Published on September 29th, 2013 | by Nature Humphries0
“Pickles, Pigs, and Whiskey”: Chef John Currence Celebrates First Cookbook
Oxford’s own culinary chief, John Currence, has completed his much-anticipated entrée to the world of cookbooks with Pickles, Pigs, and Whiskey: Recipes From My Three Favorite Food Groups and Then Some. In addition to his mouth-watering recipes, Currence has cooked up an aural orgy of songs (from Edith Piaf to Fishbone to Rebirth Brass Band and beyond) to accompany the food, and sprinkled in some storytelling to spice it all up. Stop by The Powerhouse on Tuesday, October 1st at 6 pm for “Tilted and Pickled” to celebrate Southern style.
Interview by Nature Humphries.
When did you first decide you wanted to write a cookbook? And what took you so long?
I decided a long time ago. But I’m a mental midget, and as a result, it took about 10 years from the time I started really wanting to do it and when I actually got it done. Probably the greater challenge for me was being part of this conversation about food in the South and being recognized as part of the movement of celebrating Southern food. With [those who have] come before me who have written these brilliant epistles on Southern food—like John Egerton, Bill Neal, Frank Stitt—I just didn’t know what I had to add to the conversation that everybody else hadn’t already said. As a result, I was just sort of stymied and a little intimidated to come along after them and try to figure out how to inject myself into the conversation. So it took a long time to figure it out. It wasn’t until I just completely surrendered to the process and started writing I was able to let go and realize that folks just tend to like to listen to me tell stories, so I should do what folks expect from me. Arguably, it just kind of wrote itself.
How did you start the process? Did you start with the stories, and then the food came later, or something else?
No, it really started with an outline posted on my wall, which isn’t much more than the table of contents. I figured out the chapter structure, where to fit some anecdotes into each chapter that punched things up, and each chapter has a little bit of an introduction. I wanted to do technique sidebars here and there that were fitting to the subject matter. Then I went back and started writing the recipes and the headnotes, which is 90% of the book—recipes and headnotes. I went back and wrote the introduction once everything else was written. I think part of it was going about it all wrong. For years I just kept trying to write this real flowery kind of text and it didn’t sound like me. People read it and it made them kind of twitchy and weird, and the advice everyone kept giving me was just, “Write like you talk!” Well, then it is gonna be filled with “f**k” and “s**t,” and they said, “Well, then let it be filled with ‘f**k’ and ‘s**t.’” So, when I started writing it really just all came together.
Please explain why pickles, pigs, and whiskey are your “favorite food groups.”
When we were working on the concept of the book, it was really my agent who came up with the title. We were sitting around forever [working out] what the book was going to be about, how it was going to be structured. I can’t remember if we were drunk at City Grocery or hung over at Big Bad Breakfast one morning, but we had been talking about it for [a while] and literally, on a bev nap, just wrote out the things that are important—and the first few things were pickles, pigs, whiskey, condiments … and [my agent] said, “That’s your book right there—Pickles, Pigs, and Whiskey. Let’s go. Just f**kin’ write it.” So that’s where that came from.
Your emphasis on a respect for tradition and history is a constant theme in your work. How is this is reflected in your recipes in terms of ingredients and techniques?
I think once you read it, the text and the recipes…I think it’s pretty clear that the book reinforces that. With this book, more than anything else, what I wanted to do was to write something as devoid of gross Southern cliché as I could get. I wanted to put more of a smart face on Southern food. And in doing it, I realized that we can’t escape those clichés. It would be easy for anybody to say, “Really? You don’t want to be cliché with [a title like] Pickles, Pigs, and Whiskey? Really? The only thing you’re missing is like a NASCAR on the cover.” So I realize that there are certain clichés that you don’t want to employ, but you can’t escape some clichés. Ultimately, you have to embrace it and own it, but illustrate why it’s not as cliché as folks might think it is.
You talk about “poking (diners) in the eye with complicated presentations.” Do you think too many restaurants rely on eye appeal rather than flavor?
