03 February 2012

Book Review: The World in a Skillet: A Food Lover's Tour of the New American South

Full disclosure: I'm good friends with the authors of this book, as well as a few of the people covered in it. However, for the past year, whenever I've invited the Knipples to come over for dinner or to help me empty some wine, they were out of town tracking down people and recipes for this book. Doing serious writerly legwork on the road instead of helping me drain some Chilean wine while we swap tips about where to find hibiscus flowers in syrup and weird organ meats in the Mid-South. So while I'm glad that the book is a reality and not just a polite excuse after I served them haggis tamales, I'm going to call this even on the journalistic ethics front.

I first met Paul and Angela when they reached out to me in 2007 to have a little gathering of Memphis food and wine bloggers at a Mexican restaurant downtown. I knew we'd hit it off when they bypassed the gringo fare and went straight for the cactus appetizer. At the time they wrote about local food and related topics on a blog called Squirrel Squad Squeaks, though over the years they rebranded with the more essay-driven From the Southern Table. And of course, the book has its own website, which features a calendar of book signings and other events throughout the Southeast in the next few months.

The World in a Skillet: A Food Lover's Tour of the New American South
By Paul & Angela Knipple
Foreword by John T. Edge
The University of North Carolina Press
$35, 296 pp.

While you can pre-order the book at Amazon using the above link, fellow Memphians might want to attend the official launch party at the local independent Booksellers at Laurelwood, formerly Davis-Kidd.

Don't let the cover mislead you: this is not a collection of Southern classics like cornbread and collard greens, though those dishes make appearances. Rather, it's a look at the increasing cultural and culinary diversity of the South and how such cooking traditions have settled and adapted in towns small and large in this corner of the United States.

The new South is a different place. Within walking distance of my abode in a fairly vanilla suburb of Memphis, I have two Thai restaurants, a Vietnamese place, two Indian restaurants and a third grocery store, two Japanese sushi bars, and more. I now encounter old Russian ladies working at local supermarkets, and whenever I say "Спасибо", I get an involuntary response of "Пожалуйста" followed by a chuckle at the short Irish guy spouting bad Russian. Less than 20 years ago, this was still farmland, and even 10 years ago it was just a sea of fast food joints and chain restaurants.

Each chapter focuses on a chef or a restaurant, telling the story of how that person or family came to the United States, and concluding with a couple of choice recipes. (Memphians include Pepe Magallenes of Las Tortugas and Wally Joe of Acre.) In places, anecdotes and cooking tips are included as sidebars. It's a fascinating oral history project that has the added benefit of making you very hungry.

It reminds me a lot of one of my favorite formative cookbooks, Jeff Smith's The Frugal Gourmet on Our Immigrant Ancestors (Recipes You Should Have Gotten From Your Grandmother). He was writing from experience in the relatively cosmopolitan cities of Chicago and Seattle as well as lots of world travel. I was excited to have one book that had dozens of chapters focused on specific world cuisines, each with an introductory story/history lesson, quotes from friends, and four or five recipes. For someone that would go on to get excited about wines from Colorado, Moldova, and India, it was a book that combined Gourmet with National Geographic. (And come to think of it, the Hawaii chapter had a drawing of a topless native...)

For me, the best part of The World in a Skillet was reading about Haitian food. I've never been exposed to it and have never thought to seek it out, despite a love of Cuban, Jamaican, Puerto Rican, and other styles of cooking that are collectively Caribbean but so individually unique. I can't wait to try out the recipe for queue de boeuf, which combines two of my favorite things that never made Julie Andrews' list: habaneros and oxtails.

The book is a great read for either short or long stretches and builds upon a unique strength possessed by the authors. They both have distinct and interesting personalities but are able to collaboratively write in a third and separate voice. I've known them for years but when reading their essays or this book I can't pick out which parts are Paul's or Angela's. I can edit or be edited, but I can't write with a partner to save my life, and I admire that talent. Think about that love and friendship when you're reading the book, and it will let you know how they were able to get so many people from so many different backgrounds to contribute to this effort. Best of luck to them both, and I can't wait to read the next one.

Note: This book was received as a sample.


Joe said...

awesome! I know you were talking about it... glad it's out.

And I'm intrigued by Haitian food... French + Creole + Caribbean = probably pretty good.

Benito said...


There are a few Georgia chapters in this book, but you seriously need to meet these folks. They're awesome. Shoot 'em an e-mail, tell 'em I sent you, and I'm sure they'll be in the ATL area soon to promote this book.


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