Pomegranates, Pimento Cheese and Pork Cheeks
1997. It was the year great britain gave hong kong back to china. We lost Princess Diana, Mother Teresa and Notorious B.I.G. Mike Tyson took a bite out of Evander Holyfield’s ear, the Bee Gees were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Hale-Bopp Comet made its closest approach to Earth. The fast food giant McDonald’s made a mint by packaging Teenie Beanie Babies in Happy Meals and the cholesterol-reducing drug Lipitor was introduced to the market. Waddle the Penguin, Twigs the Giraffe and Peanut the Elephant have probably been taking it for years.
1997 was also the year I penned my first food column for Augusta Magazine, a story about Augusta’s international markets, small (and invariably quirky) food stores full of ethnic delights—Japanese whistle gum, quail eggs, durian candy, sugar coated fennel seeds, German chocolates shaped like cat tongues. Hand lettered signs that read, “DO.NOT.OPEN. Here is noodles.” Walk-in refrigerators stocked high with neon-yellow pickled radish, fresh shiso leaves and Thai eggplant.
That story and Madame Editor’s realization that her predecessor had miscast me as the magazine’s health columnist opened up a brave new world. Goodbye, prostate cancer. Farewell, serotonin uptake inhibitors. Hello Local Flavor!
Over the past 16 years, I’ve immersed myself in food and drink for the benefit of our readership. I’ve written more than 80 columns for a total of approximately 120,000 words. The average word count of the World’s Great Novels, according to Internet wisdom, is 136,604. If you throw in my short-lived career as the health columnist and the special features I wrote about Augusta’s unwanted animals, the cigar craze and local hockey—surely I’ve exceeded that count.
I’ve written about pimento cheese and pomegranates, pork cheeks and peaches. I’ve covered bakers and barbecue sauce, sushi and slowing down in South Augusta. I’ve gone on food crawls dedicated to hamburgers, hotdogs and doughnuts. I made a pilgrimage to Puerto Rico, the rum capital of the world, and lived to write about it. You may remember my column about the Madcap Mojito Mix Off of 2006. I once wrote an entire column about a grotesquely over-sized carrot that appeared on my doorstep in a box of produce left by a neighbor. The lesson there? The veggies we’ve grown accustomed to in the produce section often bear little resemblance to the real McCoy.
I’ve covered festivals, flea market fare and food traditions from near and far. I’ve counted points with Weight Watchers and calculated how many years it would take me to cook every recipe out of every cookbook I’ve amassed. If I prepared one a day, I’d have to live 55 more years to get through them all. I just don’t see myself whipping up Fish in Aspic, Jell-O Horseradish Relish or Sour Calf’s Lung Stew when I’m 104. (And, yes, I have a diverse collection of cookbooks.)
Over the years, you all have been kind and complimentary about the columns you loved...and vocal about the ones you didn’t. Back in 2007, I riled up a nest of Castleberry kinfolk with an ill-timed reference to...well, let’s not plow that ground again. (Love you, Katherine!)
My favorite dust up was The Dull Incident of 2008. In what I thought was an amusing recounting of some historical gems I uncovered in the Augusta Archives, I observed that Dull was a pretty tough handle to carry around if you were in the business of teaching cooking classes, as was one Mrs. S.R. Dull in 1928. I may have described Mrs. Dull as “dour-faced.” I may have. One of our readers took exception to my comments about her cousin Henrietta—otherwise known as Mrs. S.R. Dull—and gave me what Southerners refer to as “what for” in a letter she dispatched to the editorial department.
I wrote that reader back and thanked her for her note and, in a show of contrition, penned an entire column the following summer about Mrs. Dull’s contributions to the Southern culinaria. I never heard back from Mrs. Dull’s cousin, which doesn’t seem very gracious to me. Particularly since I’d gone through the trouble of preparing Mrs. Dull’s prune soufflé, tomato fez and log cabin salad as part of my extensive research. Nope, not gracious at all, Cousin Dull.
There may be others of you out there who use my column to line your birdcages, but since I haven’t heard from you...I’m going to assume I’m doing okay after all these years. If I inadvertently offend you (or anyone in your family tree), please let me know. I may be able to squeeze a column out of our interaction.
Over the years, I’ve received a lot of good suggestions from our readers. The column I wrote in 2005 about Charleen Tinley, of Charleen’s Cooking, was based on a reader recommendation, as was the piece I wrote in 2004 about Augusta Tech’s culinary arts program. It was also one of our readers who, back in 1999, introduced me to Martha Boardman Fleming and her charming little book The Grits Tree.
I get a lot of bad suggestions too. To wit, why do people keep telling me to write about fried pickles? There’s not much to say there. “It’s a pickle. It’s fried. Ask me about Lipitor.” That’s nine words. Madame Editor usually expects something in the 1,200 to 1,400 range. But even a bad suggestion gets me thinking...in this case, about the fried food rage that is sweeping through the nation’s fairs and flea markets. Deep-fried candy bars, chicken fried bacon, fried butter, fried Coke. And, yes, fried pickles. Now that story idea has legs. The Georgia-Carolina State Fair opens on October 18. If you see me wandering the fairgrounds with an elephant ear in one hand and a bottle of Pepto Bismol in the other, you’ll know I’m deep into my research for a future column.
Another recommendation that frequently crops up is this: my (fill in name of relative)’s (fill in food item). As in, my Aunt Ethylene’s coconut cream pie, my Mema’s chicken and dumplings, my cousin Bo’s ox tails, my Uncle Eddie’s stuffed pork chops. I get lots of third-party endorsements and often follow up on those. I’ve covered Granny Hayes’s Oven-fried Cornbread (thank you Barbara Stephens), Grandmother Smith’s Corn and Fried Okra (thank you David Tucker) and Vincenza’s Pizzelles (thank you and R.I.P Elaine Montano).
I also get some first-party endorsements. My sister has been lobbying me for years to write about her mayonnaise cake. I think I might milk a dozen or so more cakes out of her before I capitulate.
Oddly enough, I get a lot of non-food recommendations. “Hey, you ought to write about all the private planes that fly in and out of Daniel Field during Master’s week.” (Me: That sounds really interesting, but I write the food column.) “What about doing a story about the disc golf scene? There’s a great course at Pendleton King Park.” (Uh, it’s a food column. You know, about things you can eat and drink.) “Oh, I know. Women’s roller derby.” (Great idea. Thanks so much.)
That’s why this issue of Augusta Magazine is my favorite. Every October, we publish the much-anticipated results of the annual Best of Augusta readers’ poll, a large portion of which is devoted to Augusta’s food scene. You—our dedicated readers—rave about new favorites, old stand-bys and undiscovered culinary treasures. I know what I love, and I love reading about what you love.
Have something you’d like me to cover in the months ahead? Send me a suggestion (or a love letter or complaint) at firstname.lastname@example.org.