thoughts on Southern living

512B68D6-0643-48BC-8260-6C6B8AC93685Biking in Charleston. Credit: Alex Van Buren, Instagram

It’s an oft-repeated refrain among the women I know: “You know, you should leave New York before it makes you hard. That’s what Nora Ephron said.”

Nora Ephron didn’t say that, nor did Kurt Vonnegut, but it remains solid advice. And I really didn’t think I was one of those. I thought I was pretty chill. I certainly wasn’t that woman on the subway with the sharp elbows, who pinned me in the fleshiest part of my arm for the duration of the ride. Or the guy who double-parks in the bike lane, swings his door wide without looking, and almost nails me as I cruise by on my clunky hybrid. I’m pretty nice—maybe even the nicest one in my whole subway car.

And then I went south. For two months. Two months of the greasiest pulled-pork sandwiches, which I ate alone, in the dark, in the passenger’s seat of my rented Jetta outside of Bullock’s Bar-B-Cue in Durham, North Carolina. Hushpuppies as fat as your fingers, and deep-fried, snug in a paper bag. I ate it all, between two other dinners in Chapel Hill and Raleigh. (“Because who knows when I’ll be back in the South?”) Two months of fried chicken, the best of which came from a gas station in New Orleans. Two months of insistent small talk with strangers, and hugs instead of handshakes for hellos.

This was a challenge for a New Englander. My heritage is all snow, khakis, and icily quiet masses. I am not a hugger of strangers.

It is not, I now realize, that Southerners are necessarily nicer, but they tend (broadly speaking) to go into a situation from a neutral or positive stance—and Northeasterners tend to go in neutral or negative. And everything stems from that: It’s the difference between making friends at the Nashville honky-tonk dive or fighting for stool space at the bar.

The 10 best things I ate in NOLA are here. The 10 best things I ate all over the damn South—in Nashville and NOLA, Charleston and Durham, Atlanta and Raleigh—are here. I gave props to the late Mr. Duncan Hines, America’s O.G. food critic, here. I wrote for Travel + Leisure as I rambled, stopped off at the Charleston Wine + Food Festival, visited beautiful Blackberry Farm, and attended a cool writers’ colony in Sewanee, Tennessee. (I’d snagged a merit scholarship from the Southern Foodways Alliance to work on a book proposal.)

I met some amazing people along the way: The super-sweet baking savant Lisa Donovan, of Nashville. BBQ superstars Sam Jones, Nick Pihakis, and up-and-coming Charleston brisket hotshot John Lewis. Angie Mosier, the talented photographer who met me on a bus full of barbecue nerds and gave me a place to hang my hat in Atlanta a few weeks later.

I’m still tweeting and Instagramming my adventures (which have taken a slightly domestic turn of late, because I missed cooking and just signed a new lease in Crown Heights, Brooklyn). Spring—and its tulips, asparagus, ramps, and farmers’ market mobs—is fully, totally sprung.

It’s a marvelous time to be in New York City, but my reminder to myself of the South—and how I moved a little more slowly, and thoughtfully, there—is now right on my “to do” list. It says, gently, “Don’t try to do too much.”

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traveling and being leisurely for travel + leisure

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Chocolate mousse pie at Pels Pie Company in Brooklyn. Credit: Alex Van Buren 

This morning my computer had a close encounter with a cup of coffee. I shorted out the keyboard but maybe not the entire contraption; time will tell. It’s shocking that this hasn’t happened prior to today, as I am an accomplished klutz. And it could be worse by a longshot, as I’m overdue for an upgrade. Some days peanuts, some days shells. (Does anyone know the origin of that expression? Is this correct? I’m very curious.)

I love autumn. I haven’t yet made it apple-picking, but will soon head upstate to drink cider and see family before November is out, so I feel lucky. And! Travel is officially part of my job description now, as I’ve been writing extensively for the lovely team at Travel + Leisure about topics as eclectic as lobster, Dia de Los Muertos, etiquette, and Chris Christie. I even, with great trepidation, revealed my best tip for scoring a cheap car rental, and may regret it in the years to come.

