The summer between my first and second year of graduate school I moved myself down to coastal Georgia do the field work for my thesis. At the time I was studying a creepy prehistoric looking fish called the Shortnosed Sturgeon and sediment in the Altamaha River. I connected with the local Nature Conservancy chapter and one of their employees, Doug, and his wife Michelle generously offered a room in their home to me. It’s crazy to think about this now, but I went. I dropped my dog Rya off in Chapel Hill with my best-friend Juli and I drove my car down to Darien, Georgia to spend the summer captured by this River.
I moved through that summer with deliberation. Darien and McIntosh County were, at that time, one of the poorest counties in Georgia. It was also a bit of a nowhere land. It is said that there are three seasons in Darien all dictated by the prominent biting insect that hits the airwaves. My least favorite was horsefly season. They are bastards.
I spent my weekdays either on the river in a boat, talking with local folks about their experiences on the river, or driving through the back country roads. I spent my weekends at St. Simon’s beach with my much beloved ocean. This part of Georgia is very Southern. It is almost as if time has frozen there. Both the physical and social environment was well preserved. The stories were unbelievable, the accents were crazy and the food, oy the food was to die for.
One of the popular events was a Low-Country Boil. There is quite a bit of shrimping in this part of the country and I quickly learned that there is no better way to feature fresh shrimp than a low-country boil. My inagural experience was a feast of epic proportions. Multiple steaming pots of corn, potatoes, huge shrimp, sausage and mystery ingredients. Not being a shrimp eater I could never have imagined what I was missing. I was a good sport and tried the shrimp. You should have heard the old folks roar with laughter as I asked what the heck to do with the shrimp tails. Up until that point I had only had shrimp from the grocery store, frozen and pre cooked – they did not wear their tails! These babies were huge, straight from the ocean only miles from us. Fresh and nothing like the grocery store frozen fellers.
Thus began my conscious love affair with food. I was taken by the intersection of food and culture. The smell, the visual impact of people and place, and the process of putting the meal together. I say a “conscious love affair” because I later realized that it began much earlier with my grandmother’s love affair with food, only I did not know it was there.
My hosts in Georgia, Doug and Michelle, were self proclaimed food snobs of the best variety. Michelle was an amateur chef, self taught with skills honed in a restaurant in West Palm Beach Florida. She had a cookbook collection that I have yet to see surpassed. Our arrangement was that, in lieu of rent I would hold their newborn and very fussy baby while they cooked our evening meal. These evenings started as soon as Doug and I stepped in the house after work and did not end until the sun went down. Michelle used ingredients that I had never even heard of – some simple grains and vegetables, others exotic spices. The meals were fanfreakingtastic and I realized how easy it was to be deliberate about food, what you ate and how it felt to cut, dice, and saute your way to memory and love. Full evening affairs of laughter and talk.
I left that summer with a whole new skill set and outlook about my meals and community. I spent the next few years working out those skills, testing new flavors and reading about food. My daughter Sophia’s arrival marked the end of my time in the kitchen. Well, it marked the end of my fun time in the kitchen. I still enjoy cooking but I veer towards the quick, easy, nutritious genre. Complex feasts are no longer in my repertoire. But I do still love reading about food!
Here are a few of my favorite books:
Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl – This book made me realize that people like Michelle, my grandmother, and I were not the anomalies I though we were.
My Life in France by Julia Child – I was never really in to watching Julia Child and therefore my interest in her was muted. This book changed that. She was my kind of woman and it great fun to get a glimpse in to a portion of her life. She also had a late introduction to the kitchen, what an inspiration!
Heat by Bill Buford – The descriptions here will leave you starving for food of the saucy variety. My favorite kind. Oh, to take a year and dedicate it to learning a passion. Reading this is almost like doing that.
The Gastronomical Me by MFK Fisher – My first introduction to MFK Fisher courtesy of my friend Amy, a fellow foodie. This book is timeless, the stories told of the early half of the century are rich and filled with humor.
A Homemade Life
by Molly Wizenburg – I am reading this now and it is what sparked my memory of my time in Georgia and its story of food. I was not a reader of Molly’s blog so these stories are all new to me. They feel geniune and the place of food in her life is much as it has been in my adult world.
If you’re interested in the Coast of Georgia and the history of Darien there is an interesting book that talks about this place and how it has been frozen in time (for better or worse). Praying for Sheetrock by Melissa Fay Greene. I met some of the people talked about in this book and, as incredible as it is, this place really does exist. I also spent a lovely afternoon searching for mussels on the River with Janisse Ray. Her book Ecology of a Cracker Childhood is also a perfect glimpse in to the time and place of south Georgia.