Laurie Triplette reviews Big Bad Chef’s Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey.
Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey: Recipes From My Three Favorite Food Groups, the first book by Oxford’s James Beard Award-winning chef John Currence, launches this evening October 1, at the Powerhouse Community Arts Center in Oxford at 6 p.m. with a book signing, reading, and pig-picking. John Currence shares the limelight at the Powerhouse event with Oxford literary duo Beth Ann Fennelly and Tom Franklin, who have just released their collaborative novel, A Tilted World. Currence will be on the road for book signings all across the Northeast, South, Midwest, Florida, and the West Coast through year’s end. Says Currence, “Texas comes later.”
I didn’t want to like this book. Honest. I mean, every month some celebrity chef or foodie launches a pretty coffee table cookbook. However. For the first time since my heart went pitter-patter 42 years ago for the Old Bride’s long-suffering hubby, I fell in love this week. And Currence’s Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey is to blame.
How could a southern foodie NOT love the work of someone who acknowledges the superiority of Duke’s mayonnaise and spends creative time replicating the recipe? “I am not sure if the Sauer Company actually uses heroin to make Duke’s mayonnaise, but from the moment I first tasted it, I was a convert,” Currence says.
Cookbooks fall into several categories. There are instructional cookbooks, of which Irma Rombauer’s The Joy of Cooking is still the encyclopedic cornerstone for American cooking. There are celebrity cookbooks featuring the signature dishes and glamor of the celebrity subject, chef or not. There are themed cookbooks, featuring menus for each holiday, or instructions on how to cook gluten-free, or how to eat sugar-free, or how to incorporate dried nori seaweed into every recipe. There are encyclopedic cookbooks that attempt to capture all the best of something. And there are cookbooks that provide the author’s platform for sharing life experiences.
Currence’s book blends the best of all approaches in its 259 pages (counting the informative index) that read like a Grade-A feature story. The book was published by Andrews McMeel Publishing of Kansas City, Missouri. It contains 130 recipes with related tips, instructions and hints for success and was designed by the Splinter Group of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with photography by Angie Mosier. Plus, Currence offers a fine-tuned list of appropriate songs to be played as production background music when preparing each recipe. Seriously. Tune in to Spotify to download Currence’s Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey playlist.
A native of New Orleans, Currence grew up with the uniquely non-Southern New Orleans cookery. But he was exposed to a wider world view when his parents dragged John and his brother Richard around Europe for several years. They also made sure the Currence boys spent plenty of time with their upcountry North Carolina grandparents (Currence’s mama’s people are from outside Lenoir, North Carolina, precisely the same neck of the foothills as my husband’s people).
Currence did not attend a fancy culinary institute to learn how to cook. Instead, like most great cooks, he grew up under the culinary tutelage of parents and both sets of grandparents, perhaps representing the last generation to do so. He went to work in the galley of a Gulf tugboat the day after high school graduation.
Currence later earned his culinary stripes working both the back of the house and the front of the house at an intriguing assortment of restaurants. He absorbed techniques and flavors from some of the best chefs of the time. He recalls how he butted heads with brilliant tyrants— including his own mother, who won an infamous Currence battle over beef stew, and Bill Neal, the North Carolina Crook’s Corner genius. Neal actually fired Currence one day for mouthing off to a frat boy disrespecting his date, but rehired him the next day as a dishwasher. Neal took a shine to the Deep South kid lacking in front-of-the-house social skills; Currence worked up the Crook’s Corner food chain to become Neal’s pastry chef, and was the restaurant’s kitchen manager when he left North Carolina for his beloved New Orleans.
Back home in the Crescent City, Currence helped a good friend open Gautreau’s, which became hugely successful. Currence also worked at Brennan’s, Aurora, Hardback Café, Mr. B’s Bistro, and Bacco, before deciding to move north to seek his culinary fortune.
As he recalls rolling into Oxford in 1992, Currence still expresses amazement that his City Grocery brand has become a success.
“Oxford was the farthest place I could go on my gas budget. I had $250 in my pocket and all my belongings in the back of a falling-apart Pontiac Bonneville, and a best friend from childhood who believed in me enough to become my partner in opening up City Grocery in this charming and quaint town. The town and I have grown up together.”
Like all successful restaurateurs, Currence had to extend his networking to find sources for good ingredients.
“The first thing I did when I moved here was dig up the back yard and plant a small garden,” he says. “It was intuitive. Those first years, we took what we could find locally. There was a woman who had a salon on the south side of town who grew some herbs. We would buy a bag of about 12 sprigs of thyme from her for $5 a bag, and be grateful for it! We always try to find good relationships with the region’s growers. Joy is finding a new grower. The challenge is in managing the relationship(s) and figuring out how to work around times when an ingredient doesn’t come.”
