Kelly Alexander would like to take a sentimental journey. It's one she's pondered many times. In fact, Alexander has considered the excursion to the point that she can see around the curves of back roads to the places where farmstands sell just-picked produce and jars of jewel-tone jellies. Vital stops include small-town kitchens where home cooks routinely fix meals that could make city chefs swoon.
Much like Clementine Paddleford, a groundbreaking food writer whom she reintroduced to the culinary landscape in the vivid 2008 biography Hometown Appetites, Alexander wants to visit home kitchens in all 50 states to document contemporary foodways. If she lands one of Amtrak's writer-in-residency grants, the Duke Center for Documentary Studies food-writing instructor would like to be among the first to hitch a ride.
On The Great Amtrack Caper, a Tumblr page created to collect proposals from would-be rail writers, Alexander recalls a rapturous story Paddleford wrote in 1949 about the experience of riding the historic Katy Railroad and eating in its dining car:
"We asked newspaper people, housewives, ministers, butchers, grocers, truck drivers, where to go for a really fine meal. We had luck. The consensus was that about the best dinner one could eat in those parts was a dinner on the Katy Railroad."
"Clementine did something that no one else at the time even thought about, which was telling the story behind the food," Alexander says. "She was a trained journalist with an eye for detail that made you feel like you had eaten great food and spent time in someone else's kitchen. How could anyone resist that?"
It's easy to argue that Alexander is a natural heir to Paddleford. She, too, fell into food writing without having a clear sense of where it would take her. As a college junior, she got an assignment to write about something she knew well. Having grown up in a food-loving Jewish household in Atlanta, she knew how to cook. Her descriptive, mouth-watering piece about making an omelet wound up on the desk of Food & Wine editor Pamela Mitchell, who soon after offered her an internship.
Arriving in New York City in the 1990s, Alexander sought out new food experiences and worked an overnight shift at the Hell's Kitchen bakery of Amy's Breads. She didn't know about Paddleford yet— for all her trailblazing, the writer's name all but vanished after her death in 1967—but Alexander's natural writing style celebrated the same sights, smells and illuminating details of place and personality.
Alexander later became a contributing editor at Saveur, a prestige magazine for serious cooks. While globetrotting colleagues explored glamorous culinary hotspots, she specialized in regional American foods and the people who grew and cooked them. Her work there and at other publications, including The New York Times and The New Republic, has earned her considerable acclaim, including a James Beard Award for writing.
Books followed, along with a move to Chapel Hill. In addition to the Paddleford biography, Alexander has co-written two cookbooks with barbecue legend Myron Mixon, edited a collection for Southern Living and penned Peaches, a volume in the Savor the South series published by UNC Press. She contributed an entry on Paddleford to The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, which in March earned a 2014 International Association of Culinary Professionals award for best reference book.
Alexander is involved in several major projects, including one with legendary New York City Chef David Burke intended to decode his masterful technique for home cooks. Last month, she joined a prominent roster of culinary professionals as a member of the inaugural The Daily Meal Council, which affords its members flexibility to pursue their food writing passions. Alexander will use the platform to further her exploration of the cultural, social and economic practices that relate to food. It will help her carry on the methods Paddleford used in the years when neighbors shared recipes over picket fences.
"She had a real love of adventure, and a love of food. She was so plain spoken and happy doing what she did," says Alexander, who draws similar satisfaction from her work. "Food writing is what it is today because of her."
As much as Alexander admired Paddleford, however, she is no longer as eager to spend her life living out of suitcases.
"I have something that Clementine didn't have, which is a family," says Alexander, noting that the 12-year-old girl whom Paddleford adopted spent much of her time in boarding schools. "I used to travel a lot more when I was younger and not a mom."
Anticipating that her writing career would taper off when she relocated to Chapel Hill, Alexander toyed with the idea of opening a bakery. "I'm good at following directions and working with constraints, which is part of what made baking so appealing to me," she says. "I liked working at Amy's Breads, where I made muffins and scones, but it was back-breaking work. I messed up all the time. My supervisor was a very tall African-American man who smoked a joint at every break. He would say, 'You're stressing me out.'"
Alexander takes a sip of fragrant chai tea and laughs. "I'm so glad I didn't try opening a bakery here," she says. "Can you imagine competing with [Scratch Baking's] Phoebe Lawless for business?"
Baking for pleasure allows her to keep her professional focus on writing, and specifically on her long term goal of collecting distinctive stories from home cooks in each state.
"I could make things happen faster by doing more on the Internet, but I'm not interested in that," she says. "Going to all 50 states and writing about regional food is a project that will take me 30 years.
"The fact is, I like working on several things at once. I'll probably spend the rest of my professional life working on the Clementine [Paddelford] project, and that's OK. I couldn't let it go it if I wanted to."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Kitchen sisters"