Four writers are a step closer to fame today with the announcement that they are finalists in the inaugural Crook’s Corner Book Prize. Patterned on Parisian literary cafés, the grand prize, to be awarded on Jan. 6, will confer not only bragging rights and $1,000 prize but also a free glass of wine every night for a year at the Chapel Hill restaurant.
More than 60 authors whose stories are set in the American South submitted hard-copy published works for judging. Some are from major publishers but several were produced independently. Most but not all of the contenders either live or have roots in the places their characters call home.
Here is a list of the four finalists and their books:
Shannon Ravenel, editor and founder of Chapel Hill-based Algonquin Books, was impressed by the both the quality of writing and the number of entries.
“Some of them were dreadful, but a few really took my breath away,” says Ravenel. “We thought we’d get maybe 10 or 12 entries the first year. We never imagined that so many would enter and be qualified.”
Chef John Besh is famous for his inventive takes on classic fare served at his nine restaurants, eight of which are near his New Orleans home. But like the spices that flavor a complex gumbo, the context of Besh’s inspiration is global.
Early in his career, Besh trained with groundbreaking Europeans chefs. He learned to appreciate the unique flavor contributions of local ingredients and how they reflect the cultural values of those who are sustained by them.
Besh conjures the sights and smells of Germany’s Black Forest and the Provence region of France in his new book, Cooking From the Heart: My Favorite Lessons Learned Along the Way. Affectionately written and beautifully illustrated, it is an unabashed love letter to those who taught him, drank with him, and ultimately shaped his career.
“I was very blessed to have these experiences, and to retrace my steps to share them with others,” Besh says.
Besh hopes that the book will inspire home cooks to cook more often to gain confidence in selecting and preparing ingredients, and in feeding themselves and others.
“Cooking teaches important life lessons. It’s taken me a couple of decades to figure this out, but it will transform the way you view food – the way you view everything,” he says. “Too often, there’s almost a snobbery associated with great food. I wanted to be careful to dispel that and bring the humanity back. I don’t want people to not cook because they are afraid of making a mistake.”
Most of the recipes can be made by even novice cooks. This is especially true of the “A Leaf of Lettuce” chapter, which inspired a colorful triple-play dinner at our house with mâche salad with pumpkin oil vinaigrette, roasted beets in vinaigrette and carrot and chive salad with the distinctive crunch of toasted caraway seeds.
Besh approved of my tweaking the salad vinaigrette with walnut oil I had in the pantry instead buying a $16 bottle of pumpkin oil to use just two tablespoons. “Absolutely,” he says. “My message is these are blueprints, starting points, for making great food.”
Still, the man is a world-renowned chef. He peppers the collection with some recipes only the brave are likely to attempt, such as fat-studded sülze: pork head cheese. Besh says he includes these to demonstrate how they are both flavorful and sustainable.
“I don’t really expect many people to attempt Wild Boar Head Pate,” he says, referencing a recipe introduced with a startling image of German Chef Karl-Josef Fuchs singeing the dangling beast’s coarse fur with a blow torch. “I was a little worried that people might look at that first chapter and think, ‘Hell, no.’ One thing I learned from Karl-Josef is that if you are going to take an animal, you must use all of it.”
Besh also draws inspiration from time spent in North Carolina, where he was stationed while serving with the U.S. Marines during the Persian Gulf War. His connection goes much further back, however. His paternal grandfather ran the dairy operation at the Biltmore Estate for the Vanderbilts.
“He and my father lived in a little white house that used to be where the winery stands now,” says Besh. “Every now and then I return and take pictures of the improvements to show to my dad.”
The Besh family often vacations in small towns in western North Carolina, where he and his brother-in-law enjoy fishing and hunting. “Western North Carolina has been like a second home to us,” says Besh, who caught duck for Thanksgiving last year while canoeing on the French Broad River. “My wife’s family had a place at Lake Toxaway, so we all have strong connections. It doesn’t take much to make us come back.”
Thanksgiving often is a time to welcome new additions to the family table. Page Skelton of Chapel Hill-based Cackalacky is giving the tradition a sweet-and-spicy twist with the introduction today of its new Sweet Cheerwine Sauce.
The product has been in the works for a few months and features the Salisbury-made soft drink’s characteristic deep burgundy color, which adds a lustrous lacquer to grilled and smoked meats. Skelton offers his recipe for Cheer-Can Chicken to INDY readers below.
“I’m pretty giddy about the sauce,” says Skelton, who will offer samples to fans attending The Avett Brothers’ Legendary Giveback Concert on Thursday in North Charleston, S.C. “The original idea was to do it as a one-off specialty, but the Cheerwine folks are really behind it. They wanted another product that had legs and believe this is it.”
Skelton, who developed the taste, managed to hit the mark after just two tries. “They asked me to make the Cheerwine flavor a bit more prominent, and I agree it’s better,” he says. “They call the mix of the soft drink and Southern foods ‘a legendary Southern handshake.’”
Cooking with Cheerwine is not a new concept; chefs and home cooks have been using it to glaze hams and substitute for cola in cakes for decades. Garden & Gun features a recipe for Cheerwine Vinegar Pie in its current issue. But this is the first time that a commercially produced sauce has the express approval of Cheerwine itself.
