The Georgia Center for the Book recently released a new list of “Books All Georgians Should Read.” I was excited to see one of my favorite titles from last year enjoying its rightful place on the list. Eat Drink Delta: A Hungry Traveler’s Journey through the Soul of the South is a cultural study of the Mississippi Delta via its foodways written by award-winning food writer and editor Susan Puckett. The following interview came out of a lunch meeting where Susan and I talked about many things, but mostly about food.
SS: Do you ever get tired of talking about food, writing about food or just having food be on your mind all the time?
SP: I’m kind of embarrassed to say no. It’s a constant obsession pretty much. I dream about it.
SS: What is so remarkable about food? What makes it interesting to you?
SP: Because it connects everything and everybody. It’s the common denominator that pulls us all together. That sounds trite and cliché, but a food conversation can be a jumping off place to just about anywhere you want to go. You never know where it’s going to lead you. It’s something we all have to do at least three times a day. Which is why most of us think about it a lot, perhaps not as much as me.
SS: I definitely was thinking about food a lot as I was reading Eat Drink Delta. I wondered if you would tell everybody a little about your background. You have said that you became an “accidental food reporter.” How did you start on the food beat?
SP: Well, I am from Jackson, Mississippi originally. Went to Ole Miss. Studied journalism. My first newspaper job was at the Clarion-Ledger, my hometown paper. I always knew I wanted to be a general feature writer. It never crossed my mind that I wanted to be a food writer because back then I was a very picky eater; I liked about two vegetables. When I started working at the paper, I naturally gravitated to feature stories that connected to my Mississippi heritage, and 80 percent of the time there was some food element to those stories. Southerners, maybe especially Mississippians, love to talk about food. And it just naturally connects us to who we are. We love to tell stories. And it’s just kind of our storytelling. In the course of doing that, I did a number of food stories that I didn’t think of as food stories. But they did have a recipe to go with them. An editor decided to turn that into a cookbook called The Cook’s Tour of Mississippi, so I guess I became a cookbook author before I really even knew how to test a recipe and before I really liked vegetables. That’s actually how I started eating my vegetables.
SS: From there, you did take a very intentional path to becoming a food writer. How did you do that?
SP: I took a huge leap of faith and quit my job. I went back to school at Iowa State because they had a good food and nutrition program. There I learned about food and had the crazy idea to do A Cook’s Tour of Iowa on my own and miraculously, a few years later, it got published.
SS: Did you come to Atlanta from Iowa?
SP: No, I took a very circuitous route to get here. I worked at multiple papers as a food writer–in Cincinnati, in Cleveland and at the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel before getting an offer to work as the food editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1990.
SS: I can imagine that things have changed by leaps and bounds since you took that job as a food editor in 1990. Chefs have become more like celebrities, and the whole experience of going out to eat has become an event. What good things have you seen happen in the food industry since you came to Atlanta?
SP: I remember when people were predicting that by about this time no one would be cooking. Everything would be coming out of a package or a microwave. And it’s completely the opposite because chefs have embraced celebrity or whatever, which has a huge downside. Honestly, I very rarely watch the Food Network. But it’s gotten people interested in food. Whatever it takes to get people passionate about food. I see a tremendous interest in a younger generation. They are cooking things that take days to cook, and I love that.
SS: I know someone who made his own bacon.
SP: Oh my gosh!
SS: I guess he found a good deal on a pig.
SP: That whole animal butchery thing. That’s way more ambitious than me.
SS: I don’t think I have enough counter space for all that.
SP: There is a lot of ego-driven cooking, a lot of just obnoxious pretentiousness, but there are also some chefs who are doing just fabulous things for the community. Educating people about where their food comes from.
SS: For Eat Drink Delta, you went back to your Mississippi roots. And I want people to know, that while there are some recipes in the book, this is really about southern storytelling.
SP: Thank you, Alison. I appreciate you pointing that out. I have been at book signings, and people have said, “Well, I’m watching my weight and not cooking that much.” It’s not just recipes. I hope it’s something that you’ll want to read and maybe come away with a better understanding of a place that a lot of people have trouble wrapping their brain around, the Mississippi Delta.
SS: You had to figure out how you were going to map that for the book. What constitutes the Mississippi Delta?
SP: A famous writer from the 1940s in Greenville, Mississippi, David Cohn, famously said that the Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg. Both of those points are along Highway 61, the Blues Highway. It is where the Mississippi River Delta begins and where it empties into the Yazoo River. For somebody’s who’s plotting a trip, I thought, “That’s exactly where I’m going to start.” In the lobby of the Peabody Hotel with a fancy cocktail. And I just wonder if there’s a soul food restaurant in Vicksburg, which represents the poorest part of the Delta. And in fact I did find an excellent soul food restaurant there called L.D.’s. The proprietor actually grew up on one of those riverside shacks but went on to become a successful business owner with several really good soul food restaurants in Vicksburg. So that gave me some parameters. And then the others parameters were governed by landscape. I loved this idea of exploring food not restricted by the boundaries of state lines or city limits, but by geography. The Delta has just a distinctive geography. I really wanted to see how that geography informed the food. It was a real eye-opener for me. Even when you cross those ridge line hills there are these changes, these subtle changes and shifts. Even if the food is similar, it tends to be spicier the closer you are to the river and in the floodplain.
SS: I wondered if there were any surprises that you encountered on your trip, which was really many road trips over time.
SP: One of the biggest surprises was just how many really good, even high-end, restaurants were in these tiny, impoverished towns. They’re serving beautiful steaks and really nice seafood. There’s a sophistication there that really comes as a big surprise to people. You’re not going to find that in just any small town. There’s also an appreciation for hot tamales, barbecue, catfish, just good ole country cooking that crosses all classes, all races. Food really is something that unites people in what is sometimes considered a poor, divided place.
This year, Susan was involved with the publication of another book about food, which digs soil-deep into America’s culinary heritage. She collaborated with Daron Joffe (better known as Farmer D of Farmer D Organics) on Citizen Farmers: The Biodynamic Way to Grow Healthy Food, Build Thriving Communities, and Give Back to the Earth. Susan describes this as a “really fun project” about Joffe, an agricultural entrepreneur who travels the country helping people start organic biodynamic farms and gardens, spreading the message of how we can help support our local food economies. Keep up with Susan’s food writing and travels by following @PuckettSusan on Twitter.