clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

John Currence on His New Cookbook and the Scourge of Southern Cliches

New, 6 comments

If you buy something from an Eater link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics policy.

Photo: Andrews McMeel

currence-cover.jpgOxford, Mississippi chef John Currence released his first cookbook, Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey: Recipes from My Three Favorite Food Groups and Then Some, from Andrews McMeel earlier this Fall. A sprawling ode to his particular breed of Southern cooking, the book is arranged by technique and contains recipes from Currence's New Orleans youth, his training as a chef, and his restaurants in Oxford. Below, he discusses his place in Southern cuisine, how randomly selected dishes ended up telling the story of his career, and making sure the South has "a seat at the table in the conversation on American food. To be very clear I'm still kind of pissed that it took this fucking long to get here." Pickles, Pigs, & Whiskey is out now; buy on Amazon or check out Eater's preview.

First of all, why did you want to write a cookbook?
I don't really know. I'm not very smart, and everyone told me that this is what I should do, and so I did. And I think I really started trying to write something in about 1998, when John Grisham was still in Oxford and we were close-ish and I had a pile of friends who were writers, including Larry Brown, Barry Hannah, and Tom Franklin. I did reading for some of those guys, I did manuscript work for them. Between that, being amongst those guys, and a regular visit from a publisher here and there saying, you really need to do a book, we'd love to do a book with you, I just became convinced for some reason that oh, okay, well, I need to write a book.

I worked on it for a very long time, just throwing stuff away because it was all garbage. I was trying to write to an audience in the way I thought that they wanted to hear. I felt like, if I was going to write something, I thought I had to contribute something profound to the discussion on Southern food, and so I just really was trying to force this garbage out. And it wasn't until I actually was signed by Andrews McMeel to do this book, who really, they signed me totally blindly. We had talked forever and I very much knew that Kirsty Melville, who runs the cookbook division, wanted to do something with me and we had no idea what it was. We signed a contract that was like, John Currence will turn in a cookbook on this day. And we're gonna pay him up front and we'll pay him when he submits, and wahoo, we're off to the races.

How long ago was that?
That was about two and a half years ago when we executed the contract. For another year after that, I really continued to struggle through to write something meaningful. It was very frustrating, because everybody who read it for me, including my wife who was an amazing editor, Wright Thompson from ESPN, John T. Edge, all read it for me. All of them said very much the same thing, which was: who is this guy? This is not you. Just write like you tell stories.

I just couldn't make that happen because I was trying to approach the subject matter from an academic standpoint. And I got very, very, very frustrated and the deadline began to loom, so finally I had about three glasses of bourbon one night in my office and just went fuck it, I'm just going to write fucking stories. So it was just like fuck, shit, shit, fuck started coming out and the next thing I know I'm spewing out these stories and realizing, oh okay, I can tell the story of my life and my career through food, and so that's what I'll do. People like to listen to me tell stories, and so all I've gotta do is tell stories about food, and we're off.

Who cares about the academic crap, you know? I've got nothing to say. So that was it and that's really when the tide turned, and really I just plummeted it out. It happened very naturally and quickly, so that was that.

[Photo: Paula Forbes /]

And you're happy with how it turned out? That you went the story-telling route as opposed to something more "academic," whatever that might mean?
Oh, absolutely. I tell people a lot that — as sort of a grotesque, self-loathing Catholic — I was perfectly prepared to be done with this thing and turn it in and never want to see it again. I was just going to hate it when it came back to me. And so when the page layouts started coming back and pictures were inserted and things started to take shape, it was exciting, and when I finally got the book, I didn't go skipping through the yard waving through the air or anything, but I was surprised at how glad I was to see it and how happy I was with it. I think it's because ultimately it's a very honest representation of who I am, of what our food's all about, of what our philosophy and our aesthetic is, so that was that.

And people have responded to it nicely, too. My next fear was that I'd just get out there and I'd just get annihilated for being this foul-mouthed redneck. People have responded nicely particularly to the fact that it's honest. Folks seem to really understand that it was a very, very personal thing to do. There are family stories as well as professional stories that I was sharing with folks.

How did you pick which recipes to include?
The recipes really come from all walks of my experience, whether it's in the home or from the restaurants. A majority of it is stuff that we have done at the restaurants. A significant amount of it is stuff that [I] wouldn't probably do at home, like I don't pickle ram hearts at home. Not to say that if I didn't do what I do for a living that I wouldn't pickle ram hearts at home, but I just have not had a moment where I've said, well that's what we should do.

So, yeah, it's odd, I read the chapters and selected the dishes blindly for an outline that I wrote and just posted them on my office wall to work from. It just turned out that as I was writing each recipe — and this was sort of an epiphany — that everything about what we do, or what I do, has a narrative to it. There's a reason it exists. And I only really truly began to understand the implications of the personal expression of sharing food with people, whether it be in a professional or in a home setting, and that really sort of set the hook for me. I realized that, holy shit, I picked these dishes randomly, but every one of has a story that goes along with it that's germane to why I cook the way that I do.

Each recipe has a song to go with it. How did you pick those? Did you use that same sort of gut instinct, or was there more concrete reasoning behind the selections?
It's really just more of a feeling than anything else. I mean there are some that are literal: a sweet potato recipe gets "Sweet Potato" by Booker T and the M.G.'s. There are others that are just really more personal expression. I looked at every recipe and thought, okay, what's my mindset when I'm writing this: okay, ELO. Next, oh, definitely, Hall & Oates.

It's not entirely random, but it's really more of a personal choice, other than the ones that are tagged, very obviously titled in a way or messaged in a way that telegraphs something about the name of that dish.