Skelton views the flavor as a perfect compromise for those who love barbecue but not really spicy food. “This falls right smack in the middle of the bell curve,” he says. “It’s got enough spice to wake up your food but not go over the top. It’s a nice bookend to the original sauce.”
The new sauce joins Cackalacky’s original sweet potato-based Spice Sauce and Spiced Nuts, as well as a pale ale produced in partnership with Fullsteam Brewery. Sold in 16-ounce jars for $5.99, Sweet Cheerwine Sauce was quietly added to Cackalacky’s online store about a week ago and is available locally at Cliff’s Meat Market, Carrboro Beverage, Southern Season and Parker and Otis. Other locations will be added soon, including all Greensboro-area Harris Teeter stores.
Skelton does not envision adding other items to product line anytime soon. “No, and Mrs. Cackalacky says this is enough,” he says with a laugh. “My wife runs my common sense department. With the new beer being introduced at the start of the year and the sauce at the end, it’s pretty monumental to manage all we’ve got.”
A Saturday event at Fullsteam will offer Cackalacky Pale Ale shandies made with Cheerwine instead of lemonade. Samples of chicken wings and barbecue spiked with Sweet Cheerwine Sauce—and possibly a pre-Thanksgiving turkey—also will be served.
“I think it would be incredible on turkey, kind of sweet and caramelized,” Skelton says. “We’re going to try it this year at our house.”
Jill Warren Lucas is a freelance writer in Raleigh who blogs at Eating My Words. Follow her at @jwlucasnc.
Midway through an interview with fermentation expert Sandor Katz, I heard the clack of a sharp knife against a wooden cutting board. Katz had pulled out a couple of onions and began chopping up his breakfast prep while we chatted.
A former policy wonk turned self-taught fermentation expert, he has gained wide appeal and praise for his books Wild Fermentation (2003) and The Art of Fermentation (2012), a James Beard award winner and New York Times bestseller.
He has remained grounded in the simple things, like chopping onions, focused on his own personal healing as someone living with AIDS and educating the public with in-depth workshops and easy access to his expertise.
This weekend, Katz will deliver the keynote address at Carolina Farm Stewardship Association’s Sustainable Agriculture Conference in Durham. He will also host two fermentation workshops at the conference, on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning. For more details, visit CFSA’s website.
You use the term “revivalist” to identify yourself and your work. Can you explain that?
It’s a little bit of a play on words, the idea of a religious revival. I think that fermentation arts are extremely important in many cultural traditions around the world, I dare say most. They are part of the cultural legacy we have inherited. Yet over the course of the second half of the 20th century, people were thrilled to be unburdened from the production of food. We’ve sort of become de-skilled. I think of the work that I’m doing as, first of all, demystifying a process that has become shrouded in mystery. Secondly, sharing important skills with people to ultimately empower and reclaim the tradition.
How does that revival work now, as food has become trendy?
Hasn’t it always been trendy? We eat, don’t we?
Here’s what’s happened: Agriculture scales up, food production moves into factories and largely disappears from people’s lives. People were thrilled to be unburdened and have their lives freed up. Our generation, over decades, has realized that much has been lost. I don’t really see it as a fad or anything like that, I think there is, sort of, in our culture and our society, a hunger for connection with our food. The food that’s produced by this system of centralized mass production is not only destroying the Earth, it’s part of an economic decline. There’s a hunger to become more connected to food, and we are seeing an extraordinary revival in agriculture. Everywhere in the United States, people are realizing that there’s value in fresher, local food.
But if you look in people’s refrigerators, most of what people are purchasing is not raw products of agriculture. Agriculture wouldn’t be possible without fermentation. It makes no sense for people to invest their energy in crops. Classic value-added products make what they are growing financially viable.
There’s social value in having farms and farmers and being connected to local farms. There’s economic value in supporting locally. If people are going to be eating local food in temperate climates, that’s where preservation comes in.
I’ll admit that I’ve got a bit a phobia of canning. Have other people told you the same?
There’s a real danger with canning, so it’s made everyone afraid of canning. Can I tell you how many recorded food poisonings by USDA are from fermentation? Zero.
Why is fermentation more beneficial than quick pickling?
Historically, no one had to think about the bacteria (they didn’t even know they existed). But they didn’t have regular exposure to chemicals killing bacteria. Our water supply is chlorinated; our restrooms are filled with soaps that promise to kill 99 percent of our bacteria. We are ingesting these chemical compounds all the time, and it’s becoming important to consciously and constantly replenish this bacteria that enables us to exist. That’s the value of live culture foods. Nothing wrong with vinegar or quick pickles, they just provide that to a lesser extent. [Fermentation] is an excellent way in replenishing gut bacteria.
Can you literally keep something in your fridge or pantry for years and then eat it safely?
The devil is in the details. Closed can, sure, absolutely. Out of the fridge, that’s the historical context here. It all depends. If you have an unheated cellar you can have a barrel of kraut and enjoy it for years. With heat, where I live, it gets mushy and it’s fine to eat, but unpleasing to my palate.
Historically, this method of preservation provided a period of abundance to get you through a period of scarcity. Our perspective of food preservation from canning and freezing is things that are good must be forever. Most living fermented foods can’t really be forever. It’s about extending the useful life for the food, but not petrify it forever. That’s doomsday thinking.