I’ll tweet these stories as they surface online, but definitely also follow the site’s Twitter handle. And yep, I’m still writing, editing, and consulting for a variety of other wonderful publications, too, such as Epicurious and Real Simple. I just feel especially fortunate to be able to focus on travel for such a neat site.

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recent to-ings, fro-ings, and eats

potstickers

Dry-aged beef potstickers at Brooklyn’s East Wind Snack Shop. Go there. Sprinkle that umami secret spice mix on ’em. So good. Photo: Alex Van Buren, Instagram

Happy August! So let’s get something clear up front: No one is allowed to mention anything about [redacted] or shoveling [redacted] to me yet. I haven’t jumped in enough lakes or eaten enough lobster rolls yet. Let’s just wait till [redacted] to discuss [redacted] weather, shall we? Thank you.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, here’s what I’ve been up to: consulting, writing, and editing, with a bit of copywriting, to boot. It’s been a blast, and I’m ramping up for fall. I have two stories up at Epicurious, a site I’ve always loved, about the bizarre egg shortage (and how prices are likely going to spike this fall) and five smart ways to use canola oil, my go-to for making Pok Pok wings at home. I’ve also been doing some work for the fine folks at Liquor.comBrides, and Vox, among others.

So let’s not get all grim about [redacted] being around the corner. And I hope to see you eating ice cream, wearing a floppy hat, or picking out fat peaches at the market some day soon.

 

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setting the table

tablePhoto: Alex Van Buren, Instagram

My father’s mother recently realized that her eldest unmarried granddaughter is living in Brooklyn, alone, without the proper accoutrements.

Our calls typically involve my shouting so she can hear me—she is 94—and grandma shouting so she can hear herself. One exchange several months ago went like this:

Her: “Alex! Your father tells me you’ve moved! What are you doing for china?!”

Me: “Sorry, grandma?!”

Her: “CHINA!”

Me: “Grandma, I have plates and bowls. They’re nice. I’m fine. I promise.”

Her: “Hmmmph. What about crystal and silver?!”

Crystal and silver? Me: “Grandma, I’m FINE.”

Now, we are not a fancy family, but Grandma hails from Kings County herself, and had her wedding reception right off the promenade in Brooklyn Heights. And apparently she’d be damned if any granddaughter of hers would be entertaining in her home borough without proper silver. This resulted in my dad lugging an unexpected gift to me from Massachusetts a few years ago: Silverware. Lots of it. A slightly mismatched but very elegant set in a heavy, velvet-lined box.

I busted it out in February, alongside the plates I’d picked up at the Vanves flea market in Paris.

table twoPhoto: Alex Van Buren, Instagram

It had been my first big trip to Paris. Ten days. Steak frites obsessiveness. Lots of coffee. Lots of fromage. And I loved it, like you do, but I returned not feeling covetous of the bistros or the restaurants, but wanting to cook more for the people I love. In Brooklyn, as in Paris, we’re able to walk from butcher to cheesemonger, grocer to café, and I was reminded that I can do a lot of great things with easily accessible, excellent products. (Also, I mean, those plates. Yowza.)

Hosting friends for Valentine’s Day, I made Mark Bittman’s pernil, half of which I turned into carnitas, and a shrimp ceviche with blood orange juice. I yammered on about my “tablescape” all night long. (My grandma, in a sense, saw this aspect of my personality emerging before I did.) It was a delightful evening regardless.

In work news, this week marked my last week as an editor at Yahoo Food. I had such fun there and learned so much, and was proud of the work I featured, whether it was a sweet speech by a bartender, an Italian-American grandma’s meatball recipe, a gorgeous series of stone fruit cocktails, or a website doing civic-minded food journalism. I left in order to restart my own digital content strategy, consulting, writing, and editing business. I couldn’t be more excited, I’ll post about cool projects occasionally on this page or on Twitter, and I hope you have a lovely spring.

 

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a launch + a memory

yahoofood

So yesterday was a bit of a rough one.

It wasn’t work that was tough. My colleagues and I launched a new site, Yahoo Food, a work in progress of which, as Features Editor, I’m proud. We’ve been toiling away for a couple of months behind closed doors, and now the floodgates are open to everyone’s critiques. It’s a challenge we’re up for; constructive criticism is a good thing, and you can send it here or even here until we get comments functionality.

