up. He is one of the most clever and witty people I’ve ever known. I speak in “quantity,” he speaks in “quality.”

Waters: Music. Yes, lots of music. After we finished putting the book together, we went to Muscle Shoals and hung out with musicians Mac MacAnally and Norbert Putnam. I didn’t paint, and Robert didn’t cook. But we had a really good time. We cut up and goofed around.

There are some people who we only know from the book tours. They tell us what they’ve been doing since the last time we saw them. It’s a sort of a distant family member that you can’t exactly remember the name of.

Tell me about your new TV show, Palate to Palatte, on Mississippi Public Broadcasting. What can viewers expect, and what do you like most about doing it?

St. John: Palate to Palette  has been a blast. It has been well-received–actually, way better than we could have ever imagined. Our friend Anthony Thaxton wears many hats, and is the director/editor/goat wrangler. It’s Wyatt and me having fun, eating too much, listening to music too loud. He’s painting. I’m cooking and eating, we are visiting off-the-beaten-path places and unique people. I think people are going to enjoy it, but there’s no way anyone will have as much fun watching it as we have had during the filming (in Mississippi and northern Italy).

Someone asked me what the TV show was about the other day, and I said, “It’s really kind of cheating, because it’s the same thing we’ve been doing for the past 17 years, except now we have cameras with us.”

Waters: The idea is for people to see what we do when we are working together. After a few minutes, we forget the cameras are there. WE’re just being ourselves and it’s very unscripted. Anthony Thaxton is the videographer and edits this into a story. Anthony is an old student of mine and an excellent painter himself.

Do you have another book or project that you’re eyeing now?

St. John: I’ll be opening four new restaurants in the next two years. Wyatt and I have a couple of projects we have been talking about. This TV thing has a lot of possibilities. We will definitely keep taking people to Europe on food/art tours, and we have talked about a potential New Orleans book sometime in the future. I have no interest in slowing down anytime soon. In a way, we’re just getting started.

Waters: We’ve already done a lot more than I though I would ever do. Yes, the tours and TV shows are good to do and I like the ideas of a New Orleans book very much. New Orleans is close enough to where we have a lot of experience and feel its influence.

Anything else you’d like to include here?

St. John: One of the unexpected joys that has come with being a Mississippi writer is getting to know the independent bookstore owners throughout the South, and especially in Mississippi. They are on the front lines of a very challenging business model these days. We do everything we can to support them. We are their biggest cheerleaders, but it’s a two-way street. They’ve been there for us over the years, too.

Waters: We are both sons of Mississippi, so we’re kind of like brothers. It’s a real honor to work on something that we believe in as much as these projects we do. All the things that I’ve done all my life feel like preparation for where I am right now. I want to tell those future sons and daughters of Mississippi that they can do more than they think they can. You can live your dream and you can do it in a place you love around people you love.

Robert St. John and Wyatt Waters will be at Lemuria signing copies of A Mississippi Palate on Saturday, December 16 at 11:00 a.m.

Author Q & A with John T. Edge

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (July 16)

You could say that it was John T. Edge’s hunger for answers that led the Georgia native to move to Oxford 22 years ago and earn a master’s degree in Southern Studies from the University of Mississippi.

potlikker papers“I wanted to reconcile my profound love of the South with a deep anger that boiled in me when I confronted our peculiar history,” he writes in his newest book, The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South.

It was through recognizing “that farmers and cooks and waiters have been activists, too, fixed on forging their own newer South,” that he began to discover a path toward reconciliation.

That path led to his position as director of the Southern Foodways Alliance based at Ole Miss, where he and his staff explore the interconnected history of Southern food, philosophy, and favoritism.

The author of more than a dozen books and the winner of the James Beard Foundation’s M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award in 2012, Edge examines the roles of politics, prejudice, and potlikker in shaping the South’s “modern history”–and why it all matters today–in The Potlikker Papers.

He is a contributing editor at Garden & Gun, writes a column for the Oxford American, and has served as the culinary curator for the weekend edition of NPR’s All Things Considered and as writer of the “United Tastes” column for the New York Times.

He lives in Oxford with his wife, Blair Hobbs, and his son Jess.

Tell me about the Southern Foodways Alliance.  

In May 1998, when I was a graduate student at the University of Mississippi, I had conceived the idea for the first symposium on Southern food (presented by the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi). It was successful and people got excited about the idea.

