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She’s Back and Looking for Inspiration

I’m back.

Some of you may not have noticed my absence from these pages, but many of you did and asked me in the grocery store, at the gas station and in the waiting room of my dentist’s office when you could expect my next column. I can assure you that is the same question Madame Editor patiently and repeatedly posed throughout 2011. Thanks to all of you for your inquiries and your continued interest in my words in the face of a long dry spell.

I have penned two pieces for the magazine this year—a story about Augusta’s Asian delights in the Masters issue and, most recently, a column on the classic Southern dish, hoppin’ John. But in 2011, I wrote only one piece—a feature in which I opined about slowing down in South Augusta to relish the “throwback Bar-B-Que” at Sug Wright’s and the gritty charm of ROZ and 2 Ced’s, a roadside food trailer at the corner of Wheeless and Milledgeville roads.

A lot has happened since that story was published. Notably, ROZ and 2 Ced’s has been shuttered. That’s why I implored all of you in the valedictory lines of that piece to slow down and taste the lemonade… “because places like this won’t be around forever.” Prophetic, yes?

And in other news, I finished The Gastronomy Dissertation. Keen-eyed readers who pay attention to the fine print at the end of our stories know that I have been pursuing a master of arts in gastronomy from the University of Adelaide in conjunction with Le Cordon Bleu. “Clawing my way toward” is probably a more apt descriptor. Of the more than 30 folks who began the program with me back in 2008, less than half a dozen made it through the course of study, which included two years of intense coursework and a dissertation on a topic of our choosing.

In September, I stuffed my tome into a FedEx box and sent it on its merry way to Adelaide. My relief over finally dispatching that package to Oz must have been palpable as a courtly gentleman in line behind me expressed interest in what I was mailing. I shared with him that it was a study on Southern foodways, the final requirement for my gastronomy degree. He subsequently engaged me in lively discussion about the roasted pork at Goolsby’s in Evans and the fried chicken and collards at Weaver D’s Delicious Fine Foods in Athens. He also said I sounded a lot like the über-cerebral Amy Farrah Fowler on The Big Bang Theory so this guy was scoring major points in my book.

At some point during our conversation, the clerk behind the counter chimed in and said, “If y’all want some good food, y’all need to go to French Market Grille.” We both stood quietly looking at her and then this gentleman, God bless him, said, “Well, yes, they do have good food, but that is not the type of food about which we are speaking.”
Thank you, sir, whoever you are, for providing such good company at such an important moment in my life…and also for not asking me how I got interested in the stars and planets when I told you I was mailing my gastronomy dissertation, emphasis on the “g.”

So that, dear readers, is why I have been conspicuously (or inconspicuously, you choose) absent from these pages. I have been laboring over my masterpiece, a nearly 70-page epistle titled “The American Southland in an Age of Internationalization: The Impact of Immigration on Southern Foodways” (also referred to as “my @#$%^&* dissertation”).

I thought it would be a real kick to print my @#$%^&* dissertation in its entirety in the magazine—you know, chapter one in this issue, chapter two in the next. A “keep you on the edge of your seat” sort of thing. But something about that plan didn’t sit well with Madame Editor despite my having name-checked her in the acknowledgments section of my academic missive. She has, however, given me the leeway to share bits and pieces, as my general topic is one that is near and dear to the collective heart of our readership—Southern food. Last month’s column about hoppin’ John was a snippet from chapter three.

Since the column was published, a few people have asked about my favorite way to cook hoppin’ John. And one little lady I met at an event said she couldn’t wait to read about “all of the wonderful things you learned to prepare in your cooking program.”

Please allow me to dispel a common misconception that many folks have about my scholastic journey over these past few years. I am not a Le Cordon Bleu chef.
Yes, Le Cordon Bleu is the mack daddy of French culinary technique—internationally renowned for preserving and passing on the mastery and appreciation of the culinary arts that have been the cornerstone of French gastronomy for more than 500 years. But that’s not what I signed on for. My program, which was taught and jointly administered by University of Adelaide faculty, was designed to provide a general appreciation of the history and culture of food and drink from ancient times, with a strong focus on contemporary themes such as gastronomic tourism, globalization and food in media.

I can speak at length about the mythology of confectionery, the evolution of 19th-century dining styles, sugar cane production in the Republic of Mauritius or the emerging wine tourism industry in the Texas Hill Country. I cannot, I promise you, coddle an egg. Please stop asking about my coq au vin technique. And I’m very sorry, but I cannot even begin to speculate why your tarte tatin was a flop.

I am not a cook. I am an eater. This degree has simply made me a much more informed eater. For example, last week we were enjoying dinner with friends at a local Indian restaurant. As our food was being served, I shared the story of how every day in cities across India, tiffin wallahs—literally, “carriers of boxes”—execute an amazing feat of transportation genius. They arrive at the suburban residences of Indian workers to pick up savory home-cooked meals, they ferry those meals (packaged in tin or stainless steel lunchboxes known as tiffins) by bicycle and then by train to India’s densely populated city centers, where, miraculously, those meals find their way via other tiffin wallahs to the offices of the hungry workers. And then, in reverse, the tiffins are returned to their homes to be refilled for the following day’s incredible journey. In Mumbai alone, thousands of barefooted tiffin wallahs deliver hundreds of thousands of lunches six days a week with the precision of Swiss watchmakers.

It was at that point in my story that Marian kicked me under the table and told me to pass the @#$%^&* naan.

In the months ahead, I look forward to getting back to a steady diet of lighter fare, something a bit less highbrow than defining the concept of authenticity as it relates to culinary tourism or the differences between the globalization, hybridization and Creolization of foodways. I’m ready to get back to the fun the column I wrote about the monstrous carrot (and other veggies) an anonymous soul left on our doorstep or the tale of our pork cheek escapades or my love song to sterling silver, particularly the ornate spoons bearing out-of-fashion names of the genteel ladies who once owned them…Mildred. Millicent. Edna. Rosalie. Beatrice.

I am proud of becoming a “master gastronomer” and have hung my hard-earned diploma in my office. But I’m even prouder to know that so many of you missed my words while I was on hiatus. If you come across an oddly shaped vegetable on your weekly trip to the farmers market, leave it on my porch. I’m back, dear readers, and looking for inspiration!


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