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John Currence dishes on the state of Southern cooking

Big Bad Chef

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Oxford, Miss.-based chef John Currence can be an acquired taste — he's fond of phrases like "I will fucking punch you in the mouth with flavor" — but his cooking makes an immediate (favorable) impression. His first restaurant, City Grocery, set a standard in Oxford that's now been followed with a mini-empire of Currence-curated eateries, including Snackbar, Big Bad Breakfast, and Bouré.

During his two decades in Oxford, Currence has built his reputation as the "Big Bad Chef" (that's his Twitter handle too) and made a fair share of notable friends, including food writer and Southern Foodways Alliance founder John T. Edge and the late novelist Larry Brown (author of Big Bad Love).

All that literary energy eventually led Currence to write his own book. Released in October, Pickles, Pigs and Whiskey, is the big bad chef's manifesto on cooking, peppered with constant reminders to "season everything" and to always have fun in the kitchen.

Broken into sections by method, including brining, frying, braising, and slathering, the cookbook whets appetites with gorgeous images by photographer Angie Mosier that accompany each recipe, some of which go beyond the reasonable commitment level of the average home chef but inspire nonetheless.

Currence is currently touring to promote the book, including a stop last week in his hometown of New Orleans, where he stayed out late drinking whiskey before an early morning interview with City Paper, conducted during his daily jog.

City Paper: Each recipe in Pickles, Pigs and Whiskey is accompanied by a song. How did you choose "Poncho and Lefty" for the Bourbon Milk Punch cocktail?

JC: Not all of them are meant to be figured out. Those selections are very personal to me. In that case, it's one of the best songs ever, and it happened to pair up with one of my favorite recipes. "Welcome to the Jungle" is the first song in the book, paired with the City Grocery Bloody Mary. Back in 1989, we listened to that record (Appetite for Destruction) all day, every day in the kitchen. There was no question about it being first.

CP: I read that you did manuscript work for Larry Brown and Barry Hannah. How did those influences play into your own writing?

JC: I became very good friends with those guys, and our conversations developed over how I loved their work and they loved my work, and how oddly universal the creative process is. We're all inspired by the same things. It was a very profound moment for me in 1998 when Larry plopped down a copy of his manuscript for Fay and asked, 'Would you read this for me?' I'm a fucking burger jockey, but he said, 'I respect you. I want you to tell me what you think.' I found myself making notes, and it was very odd and disconcerting, but when I got done we sat down and I said, 'What do you think about doing this; this would illustrate the character's deeper nature.' And he went back and rewrote stuff that I made notes on.

CP: You're a contributing editor to Garden & Gun magazine, and your book portrays some of the same 'beautiful South' as that publication. Do you think the South has peaked, as far as the national attention we've been getting for our food culture?

JC: The chance to write for them was how I worked up the bravery to approach my book, ultimately. I do think the media has kind of peaked. Every major food and lifestyle magazine or TV show that could be done featuring the South has been done. Frank Stitt and Bill Neal set out on a quest 30 years ago to legitimize Southern cooking, and it took a couple of decades before the media said, 'Holy shit, they're not just making chicken fried steak down there.' So people began to dig it, and we were finally given a seat at the table. It was nice to get the attention, and I wouldn't say it's died out completely, because the significance of food in the South is beyond deniability. It's a national treasure. I think that the only thing we can do is to keep our heads down and continue the work at hand.

CP: Last year you came to town for the Wine + Food festival and hosted a dinner at Husk where you surprised everyone with an all-vegetable dinner. What inspired you to do that here?

JC: I wanted to do something for Sean that was profound. At that point, I was sick of the nationwide fascination with the South. Everybody who wanted to reference it had discovered bacon, and they were putting fucking bacon in everything. People know me as this whiskey swilling, big cooking kind of maniac, and it just struck me. We worked our asses off, and when it was all over, I collapsed around Sean's neck. Folks launched out of their chairs and gave a standing ovation. It was a wonderful moment for me. I have never been as proud of a meal in my entire life.

CP: Pickles, Pigs and Whiskey is pretty heavy on the meat though, although there are some delicious looking vegetables in there.

JC: You know, they used to give away pig ears. Now I've got guys offering me pig heads at $12 a pound. That used to be throwaway shit. You do the math, but if you get a 15-pound head at $12 a pound and you get about a pound of meat off of it, you're talking about $200-a-pound pig. The cost of proteins has gotten prohibitive, so from an operator's standpoint, if you can do something and celebrate vegetables, which are more affordable, you're doing something to help your food cost and giving folks something that you can truly feel good about feeding them. When you consider how many meals are eaten outside of the home, we have a responsibility to give people choices that are good for them. They can't go out and eat butter sauce on everything. It's about providing healthy sustenance. It's not just a celebration or entertainment anymore.

Chef John Currence won the 2009 Best Chef: South James Beard Award. His book signing at 6 p.m. this Tuesday at High Wire Distilling includes small bites prepared by Jason Stanhope (FIG), Josh Keeler (Two Boroughs Larder), Sean Brock (McCradys and Husk), and Stuart Tracy (Butcher & Bee), as well as cocktails and beer. Tickets are $85 and include a copy of the book. Purchase your ticket at johncurrencecharleston.eventbrite.com.

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