He’s proven to be more than a pretty face with a good marketing plan. With continuing support at times from partners over the past 22 years, the culinary magnate now owns and runs the City Grocery Restaurant Group of City Grocery, Snackbar, Bouré, Big Bad Breakfast, and most recently, Lamar Lounge, which is giving back to the public through Good Food for Oxford Schools.
Currence says, “I have a responsibility to help people in need. It serves my soul. But I’m an angry man. It’s really difficult for me to hear people in America complain about how hard they have it, when I’ve traveled outside this country, and seen people without anything. It takes sacrifice and hard work to achieve anything.”
Currence refers to the City Grocery Restaurant Group as a microcosm of the United States. “It works beautifully when everybody pulls together in the same direction. When people start pulling differently, it all falls apart. Everybody’s got to pull together as a team to make things work. We’re all responsible.”
He expresses regret that he’s not in the kitchen enough anymore, except at home or on special occasions.
“I’m managing a brand now, and am grateful to have a team of professionals who are ensuring the continuation of high quality,” he says. “Vishwesh Bhatt, one of the finest chefs I’ve ever known, is transitioning into being our corporate chef while still running the Snackbar and working with chef Michael Northern, who’s our No. 1 at City Grocery. Our staff is fantastic and is why I have been able to finish this book. They share my belief in quality of the food, quality of the service, quality of the ingredients and thoughtfulness of design.”
Currence has more than paid his dues over the years. Nominated three times before winning the 2009 Beard award, Currence got a too-close dose of reality a month after receiving the award. Working crazy hours to launch the Snackbar restaurant, fueled heavily by an unhealthy diet of chocolate and peanut butter, he landed in the hospital with acute pancreatitis. This health crisis might have killed a lesser man.
The resulting forced rest and dietary cleanup can be thanked for enabling the chef to move forward with his book and his philanthropy. Currence says every forward movement was accomplished in fits between lengthy periods of “self loathing.” He attributes the book’s completion to a “village” of supporters and good friends that includes wife Bess, and writers John T. Edge, Wright Thompson, and Joe York. During this period of extreme creativity, the Currences also welcomed a new family member — their first child, Mamie, who was born in 2013.
The chef’s prose in his cookbook is sly, but on target. For example, in his detailed but concise instructions for making pickled watermelon rind on page 87, he concludes, “You can feel good about making them, because you are making use of a part of a plant usually just discarded. Congratulations — you are practically a hippie.”
Each recipe includes useful advice, and each recipe provides an unexpected tweak to Southern favorites. Just check out Currence’s salt-roasted turnip puree or his technique for making a fine chicken liver pate. This reader’s gotta love anybody who shares tips on how to make good chopped liver.
The book is dedicated to the town and people of Oxford who “have made me family… kept me honest… taught me about honor, loyalty, and integrity at every turn.”
To say that Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey is a cookbook is like saying a Ferrari is a fast car or Citizen Kane is a good movie. It’s a great read and an even better how-to manual for cooks aspiring to a higher level of expertise. John Currence brilliantly, if profanely, chronicles what he calls his “culinary trajectory to where and what I am today.”
Buy this book. Read it. Play with it. Make some of the recipes. Enjoy the afterglow.
An Extra Helping: The Currence Culinary World View
Currence is a philosopher with a strict set of rules for cooking and living that border on the zen tenets of macrobiotics. Here’s a synopsis:
- Enjoy yourself
- Create a joyful working environment, which includes a nice drink and listening to music
- Read the recipe before you start making it
- Buy good NATURAL and local ingredients in season
- Avoid proteins that have been chemically altered with hormones and antibiotics
- Learn to love kosher salt
- ALWAYS grind your black pepper fresh for a recipe
- Forget light or low fat (which are synonymous with sacrificing flavor)
- Make your own bread (for the aroma therapy at the least)
- Eat tomatoes only when in season
- Don’t worry about sifting that flour
- Embrace the lard
- Step away from the white chocolate (“the dry hump of the pastry world”)
- Save and use your bacon fat
- Seek out GOOD olive oil, and infuse it with garlic or herbs for a lift
- Cook over open flame whenever possible
- Always whisk wet into dry
- Rediscover fresh vegetables
Laurie Triplette is a writer, historian, and accredited appraiser of fine arts, dedicated to preserving Southern culture and foodways. Author of the award-winning community family cookbook GIMME SOME SUGAR, DARLIN’, and editor of ZEBRA TALES (Tailgating Recipes from the Ladies of the NFLRA), Triplette is a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) and the Southern Food and Beverage Museum (SOFAB). Check out the GIMME SOME SUGAR, DARLIN’ web site: www.tripleheartpress.com and follow Laurie’s food adventures on Facebook and Twitter (@LaurieTriplette).