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Shuck Beans, Stack Cakes, and Honest Fried Chicken
by Ronni Lundy
bookclub@ket host Bill Goodman and director Janet Whitaker interviewed author Ronni Lundy in November 1999.

Bill: Shuck Beans seemed like such a fun book—not only for us to read and to absorb but for you to write. Was it fun?

Ronni: Oh, yeah. Now I often say to people, “You can’t tell I had any fun doing this, can you?” It was very interesting to begin with. I think I note in the book that when the idea first came up of combining country food and stories and recipes with some information about country music, I went back to my files of interviews with musicians that I had done in preceding years when I had worked as a music critic at the Courier-Journal, and I found that very often we talked about food—particularly with the country musicians. It was a way of establishing a connection between us, and then it’s just something that Southerners do: When we get together and start to talk, we inevitably end up talking about food. So some of the material was already there.

But what was exciting for me was that when I started approaching these people again and saying not “Can I write about you for a major magazine that will boost your career” but “Would you be willing to talk to me about foods that you grew up eating?,” so many of them were just so excited to do this because so little has been recorded about that aspect of the culture. I mean, there is a lot about up-scale Southern cooking—you know, the kind of thing that went on in the Big House—but so little had been written about just the way that regular people sat down at the table and talked and had a good time. These people were very excited to talk about it; and then when they started directing me to their moms and grandmothers, they were so thrilled to share their recipes that it really was just a celebration. The whole book was.

Bill: Tell us a little bit about your background and what you have been doing that led up to the writing of this book.

Ronni: Eating quite a lot [laughs]. I was born in Kentucky. I was raised in Louisville, but my family is from Corbin, which is where I was born. We always went back—you know, as all members of the hillbilly diaspora do, we went home as often as we could. So I sort of grew up in two cultures there. My mom was an incredible cook, and I started learning about food from her. In my 20s I worked in restaurants, both in the front of the house and the back of the house—although I’m not a chef by anybody’s definition, and certainly not my own. I did learn a lot about cooking and about food during that time, and I read cookbooks all the time. From an early age I was just real fascinated with reading them, not just because it gave you ideas for recipes but because sometimes in the stories that were in the books you also got a window on the culture. I began writing professionally. I had always had an interest in writing and had studied journalism in my time at the University of Kentucky. But I didn’t began practicing it as a life skill until I was 30, which was around 1979.

I started out by writing about bluegrass music—particularly about contemporary bluegrass and specifically about the New Grass Revival, which was a band that I was particularly fond of that didn’t get a lot of press at that time. In fact, it was sort of shunned because it was such a revolutionary bluegrass band. So I started out by doing articles about them for bluegrass magazines, and that parlayed into my writing about music for Scene, which was the Louisville Times Saturday magazine at that time. At the same time that I was doing that, I also approached the Scene editor and said to him, “Look, I lived in New Mexico for six years, and there are a lot of little burrito places opening up here in Louisville. Why don’t you let me eat around and find the best burrito in town?” That was the kind of story they did. So I actually started out writing about food and music at the same time, although at that point in my life, music began to take precedence. And I wrote about bluegrass and country music and old hippie music a lot for the paper. And then in the mid-1980s, the position for the head music writer, the music critic there, came open, and I took that. I did that up until the early 1990s. So that’s what I was doing, but at the same time I was freelancing stories about food to places like Esquire and the like as well.

Bill: Can you tell us a little bit about this vagabond life that you led during the ’70s? Did you always maybe think that someday you would put all this down in a book?

Ronni: [laughs] I wish my husband were here. He says I did have this vagabond life. I traveled around with a friend for a couple of years. Then my husband and I moved around a great deal, back and forth from the West to Kentucky and up to Maine. I even went to Newfoundland at one point, and we lived in Santa Barbara for a while, so it was pretty diverse. I did come up with all these stories and adventures that I would tell about, and Ken swears that while other people were having adventures for the sake of adventures, I was just doing it to gather material [laughs].

You know, I wrote from an early age. My family was very ... Everyone read in my family. Everyone read books and read newspapers and talked about it. I had an older sister who was a writer, and she was quite wonderful. She got me interested both in reading and writing. And both of my parents read and were interested not just in content but in the ways stories were told, and my father was a great storyteller. So it came pretty naturally for me early on to frame things in terms of stories, you know, to be told to people—that’s how my family talked. Also, as soon as I was old enough to write them down, I did. So I think that yes, somewhere I always did think of writing, although really there was a period in my 20s when I had pretty much decided that was not what I was going to do professionally, probably. Then after my daughter was born, when I was 30—Ken and I had our daughter, Megan—it became important to me. I knew I was going to have to work as well. It became important to me, if I was going to leave my daughter, that wherever I went would have some value for me besides just making money. That is when I went back to or began to write professionally.

