“The South is about the African, and Caribbean, and the French and Spanish influences on New Orleans; it’s about Indian and English influence on Charleston; it’s about the Scotch-Irish that moved into Appalachia. It’s the Croatians that were fishermen that came here, the Italians and Germans... all of them have these foods that are now identified with the South because they were dishes that were indigenous to the homelands of folks that they were recreating, here, with the ingredients that were available to them. But they all have a very clear thread that ties them back to something thousands of miles away.”
— John Currence
John Currence understands the South. We are a varied people — a mishmash of cultures and ideas and, most importantly, foods. To call the South stagnant or one-dimensional is exactly what the author of Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey: Recipes from My Three Favorite Food Groups and Then Some, is writing — and cooking — against. He “gets” the region, in the sense that his recipes represent so much more than the stereotypical Sunday supper at grandma’s house. His take on southern cuisine is audacious in the freshest possible sense. His pairings are at once familiar and innovative. The cookbook reads like a colloquial religious discourse on food, simultaneously explaining how his recipes are intrinsic to his most personal memories and experiences. Currence’s voice engages, and actually reading the book is a pleasure. This book has heart and soul — Currence’s heart, and thank God, he’s agreed to share it with the masses. The cookbook boasts 130 recipes and readers can download a matching playlist that goes along with the book on Spotify.
Q: So, how does it feel to have your first cookbook published?
JC: I couldn’t be any happier that it’s done. It’s very satisfying. I was convinced that by the time I got to being done with it, and, you know, working through all of the edits, all of the layout stuff and doing all the photography, that I would just absolutely hate it. I’d be sick of looking at it. And I’m not; I’m kind of at peace with it. I’m very proud of what we did.
All of the chapter introductions and recipe headnotes all piece together the story of where I came from, and what the past 30 years of my life have been like, through food stories. And it’s gratifying because for the longest time, I didn’t know what would come of it. I didn’t know what it was going to say, what it was supposed to say. I didn’t feel like I brought anything more to the academic discussion of Southern food or American regional food in general. And so, I finally gave up trying to do that, or torture myself with figuring out what that was, and I just started writing stories, and it all came very naturally. It’s sort of part cookbook and story book, but it’s also, if you look through it, part high-school yearbook, too, because I mention a lot of my friends — chefs and otherwise — who are influences to me and who influence specific recipes in the book.
Q: What made you decide to organize the book according to technique?
JC: I find traditional chapter structure tired. It’s 99 out of 100 cookbooks that do that, and I wanted to come up with some other way to tell the story. I wanted the book, too, to be the kind of thing where you can open it to any page and find something interesting to read or look at.
Q: And the songs — what gave you that idea? Were they chosen after the book was written?
JC: Music plays a big role in my life. I’ve been in a band for about seven years and my first business I started was a deejay business. Me and my best friend deejayed for about three years when we were in high school. So, music has always been there. I reference several things in the book where I talk about specific songs that transform me the same way that food does.
Some of them were very obvious, and others, if you listen to them and think about them, make sense. But others are very personal. It’s also sort of poking fun at the cookbooks where there are different wines suggested. You know, you’ve got a hundred recipes in a cookbook — do you really expect somebody to go out and find an O’brien 1968 and curate a hundred different bottles to go through a cookbook with? It’s kind of silly and pretentious, so you know, I thought I’d do something easy.
So if you go and get the playlist off of Spotify, you just turn the playlist on and it’s like you’re taking a walk around in my brain a little bit. I also make it very clear nobody out there is going to like every song on that playlist. So it’s kind of funny to think that folks will judge it. I don’t think I put “Tiny Dancer” in there. I’m sort of unapologetic about liking Elton John because I think he was a brilliant songwriter.
Q: And do you have a favorite of your recipes?
JC: There are a number of things in there that I think represented incredibly well on paper. There’s an Italian sausage pasta in there…I don’t typically look at my food and it makes me hungry. My food, it’s just ugly and it tastes good, and I mean, that’s sort of always been the way it is with me. But that Italian sausage…every time I look at that picture, I’m like, “I want to eat that right now.”
It’s hard to pick a favorite. That book is the “greatest hits” of everything, in my mind, from my experiences — going from a kid in the kitchen, and working on a tugboat in 1983, until now. Every one of those recipes has some sort of very specific meaning.
Q: Is there, in your opinion, a “most” important or unique thing about Southern food and cooking?