The SFA was founded in 1999 by 50 folks from around the region who believed the food culture of the American South was worthy of documentation and study. The group (which included a wide variety of food writers, growers, and chefs, along with academics who study or organize around Southern food) coalesced at a 1999 meeting in Birmingham, and I was hired as its director. The SFA, which employs nine staffers, now stages public symposia, documents oral histories, produces films, publishes a journal and a podcast–all telling nuanced and complicated stories about the American South and its food.

Through real-life narratives, The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South examines the history of Southern food and culture through distinct historical periods which you’ve titled Freedom Struggles (1950s-1970s); Rise of the Folk (1970s & 1980s); Gentrification (1980s & 1990s); New Respect (1990s-2010s); and Future Tenses (2010s Forward). With some overlap in the time periods, each section shares stories that help explain Southern political, cultural, and gender struggles through food. Please flesh out the concept of The Potlikker Papers in your own words.

My book charts a 60-year history of the South, beginning in 1955 with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and closing in 2015, when a true multicultural South looms on the horizon. I chose 1955 because, by my estimate, that was when the South began to change. Rosa Parks refused to sit at the back of the bus. Black citizens rose to battle Jim Crow.

To tell that story, I focused on Georgia Gilmore, a cook from Montgomery, who raised money to literally and figuratively fuel the boycott by baking cakes and pies and frying chicken and selling them under the banner of what she called the Club from Nowhere. At around that point, the region I admire begins to come into focus. My book showcases a tragic place, reshaped by bold and radical women and people of color. This book is a people’s history of the South, a history of the farmers and cooks and waiters whose story has not been widely told.

 Please explain the title of the book, and why you found it appropriate to tell this story.

The title was inspired by the Potlikker and Cornpone debate of 1931 between Gov. Huey Long of Louisiana and Julian Harris, an editor at the Atlanta Constitution. During the Great Depression, they staged a three-week debate–about how to eat potlikker and cornpone–as a diversion from the woes of the time. Harris crumbled his cornbread into potlikker; Long dunked his.

I wrote my master’s thesis about that debate and about how a close read of the language of the day reveals insights about race, class, gender, and identity. The term “potlikker” also references my work of boiling down 60 years of Southern history to its essence.

 Why have Southerners come to develop an awareness of the food as a way of interpreting our political and cultural history and examining our current climate, and why is this important?

Food is a creative response to who we are and where we live. Southern food expresses our culture, our morals, our beliefs, our passion, and our creativity. We express ourselves through the music we play, the literature we write, through the religions we worship–and also our food. One of the promises for those of us who think and write about food is that our subject is relatable across race, ethnicity, class, and gender divides.

Only recently have Southerners embraced that idea. That is because cooks of the South were often women and people of color. Throughout our history, their work was not seen as worthy of celebration and documentation. The whole of our nation is waking up to this.

 Through this examination of our food culture, how far have we (the South) come in our efforts to right some wrongs, and what have been some of our biggest successes? (It seems that the current interest in and reputation of “Southern food” has been elevated in the past few decades.)

On the natural resource side of the equation, we’ve begun to seek out heirloom vegetables, pastured poultry and free-range hogs. That kind of curiosity is deeply important to biodiversity. On the human resource side, we have come to value the labor of cooks as we never have before. For the longest time, we paid dinting tribute to working class cooks. Especially when speaking of people of color, conservative white-controlled publications often used only their first name. That kind of omission was routinely applied not that long ago. A change has come.

To that end, what challenges lie ahead?

I think the challenge will be negotiating a future for Southern food, in which we recognize, broadly, that culture is a process, not a product. Today, some of the best po-boy shops along the Gulf Coast are owned and operated by Vietnamese families who arrived here to work as shrimpers. One of my favorite Mexican American restaurants markets its tortas as po-boys. These are future tense Southern foods. If you look at the region with clear eyes, you recognize that, by way of pure demographics, the South is changing. And rapidly. I think much is gained in embracing these changes.

You’re a Georgia native, a relatively-long-time Mississippi resident, and the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi.  Do you enjoy cooking? What are some of your own Southern favorites?