[Photo: Paula Forbes /]

When this book was announced, you told us that you were looking for a way to write a book that stood out, that was different from other Southern cookbooks. How did you try to differentiate this from other Southern cookbooks?
Well, a couple of things. The first thing — that I continued to chant through writing the entire thing — is that I'm not going to participate in the cliché that sort of bogs down Southern cooking or cubby holes us as prosaic or what have you. And what I found as I went along is that in spite of the fact that I wanted to avoid certain clichés, that there were certain things — I can't name names, but some cookbooks trade in cliché — certain things are unavoidable.

I wanted to write this story about making sweet tea, but also explain to folks as a storyteller how in the creative mind, storytelling mind, you curate stories. As the years go along you embellish them with details to a point where you can take someone else's story, fold a detail of it into yours, and convince yourself that that's — if you tell it enough — that that's what happened. It's kind of weirdly Republican in that way. If you repeat it enough, it will ultimately be believed. It's not a lie, it's just that that's the way.

I drink a lot of iced tea, and I make my iced tea in a very specific way, and I attribute it to a Southern writer named Eugene Walter who I absolutely love. And when I went back to research the recipe, I swear that 20 years ago I read an article about Eugene Walter and how he made iced tea. And I make tea now that will literally last refrigerated for like three weeks without going stale. And so I attributed it to him but in researching it, I can't find any evidence anywhere of anything that he wrote about making tea. So at this point I attribute it to him — it could be a lie [laughs] — but I'm attributing the spirit.

So I did find myself, I guess, grabbing things that — I sort of bristle when I see these things, like [exaggerated Southern accent] frilly aprons and screen doors and porch swings and iced tea. But I couldn't avoid using that iced tea recipe as a way to tell another story. Or the fact that, well, okay, catfish, couldn't get a hell of a lot more Southern than that. Well, you know what, we got some folks down here that are raising incredibly delicious, well-raised, organic catfish, and so why not use catfish? There's a certain amount of cliché that was unavoidable. Now, that being said, we just didn't lean on gross clichéd dishes and what not.

I rail on Paula Deen pretty regularly for furthering a stereotype for Southerners that I find offensive. I feel like it continues to undermine the work that a number of us have done to bring a legitimacy or intellectual credibility to the food of the South, so I wanted to do everything I could to put something on paper that expressed a voice of the South that was a seat at the table in the conversation on American food. To be very clear I'm still kind of pissed that it took this fucking long to get here.

Another thing I wanted to do is, I really wanted to bust up the traditional chapter structure in the book. The coursed chapter structure bored me a little bit, and there's a little short explanation in the book about how my parents, it was a running joke about how long it would take me to quit playing with the toy that they gave me on Christmas before I started taking it apart to see how it worked, and so I've always been fascinated with technique.

Unfortunately books these days are sometimes so ghostwritten that you read them, and they could be about any random restaurant. But yours, you really get the voice and that this is food that people are actually cooking as opposed to someone's idea of what Southern food should be.
Right. As much as folks like to say, well, Southern food is fried fried fried and lots of butter, we all know that it's much deeper than that. The odd thing about it is that it's changing, and it always has changed, and it continues to change. And that's sort of the beauty of it. We take whatever immigrant population moves into the area, and they use our ingredients, we use their dishes, and everything's fusion.

Do you use cookbooks? Do you read cookbooks, and how did that influence you writing a cookbook?
I do use and read. I have a huge collection of cookbooks, and I absolutely love them. I used to read them like novels. These days I don't have as much time as I used to, so I don't find myself reading them cover to cover, but they're a tremendous source of influence. I was just having a conversation last night about how somebody was asking me about a couple recipes in the book that I attribute to Sean Brock or David Chang or Mike Lata or Ashley Christensen as inspirations. Somebody was asking, You're not afraid of people accusing you of stealing ideas? And I was like, no.

I think it's stupid that that conversation even occurs. We're friends, and I can't think of any greater flattery than one of my friends saying, dude that pâté was so fucking good, I'm going to go home and make it. I might want to do it this way or that, but I want to create that end product. Nothing's more flattering. And anybody who tells you that they don't do it in some way, shape, or form is a fucking liar.

That they don't try other people's recipes, you mean?
Yeah, or they don't find inspiration and influence for things that they write by eating other people's food or reading other people's books.

You're on a promotional trip of sorts right now. Do you want to tell me a little bit about what you're up to for the book?
It's kind of like an old-school book tour, except my publisher was entirely on board with the fact that I said I want to go out and promote the book I don't want to sit in an empty fucking Barnes and Noble and sign two books a day. Let's marry up with buddies who will host us for seated events. If we can put together a format that will work and folks will host us, we can go sell a pile of books and put on a meal and raise awareness, so that's what we're doing.

[Photo: Paula Forbes /]

Lightning Round

Which recipe from the book would you make if...

...You're having a bunch of people over to watch a football game: Red beans and rice gumbo (page 42).

...You're having your lady friend over for a fancy dinner and you want to impress her: The veal Country Captain, nice and spicy to get things going (page 157).

...You're having a bunch of friends you haven't seen in a while over for a dinner
I think we'd do something comforting like the garlic-duck sausage with collard choucroute garni (page 120).

...You're on the road feeling homesick, and you want to make something that reminds you of home: The jambalaya boudin (page 122).

And of course I'm making a drink with every one of those.

· Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey: Recipes from My Three Favorite Food Groups and Then Some [Amazon]
· All John Currence Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Cookbook Coverage on Eater [-E-]

City Grocery

152 Courthouse Square Oxford, MS 38655