Confession time. I have developed a Julie and Julia-type fixation on one of my friends—and, full disclosure, one of my clients—Susan Rebecca White. If you’re not familiar with the reference, Julie Powell spent a year preparing dishes from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Powell’s blog about the experience became a bestselling memoir, and later, a movie starring Meryl Streep as Julia Child.
Susan Rebecca White has not studied French cuisine at Le Cordon Bleu nor hosted a popular PBS television show. By her own account, she grew up eating chicken fingers and macaroni and cheese like the rest of us. Susan was a homesick southerner living in San Francisco when she began teaching herself to cook the cuisine of her homeplace.
Today, Susan is a bona fide foodie and farm-to-table advocate living in Atlanta. She is also a brilliant fiction writer and creative writing teacher at Emory University. Susan’s passion for food and cooking infuses all three of her books—Bound South, A Soft Place to Land, and this year’s breakout novel, A Place at the Table. Although a work of fiction, A Place at the Table was inspired by the real-life friendship between Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock, two renowned chefs who were brought together by their love of southern cooking.
There’s something so sacred about sitting at someone’s dinner table and enjoying a meal in their company. Many times this year, Susan and I gathered at her walnut-finished table with our laptops, working on various promotions for A Place at the Table. I usually left these business meetings completely sated after eating some beautiful cheeses and fruits that she’d picked up at a local farmer’s market.
At a cocktail party, Susan tossed cashews, butter, sweet and savory seasonings and freshly-snipped rosemary together on a baking sheet. She barely had time to let the roasted cashews cool from the oven before my husband and I started popping them by the handful into our mouths. I asked Susan for the recipe and sent her a photo of my version; I substituted pecans that I had in my pantry for the cashews.
This was the first of many recipe swaps and requests for cooking advice. When Susan married this past summer and told me that she celebrated with homemade strawberry ice cream, I busted out the Cuisinart ice cream maker. My first attempt at homemade custard turned into scrambled eggs. Of course, Susan helped me troubleshoot, and the second try produced a beautiful peach ice cream.
And then there is Meemaw’s Pound Cake. My favorite character in Susan’s book, A Place at the Table, is Meemaw (a southern term of endearment for grandmother). In the book, Meemaw sells pound cakes out of her home and uses the money to help her grandson, Bobby, flee an unforgiving southern home for a more accepting New York City. Susan borrowed a pound cake recipe from a friend’s grandmother; Mittie Cumbie Wade’s sour cream pound cake recipe can be found in the back of the hardcover of A Place at the Table. It’s also featured in a new Southern Living cookbook, No Taste Like Home: A Celebration of Regional Southern Cooking and Hometown Flavor.
I’ve experimented with Meemaw’s Pound Cake several times in the past year. I made two pound cakes for Susan’s party at FoxTale Book Shoppe in August–one for the party and another as a backup in case cake #1 turned out wrong. If you follow Susan’s directions that accompany the recipe in the book, you should have no problems.
In early October, Susan and I spent a Saturday in her sunny Atlanta kitchen, making a video of her preparing Winter Squash Soup.
Susan wore an apron, and I tried not to shoot her in profile, so that we could conceal any clues to her being in the early weeks of her pregnancy. I edited out the smoke alarm going off when sweet potato drippings on the floor of Susan’s oven smoked up the place. And at the end, we sat around the table eating the squash soup with bacon crumbles and scratch biscuits flecked with melted cheddar.
Susan is an amazing cook for many of the same reasons that she is a magnificent writer. She lovingly selects only quality ingredients and respects each component of a recipe or story. She understands that while we human beings have differing tastes, we have far more things that connect us than divide us. And she knows that grace manifests itself in the simple, universal acts of sharing a meal with a friend or swapping stories about your crazy relatives.
Atlanta Magazine recently named A Place at the Table one of the Top Ten Books of the Year. Buy the book, and when you arrive at the scene where Bobby seeks communion in a New York church, I dare you not to cry. Bake Meemaw’s pound cake and discuss the novel with a friend. And if you have any trouble with the recipe, you can always leave a comment for Susan on her blog post about the cake. Your Julie and Julia moment is coming right up!