Sean Brock's scaldingly-anticipated first cookbook Heritage is out in the world, perched comfortably on The New York Times Bestsellers List where we knew it would land and turning heads like we knew it would.
By some struck of luck, I was able to speak with Brock on the Portland, Oregon stop of his sell-out book tour, and our conversation was full of hominy-sized kernels of wisdom. I shouldn't have been surprised, because the first time I interviewed Brock in 2012, he said, "I'm an idiot for giving this up", and then told me the secret (long since out-of-date) to procuring Pappy Van Winkle, the Holy Grail of American whiskey.
I share the Pappy anecdote both to provide a bit of color and to illuminate a larger point. Brock has been a lead horse in the whiskey revival and a bunch of other major trends in American gastronomy over the last decade - Southern foodways and Lowcountry cuisine, agricultural preservation, heritage pork, MAD/Cook It Raw, restaurant farming and preservation programs, you name it. It's hard to believe that he only entered our consciousness fully in 2006, when he took over the kitchen at McCrady's in Charleston. All the while, Brock's signature giggle and "Man, this is so cool!" enthusiasm for his craft have remained intact, which may be the one off-trend thing about him in a food landscape littered with hype hounds.
Heritage pulses with Brock's voice, and keeps it chattering from the heartfelt and family-centric introduction though the opening vegetable manifesto (The Garden), meat machinations (The Pasture), pickling and preservation (The Larder), and staples (The Basics), among other chapters. Brock includes loving vignettes about the artisans and farmers that have helped make his career, people like Glenn Reynolds of Anson Mills, my friend Craig Rogers of Border Springs Farm, and Julian Van Winkle. It's hard not to feel inspired by those stories.
Beautiful photos by Peter Frank Edwards stud the recipes, some of which are home cook accessible (Lowcountry Hoppin' John, grits, most of the pickles, the cocktails), but most of which are a bit beyond reach. Unless you have a pantry full of Anson Mills products, you might feel a bit lost.
The book's challenging recipes left me a bit conflicted (more on that in the interview below), but I dug in and tried my hand at the rabbit stew with black pepper dumplings. After procuring a couple dressed rabbits from the Copley Square Farmer's Market in Boston, I spent a Sunday over the stove. I cooked the whole animals gently to make aromatic broth and turned out the delicate, fluffy dumplings as well as a bush league baker could. The roux jumped ahead of me a bit, but I was able to bring it all together with the broth, shredded meat, and hot sauce. It was delicious, comforting, and perfect for a crisp New England day. I brought a batch to the farmer who sold me the rabbit and can only hope she liked it.
That Sunday was one I wish I could have spent with my grandmothers, and that brings me to Brock's manifesto, one of the best parts of the book. A few gems:
"Be proud of your roots...your home...your family and its culture."
"Cook as if every day you were cooking for your grandmother."
"Grow your own."
"Cook a vegetarian feast occasionally."
"He who dies with the biggest pantry wins."
Heritage is worth buying. Just reading it will leave you feeling like food is much more than sustenance. My conversation with Brock is included in full below.
Heritage seems to have a clear message about Southern food being more than fried foods. Do you feel like the old stereotypes are changing?
"This is a very important moment in Southern food. People are starting to become more and more educated about the history, which doesn't resemble at all what the stereotypes say. When you look at the scope of Southern food, you see it all depends on what belongs in an area and thrives in it. That's usually vegetables, which is why I started the book with 'The Garden' chapter. The first thing I always think about from my past are piles of vegetables from my grandmother's garden. It's about taking humble things and making them comforting and very luxurious."
Southern food has become a sensation among foodies, but do you feel like the average person in the South is firmly embracing what you espouse in the book?
"I've traveled throughout the South, including on the book tour. What's been amazing is meeting new people in every city and hearing their stories. They crave nostalgia. They are realizing that the food of their grandmothers is the most important food they will ever eat. I think people are really starting to experience this new sense of pride in regions, hometowns, and families. I hope that means some remarkable food is on the horizon."
Heritage is an easy read, but the recipes can be hard. What is your message for home cooks that don't have access to Anson Mills products for one reason or another?
"What I would like for people to take away and understand is that this is a book about me as a human being. It's a complex story. I like refined food, but I also love a $2 cheeseburger from a diner. Those are the things that make me happy. People can look through the book and see my life's journey and maybe think a little about theirs. It's not about replicating the recipes, it's about understanding the soul of it all, what you can gain looking at something a different way. It's about spirit."
Music is clearly a big part of your life. What albums make up the best soundtrack for an afternoon of Southern cooking?
"One of the reasons that I'm obsessed with music is because it is shaped in the same ways that food is shaped. You see music affected by geography, culture, all the same things that affect food. I love the idea of soul food being something that is beautiful because you take inexpensive things and make them special. A lot of my favorite music represents the same thing. R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, and other Mississippi Blues legends, some of them couldn't tune a guitar or read or write, but they made soulful music that belongs in the region and speaks to its culture. Folk art is the same way. My favorite albums right now are Burnside's "Too Bad Jim", Kimbrough's "Most Things Haven't Worked Out", Waylon Jennings' "Honky Tonk Heroes", Jason Isbell's "Southeastern", and Drive by Truckers' "Southern Rock Opera."
What needs to change about food in America?
"There's a lot we can do. We have to look back at what formed all of our food culture and made us what we are, things like agriculture. We have to educate ourselves and appreciate that the rice pantry was gifted to us by Africans and Native Americans. We have to embrace new immigrants and the ways in which they are pushing our cuisine and culture forward. We have to change the way we're farming and create more nutritious food. We have to cook with values. We have to go bigger scale and make good things more affordable. We have to stop dumping chemicals on our soil and in our bodies."
Have you had a meal recently that transformed your outlook?
"My major focus for the rest of my life is going to be understanding the food of the Appalachian mountains where I grew up. I want to look beneath the surface and make connections to my grandmother's generation. I recently stopped to see Travis Milton at his restaurant Comfort in Richmond. I think I played football against him in high school. He had a restaurant full of people, Southern people, who were eating the food we grew up with for the first time. Ronni Lundy, one of my favorite authors who has written beautifully about the food of my roots, was there narrating the evening. We ate true hominy grits cooked with ash, which hit me because I recently dug up my grandmother's handwritten recipe for them. It takes so much work. We had "leather britches", a dish that is made by stringing up a particular variety of bean and drying them over a hearth, then cooking them in water for several hours. The flavor is almost like roast beef. We had sour corn, which is made using the same process as sauerkraut. It's definitely an acquired taste, but Travis fried the sour corn in lard and it had the smell of Appalachia. I went straight back home. The whole meal gave me a sense of hope for food in America."