Monday, June 23, 2014

Food for Thought

When I left my job in the corporate world in 2001, I wasn't sure what I'd do next in my career. I put the word out that I was available to do marketing, public relations and any kind of writing. In essence, I became a writing whore, writing anything for anyone who would pay me. 

I'm not complaining. I've made a decent living over the past 13 years writing articles for magazines, newspapers, business journals and trade publications. The wide array of subjects I've written about have made me (and hopefully my readers) more knowledgeable on people, places, and events in our area. It's not unusual for the subject of my interviews to become friends, so there's always that. And now where ever I go, what ever I'm doing, I'm thinking of a story angle and who I can pitch it to. 

Over the years, while I'll take on just about any assignment that comes my way, the thing I've enjoyed writing about the most is food. Not just food, but the production of food--where it comes from, how it's made, who prepares it, who eats it and where they eat it. I'm fascinated at how the preparation and consumption of food has become an event, and chefs and restaurateurs are becoming celebrities. 

What we eat determines our status in life--that's nothing new. But now the lowly box of Kraft macaroni and cheese is poo-poo'd in favor of grown up mac and cheese from the likes of Ina Garten, using artisinal cheeses, Kosher salt and fresh herbs. Who would think of eating anything less?

I have grown to admire many food writers who romanticize foods I'd never consider eating. Just hearing Anthony Bourdain go on about ant larvae and fermented shark makes one think again... 

We seem to celebrate our food now more than ever, which is, I think, a good thing. Before taking the first bite of any meal, we take a picture of it to share with the world on Facebook. "Look at what I'm having to eat! It's special and worthy, as am I. I'm better because of what I'm choosing to eat today. Don't hate me because I'm eating better than you probably are."

I'm now going back and studying food writers who have gone before, like MFK Fisher. The first real food writers were housewives who wrote a weekly column for the local paper. I'm exploring that in a book called The Food Section: Newspaper Women and the Culinary Community.

I'm also reading work by Susan Puckett (Eat Drink Delta) and Julia Reed (But Mama Always Put Vodka in Her Sangria!). It seems Southern food is popular nationwide, as are Southern writers. 

Thanks to Susan Puckett's urging, I joined the Association of Food Journalists in January, and this past weekend I went to the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium in Jackson. I had a chance to rub shoulders with John T. Edge and Cat Cora and I ate myself silly on food prepared by some very talented chefs (more about that later this week.)

So this food writing business may end up being just that--I am working to hone my skills as an accomplished food writer and make my mark on the culinary world by writing about it. I just hope my waist line can handle it. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Under the Madison Sun

Sometimes, when you least expect it, you stumble across something that touches you deeply and resonates with you to your very core. It's not something you were looking for, and that makes it all the sweeter.

That something for me happened in 1996, when I was preparing to chaperone a hundred high school students for a weekend choral music retreat. Nicole was going into the tenth grade, and the weekend before school started, the choir at Madison Central was to spend a weekend at the Duncan Gray Center north of Canton to be introduced to the pieces they'd be learning during the year, and the ones they'd be performing in competition. I went to Kroger to stock up on snacks for the weekend, and as an after thought, I picked up a book to read while the students were rehearsing.

The book was "Under the Tuscan Sun" by Frances Mayes. Most people are familiar with it because of the movie starring Diane Lane. (See the movie trailer here.)

When I bought the book, I had never heard of it, never heard of Frances Mayes. It just looked interesting.

We got to Duncan Gray and I settled in on the back pew of the chapel where the students were singing. I pulled the book out of my purse and started reading. Early on, page three in the preface, to be exact, the hair stood up on my arms. Mayes wrote: "A Chinese poet many centuries ago noticed that to re-create something in words is like being alive twice." I quickly fished a pen out of my purse and underlined her words.

As I read on, I learned about her adventures in buying a home in Italy. And then, on page 19, I was sucked completely into the book. "I lean over the wide sill just as the first gilded mauve light of sunrise begins...The undulant landscape looks serene in every direction. Honey-colored farmhouses, gently placed in hollows, rise like thick loaves of bread set out to cool. I know some Jurassic upheaval violently tossed up the hills, but they appear rounded as though by a big hand. As the sun brightens, the land spreads out a soft spectrum: the green of a dollar bill gone through the wash, old cream, blue sky like a blind person's eye. The Renaissance painters had it just right."

Frances Mayes had always been a poet before moving to Italy. She said in an interview that while living in Italy, she began to write longer format, mostly due to her experiences there. If you have a half hour to really learn about living in Tuscany, listen to this interview with Frances Mayes for the National Geographic channel. WARNING: You will want to book a trip to Italy...or at the very least eat some antipasti and drink some good Italian wine.

I had the good fortune of meeting Frances Mayes last week in my favorite bookstore, Lemuria in Banner Hall. She was there signing her memoir, Under Magnolia, about her coming of age in southern Georgia.