John T. Edge

John T. Edge

My wife Blair Hobbs is a far better cook; she makes a great version of my mother’s catfish stew. I keep a Big Green Egg on my porch, right outside my writing shed, and I like to smoke pork shoulders. Occasionally I’ll smoke tomatoes to make a great pasta sauce with a bit of cream. And I love to cook beans. I love the way, when combined with a hunk of pork and some onions, beans transform from what looks like rocks and pebbles to a creamy, poofy, luxurious dish. I also like to make pancakes on Sunday morning and serve them with Allan Benton’s bacon, from Madisonville, Tenn.

Edge will serve as a panelist for a discussion on “A Culture of Food” at 2:45 p.m. Aug. 19 at the Mississippi Book Festival in Jackson. The panel will convene in the Galloway Fellowship Center near the Mississippi State Capitol.

ms book fest

Author Q & A with Lucy Buffett

Interview with Lucy Buffett by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (June 25).

Gumbo LoveAlong with her family, it’s the spirit–and the food–of the Gulf Coast that claim the biggest parts of Lucy Buffett’s heart, and she embraces both in her newest cookbook, Gumbo Love: Recipes for Gulf Coast Cooking, Entertaining, and Savoring the Good Life.

Part food preparation, part philosophy and thoughts on living life to its fullest, Buffett takes on topics like why dessert should be eaten first, why fried foods matter, and why sometimes you just need to “run toward what you fear: close your eyes, hold your nose and jump into it.”

Growing up in Mobile with her sister Laurie and musician/brother Jimmy, Buffett developed a love for the culture and food of the Gulf Coast that eventually led her to open her now-famous “Lu Lu’s” restaurants in Gulf Shores and, later, Destin. She works tirelessly to offer the best experience possible to her customers, and, through Gumbo Love and her previous book LuLu’s Kitchen, to her readers, as well.

Please tell me a little about your childhood, and your spirit of adventure and celebration that seems to come from living along the Gulf Coast.

I was born and raised in Mobile, and, much to my dismay, I am the only person in my family NOT born in Mississippi! That includes my brother, Jimmy, my sister, Laurie, and me. But to this day, we still call each other by our nicknames: LuLu, LaLa, and Bubba. We grew up with dreams of living on the water–boating and recreating on the Gulf Coast shores in both Alabama and Mississippi, because we spent summers at our grandparents’ homes in Pascagoula and Gulfport.

Of course, we are Southern to the core, but being coastal and Southern injects a passion for adventure and a curiosity for what lies beyond the horizon at the water’s edge.

All of us have ventured far from our roots, and I’m the only one who came back home. But like all Southerners who “move away,” my siblings still relish their Southern upbringing and the Gulf Coast cuisine of our childhoods.

Your travels through the years have taken you on a “food tour” that began when you left Alabama as a young woman, and cooked your way through Key West, New Orleans, Belize, New York City, Los Angeles–and back to Alabama.  How did all of those influences affect your cooking?

My cooking skills evolved with my travel adventures. I learned to cook from a Junior League cookbook as a very young wife and mother. I think travel is a very important and a necessary type of education, but since I had an affinity for cooking, I was always fascinated and eager to try new recipes for dishes that I encountered along the way.

I started cooking the dishes I grew up with, but moving to New Orleans deepened my knowledge of the Creole and Cajun cuisine that migrated across the Gulf Coast. Moving to the big cities, I learned how to appreciate and embrace food trends and dove into experimenting. It was fun and enlightening, but as I’ve gotten older and with my move back to the Gulf Coast, I’ve returned to my roots and that is the cuisine I serve at my restaurants. Regardless of what I cook or eat, I’m all about the food tasting delicious!

Tell me about the concept and intention of your cookbook Gumbo Love–and what the title means to you. Also, how many recipes are included?

There are 150 recipes in Gumbo Love and basically, it picks up the conversation about Gulf Coast cuisine that I started in my first cookbook, LuLu’s Kitchen (2016), [formerly Crazy Sista Cooking.]

Gumbo Love is my homage to the Gulf Coast and the vibrant food culture of the beautiful beaches and swampy wetlands I call home. Gumbo is a classic dish in that culture, and every family has a gumbo cook or story to tell.

Making gumbo is not for the faint of heart! All the character building lessons I’ve learned over the years like preparation, discernment, patience, courage, and surrender are all utilized when making a pot of gumbo. Gumbo Love is not only the title of the book or a phrase I have coined, but a philosophy by which I live. It’s about acceptance, love, respect, fortitude, celebration and gratitude.