Bill: All through the year on the bookclub, when we have had an opportunity to talk to authors, we have always been interested in talking to them about the process of writing and what it takes to be a good writer and who you look to when you think about good writing. Talk a little bit about the process that you have gone through.

Ronni: Sure. My husband, Ken, is an educator, something that he went to later in life also. He went back to school and got his degree in his late 30s and early 40s. And at the time, one of the things that he was studying was the process of writing. There was a great deal being written about writing process and these stages that writers go through. When he first started, we would sit and talk about this. He would read things to me about the studies that had been done, and I didn’t immediately identify these stages, you know, of gathering information and outlining and organizing and rewriting, because I tended not to work like that. I was a journalist so everything seemed to appear on the surface, to happen almost immediately—like you took your notes, and then you came back, and you sat down on deadline, and you plowed through and wrote something, and you didn’t necessarily have a long time for rewriting.

What I have later discerned is that a great deal of the writing process goes on for me internally. Sometimes consciously and subconsciously, I often am working through a story in my head. Sometimes I hear it while I am doing other things. It ... I can hear it in my mind; the words come together in my mind and I go back and do a lot of rewriting mentally, and sometimes it actually happens subconsciously. I’ve actually had circumstances when I was working on more complicated stories, taking a longer period of time, that I would have gone through the process of gathering notes and putting together notes and a couple of false starts on leads for the story, and I would actually go to sleep and wake up in the morning and have the lead scroll through my mind like it was on a computer. So some part of me is always working.

Bill: Maybe that was all that practice you got—that sort of surreal thing that you went through in the ’70s.

Ronni: Yeah [laughs]. Maybe so. Maybe it’s all just an acid flashback. Is that what you think?

Bill: I didn’t say that, now!

Ronni: [laughs]

Bill: But we’re about the same age, so I’ve been there.

Ronni: I told you I had an older sister. My sister and I used to joke that we were both only children. She was 12 years older than I was, so we both had our childhoods kind of on our own. And so as a quasi-only child, I spent an awful lot of time in my imagination. I made up stories. I didn’t even know until I was an adult that everybody didn’t have their own life story going on in their head sort of as a narration: “The girl walks down the street; everyone is so impressed.” [laughs]

Bill: [laughs]

Ronni: So I think that that was part of it, too. And then I think that a large part for me was ... I think what’s characteristic about my writing—what the feedback that I get from other people and that seems very true to me—is that my writing reads like conversation. You do hear it. I mean, it’s very oral. It has rhythm, a rhythm, to it, and I think that is because of my father, who not only told stories that were very good in terms of plot and character but [were] musical. They were rhythmic. He had such a gift for language and a sense to know where to put the right word and where to put the emphasis. And so I think some of that is a part of the process for me also. Are there other specific things you wanted to ask me in that context that I’m not answering? I know it was a multi-part question.

Bill: No, no; it’s wonderful. I want to ask Janet if she has something.

Janet: I’m ... I have a ton of questions, but I’m just really enjoying hearing Ronni talk.

Ronni: Ramble on.

Janet: Well, it’s just very interesting. I am particularly taken with the Southern cooking because I automatically went back to my roots, because my family is from Letcher County in Eastern Kentucky.

Ronni: Oh yeah.

Janet: My Aunt Virginia makes one of the best stack cakes in the world.

Ronni: Yes.

Janet: Things like snow cream were such a part of my growing up.

Ronni: Yes.

Janet: There was a warmth about just reading it and remembering it and hearing other people tell these stories, and I really felt a kinship. And I can understand why, when you were talking to these artists, that they were just so willing to participate in this.

Ronni: Yeah, they were; and then also the people who actually make ... You know, one of the questions I had when I first sat down to talk to artists ... I had thought, they all travel around so much, maybe we will have a little subtext in this book about the best place on the road to get chicken-fried steak, or the best place to find cream gravy. So I asked each of them, “Where do you find your best food?” Well, nobody was telling me anyplace on the road. Everybody was saying, my mother or my grandmother or my aunt. When I started calling these women—usually it was almost always women; there are a couple of exceptions in here, of course: Emmylou Harris’ mother is an extraordinary cook and was so generous with recipes, but her father had quite a bit to say about food and cooking. When I started to talk to these people, no one had asked them before; and there was a sense that these things might be lost if they were not, they were not codified on paper. When I would ask, “Where did this come from?,” it came from another relative who was older and passed it down. There was no point in asking, “How many spoons full of this do you use?” Sometimes you could get a cup answer, but when it came to spoonfuls of things, there was no point in asking. And so we developed a whole dialogue, these women and I, this whole language of “Is that as big as an egg or as big as an orange? Well, are we talking about a thin-skinned Florida orange with lots of juice, or are we talking about one of those big California navel oranges with a lot of skin?.” We developed this whole descriptive sort of language to describe the measurements. But they were so happy to have it codified. And at the time that this book came out, which was in the early ’90s, it was, to my knowledge, one of the first books of its kind covering this culture and this background from a major publisher that was presented seriously as a serious food book—as opposed to a thing that I called “Dog Patch drag,” where people write about “fixin’s and such,” you know.

