The annual May/June food issue is—unabashedly—my favorite one of the many we produce all year. For those who know me, this revelation will not come as a shock. Food ranks as high as books on the list of discussion topics I can dork out on real quick. And cookbooks—well, as my husband says, “there’s got to be a pill for that.”
The number of shelves I need to hold my ever-expanding collection of cookbooks is bound to take over our petite cottage, which is already overrun by 12 furry paws and a set of four hooves. In the past several months, a whole new group of food-related tomes (below) have moved in and each one is special in its own way, mainly because there’s a story behind every one.
I picked up Vivian Howard’s lush valentine to her eastern North Carolina roots when she came to town for a book signing. The genial creator of PBS’s A Chef’s Life and the gifted alchemist behind the venerated eatery The Chef and the Farmer was accompanied by a Duke’s mayonnaise food truck—be still my heart! The gal’s got taste. And I love that she qualifies her ranging and comprehensive treatise on an understudied region of Southern cooking as more of a storybook than a recipe book.
Story is central to food. What’s on a plate speaks volumes about place, history, culture, class and values.
That was gist of my conversation with Oxford, Mississippi’s “Big Bad Chef” John Currence. He was passing through town and his homage to the most important meal of the day—breakfast—had just hit shelves. We met at the bar at the Florence and commiserated about how hard it can be to find your voice as a writer. He confides it took him nearly a decade to write his first cookbook, firing and missing as he tried to assume the wordplay of a John T. Edge or the warm scholarly authority of John Edgerton. Finally, a friend admonished him to “just write like you’re telling me a story.” The words spilled forth.
We pondered why so many great chefs are also great storytellers. “Good chefs are incredibly thoughtful and capable of deep examination,” Currence offers after a brief silence spent in contemplation. “The best chefs out there are smart. It takes some deep introspection to understand what you’re trying to communicate through food.”
Over fried chicken at the Olde Pink House, Ti Martin, daughter of Ella Brennan of the famed Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, asks the eternal question about her mother’s uncanny talent for putting great chefs in her kitchens. Marquee names like Paul Prudhomme, Emeril Lagasse and Tory McPhail.
“Did she pick ‘em or did she make ‘em?” she says. “It’s a combination of both. She makes you feel capable—Mom has an unbelievable affinity for people.”
That singular talent comes through Martin’s book (and a companion documentary) about her mother, both of which had just been released when she visited Savannah last fall for the Southern Independent Booksellers Association convention. What Martin came to understand about her mom through the process of writing and researching was how integral Ella Brennan was and still is to the emergence of a distinctly American cuisine, which seems to have experienced its watershed moment around 1983 when Larry Forgione opened An American Place in New York and Ms. Brennan served up the exquisite American Cuisine Symposium in her beloved Crescent City.
“This is a triumphant American story through one very interesting character’s life,” explains Martin. “My greatest hope is that if we can get young women to read the book, see the documentary, they can learn from how she did it. But also, I think it’s a great management book. If more people managed like her, it would be a better world.”
It would also be a much a happier place if a jazz band came marching through every day like it does at Commander’s Palace, don’t you think?
Food is celebration, and this May/June issue is a carnival fairway full of new dishes to try out at a restaurant or in the comfort of your own home. It’s our latest contribution to Savannah’s own evolving food story, and we hope you keep it long past its shelf life to guide you through new culinary adventures.
Amy Paige Condon