Before I sat down to write about John Currence's (@bigbadchef) new cookbook -- Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey (Andrews McMeel Publishing) -- I surveyed my brown liquor shelf and found just the right courage: a bottle of Willett Rye with one good pump left in it.
I needed to calm the nerves a bit. Currence may not be a household name in Celebrity Chef America, even when you narrow your focus to the Renaissance of Southern cuisine, where the glare mainly shines on relative youngsters like Sean Brock, Mike Lata, Ed Lee and Hugh Acheson. However, if you asked those chefs who their culinary heroes are, you'd be likely to hear Currence's name.
And why not? Currence received the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef: South in 2009. He has almost singlehandedly made Oxford, Mississippi a city with a food scene to rival locales "twenty times [its] size," as writer John T. Edge says in the introduction to the cookbook. Currence is a board member of the national No Kid Hungry campaign, and he led the post-Katrina rebuilding of Willie Mae's Scotch House, the [expletive] legendary fried chicken shack in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans, his hometown. Side note: a buddy and I once diverted a busload of St. Bernard Project volunteers to Willie Mae's for a couple trays of hot chicken, which we ate without napkins or shame on the short ride back to our hotel. I was later photographed slumped against a wall in the French Quarter with the wreckage of the feast on my lap.
Take away all of that and Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey would still be a pearl to add to your cookbook collection. Flip past the Bourdain-style homage to the sex, drugs and rock and roll of the kitchens of Currence's youth, including Gautreau's in New Orleans, and you'll find that the first chapter of recipes is focused on booze drinks (page 16: Spiced Cider with W.G. Weller bourbon), which come near the end of most cookbooks. Observe the simple majesty of long-simmered water + aromatics + fat, smoky ham hocks (page 33: Ham Stock). Drool for a minute thinking about what fried chicken (page 137: Coca-Cola Brined Fried Chicken Thighs) on bread with drops of vinegar fire (page 102: Fermented Jalapeno Hot Sauce) might taste like. Dream a little dream that you're sitting in Currence's City Grocery restaurant, by yourself under a spotlight, staring at a platter loaded with charred cow (page 209: smoked whole beef tenderloin).
Do all of this, but then read the book through for a second time. You'll come across recipes that show Currence isn't the least bit shy about grabbing inspiration from younger peers like David Chang (page 63: Kentucky Soy-Collard Kimchi) or throwing down a recipe for a delicate Southern condiment (page 93: Homemade "Duke's" Mayonnaise) that features a picture of fresh farm tomatoes with a Zeppelin-sized dollop of the stuff. Look around for someone to cry with when you arrive at the dessert (page 226: Chocolate Chess Pie with Woodford Reserve Ice Cream). Pull yourself together, though, or you might miss the footnote on page 105 labeled "I Turn Other People's Garbage into Food." Apparently, Currence likes to cure bacon with spent Avery Island Tabasco pepper mash and he uses residual barrel-fermented soy bean paste from Bluegrass Soy Sauce in the guts for the aforementioned kimchi. That is damn cool.
Currence's writing is lively and forthright, but I believe the honesty of a cookbook can only really be judged by its simplest, homiest recipe. I chose to test the Red Beans and Rice "Gumbo" on page 42, in part because the suggested song to listen to while making it is by Steve Earle, the greatest American songwriter of the last few decades. I MacGyvered my way around a few of the details. I didn't have Camellia brand red beans, but found some good looking others at Whole Foods. No ham stock, but I had some delicious pork broth from my friend Dan O'Brien of Seasonal Pantry in Washington, D.C. File powder was not within reach, which probably disqualifies me for any awards in New Orleans. But once I pulled it all together, my house and probably my neighborhood were filled with the unmistakable and intoxicating aroma of a Cajun kitchen. The final product was the pot of tender, flavorful beans from your Acadian dreams. I'm just trying to figure out what special occasion will work best for bringing out the frozen leftovers.
I also need to make my way down to Mississippi. If a book can make you want to go out of your way to do that, it has to be good, right?
Follow Sam Hiersteiner on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@SamsGoodMeats