Janet: Yes.

Ronni: I don’t mind that. I mean that. But it’s sort of ... kind of winking and camping it up. And you can get a lot of good information in there, but it doesn’t really honor the people who made this extraordinary food—I mean, just incredible tasty food—from so little. They were given so little to work with except their own wits and their own strength and their own will to work and to go the extra mile. I mean, think about stack cake. It didn’t start in the mountains at the point where you said, “Believe I’ll have stack cake. I will run to the store and get dried apples.” It starts at the point that somebody decides to plant their apple trees on the side of the hill and tend them against all odds to produce these wonderful, beautiful little apples out of ground that other people would give up and would say wasn’t worth it; and then it goes on to collecting those apples and picking them and putting them out to dry, which is a very high-intensity labor process, and then the cake itself is a high-labor cake. I make stack cake maybe once a year, and I do buy my dried apples, and it’s still a complicated enough thing that I don’t want to do it frequently. But this is something that my aunts made every few weeks.

Janet: Well, in terms of stack cake, just a little quick aside. We are having someone locally—we would like to do it ourselves; none of us really has the time or the ... But we are having someone cook some of the recipes so that we can have some things on set, and it is literally out of the book. I took the book to the cook.

Ronni: Oh, great!

Janet: We are going to have fried chicken and a few sides, but I had originally asked for stack cake and was all excited about it. But the woman called and said, “This is so labor-intensive. Do you have any idea how long this is going to take?”

Bill: Oh, really?

Ronni: Right.

Janet: I’m like, “Well, actually, no; I was just real excited about getting stack cake.”

Ronni: Right, right.

Bill: So we are not going to have that?

Janet: We probably won’t have it, and just ... It’s because it just would be incredibly ...

Ronni: It is.

Janet: ... expensive.

Ronni: It is labor-intensive.

Janet: So there you go.

Ronni: Let me ... Let me make one suggestion and also deliver one warning here that I have learned.

Janet: Sure.

Ronni: If you are not going to have stack cake, see if you can get somebody to make you fried pies.

Janet: Oh, OK. I was wondering about an alternative.

Ronni: Yeah, fried pies are so wonderful; and you get that same wonderful mountain flavor, too. And they also hold up well. They don’t have to be served hot. I do stack cake in the later book that I did: Butter Beans, which is the one that came out this year [1999].

Janet: Oh.

Ronni: Butter Beans to Blackberries. And I repeat the basic stack cake recipe, and I also do a new variation that has bourbon and apricots and pecans. It’s really yummy. But one thing that I learned between books was to explain that I mean sorghum molasses when I say “sorghum syrup.” My editor insisted that we call it molasses. I think we say “sorghum molasses” in the book. But I didn’t think at that point to explain, and a friend of mine made this with black-strap molasses, which is just lethal. That is almost like cooking it with Geritol.

Bill: [laughs]

Ronni: So in Butter Beans to Blackberries, there is a whole section on sorghum explaining to people who weren’t fortunate enough to grow up in this region what sorghum syrup is. And it’s very, very different from molasses, which is the runoff of any sugar product. But sorghum, as you know, is from the sorghum plant, and it’s buttery and light and sweet and probably the most beautiful and wonderful sweetener ever created, and you do need that for stack cake. I just ... I did want to add that. There is one thing that occurs to me that I might mention here, since I mentioned butter beans. Butter Beans is a book about vegetables and fruits of the South, and all the recipes for vegetables and fruits. One of the things that happened with Shuck Beans that was startling to me: My editor was in New York; he was from Connecticut. He’s wonderful—great guy—but when we started putting the book together and going, “OK, I am going to do this chapter first,” the first thing I did was chicken. Then I said, “I want to do vegetables next,” and John, my editor, was a little miffed because he thought I was taking an easy chapter, because he didn’t think there would be anything in vegetables. You know, Southern cooking is going to be fried green tomatoes.

Janet: Meat and potatoes, yeah. Right.

Ronni: You know—and okra, and that’s it. And I wanted to tackle vegetables, first of all because I knew it would be a large chapter, and secondly because I didn’t know how I was going to winnow out. I had to make so many recipes using corn and so many recipes using okra and then decide on just one or two that I felt were the strongest for this particular book because it wasn’t just about fruits and vegetables. And when I sent him that chapter, he was so startled. So in terms of Southern cooking, the other one thing that I learned from this book is that there is this vast territory. Even though it has been written about, there are vast territories about Southern cooking and Southern culture that are just simply not known or understood outside of the region. And I think it’s very important for us as Southern writers to tell people about this, to keep awakening people to these aspects that we often take for granted. And so the genesis for that book was set in this particular book, when I was dealing with the vegetable chapter. John called me up as soon as he got the chapter and said, “My Lord, I can’t believe the size of this chapter. You really should be just doing a book on vegetables.” So ...