I don’t know if they rely on it, but [some chefs] focus on it to the detriment of the impact of the dish on the palate. To make something as architecturally profound as possible, you have to sacrifice certain things in order to make something stand up tall or look a certain way. There are lots of folks who compromise their flavors. That never interested me. I certainly want to make nice-looking plates. But I was at a restaurant this week where the chef is absolutely astounding, their food is amazing, but they had five people doing the job of one. There were literally like forty people at work in the kitchen. There were four or five people who had hands on every plate that went out. It was like a little assembly line, where one person had a dropper and put this precise drop of chili oil on top of a miniscule piece of guinea hen. To me, that’s not the aesthetic that I ever wanted to try to present to people. We wanted to make nice food, but we have always very much wanted for our food to evoke an emotion—and that emotion be one of comfort, security, happiness. The ultimate goal for me is to transport people to a place that makes them happy.
Who were your main influences as a chef?
Well there’s a giant chapter in the introduction that cites all of my friends as influences, everybody that I’m close to and surrounded by. Vish [Bhatt, Snackbar] is one of the first I’ve mentioned. Kelly English, Ashley Christensen, Jon [Shook] and Vinny [Dotolo] from Animal, Andy [Ticer] and Mikey [Hudman] from Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen, Bryan Caswell from Reef in Houston, Ben and Karen Barker from Magnolia Grill, Susan Spicer. All these names are people who are so passionate about food in the same way that we are, in that they are interested in pleasing people. They all realize they’re cooking for the people sitting at the table, rather than to flex some sort of muscle or show something off. They’re about providing a sense of happiness for folks, and telling stories with their food. I could go on all afternoon listing people. Everybody I hold near and dear to me as a friend —Sean Brock, Mike Lata, Hugh Acheson, Michael Schwartz—have all given me something in the way of inspiration, idea, hope, advice; they’re all influences in some way, shape, or form.
What sort of new trends do you see coming up on the Southern culinary horizon?
I don’t know where the new über interest is going to come, you know, it’s died out on the South. I think that’s because for about five years, folks wrote everything about Southern food that they could. As a result, chefs are now beginning to, as I see it, sort of collapse in on themselves as far as focusing on “local” more than anything else. For the longest time there was this “Farm to Table” movement, and everybody was involved with growing or one [thing] or another. I think now folks are really focusing down more tightly on the quality of ingredients, the providence of their heirloom seed stocks, of their proteins; they’re focusing on the foods of their childhood, of their locale, and how those foods then relate to immigrant cultures that have influenced them, or where their families came. You look at Ed Lee of Louisville, Kentucky, who is doing this super refined French technique food with Southern ingredients, but all of it referencing his upbringing in a Korean home. So it’s an interesting cross of French, Asian, and Southern and it’s astounding. I think as chefs go further down the road, they ultimately realize that—as a young guy, you want to create the next Caesar salad, and as a result you get out there and you try to come up with the wackiest combination that nobody’s ever put together before, and it’s basically like playing pin the tail on the donkey. And ultimately, thinking chefs sort of collapse in on themselves and realize that simple is better. That’s what you’re seeing across the board, these chefs really focusing on doing simple things with fewer ingredients of better quality. Better than anybody’s ever done it before.
Is there anything else that you particularly want to say about your book? We’re excited about the launch on Oct. 1.
They’re actually available now at Square Books; they’ve gone on sale early. The event will still be October 1st, but the books are out there and available. Folks will see when they open it; the dedication is to the people of Oxford, for taking me in and giving me a home and an opportunity to do this. It means a lot me to me; as I was writing the book—and it’s a lot about me, how I got from the kitchen on the tugboat in the summer of 1983 to 30 years later, owning five restaurants and what all have you—there wasn’t a whole lot about Oxford in that story. I moved here and I got set up. I had to move north of New Orleans to learn about the South, but Oxford was way too important for me to not put squarely in front of everyone that it means absolutely everything to me.
Chef John Currence’s will read from Pickles, Pugs, and Whiskey on Tuesday, October 1st at The Powerhouse in Oxford starting at 6 pm. This event is free and will also feature authors Beth Ann Fennelly and Tom Franklin, who will read from their novel, The Tilted World. There will be whole hog BBQ and a cash bar featuring a signature cocktail by Jayce McConnell, live music by Jeff Callaway and Jake Fussell, and the authors will be available for book signing.