New Bern, NC – It's pretty easy to thumb through "Hungry for Home" and say "cookbook period" and you wouldn't be wrong. There are over 200 recipes in the book from over 100 contributors, including some from noted authors like Jill McCorkle and Jerry Bledsoe, but primarily from non-professional chefs that Amy Rogers calls "home cooks." Whether from writers or non-writers, virtually all the recipes come with a story, some which only vaguely have some tie to the recipe itself, but all with some type of emotional tie to the end product. That can seem somewhat surprising when you're talking about a biscuit recipe, but Rogers thoroughly expected that type of conviction.
"Just because we live in a region where that hasn't always been an abundance of food throughout the ages past doesn't mean there's been a scarcity of tradition and culture. I think the fact the Carolinas are so rich with oral tradition and storytelling really is shown through these recipes, because a recipe is something that can be orally passed down, it can be written down, its incorporated in who we are. I ran into so many people who had recipes that they'd prepared for generations past and those were the stories that I enjoyed the most."
Some of the stories don't even really involve food, such as this tale Amy Rogers wrote about peach farmer and author Dorie Sanders, highlighting the ability of rural Southerners to take next-to-nothing and stretch it into something.
Reads from page 345
For Rogers, Dorie Sanders is perhaps the epitome of the home cooks who contributed recipes and their related stories talented, resourceful and equal parts ready to share or talk about food.
"I think its interesting because the Carolinas are such a great place for storytellers that it only makes sense that we would have great storytellers about food. Dorie Sanders, the wonderful author and peach farmer, is found of saying if it weren't for food and who died, we wouldn't have anything to talk about."
Having to talk about food is one of the reasons the job description for cookbook author has to be among life's more pleasant, though it probably doesn't outweigh the fact a cookbook author has to be a willing sampler of much food. That was the case for Rogers in putting together "Hungry for Home." She says of the 200+ recipes in the book, she attempted to make or at least sampled almost all of them. Rogers says as a journalist, she often uses food to explore a region's culture. It was recipes she decided not to taste test that said the most about the South where we are contrasted to where we've been.
"Some of the traditions that are at least a generation or two removed from our daily lives are the ones that still kind of make me think twice about who we are and how far we've come. We do have recipes for snapping turtle and we do have recipes for possum, and I confess to have not having tried them, though Doris Davis, who submitted them to us, has done them, and she recognized that that was not that long ago the way some people ate routinely. So that's a tradition that's very important to recognize here. I don't intend to supercede her ability to cook a possum, I'll tell you that."
Even if she had the will to supercede someone else's ability to cook a possum, she might not have the touch. If there's one thing Rogers has learned in talking with and observing the home cooks who contributed to "Hungry for Home," it's that intangibles are everything.
"I think there's something in each recipe that is a bit intuitive, even if it's spelled out as clearly as you can imagine. I think every cook has his or her own touch, but the best cooks are typically the ones who do measure."
That is the case with Virginia Jackson, whose buttermilk biscuit recipe appears midway through the book. The recipe involves a grand total of three ingredients, which leads one to think how hard can it be. Hard, no. Able to successfully replicate, perhaps not. In an essay accompanying Jackson's recipe, Rogers speculates why.
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"I went to Virginia Jackson's house back in 1994 because I had found out through my own research that she was the Blue Ribbon biscuit maker for all of NC. So I called up Miss Jackson and she very kindly allowed me to come to her house and watch her make biscuits, and I felt like I was in the presence of true magic. I watched what she was doing, She wrote down the recipe, I took the recipe home with me, and then I sat down to do those biscuits, and they were pretty good, but they weren't as good as hers. Not because I did anything wrong but because, like I say in the story, your hands learn, almost kind of without your mind telling them, when something is right, and that only comes with time and practice."
Amy Rogers is the author of "Hungry for Home: Stories of Food from Across the Carolinas" is published by John F. Blair. I'm George Olsen.