She also did a reading--a rather long one--and I enjoyed every word of it.

Through her book, Under The Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy, Frances Mayes made me believe that traveling was possible for anyone who wanted to explore. Her next book, A Year in the World: Journeys of a Passionate Traveler, once again drove that idea home.

At Lemuria last week, I didn't buy her memoir. Instead, I bought the cookbook that she and her husband, Edward, wrote together. They both signed it for me, and Ed told me he personally cooked each recipe in the book. I told him I only wish I had been an official taster.

That's Ed, on the left, and Frances, on the right. Wouldn't you love to be sitting at that table? The recipes are amazing. Some of them can found on her web site.

I still dream of going to Italy one day...and when I do, I want to eat with the locals, soak in Tuscan culture, explore and absorb and savor each sight, smell, sound and taste. Until then, I am again inspired to be happy where I am, in my own home, sharing good food and wine with friends and family on my own patio, under the Madison sun.

Blessings to all who read this!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Mater Sammiches

I don't know when I've ever been as excited about a change of season. It's been a COLD winter in the deep south, and I'm tired of coats, scarves and having Popsicle toes all the time.

The pear trees have been blooming for over a week now, and beautiful daffodils are spotting the roadside just about everywhere I drive.

Yet just this week, we had a frigid day (by my standards) with highs in the 40's. Today we'll be hitting  70. I'm not complaining, though. I saw footage of some serious snow in Chicago this morning. 

I'm ready to get out in the yard and dig in the dirt. This will be year three of my attempt at organic gardening. I've been really successful with herbs, Japanese eggplants, okra and peppers, but I've yet to reap a good harvest of tomatoes.

I dream of the day this summer when I'll be able to bite into a juicy tomato sandwich. Gluten-free diets be damned! Eating a "mater sammich" is a rite of summer! 

My first job out of college was working as a copywriter at WDAM-TV in Hattiesburg. Every summer we looked forward to "Mater Sammich Day," the day when Dubbie White would bring a mess of his succulent red, ripe, juicy 'maters to the TV station and treat everyone to 'mater sammiches. 

I haven't seen Dubbie in well over 25 years, but as with so many of us, we've reconnected through Facebook. 

He's retired from the TV station now, but he's still gardening. This morning I got a Facebook message asking me to call him. I was worried something was wrong. In addition to not seeing him in over 25 years, I haven't even heard his voice. I called him and he exclaimed "Hey Red! How ya doin'?" He then said he wanted to host the Grand Finale of All Mater Sammich Days this summer, and wanted to know if I'd drive down to have a 'mater sammich. He's inviting all the old anchors and reporters and "a few of you copywriters just for fun." 

Are you kidding me? I'll be there with bells on...and maybe even a 'mater bib. 

The perfect tomato sandwich is made with white bread, a smear of good mayonnaise,slices of perfectly ripened tomatoes and perhaps a sprinkling of pepper. Nothing more.

Dubbie couldn't give me a date for the event. He said the tomatoes decide when that will happen, but it will most likely be sometime in July. I don't care if the Queen of England comes to town. I'll be hitting 49 South to Hattiesburg for a bite of heaven on white bread. 

Blessings to all who read this!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Getting to Know You...

The very best part of freelance writing (besides the paychecks) are the interesting people I have the opportunity to get to know.

Typically, when you meet someone new, it's not polite to play "Twenty Questions" right off the bat. Getting to know someone is a process. Yet, when interviewing someone for a magazine, the expectation from the interviewee is that they will be asked many questions in a short amount of time. That puts "getting to know you" into hyper-drive. And that's perfect for a person like me. I don't like chit-chat. I want to get straight to the meat of the matter. Bottom line it for me.

I don't care how often it happens, it's still exciting for me to see a story I've written as the cover story of a publication. Just yesterday I went to my mailbox and found this:

It was fun seeing my article as the cover article, but it was just as fun seeing Barry Cannada's smiling face. What a guy. I had heard about him for years, but meeting him was a different story. 

We met in a conference room on the top floor of the Butler Snow building, where Barry is a partner with the Butler Snow Law Firm. His father, the late Bob Cannada, was one of the founders of the firm. Barry had some big shoes to fill.

The setting alone was amazing. Butler Snow spared no expense in designing their offices. I've been to several functions there, and I wrote an article for PORTICO a few years ago about the amazing art collection in the law offices. Still, every time I get off the elevator, I feel like I'm in a movie. They do it right. 

Barry came strolling in to the conference room with that same smile he has on the cover photo. It never left his face as he talked about his life, his work, his family and his faith. I was inspired by him and wanted to convey that same inspiration in the profile piece I wrote about him for the DELTA BUSINESS JOURNAL. 

I learned a lot about Barry and from Barry during that interview. He works hard and plays hard, and he has his priorities straight. He has led an amazing life, doing some very exciting things in some very exotic places, yet he is steadfastly in love with Mississippi. I felt a renewed sense of pride in my home state after talking with him, and I also felt that I am not living up to my full potential. 

