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Friday, November 22, 2013

John Egerton recalled as a traditionalist and progressive who honored Southern foodways

Posted by on Fri, Nov 22, 2013 at 11:19 AM

John Egerton at the 2005 SFA Symposium, with (left) New Orleans writer and filmmaker Lolis Eric Elie, author of the Treme cookbook, and (right) John Currence, who will be in town this weekend. - PHOTO BY KATE MEDLEY

News of the death Thursday morning of Southern journalist John Egerton, 78, an eloquent civil rights historian and co-founder of the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA), deeply affected his many friends and admirers in the Triangle.

"I feel as though a great tree has fallen," says Marcie Cohen Ferris, an early SFA president who teaches about Southern food and culture at UNC. "He was a wise man who truly understood the American South. He recognized that food could tell the story of social justice in a way that honored everyone at the table."

Ferris, author of Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South, still refers students to Egerton's groundbreaking 1995 book, Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South. She also introduces them to its predecessor, the influential 1987 Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History, which urged Southerners to take pride in their traditional foodways. Both were published by UNC Press.

"His work was transformative. He was both a traditionalist and a progressive, a man with great vision for social justice. He was clear that there was no point in creating an organization like SFA to mythologize or dance around the edges," adds Ferris, noting that Egerton later became concerned about the "fancification" of Southern food through celebrity chefs. "The people's food was John's food. He was very supportive of young chefs who worked hard to uphold the core traditions of simple home cooking and the meat-and-three cafes."

Raleigh's Ashley Christensen was one of such chef. She treasures the memory of having lunch with Egerton a year or so ago at the celebrated Arnold's Country Kitchen in Nashville with local chefs Tyler Brown and Tandy Wilson. Later than night, he joined them at an SFA fundraiser.

"He pulled me aside at the event to tell me how important the work that we were doing was. I was physically warmed over with pride and inspiration," Christensen says. "He was the kind of man who took the time to say what needed to be said and recognized the importance of the gesture. His words and his work will continue to inspire many, myself included. He will be deeply missed and continuously celebrated in the many subjects to which he brought light."

Nancie McDermott, author of Southern Cakes and Southern Pies, is the founder of Culinary Historians of Piedmont North Carolina, a group that meets monthly at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. "The food of the South won't taste quite right for a little while, because he brought so much to the kitchen and the table," she wrote on the CHOP NC website. She hailed Egerton as "a scholar, historian, writer and gatherer of people with whom to lift it up, explore it, celebrate it and nourish it in every way."

Bill Smith of Crook's Corner, a longtime member of the SFA board, recalls Egerton's humor and generosity. While visiting Nashville in 2007 on a book tour, he was surprised when Egerton dropped by to support him.
"He hardly knew me at all back then, but he made a point of coming to my event and bringing all his friends. He was so very kind to me," he says. "Later I got to know him better and really admired him as a brilliant academic, a true intellectual and dogged Southern liberal. During the Bush years, we'd call each other and have these 'give 'em hell' pep talks."

Ben Barker, who formerly operated Magnolia Grill in Durham with his wife Karen, says his friend was "the 'moral compass' of the SFA, constantly reminding us of our responsibility to remain inclusive and progressive, passionate and humble. He was a powerful scholar, a defining humanist and an advocate of the beaten biscuit. We all will miss him dearly."

Barker recalls spending time with Egerton last September in Birmingham for the SFA Founders gathering. The occasion included "putting a serious hurting on a bottle of bourbon" with Lowcountry legend Louis Osteen and culinary anthropologist Vertamae Grosvenor. "I remained silent, absorbing the aura of three Southern icons recollecting and remembering. The Southern Foodways Alliance's founding voice was exceptional and clear in that moment."

Egerton also was renowned for encouraging young people drawn to the study of the South. Kate Medley, a Durham photojournalist and digital media director for Whole Foods, was a graduate student when she first met Egerton in 2005 at an SFA symposium in Oxford, Miss.

"He was one of the first people who inspired me with the notion that we can make the South and the world a better place by the simple act of sitting down for a meal—sharing a table, food, conversation and storytelling—with the people in our community," says Medley, who documents the lives and work of farmers along the East Coast. "He contributed great scholarship and demonstrated extraordinary kindness."

Jill Warren Lucas is a freelance writer from Raleigh who blogs at Eating My Words. Follow her at @jwlucasnc.

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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Reminiscing about Crook's Corner, Chef John Currence discusses autobiography at Joule, Garden Terrace

Posted by on Thu, Nov 21, 2013 at 3:51 PM

John Currence
  • John Currence
Chef John Currence’s first book is both badass autobiography and an affectionate embrace of his adopted home of Oxford, Miss. But his first restaurant job as a cook, and the place he reveres for launching his career, is Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill.

“Honestly, I had hoped we’d wrap up the tour with a big event there,” says Currence, whose new Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey will be celebrated with receptions on Sunday at The Garden Terrace at Fearrington and Monday at Joule Coffee in Raleigh. (See details below.)

“I'm certainly going to pop myself up to the bar and hug (owner) Gene Hamer and (chef) Bill Smith around the neck. Bill and I never worked together but he’s as much of an influence as anyone else,” says Currence, who attended UNC in the early 1980s. “We’ve always been very good friends. He was one of the few people who used to come see our awful-as-shit band play. He always showed up, which of course endeared him to me to no end.”

