The memories of three meals a day, of celebration feasts or quiet dinners around the family table are vivid. It’s these memories that most of us share and relish.
But it was the eve of my 20th birthday that I really, genuinely realized that food – and the people who raise it, cook it and nourish us with it -- could be a pursuit. I had just read Calvin Trillin’s “Alice, Let’s Eat,” after watching the long-time New Yorker writer talk about the book on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” He was funny; the stories were funny. I was attracted by the humor, but came away with an epiphany.
Chasing food stories could be a job, a career, a passion.
Trillin had written about country ham cured not 30 miles from my birthplace, about barbecued mutton made famous by Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn in Owensboro, Ky., a stone’s throw from my hometown. I had eaten these foods, visited these places without a second thought about where the food came from, the stories behind the food and the people who dedicated their lives to those culinary pursuits.
Still, my ah-ha moment did not end there. After reading Trillin’s award-winning book, I attended the American Collegiate Press conference, a gathering of college newspaper journalists from around the country. David Whitaker, head of the J-school at Western Kentucky University was sending me. Mr. Whitaker spoke very little, and when he did, it was the law. He had taken a chance on a backward kid who was not a particularly good student to be advertising manager of the award-winning College Heights Herald. I had taken the job because it paid well: $40 a week and a cut of commissions. But advertising was not in my heart, writing was my passion and this put me in close proximity to other students who were already exemplary journalists. The trip was a first: I had never ventured far from Kentucky, never flown on an airplane and had certainly never set foot in the host city; the mysterious, legendary food mecca of New Orleans.
I landed in New Orleans late, hungry and overwhelmed. I’m sure I was quite a sight, a long-haired kid in jeans and flannel toting a borrowed suitcase and wide-eyed with astonishment and perhaps a bit of fear. I gave the cab driver my hotel address, then asked if he could drop me somewhere within easy walking distance where I could eat. I sat back and took in the sights of a place as strange to me as the surface of the moon. Bustling traffic on the outskirts of the city merged into the narrow streets of the French Quarter, where revelers walked and laughed and basked in the energy and debauchery of Bourbon Street. The cab stopped, I paid my fare and turned to face the wrought iron-framed entrance of The Court of Two Sisters.
I was unaware I was stepping into a legendary Royal Street eatery, famous with locals since 1963. Nor had I ever dined in a courtyard, open to the night sky and the cool evening air. The menu was as alien to me as an Egyptian hieroglyph. The smattering of French on the menu didn’t help, and ingredients like crab, crawfish and shrimp were intriguing but foreign. I settled on the only thing that seemed remotely familiar: Red Beans and Rice. The waiter offered a glass of wine and I was savvy enough, despite being underage, to accept.
The dish was huge, but not too much for a hungry country boy. The only rice I had ever eaten was served swimming in melted butter and heavily dosed with sugar. The pinto bean was my legume du jour and sausage in my house was served as a patty. This was different: Red beans in thick, rich sofrito dotted with bits of Tasso ham cascaded down the slopes of a mountain of snow white rice. The huge portion of smoked sausage was spicy and not at all the sage-flavored pork patty of my breakfast at Grandma’s house. The entire dish was savory, seasoned with Cajun spice, filling and, in spite of its simplicity, utterly fascinating to my naïveté.
I finished, paid the check and made my way onto Royal Street. After a turn right to Toulouse Street, I found myself on a prominent Bourbon Street corner. I wandered along the street, suitcase in hand, mesmerized by restaurant after restaurant with menus touting foods I had never seen. I saw ducks hanging in a Chinese eatery window, oysters being shucked with lightning speed and everywhere a cold beer, a tourist with a Hurricane glass. I stopped for more drinks; apparently no one in New Orleans would ask me for an ID. I made it to the hotel and then, for the next three days, set out on foot, eating and drinking up the food, beverage, culture, color and excess of New Orleans.
I returned to campus energized, and with a feeling of dread. I was expected to report on my conference experience face-to-face with my department head. The former Marine and old-school editor of the state’s biggest daily newspaper sat gruff and imposing behind his desk, feet propped up and staring over half-glasses perched on the end of his nose.
“How was New Orleans,” he asked?
“Wow, it was great,” I beamed, trying to look him dead in the eye, yet wondering how I was going to get out of this fix.
“You didn’t go to any sessions, did you?”
“No sir, I did not.”
“Tell me then, what did you do?”
I reeled off three days of experiences. I talked about the food, the chefs I had met, the cooks, the servers and bartenders, about the notes I had taken. I showed him contact sheets of photos.
He looked over my photos and notes, then sat upright in his chair and leaned over the desk. I sensed a verdict.
“And what do you plan to do with this?” he asked.
“I want to write about food, about where food comes from, about the people and the history of food. How we eat and what we eat ties us together as families, as a culture. I want to tell those stories,” I said, breathlessly trying to lay out my full defense in one run-on sentence that concluded with a long gasp for air.
He looked me dead in the eyes. I thought about what I might do if I was kicked out. Then, he broke the silence.
“That sounds like a plan. Don’t disappoint me.”
And I have tried to never let that man down. Even when working in some of Kentucky’s smallest, most remote counties, I managed to find a way to mix in stories about country hams and sorghum grinding with news of local politics and high school football. It took another 20 years to get a gig writing about food full time – and I haven’t stopped.
I still find plenty of food I’ve never tried and dishes to explore as I travel. Today, I’m just as enthused and curious about the culture of food and great food as I was during that linchpin trip to New Orleans. This book will give you a peek into the food culture of Savannah. The subjects are my friends, my inspiration and my dinner guests over nearly two decades I spent in this historic and delicious city. These are people who are passionate about their food, whether they be shrimpers or chefs, food historians or fry cooks. And with their stories, I hope I don’t disappoint. I still have that promise to keep.
Tim A. Rutherford
Asheville, North Carolina