It's my opinion that a profile piece like this should inspire people to do better. They don't have to follow Barry's path, but on their own path, each day, they can step up their game. I know I want to. 

Blessings to all who read this!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Ain't Nobody Got Time for That!

I had eight hours of sleep last night. I should be not only well rested, but bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as well. But I'm not. I'm looking at the clock on the stove--the clock that has not yet "sprung ahead" and realized no matter how you try to spin it, it's still 5:30am. I'm sleepy, and I could easily crawl back under the covers.

Ain't nobody got time for that!

I've got things to do! I have a busy week! Plus, I have a book to write! 

Finding the time to write a book is probably one of the biggest challenges for me. I've about decided I need to work on it first thing every day, before anyone else wakes up. Which means I need to get up early and get working. Of course, I decided that about the same time we lose an hour for daylight savings time. 

Even though I had a full eight hours of sleep, I still long for that extra hour. 

Why is it we always seem to want what we can't have? 

And why am I writing a blog instead of my book? I'm easing into it...this has been made a bit harder due to the fact that I'm also on a two-week cleanse that does not allow coffee. 

I know.

Ain't nobody got time for that!

Blessings to all who read this!

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Celebrate Write!

Today is just one of those special days. It's a day to CELEBRATE!

For may of you, today is a day of partying and revelry before the solemn observance of Lent.

It's Mardi Gras, y'all! 

Parades, king cakes, beads and booze...been there, done that, had the t-shirt and gave it to Goodwill. 

In addition to being Fat Tuesday, today is also National Grammar Day. I'm not making this up! National Grammar Day was established in 2008 by Martha Brockenbrough, founder of the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar. I didn't make that up, either...they have their own little blog. And I'm one to believe there is a need for this in our world today. 

Katherine Dillinger is a copy editor at CNN, and there is a fun interview with her today on the CNN Living website. Her two biggest pet peeves? Writers who use dashes instead of colons, and the use of the word "probe." Hmmm....colons and probe? Maybe she's overdue for a colonoscopy? (Sorry.)

I've had the pleasure of proofreading two books recently, both by good friends, and both excellent writers and grammarians. The first is by Diane Williams, professional storyteller and gifted fiber artist. 

This is a fun, fun read no matter who you are! I strongly suggest you order your copy today! 

The other is a work in progress, soon to be released on Written by Belinda Stevens, it's a spoof of the infamous "Fifty Shades of Grey," but this particular story features the main character "Humphrey B" and his pals at the Doggie Bath. There's a lot of licking, sniffing, panting and growling in the book. More about that when it's released. Here's a photo of Belinda and "Hump."

On National Grammar Day, I feel free to say I'm a spelling, punctuation and overall grammar snob. I was fortunate to have some wonderful teachers in high school who stressed the importance of proper grammar and they taught me well. (I have to admit, however, that I hated every minute of it!)

Last year I had the pleasure of developing a curriculum for business writing with Tom Wagner of Wagner Consulting Group. We launched it in the fall for a group of electricians in Flowood, MS. I taught six men, ranging in age from 30 to 65, how to write more effective letters to clients. The first step was for them to identify their reason for writing the letter. What did they want to accomplish? They learned how to cut out the "fluff" and focus on the message. There was a strong emphasis on grammar. They had to write sample letters as homework between the three classes I taught (in three successive weeks). I watched with great pleasure as their confidence rose along with their writing skills.

There is power in the pen. When you have a bad customer service experience with a company, a carefully worded letter to the company president goes much further than a call to the black hole they call a customer service hotline. When someone does something worth noting, nothing means as much as a hand-written note telling them so. (Please note the use of the word "further" in this paragraph. Should it have been "farther" instead? I feel good about my word choice based on this explanation by Mignon Fogerty of the Grammar Girls.)

I am fortunate to be a member of a newly-formed writers group. We are all working on various forms of Creative Nonfiction, and in the coming months, we will read and critique each other's work. We call ourselves the Easy Writers, and we hijacked a logo from another group that we have adopted (there are only seven of us, so we probably won't print it up on t-shirts or anything...)
Before potentially thousands of readers read the works we've written, six sets of eyes will be scanning the copy for spelling, punctuation and grammar mistakes. Knowing that, I believe, will make my writing better.

So today, in celebration of National Grammar Day, please mind your spelling. Choose carefully when using they're/their/there and consider kindly the use of apostrophes when writing its/it's. The obsessive-compulsive editing freak in me will thank you.

As if Mardi Gras and National Grammar Day don't make for enough celebrating in one day, I have a special treat for you all! Today is also National Pancake Day, and the folks at IHOP are giving away FREE PANCAKES until 10pm tonight! The only thing they ask in return is that you make a donation to the Children's Miracle Network.

Blessings to all who read this!