It’s a different Bill—Crook’s original chef, Bill Neal—who looms large in the book. While in college, Currence worked in the small kitchen alongside Neal, who is often credited with sparking national interest in authentic Southern cuisine. Neal died in 1991 at age 41, just six years after his Southern Cooking was published by UNC Press and his food was celebrated in The New York Times by Craig Claiborne.

Neal also was known for his irascibility. In the summer of 2003, Times writer R.W. Apple shared an anecdote about his legendary temper in a story about a gala dinner celebrating the late chef’s legacy at the James Beard House in New York.

“Bill loved to create tension, probably to push us,” Robert Sehling, a former Crook’s cook who is chef/owner at Charleston’s Hominy Grill, told Apple. “It got wild sometimes. I've seen people hurl coffee mugs at him.”

One of those people was John Currence.

“I really do hate the fact, more than just about anything, that the last time I saw him it was very unpleasant,” Currence says. “It was an ugly and unnecessary argument.”

The dispute had been simmering for days. Currence had been unexpectedly tasked with turning two large bags of acorn squash into soup that would be a featured dish. The story is referenced in the introduction to the recipe for Roasted Acorn Squash Bisque. What the anecdote omits is that Neal responded to the young cook’s call for feedback with fury.

“It was my first special and I wanted it to be profound and exceptional,” Currence recalls. “I thought it was something I’d be proud to serve, but it was missing something. I called Bill at home and asked what he would pair with it. There was this pause and all of a sudden this barrage of expletives—a tirade like I’d never heard.”

Currence, who casually drops expletives into his own conversation (his Twitter handle is @BigBadChef), managed to hold his tongue. The next day he arrived before his shift to clear the air, but Neal was in a dark mood because someone left a dog’s water bowl outside of the restaurant. “As soon as I walked in, he started screaming at me again,” he recalls. “I threw a full cup of coffee at him and walked out.”

Despite this dispute, Neal is acknowledged as a primary mentor in Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey. It may not be as evident to readers outside of the Triangle, but he is cited more times than any other chef for his lasting influence.

“Bill does still play a role in my thought process,” says Currence. “It’s hard to be in a kitchen and not be reminded of him.”

Many North Carolina references are in the book, including a nod to former Magnolia Grill Chef Ben Barker, “the big brother I never had,” in the recipe for homemade Worchester sauce. In the notes to his Pimento Cheese Fritters, he declares that Chef Ashley Christensen’s pimento cheese is “transcendent.”

Christensen, who is working on her own debut cookbook, has high praise for Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey.

“It’s a yearbook of sorts, chronicling a life of honesty, hard work and joy in the kitchen,” she says. “John is respectful of tradition, yet still inviting to evolution and innovation at the stoves. His food belongs to him, and to all of the people and personalities—from cooks, to critics, to guests—who have been a part of shaping it.

“Even if John wasn’t one of my closest friends, I’d feel like I’d known him all of my life after reading this book,” she adds. “That’s pretty special.” 

Cooks & Books: Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey Reception
The Garden Terrace at Fearrington Village, Pittsboro
Sunday, Nov. 24, 3 p.m.
Reception including food, autographed book, tax and gratuity: $85
Reservations: 919-542-3030

‘Snacks with Snack’: Reception hosted by Ashley Christensen
Joule Coffee, 223 S. Wilmington St., Raleigh 
Monday, Nov. 25, 5:30 p.m.
Reception including food and cocktail punches from Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey;
copies of the book will be available for sale: $35
Reservations: 919-424-7442

Jill Warren Lucas is a freelance writer from Raleigh who blogs at Eating My Words. Follow her at @jwlucasnc.
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    Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey receptions scheduled for Sunday and Monday

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Saturday, November 16, 2013

Crook's Corner announces finalists for its book prize

Posted by on Sat, Nov 16, 2013 at 1:39 PM

Author Rhonda Riley
  • Author Rhonda Riley

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:

  • Leaving Tuscaloosa by Walter Bennett of Chapel Hill (Fuze Publishing) was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize. A former trial lawyer, Bennett wrote The Lawyer's Myth: Reviving Ideals in the Legal Profession (Harvard University Press, 2002).

  • Code of the Forest by Jon Buchan of Charlotte (Joggling Board Press). Buchan is a First Amendment attorney and former newspaper political reporter raised in the South Carolina Lowcountry.

  • A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash of Wilmington (William Morrow). Cash grew up in the western North Carolina mountains. His second novel, This Dark Road to Mercy, was published in January.

  • The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope by Rhonda Riley of Gainesville, Fla. (Ecco). Born in Charlotte, Riley sets her story in both rural, red clay North Carolina and north central Florida.

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.”

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    Winner wins cash, bragging rights and a free glass of wine every day for a year

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Thursday, November 14, 2013

John Besh brings taste of France and Germany to Chapel Hill

Posted by on Thu, Nov 14, 2013 at 3:54 PM

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.”

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    Book signing and recipe tasting Monday at Foster's Market in collaboration with Flyleaf Books

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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Cackalacky debuts new Sweet Cheerwine Sauce

Posted by on Tue, Nov 12, 2013 at 10:15 AM

  • Courtesy Cackalacky

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.

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Sandor Katz, fermentation expert, to address Sustainable Ag Conference

Posted by on Tue, Nov 12, 2013 at 8:00 AM

Sandor Katz
  • Sandor Katz

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.

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    Sponsored by the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, the event is this weekend in Durham

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