But the first story in what we in the biz call the “hero module”—the one with the floury hands shown above—when that one went live, my heart sank a bit. I’ve been working on this piece on and off for several years, and although I hope it’s well-written, and that it moves you to cook for the people you love, it doesn’t do justice to the woman who inspired it.

My first mentor, who I call “Betty” in the essay, could write circles around me. Not only did she get me my first job in magazines, but she was terribly kind about my earliest, most horrible drafts of stories. Her stories had the most gorgeous, ephemeral ledes—all sweetness and light, for an île flotante—and then she’d hit you with a perfect pun, or a flip turn of phrase that made you giggle. Her kickers left you wishing the article was twice its length.

She wrote circles around me, and she would have written circles around me today, and I wish like hell I hadn’t had to write this piece at all, and that she was still here. Her empathy was extraordinary; no matter how down cancer got her, she always wanted to hear about your day. Betty was just straight-up a better person than I am, and I think of her when I consider how best to treat other people.

I didn’t use her name, and I never would, because her byline was a source of pride. (She wasn’t vain or arrogant, ever, but she was a perfectionist when it came to her work.)

My little essay is just an effort to remind the chilly people in the big cities that casseroles and caretaking can be transporting for those in need, especially this time of year.

Hope you dig the site. My articles are here, but you should be sure to read the articles by my colleagues, too.

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new orleans!

Oh, my goodness, this is becoming a biannual blog. That *can’t* be good for SEO. This site is primarily for professional purposes, though, designed to send the curious to my writing, video and editing clips, which are here. It’s also a place to showcase recent work.

In other news, I finally made it to New Orleans for the first time. Ridiculous that I hadn’t been sooner. And wow. A town focused on bourbon and pork, friendly people and dancing? Are you kidding me? I love that it’s the only place I’ve ever been where it is more awkward not to dance than to dance at a party. I’m writing a little piece about NOLA, which I’ll tweet when it’s live, and I hope you’re staying warm this winter, wherever you are.

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cat-sized watermelons and other indignities

My last post overstated things. Prosciutto and butter and bread are excellent, yes. But that was then (May), and this is now (July), and the city has an ineffable stickiness that makes you root, root, root for the kids wasting water with the open hydrants (you know it’s wrong, but man is it fun to bike through the spray).

So I’ve been eating my share of squash and blueberries, favas and corn like the rest of the local food crazies. This being my first year in a CSA, I’m gonna crack open the cat-sized watermelon* I just got and turn it into the glorious watermelon-feta salad featured in the August InStyle (the one with Jessica Biel on the cover). It’s a Hugh Acheson recipe, and part of an article on summery Southern cooking by yours truly. All of his recipes are lovely and light, and I’ve been dreaming up riffs on his Pimm’s Cup all summer. Pictured above (right) is Acheson’s fava bean, prosciutto and mint appetizer. It is wonderful.

In less melony news, a bunch of my copy for Bon Appétit is live; I worked on this “Dress for Dinner” project (scroll down) and wrote all the little restaurant reviews. I’ve also been working on guides to various cities in collaboration with Restaurant and Drinks Editor Andrew Knowlton. I’m particularly pleased with the Boston and San Francisco writeups, so please clickety click.

A couple of parting notes: If you are biking, please wear your helmet: I got doored by a car that was illegally parked in a bike lane a couple of months ago, went flying, and was bruised for weeks. I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this if I hadn’t been properly kitted out.

Fellow stone fruit aficionados, don’t miss this article by Mark Bittman. Each approach is so easy: Cherries are simmered in a touch of water and sugar, then maybe topped with mint and crème fraîche (above, left): I am an ice cream fanatic, and I temporarily forgot about ice cream’s existence when I ate these cherries.

Hope you’re having a rad summer.

* We have a large cat. This was a very large melon. It dwarfed her. She seemed indignant. Post title explained.

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picnic like you mean it

It’s been a while. And now it’s hot outside. I’m not one of these people who covets salads, tiny berries and buckets of water when it’s hot. I covet ice cream and barbecue, lobster rolls and chicken liver mousse. Weird but true.

