Three years ago, Mark and I were busily wrapping up the financing for our newly named but yet to open restaurant, and thought that the best way to document our progress and plans for people who were following us would be to establish a blog. Besides this past holiday season which saw us busier than ever, It’s been difficult for me to update the blog for the last few weeks as I have been trying to wrap my head around yet another landmark, which is our 200th post on this blog.
It was a bit of a coincidence that we closed in on our 200th publication as 2010 wound down, when everyone was publishing their year in review and year ahead lists, wishes, and forecasts. Even though 2010 rang in with a monumental review by Phil Vettel in the Chicago Tribune and continued through month after month of dizzying sales gains and a steady stream of flattering press, I resisted the temptation to publish a list or any kind of reminiscences of my own, even though I am prone to such things and likely will upon our upcoming third birthday.
Instead, my mind went around in circles about what 200 blog posts meant. Of course, it’s just a number. What did get me thinking is the changes that have come about the blog, my approach, where it began, what it’s become and where it’s going. Another landmark we passed in 2010 was an average of 2,000 monthly readers, which is pretty mind-boggling. What to do now is the question.
About a year ago, I decided to change the direction of the blog markedly. Previously, I used it for occasional ramblings but mostly to publish specials and events menus. I decided to continue with these purposes, but to expand into an in-depth look into how we create our cuisine at Big Jones, from hints at our inspirations and journeys to those ends, but also a closer look at our cooking. This was to become the Anatomy of a Dish series, where I would show readers just what went into each dish before they appear on your plate.
My decision to discuss inspiration and in-depth cooking techniques and recipes was very simple. In spite of generally favorable press since we opened that does become more favorable all the time, Mark and I have been dismayed by the misunderstandings and ignorance on the part of much of the Chicago food media (less so the print publications, more so the bloggers and online world) who have sought to define us by some narrow construct of Southern cooking that does not exist, and never did. People who came to Big Jones to see what we offered with an open mind loved it, and people who came expecting some predetermined vision of Southern food of course felt differently. I decided to give people interested in Big Jones and Southern cooking in general the right information, because they weren’t getting it from the blogosphere.
The only way to accomplish this was to get busy defining ourselves rather than leaving it up to Them.
This meant going into greater depth discussing the inspirations, the history and foodways behind our cooking. It also meant showing people that our food, Southern food, is not some simple bumpkin-y amalgamation of a few ingredients subject to so many horrible racist stereotypes. I chose the lamb trio as our first dish for the Anatomy of a Dish series because it would demonstrate that Southern food isn’t all grits and fried green tomatoes and watermelon. The reaction of some folks was predictable: “Lamb isn’t Southern!” Wrong! Fatted lamb is a time-tested tradition in the Lowcountry and I have the old cookbooks to prove it. We’ve had similar reactions to steak on the menu, sweetbreads, blueberries, etc.
A couple of the more prominent internet-based writers in Chicago have ignored us since the beginning, which I guess is preferable to suffering a stereotype, but I continue to wonder if they don’t cover us because they don’t know what to do with us. We don’t submit to stereotypes so understanding our cooking requires detaching oneself from narrowly constructed views.
To others who insist that in order to be true Southern cooking it must be preserved in amber, never evolving or changing, I have one thing to say: screw off. Tell that to Sean Brock, Susan Spicer, Tory McPhail, or John Besh. All cooking is always evolving. Tastes change. Deal with it. In spite of some of the more negative reactions against contemporary Southern cooking, the most cutting edge cooks in the South are actually restoring the greatest traditions in the history of Southern cooking – going out into the country, finding rare and forgotten breeds of livestock, grains, and garden vegetables, restoring the lost arts of canning, preserving, and pickling, and innovating.
The history of Southern cooking in the United States has always been one of fusion, innovation, and craftiness. Originally, the great advances were in the plantation kitchens where slaves incorporated the crops they had brought with them from Africa into the the new aristocratic cooking of the new world. Other changes were brought about by the spice routes, Native American influence, and sometimes even out of necessity in hard times. Cooking is not like painting, and especially not like sculpture. No great cuisine is preserved in amber. All great cuisines are living entities on a journey with no known destination. The whim of humanity determines their course.
I am still burned by some of the things that have been said about Big Jones, even the most ignorant and thoughtless. It troubles me that I failed to reach these people. We once had a blogger (the most ignorant of all) rip us apart because we didn’t have hushpuppies and honey butter, no complaints about what they did eat but that was not of consequence because we were clearly not “authentic.” Really? Are you that seriously ignorant? Hushpuppies and honey butter define the Southern kitchen? My hope is that people like this may learn to look more deeply at Southern cooking and see it for the beautiful, rich, regional cuisine that it is. My dream is for you to take Southern cooking, American cooking, seriously. Not to stereotype it or pigeonhole it, but to take it seriously for its tremendous depth and regional variety. Every day I think about and study this cooking, and every day I realize there is more to learn. We have hundreds of years of history plus the future of a vast expanse of land and water to explore. Let’s make this a journey of discovery and not one of stuffy pontification or knee-jerk provincialism.
2011 will be the year Chicago takes Southern food seriously. Yes, Southerners eat steak and yes, it is possible for breakfast to cost more than $5 in the South (both contended on blogs this past year.) If you’ve read this far, you understand my cry. This year, help us convince someone you know with negative stereotypes on Southern food to stop projecting and start listening, tasting, and learning, to open their mind.
We will be creating a separate page on the web site for event announcements and menus, and Valentine’s Day and Mardi Gras 2011 will be the first announcements there. This blog will continue conveying recipes, inspirations, travelogues, and farm trip chronicles. Thanks for a wonderful, exciting, humbling 2010. Please keep reading in 2011, there are some amazing things in the works already for this year, and we are just getting started.