JC: Southern food has always evolved from the very beginning of our history. It tells a very clear story of our history, of the dozens and dozens of immigrant populations that have settled in this area of the country, and how their food has sort of been folded into this canon of what is Southern food. There’s very little you can say that is originally from here. You look at boiled okra — that’s from the West Coast of Africa, and that didn’t exist in the states until the slave ships brought it over. Same thing with collard greens, same thing with sweet potatoes. All of those things that folks look at and go, “This is what the South’s all about,” are really what the slave ships were all about, and it’s become part of our food. And that’s interesting to me.
Food has always been a very celebrated part of life. It plays a huge role in the family, church life — you name it — and with every aspect, there’s something to do with food. It’s well-documented and has always been celebrated, and I think there’s a fierce pride about it. Because, if you step back for a second and look at the rest of the country, folks don’t talk about Northern cuisine; they don’t talk about Midwestern hospitality. There are certainly things that make those regions unique but I can’t think of anywhere else in the country that claims an entire massive collection in the Library of Congress that is dedicated to the food of the South.
And it’s continuing to change, that’s the beautiful thing about it. We are a very welcoming people, so now we’re seeing a huge influx of Latin and Vietnamese influences that are taking over commercial fishing along the Gulf Coast, and their dishes are becoming part of the landscape.
Q: In one interview, you commented on your book “making a case for the South being forward-thinking.” Can you elaborate on that? Was that a main goal in this project?
JC: I think that’s what’s happening now with Southern food. When I say forward-thinking, that thought is incomplete; it’s more forward-thinking than most people give it credit for being. Folks look at us and think of a prosaic, slow, “we don’t like no change” and “we don’t like new stuff” people. I’m not picking on Paula Deen but folks just want it to be that easy: we just put a lot of butter on it, fry it up and it’s real good. And that’s it.
Again, this is the only area of the country that has this giant canon of foods that belong to us and that we’re proud of. There’s a nation of young chefs out there that are embracing it. Thirty years ago, you just didn’t put cornbread on a white linen table — that was what you ate on Sunday after church. Now, there are guys that are taking collard greens and chitlins to another level in order to celebrate them. And that, to me, is very exciting.
As one of the older guys who’s still working in the business, I’m proud of it because 25 years ago, when I really started cooking professionally, the movement was just starting. We were just starting to get legitimized and if you knew anything about Southern food, it was really something to be proud of.
It seems that everybody did as much as they could to look outwardly. Then, these guys grew up and realized, “wait a minute, we got something right here at home that’s worth studying and looking at.” And we really began digging into what the food of the South is all about, and why it existed, and what was wonderful about it. You don’t have to invent the next Caesar salad that nobody’s thought of before to be a great chef.
Simple is better. The thing that I tell my guys all the time now as I work with them and try to work through the creative process, is that the best things that you will cook are the things that you have to think the least about. And that’s really what the food of the South is all about — it’s about minimalism. You know, folks talk about how it takes up so much time and energy and whatnot, but man, no it didn’t! Southern food is simple; you can whip up a batch of cornbread in two or three minutes and get it in the oven. And that’s what folks had to do because they were working the fields. It’s just simple food for simple people, and when it’s done well, it’s absolutely transcendent.
Q: Was there a more difficult part in writing your cookbook?
JC: Just getting started — finding the voice, because for forever, I felt obligated to write something that would contribute to a greater conversation. As a result, I was writing in this voice that wasn’t necessarily preaching, but overly academic. Everybody that read for me when I was writing it was like, “no, that’s not you.” And I really didn’t understand it until my agent was finally like, “Just write about food the way that you write me emails. They’re sharp and acerbic and they’re full of foul language and they’re funny.” When I finally let go of that feeling that I had to write something scholastic, and instead, just started writing stories, my wife told me that it was insane how fast I wrote the book.
Q: What about aspiring Southern chefs out there? Any general advice you’d like to have known when you were just starting out?
JC: Don’t over think things. Release yourselves to the things that most deeply touch you and transport you to places in your life that you love. Embrace where you’re from and let that inspiration flow through you when you think about food; and then, just take every opportunity to soak up as much knowledge as you can.
Big Bad Chef
In his trademark candor, John Currence discusses his new cookbook and the evolution of southern food.
Story by Mary B. Sellers
Photography by Rupert Yen