Bill: Oh, that’s how it got started.

Ronni: Well, actually I sort of put that away. You know, when you finish a cookbook, you go, “I shall never write cookbooks again” ...

Janet: [laughs]

Ronni: ... and wave your turnip in the air. But it obviously didn’t go very far away, because eventually it came back to me.

Bill: Well, that’s a natural lead to our final discussion on what you are doing now or what you are going to be doing next. Tell us a little bit about this adventure.

Ronni: Well, I have raised my turnip in the air for the third and final time now [laughs]. I don’t think I am writing another cookbook. I’m not a natural recipe writer, and it’s very difficult sometimes for me to do that. And plus, I want to get back to just cooking on the spur of the moment. I have been allowing myself to explore writing fiction, which I have not tried to do since probably my late teens. And I have been using those traveling years, my misspent youth as it were, sort of as the basis for creating a fictional road story about young women in the 1970s—in part because I don’t think that we have very good models for road stories. When you talk about female road stories, everybody always says, “Thelma and Louise,” and it sort of makes me depressed that in our one road story we have to kill ourselves at the end [laughs].

Janet: Yeah.

Ronni: You know, we go out and get abused by men, and in order to respond to it, we kill ourselves [laughs].

Janet: [laughs]

Bill: So is this really sort of the female Kerouac?

Ronni: Kerouac, yeah. Yeah, we are calling it ... oh, I know one of the working titles has been “A Road of One’s Own”—you know, Virginia Woolfe meets Jack Kerouac [laughs].

Janet: [laughs] That’s good.

Ronni: Who knows what it is. At this point right now, it’s a whole bunch of papers that sometimes have a plot line and sometimes have characters and sometimes ramble off into the distance. But it’s very fun to do. It’s, for me at this point, a very enjoyable experience, because I’m 50 years old and I have done a lot of things, and if I can’t do this, I’m not going to beat myself up about it. So it’s kind of a fun experiment.

Bill: When can we look for this?

Ronni: Not coming anyplace near you soon. All my friends who write novels tell me that it’s about a five-year gestation period, and this one’s been in the active process for a year. I don’t know how long my subconscious has been working on it. We haven’t checked in with one another yet. So I don’t know if I am going to shave any time off of it. But I wouldn’t look for this for a couple more years. And to that end, I am also working on a nonfiction piece right now that I actually think will probably have about a year and a half, two-year period before it sees the light of day, and that is a book about returned Southerners. I left the South not intending to come back. Even though I love Kentucky dearly, I intended to make my home somewhere else in the early 1970s, in part because of my incredibly ambiguous feelings about the South and being a Southerner.

I lived out West for quite some time, and then I had an experience that I’ve been terming the “geographical clock,” which is sort of the Southerner’s version of the biographical clock. You’re just somewhere and one day your clock goes off and you go, “Well, I’ve got to go home” [laughs]. And there are a lot of us out in the world who did this—who went away and then felt compelled to come back and to reaffirm our connection to the positive things in the culture that we grew up with, and perhaps to address many of the negative things that forced us to go away. So I’m writing about my own experience, my own thoughts about that, and I’m also interviewing people across the South who did this. And I think it gives an interesting perspective on the new South that is a little bit different than you know it. The person who goes away and comes back has the value of both being from the culture and having an in-depth understanding but also having that one-step-away outsider’s perspective. And so that’s what I’m sort of finding in this book, and I’m real interested in it.

Bill: Good. Well, we appreciate the time that you have spent with us.

Ronni: Oh, thanks for all the questions.

Bill: We wish you luck on your new adventures. We’ll look forward to it. Quite honestly, if they are anywhere near the delightfully written way that Shuck Beans—the wonderful style that you used there—I don’t think you are going to have any problem with either nonfiction or fiction.

Ronni: [laughs] Well, thank you very much. If all else fails, I’ll just throw a few recipes in.

Bill: In the back, for good measure.

Ronni: I want to thank you all for including Shuck Beans in what is a serious literary series, because very often food books are treated sort of like stepchildren; and I’m really very, very thankful and very pleased that you all chose to include this.

Bill: Well, thank you, and we enjoyed it. If anybody had said to us a year or so ago that we would be reading and enjoying a cookbook, I would have said, “You’re off your rocker.” But it’s been wonderful.

Ronni: So we have converted you?

Janet: Absolutely. Thank you for giving us this time ...

Bill: Thank you.

Ronni: You bet.

Janet: That wonderful story.

Ronni: All right. Bye-bye.

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