I met an old woman a few years back I wish I still knew today. I learned so much from her despite sharing only a passing few moments and even fewer words. We were in an antique store on Main Street in a small town in the Western North Carolina mountains. If I knew better, I’d say it was a store owned and run by her children. It was full of all manner of old things–things made an era or two before, these days strangers to the shelves of modern electronics and the myriad plastic “toys” meant to be bought and trashed more than bought and cherished. We spoke that day surrounded by old time country and western records, pearl handled toothpick pocket knives, a small .22 caliber Derringer pistol, and various old food tins adorned with both crisp and faded images reminding us both of a time long since passed. As we stood across from one another, perfect strangers, she never waivered, stammered, or stuttered, instead picking up energy proudly and perfectly, not unlike an old truck finding its tune after setting a bit too long.
Ms. Sutton was an old woman even then–some ten years back now. As she spoke, she seemed to grow taller, dwarfing her small, slightly hunched frame with the words she shared with me. She was as convicted as a rural Southern preacher. Unapologetic. Fierce. And fiercely affected. In spite of sending a letter or two after, we never shared another conversation. I’m still haunted by her words as I type this–or maybe by the way her words seemed to shape her emotions so clearly that day–and how in such a short time she was able to shape my own.
Ms. Sutton reminded me, perhaps as powerfully as any other person or thing, the power of a place and the significance of culture. When she spoke of development, of the clear cutting or “flat-topping” of “her” mountains, her whole body spoke. When she spoke about how her grandchildren were more interested in their iphones and other distractions than they were about where to find wild garlic and ramps, wild mustard greens and morels, or how to put up preserves or make apple butter, her heart broke.
I carried her name and address on the back of a business card in my wallet for years. I’d see it in there from time to time, reminding me of that day and those words. As time passed, so too did the ink, until finally the only thing that remained was the imprint of metal onto paper where we hurriedly scribbled her mailing address. While I can’t be certain if Ms. Sutton would remember meeting me that day, I’ll forever remember her for helping me understand the importance of the land beneath us and our responsibility to keeping it–for telling others about it, for preserving it for everyone who comes along behind us.
I wonder often about the power of a place and whether it’s foolish to grip so tightly to the nostalgia of the way things once were. Progress, as so many like to remind me, is good. And inevitable. Development and commercialization and growth, also, are inevitable. Still, I fight back, it’s important to hold onto the things that inspired the progress initially, to take time to look backward at how things were once done to create a better lens to measure our “progress” against. If we’re unable to look backward, how far forward do we know we’ve traveled?
When I left my shirt and tie and joined the land of misfits for work far harder than the pay reflects, I approached it through a mindset of learning. I wanted to understand the “why” of how things were done and allowed curiosity to be my teacher. I wanted to learn technique so I could have a reference point to learn beyond. More than that, I wanted to be able to know whether I was successful each and every time I stood between the stove and the plate. As I progressed, I never lost that curiosity–paying greater and greater attention to the details of how food changes over time and temperature, or through the addition of salt, acid, or smoke. Without an original point of reference, however, all of that “learning” would just be chaos. I’d still be refrigerating tomatoes if I’d not had to pick them at the height of an August day and might mistake searing something for scorching it had I not been shown the difference.
Food has taught me to appreciate details in a way that nothing before it ever did. Beyond that I’ve learned to identify with food in a way more profound than calling a squash a squash and recognizing it as a vegetable that might taste good alongside other summer vegetables/fruits. I now look at things first for what they are and then through the lens of how they’re used from a cultural sense. I’ve come to understand who I am because of how I was raised. I came to understand the world, as so many others do, through the food I was fed. In no small way, my own personal family culture was defined by that as much as anything else–what cars we drove, the neighborhood we lived in, the sports I played, how much money my parents made. Growing up, I ate the food that Sean Brock has since shined such a bright light on. My mom’s own collection of ragged cast iron pans weren’t dissimilar to the one’s Sean’s own mom and grandma used a few states away but during a similar frame of time.
I’d only just begun my transition from professional to professional cook when Husk (And Sean’s tattoo) began gracing the cover of nearly every food publication in America. Husk hadn’t opened and was already full. I was mesmerized by the similarity of the food both photographed and spoken about to the food I grew up eating. My mom, it turns out, was a really great cook. We ate crisco biscuits and topped them with sorghum from a huge mason jar for dessert regularly in my youth. My mom shallow-fried chicken in a long-since seasoned skillet, rendered (and then promptly ate) fat back to season all manner of vegetables, cooked her green beans for a long time with pork and sometimes small red potatoes, fried sweet corn, made baked beans with ketchup, mustard, and brown sugar and topped them with thick slices of bacon. She made pork loin, peach and blackberry cobblers, strawberry rhubarb pie, and her mother made egg custard. Summer dinners regularly included a “dish” of sliced cucumbers or tomatoes (or both) and peaches or cantaloupe or strawberries or whatever else was delicious and particularly ripe. She kept a garden, knew how to can and pickle, and did so to use–not just to show off or brag about. Bragging about food wasn’t a part of our culture.
As I progressed through my learning, I began to grow more interested in cooking food that resembled less and less of my own personal culture. I cooked food that was thoughtful and layered, inspired by places I’d only read about but never experienced, and cooked through the lens of my own ego rather than first hand knowledge. I was cooking off of theory, from sentences spoken by other chefs in the pages of books they’d written and I’d bought. I was making replicas of food I’d only imagined would taste the way I’d made them. I had no context for what I was doing. I had no one to show me how accurate or inaccurate I might’ve been in my approach. My technique may have been perfect, my seasoning also appropriate, but the dish as a whole didn’t have a soul. It was a shell that echoed my curiosity and my fervent interest in continuing to grow as a cook but was never something I could connect with simply because it wasn’t something I really knew.
The more time I’ve spent in a kitchen, the more I’ve come to understand the world I see through my own eyes. I understand myself better by being honest about where I come from. While I still shudder sometimes at the exaggerated drawl of my father, I am charmed by it more today than I was ten years ago or before. I understand the power of being a southern person, let alone southern cook, and have welcomed the connection that food provides to strangers and friends alike. I’ve seen food create connections where words fall short and comfort broken hearts shattered by recent tragedy. As a part of my culture, food has always stood as a replacement for words.
Ms. Sutton spends a lot of time in my brain these days. I wonder what a meal would’ve looked like in her own home and from her worn hands. I imagine how the food would’ve tasted made from someone who’d been cooking the way her mom’s mom made it before her–and her’s before her. I wonder what the inside of her home may have looked like tucked along the rolling hillside of one of “her” mountains–the same one’s she spent her childhood running across. I wonder what that one meal may have taught me that her words couldn’t. I wonder if we would’ve said much of anything at all hunched over our plates, or if the food would’ve told me everything I already knew.