To that effect, here’s my favorite picnic sandwich. A twist on the super-simple French classic of meat, butter and baguette, it combines prosciutto di parma, unsalted European butter, and a ramp dressing (minced ramps, olive oil, salt and pepper). Take a whole baguette, lace it with folds of prosciutto, and slather one side with butter and a scallion-or-ramp olive oil mixture (stick to butter if you don’t feel like puréeing scallions). Wrap the whole beastie in wax paper, then foil. Hand out mini wrapped sandwiches at a picnic. Wait for people to ask where you bought it. Laugh.

It’s expensive, sure, for the good prosciutto. But there’s nothing better than this and the Times on a lazy Sunday… unless it’s this, the Times, and a big glass of bourbon mint lemonade.

I’ve been writing for a few great clients lately. I did a piece for InStyle about which I can say nothing until it hits newsstands, wrote some fun marketing copy for Tasting Table (to which everyone should subscribe), and have started working with the lovely folks at Bon Appétit, where I’m a contributing writer. A few of my articles will be popping up there over the coming months.

Oh! And there’s this: Anthony Bourdain, whose life I find so fascinating, was kind enough to chat with me for an epic Grub Street piece—an effort to understand why people who love AB love him So Much.

Happy almost-summer, folks. Eat some salad. Just put cheese on it in case I’m in the vicinity.

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IACP Best Televised Culinary Series Nomination

So this is a little wild: The season of the NY CHOW Report that I wrote, hosted and produced and Alex Lisowski directed, shot and edited was just named a finalist for best “Televised Culinary Series” by the International Association of Culinary Professionals. We put together the segments for the fine folks at CHOW.com, including Lessley Anderson, Meredith Arthur, Blake Smith and Davina Baum, who advised on scripts and production. The finished product aired on CHOW and on NY1.

We’re up against heavy hitters like Jacques Pépin and Ming Tsai, so it’s a real honor to be nominated. The show’s second season is hosted by the talented Pervaiz Shallwani and Liza de Guia, and they’re doing a really nice job. Check them out!

And many thanks to the voters at IACP!

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winter warmers: my favorite cold-weather recipes

Homemade baked béchamel mac ‘n cheese with sriracha

I am not a winter person. I hate the cold, and have vivid memories of my parents using the “double plastic bag” method to keep our feet warm in the winters of the late 1970s.

It went like this: One pair socks, two plastic bags per foot, then snow boots. I would tuck my pants into the boots, hoping against hope. But every time I jumped into a fat Massachusetts snowbank, thinking I was secure against the elements, I’d wind up knocking—panicked—at the door of our home an hour later. The snow would freeze in the tops of the plastic bags, creating glossy ice rings around the shins that would not look out of place in one of today’s adorable vintage punch bowls.

No wonder I became a cocoa person and not a skiing person. But I do admire the effect of the seasons—the way people slow down in the winter, speed up in the spring and fall, and slow down again for the hot summer. There’s something to be said for winter’s indoors-y laziness.

Yesterday I was listening to Nina Nastasia’s “The Long Walk,” and today it’s Nina Simone. And all I want to cook are soups and chili, moles and stews, braises and casseroles. Here are the best recipes I’ve cooked over the last few months.

Nigel Slater’s killer onion tart is far and away my best party trick—layers and layers of slippery caramelized onions with fat cubes of taleggio and wisps of thyme. People freak out about it. Then there’s the cavatelli with sausage and sage from the Frankies cookbook; brown butter is wonderful this time of year. Bon Appetit’s Swiss chard soup is bright and floral with mint and cilantro, creamy from feta and yogurt, and makes a wonderfully warm starter or entrée. I like to strain the leftover soup for the base of some fantastic chilaquiles.

I’m also a big fan of Jonathan Waxman’s chicken-under-a-brick with bacon—that’s chicken butterflied and sizzled in bacon fat, folks—and it will probably be my Valentine’s Day meal. I reckon Molly Wizenberg’s French toast, with nutmeg and vanilla, would be an excellent way to wake up the next morning.

Lastly, I’m totally making Andrew Carmellini’s favorite chili—a recipe from Texas chef Julie Farias—once more before the winter is out. It uses coffee, beer and chocolate, packs a wallop of flavor, and it completely cheered up a sick friend.

We’re not through the season yet, so comment if you’ve got an ace winter recipe—and thanks!

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