Gumbo Love includes not only wonderful gumbo and soup recipes, but chapters with your own Gulf Coastal take on main dishes, vegetables, salads, sandwiches, sauces, drinks, and more–and the book begins with a chapter on desserts. Why start with desserts? 

I like to do things a little differently, not for the purpose of simply being provocative. For me, it’s about being in alignment with my curious, creative and rebellious nature. I write about my mother a lot because she was such a powerful influence on me and my family. After she suffered a stroke, she started ordering dessert first when we would go out for lunch. It was wonderful, playful, and a bit out of character for her stoicism. I just thought it would be fun to make desserts the first chapter and it brought back lovely memories of my mother. Plus, I have a wicked sweet tooth!

Not many cookbooks these days devote a chapter to fried foods. Please tell me about the one titled “Deep-Fried Favorites: A Southern Must”. 

I am Southern, and fried food is a part of my heritage and culture. Plus, it is one of the most delicious and delectable ways to prepare food. Being passionate about authenticity, I thought I needed to include recipes for the food that we all love and, by the way, is our number one best seller in my restaurants.

In the book, I explain how I have come to terms, in my older years, with balancing my eating the foods that better support my body and those that don’t. I don’t believe in good food or bad food. A little fried food or one dish of bread pudding isn’t going to hurt. It’s all about balance. And I’m very much at peace with my decision to never give up fried shrimp or chicken!

Tell me about opening the now famous LuLu’s Sunset Grill in Gulf Shores out of a modified bait shop. What was LuLu’s like in the beginning, and how it has grown?

The last 18 years of my 43-year work history have been what I call my own “Cinderella” story. But every job I’ve ever done prepared me to do the one I’m doing now. The first LuLu’s was truly a wonderful and small waterfront dive. It had very humble beginnings and I worked all positions along with my two grown daughters and six other employees. It was fun and hard, hard work.

After five years, I lost my lease and my first impulse was to close. But with the help of friends and an investor who had faith in me and my concept, we moved to the current location in Gulf Shores, expanding the seating from 100 seats to 400 seats.  It took off like a wildfire as soon as we opened the doors. Today, I have an additional location in Destin, Florida, and over 500 employees. Yes, it is big, but it is all built on the original concept of giving our customers an authentic Gulf Coast experience. And we really work hard together as the LuLu’s family to do just that!

In the book, you explain that an eclectic mix of foods is represented throughout the Gulf Coast, with colliding influences that include the cuisines and cultures of Cuba, Mexico, Africa, Louisiana Cajun and Creole traditions, and “Southern grace and simplicity.” Where does Mississippi coastal food fit into that mix?

The Mississippi Gulf Coast has a long history in the seafood industry. The warm Gulf water is the home to some of the best seafood in the world! All the influences you mentioned are so evident in our cuisine using the beautiful Gulf seafood: shrimp, crab, oysters, and the sweet warm-water fish are central items on any restaurant menu or household dinner table. We are so blessed to have the bounty that we have from the Gulf.

Gumbo Love seems to be as much a book about inspiration, life lessons, advice, and encouragement as it is a top-notch cookbook filled with dozens of amazing recipes. Tell me about that “other purpose” for this cooking guide.

Lucy Buffett

Lucy Buffett

I am a very gregarious person, but I am also a very introspective person and I’ve devoted my adult life to doing the “inner work” required for self-improvement. I wasn’t interested in doing a simple “how to” cookbook–if I am going to attempt any project, it must have meaning and purpose, other than just to make money. Gumbo Love gives a glimpse into my inner landscape that is the foundational block of my current business success as a restaurateur and personally as an independent, self-sustaining woman.

Can you share any career or other plans–maybe for books, restaurant expansions, etc.–for your future?

It took eight years to complete Gumbo Love and I worked on it fulltime for the last two-and-a-half years, so I’m going to take a break and get back to the restaurant business for a while. I have another LuLu’s opening in Myrtle Beach in 2018 and that is VERY exciting.

I do have an idea for another cookbook, but the next book I will write will be a business memoir called Confessions of a Reluctant Entrepreneur. However, I will do that at my leisure, and I’m planning a very long vacation so I can relax for a while and enjoy this great life I’ve worked so hard to manifest!

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