There are a lot of books about Southern food out there these days. Over the past few years, it seems that every chef that ever put cornbread or pimento cheese on a menu has rushed to publish a cookbook, often with middling results. Oxford, Mississippi chef John Currence's personal, informative, and otherwise delightful new cookbook, Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey: Recipes from My Three Favorite Food Groups and Then Some, is a notable exception.
There are several reasons for this. For starters, Currence can write, an ability that doesn't seem to be high on the list of priorities whenever the cookbook fairy starts handing out restaurant book deals. Second, he's not trying to reinvent the Southern food as you know it: his barbecued shrimp, his gumbo z'herbes, his fried oysters aren't belabored "modern takes" on anything. When he does veer from the traditional, it's done with purpose and personal inflection. Finally, the recipes actually work. Why are these three qualities so often missing from contemporary cookbooks?
Adding to the Conversation
Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey has been some time in the making. New Orleans-native Currence opened Oxford's City Grocery in 1992, and since then has expanded to a four-restaurant mini empire. Like David Kinch's new book, this is a first cookbook that reflects on an already sizable career, and thus Currence actually has some things to say. In a statement to Eater when the book was first announced, Currence said he'd considered the glut of Southern cookbooks when embarking on the project, wondering "what more I could add to the conversation that these guys haven't already said...Let's just say that consternation was a place in which I spent months."
Step one, it seems, was to write a highly personal cookbook: despite its title, Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey doesn't need to lean on the tropes of Southern cuisine. Are there recipes for shrimp and grits, and homemade Duke's-esque mayonnaise, and pimento cheese fritters? Definitely.
But there are also dishes that are Currence's own: collard kimchi, lemon-pickled apples, Deep South "Ramen," a shrimp and lobster corn dog, a cocktail dedicated to the people who helped rebuild after Hurricane Katrina (Currence was one of them), and a lot more New Orleans-influenced food than one might expect from a Mississippi chef. In other words, this isn't so much Southern cuisine or even sort-of-modern-trendy-riffs on Southern cuisine as it is John Currence cuisine.
There are recipes in here to satisfy everyone from the beginner home cook to the restaurant professional, and there are also projects galore from canning to cured meats. The book is arranged by technique, so you end up with chapters called "Boiling & Simmering," "Slathering, Squirting & Smearing," "Brining & Smoking," and more.
Each recipe has a recommended song to go with it (which Zak Pelaccio also did in his 2012 cookbook) drawn from Currence's personal favorites: "I will warn you now that you will not like every song on the list." Song pairings range from literal references ("My Sweet Potato" by Booker T and the MGs for a pickled sweet potato recipe) to more figurative ("Mama Said Knock You Out" by LL Cool J for a duck confit with peach relish).
On the Importance of Good Writing
There is a "Foreplay" — no foreword here — from Southern Foodways Alliance president (and godfather to Currence's daughter) John T. Edge. Writes Edge:
Lots of chefs who write books declare that their cuisine is very personal. Half the time, I don't buy the rhetoric. This time I do. John Currence has written a book that sounds like him, a book that smells like him, with recipes that conjure his past and his present and pay homage to the place he calls home
And that's what really sets Currence's book apart: take away the recipes that reflect his history and cooking philosophy, take away the fact that they're tested and work well, and you still have a worthwhile product. Reading this book cover to cover — which is alarmingly easy to do — feels like you spent an afternoon with the man. The purpose of a cookbook is twofold: to both make the reader a better cook and to preserve something of its author for the future. Currence has somehow managed to achieve both goals with gusto.
If you need further convincing, the book is blurbed by the rather eclectic group of Michelle Bernstein, Frank Stitt, Sean Brock, Elvis Costello, Eli Manning, and Anthony Bourdain (who declares "John Currence is a dangerous man.) The whole thing will, at least momentarily, make you feel like a part of the ham-curing, oyster-slurping, Pappy-swigging, Billy Reid-wearing SFA crowd. Which, let's admit, seems like a pretty fun crowd. Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey: Recipes from My Three Favorite Food Groups and Then Some comes out from Andrews McMeel on October 1 (pre-order on Amazon). Take a look: