Writers On Food: Southern Influence

I’m a Texan. And I must say, without too much bragging, that Texas is a delicious place to live. Fort Worth, Texas especially.

Southerners are almost as proud of their relationship with food as they are with that slow-moving melodic twang. Like, “Hey Pop, bring me a biscuit and some gravy to soak up my grits.” It’s music to my ears. Really.

I love the relationships and memories that good food creates around dinner tables from here to the Mississippi. In this last post about writers on food, I’d like to dish out a little food for thought on the somewhat new (and already award-winning) magazine Garden & Gun.

Its October issue highlights great southern foods, and makes me want to stuff a buttered biscuit into my mouth every time I see that mouthwatering cover. Food aside (just for a tiny, itty-bitty second) this magazine artfully combines literary excellence with lip smacking, finger licking, lovin’ of life: food.

Here’s that recipe from the issue’s cover. And please make enough to share with this always-hungry writer and sinfully sad cook.

Blackberry Farm‘s Rolled Buttermilk Biscuits with Sorghum Butter
Serves 12

1¼ lb. White Lily all-purpose flour
1 ½ tsp. cream of tartar
1 ½ tsp. baking soda
1 ½ tsp. salt
¼ lb. shortening
2 cups buttermilk
soft butter

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Sift the dry ingredients together in a large mixing bowl. Cut the shortening into the flour mixture with your fingers, two knives, or a pastry blender.  The lumps will be very small, but still visible.  As soon as you feel the texture of the flour become coarse, stop.

Pour the buttermilk into the dry mixture all at once and combine. Incorporate the buttermilk as quickly and as gently as possible using a folding motion.  Adjust the consistency if needed.  The dough should be sticky, but manageable.

Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and work lightly (with the hands, use a folding and patting out motion) until the texture begins to smooth out.  Pat the dough out with your hands into a large rectangle (about the size of a baking sheet).

Spread 2/3 of the dough with soft butter.  Fold the unbuttered side onto the middle 1/3 of the buttered side, then fold the other outer 1/3 buttered side onto the top of the unbuttered dough.  Turn dough ¼ turn and repeat, buttering 2/3 dough and folding.  Repeat once more.

Pat out dough to ½-inch thickness.  May finish lightly with a few strokes of a rolling pin.  Use a 3-inch cutter (keep dipping in flour to keep from sticking to the dough) to punch out biscuits.

Place 6 by 4 on a  parchment-lined baking sheet and bake at 400 degrees for approximately 14 minutes.  Turn once halfway through the baking at 7 minutes.  Tops should be a light golden brown when finished.  Brush tops with butter.

Muddy Pond Sorghum Butter
½ cup Muddy Pond Sorghum
1 cup soft butter, unsalted

Stir together and eat with lots of warm biscuits!  Lather it on thick.


Writers on Food: Preserving Passion.

Cucumbers (specifically, Gherkins) gathered fo...

Cucumbers (specifically, Gherkins) gathered for pickling. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently, it seems everyone is talking about pickling. You know, taking old mason jars and filling them up with your favorite combination of sliced and diced ditties (maybe pickles, maybe something else entirely). A friend of mine who runs the fabulous blog, Seed and Salvage, is about to start her own pickling business. This seems like an idea akin to the Girl Scout Cookie empire. Again, I wish I could cook, bake, or had the desire to create in the kitchen. But, alas. I’ll have to live vicariously through Seed and Salvage.

But it makes me wonder: Is there an inextricable link between cooking and writing? Between creating things to feed the body and feed the soul? With so many writers doubling as kitchen crafters, it makes me think this must be undoubtedly so.

Creativity comes in all forms. And all tastes. Here’s to the things we preserve for freshness and unlock for life. Bon appetite!

Here’s a pickling recipe to power up your passion for preserving, courtesy, NPR:

Kosher Dill Pickles

1 quart water

4 tablespoons kosher salt

1 pound Kirby cucumbers

4-5 peeled garlic cloves

2-3 tablespoons homemade pickling spice

Homemade Pickling Spice

2 tablespoons black peppercorns

2 tablespoons mustard seeds

2 tablespoons coriander seeds

2 tablespoons dill seed

2 tablespoons allspice berries

1 tablespoons crushed red pepper flakes

10-12 bay leaves, crumbled

In a medium pan, combine water and salt. Bring to a boil and heat until the salt is fully dissolved. Set aside and let the brine fully cool before using.

Wash a wide-mouth quart jar and a small four-ounce jelly jar and let them dry.

Wash Kirby cucumbers well and trim the ends. Pack them into the clean quart jar with the garlic cloves and the pickling spice. Pour the cooled brine over the cucumbers. Tap the jar gently on your counter to settle the cucumbers and to remove any air bubbles.

Place the four-ounce jelly jar into the mouth of the quart jar and fill it with some of the remaining brine. Press it down so that it holds the cucumbers in place.

Put a small square of cheesecloth or a tea towel over the jar and secure it with a rubber band. Set the jar on a small plate or saucer and tuck it into a corner of your kitchen that’s cool and out of direct sunlight.

Check the jar every day to ensure that the cucumbers remain submerged in the brine. After a week, slice off a small amount of cucumber and taste. If you like the level of sourness that the pickle has reached, remove the jelly jar from the mouth of the quart, place a lid on the jar and move it to the fridge.

If you think they need to continue to sour, let them sit out for a few more days. Pickles can continue their fermentation process for up to three weeks.

They will last up to a year in the fridge.


Writers on food: Sweets, treats, and always something to drink.

In this three-part blog series, we’ll examine what foods some of our favorite writers have found comfort in cooking, and just maybe, helped fuel their creative fire.

Let’s start with the late (and always great) Eudora Welty and her potato salad. The Atlantic writes about it and how to prepare it here: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/10/05/a-southern-writers-poetic-potato-salad/57028/

Welty, in her fabulous flair for language and all things Southern, said “Mayonaise had a mystique.” But of course, her mayo wasn’t loaded with preservatives or found on aisle three. Regardless, if it’s good enough for Welty, it’s good enough for me.

Eudora Welty

Ode to the Oxford American

The Oxford American’s current issue explores new south journalism, and it’s exceptional. I mean, really good. This “southern magazine of good writing” is just that. Complete with plays, poems, fiction, nonfiction, and essays. If you haven’t had the fortune of reading it, this could be your lucky day.

Here’s something to wet your literary appetite, courtesy the Oxford American:

Gay Talese

I learned nothing on the streets, and what I learned in my Journalism department (at the University of Alabama, 1949–53) did not have much influence on my career as a reporter, magazine writer, and nonfiction author of eleven books.

The most valuable lessons that shaped my career in journalism were derived from the observations and the eavesdropping that I indulged in during my boyhood days working after school in my parents’ clothing store. The shop was located on the main street of my hometown, a small island resort in South Jersey called Ocean City, about twelve miles south of Atlantic City. On one side of the shop was my father’s tailoring department (he designed and cut suits for a small but select group of the town’s leading men, including the mayor and top banker); and on the other was my mother’s dress boutique, specializing in garments for “mature” women (i.e., most of them middle-aged, bridge-playing ladies who were slightly overweight and wealthy enough to purchase high-priced frocks that flattered their figures). As I performed menial tasks around my parents’ shop during my free hours I learned many things:

1) Courtesy. My parents were always courteous to their customers, knew how to talk to people (but to listen rather than talk too much), and, as a result, my parents had a large and satisfied clientele who respected their good judgment about clothes and came to regard them as likable and tactful people.

The relationship that my parents had with their customers is the kind of relationship I developed as a young journalist with my sources. Courtesy is the key: knowing how to engage people in a respectful manner, to listen rather than interrupt with unnecessary questions, and to take pride in work well done.

From a young age, I took pride in what I wrote, and it was instilled in me by my father’s high standards in craftsmanship. My father’s suits were exquisitely tailored, were designed to last, and were, in an understated way, eye-catchingly elegant. In my own career I measured myself by the exacting standards of my father. I wanted to write stories that were uncommonly well-crafted and were designed to last, to hold up, to have the imperishable qualities of a fine short story or an essay. I cared about the “stitching” of sentences and paragraphs, the whole design of narrative writing; it all had to hold together, to have a organizational shape, a style, a distinctive feel about it.

2) Personal Appearance. I saw my parents dressed in an attractive manner every working day, and whenever they appeared on the public streets or in restaurants and cinemas. They cared about “how they looked” at all times, and as a consequence people regarded them as special people, appealing as subjects on the scene. My parents thought that by dressing up they were paying “respect” to the people they were with, no matter if these people were their customers, or their social friends in the community, or people with whom they attended concerts on the boardwalk or dined with. I myself “dress up for the story,” meaning that I never go to interviews without presenting myself in my well-made tailoring as a person worthy of respect. Respect for what? For what I do: I am within an honorable truth-telling profession, and I have always thought of journalism (when properly practiced) as a calling, not a job; I have always thought, as well, that a reporter should “dress for the story,” for the story you are working upon is always important: It seeks a truth, or a higher truth than ordinary workaday journalism; I always placed upon myself high and exacting standards. Again, this was exemplified by my parents.

3) There are other matters of importance, of course. Curiosity heads the list. If you are not intensely curious, you will never become a leading journalist or nonfiction author. (My own curiosity was developed as a boy in the store: I’d wonder about the customers, I’d strain to overheard their conversations across the counter with my parents, I’d watch their gestures as they talked and would later ask my parents for more information about them. These customers were small-town people, not famous in any sense, but they were “real” people, and I always wanted to write about ordinary “real” people, as fiction writers do.

(Who is more ordinary than Willy Loman, the failed road merchant of Arthur Miller’s classic, “Death of a Salesman”?) When I wrote “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” and he himself would not talk to me, I shaped the whole story from what I had been told by “ordinary people,” dozens of people who were not celebrities, who were not stars, etc.—they were just people who had been on the scene, in minor roles, when Sinatra was present; and I spoke to those “ordinary” people and got an extraordinary story that is remembered long after it was first published in Esquire in 1966.

4) Once the curiosity has been satisfied, and all the research has been completed, and all the facts are triple-checked for accuracy, then the organization begins…. I spend lots of time organizing my story before I actually settle down to write it. I want to know, step-by-step, scene-by-scene, how I’ll proceed. What’s the lead paragraph? What follows the lead paragraph? How does the story end?

5) The writing must be literary, lyrical, or at least should aspire toward the same artistic standards as one’s favorite fiction writer. I read lots of novels and short stories by top writers, wanting to gain insight (and inspiration) from their storytelling talents. Journalism is really storytelling. It is about people and places. These people and places must be described so well that the reader is “seeing” what you are writing about.

Bio: Cited by Tom Wolfe as the creator of New Journalism, Talese worked as a reporter for the New York Times from 1956-65, is the bestselling author of eleven books, and has written for myriad magazines and journals. His Esquire story “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” was deemed the magazine’s “best story ever published,” and his most recent book, A Writer’s Life, devotes hundreds of pages to this question we posed to him.


JAWS CAMP Fellowship Award

English: American feminist Gloria Steinem at B...

English: American feminist Gloria Steinem at Brighton High School, Brighton, Colorado (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This October, I’ll have the honor of attending the Journalism & Women Symposium’s CAMP as a Fellow. I can’t wait to meet all the fabulous women who are coming to share their smarts and journalistic savvy at this inspirational event. That list includes Gloria Steinem, aka founder of Ms. Magazine and feminist leader of the free world. I can’t wait to shake her hand.

If you’re a women and a journalist,  consider making JAWS part of your world. It’s doing great stuff.

High Interest in the Burbs

My latest and greatest story in the Fort Worth Weekly examines the spread of payday lending in suburbia and what cities are doing about it: “High Interest in the Burbs.”

For Love or Money?

Being broke really makes you miss money, even if it was just that forgotten ten dollar bill found in the pocket of your dirty jeans. And it brings up the age old question: Do what you love? Or get paid a nice salary to do something else? In the past, I’ve floated from boat to boat, but now I’ve planted my anchor firmly down in the sea of love.

But I how long can a wade through these shark infested waters, teeming with bills, rent payments, and grocery lists?

How about a life raft? Or perhaps just a well-made inner tube.

Good thing I can swim.

Hey, Texas Monthly

This weekend’s Mayborn Conference in Grapevine, Texas was inspiring and depressing. Shaking hands with the famous Skip Hollandsworth is a treat. But realizing that you’re no Skip Hollandsworth is a bummer. Thanks to the conference, I’m motivated to become a better writer and willing to take more risks to get there.

I also shamelessly promoted myself to a very gracious Brian D. Sweany, deputy editor of Texas Monthly. And Brian, if you’re reading this, I promise, I’d be awesome.

Mayborn Literary Conference

Gearing up for the Mayborn Literary Conference in Grapevine, Texas. Now, how do writers successfully network with editors? Let’s find out on July 20.

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