June 9, 1999
by Rhonda Reeves
From counterculture to culinary diva, Ronni Lundy began her adult life as a pretty good hippie – moving around from Colorado to New Mexico to Bar Harbor and many points in between. She mastered the ascetic spirituality of a true nomad (with 23 moves to show for it in one two-year period, and a stint at the University of Kentucky where she spent “three sophomore years”), rarely owning more material goods than would fit into a backpack. But she still had a part of that nice southern girl in her and with her at all times, literally. Her backpack contained her Aunt Minnie’s dutch oven. She laughingly rationalizes this indispensable part of her gear: “you could fit a LOT into a dutch oven, and it also might come in pretty handy as a weapon” (peace and love notwithstanding).
(She’s not entirely kidding about the weapon – having admitted to bouts of hitchhiking, though she cautions “all that karma’s used up” and confesses that it’s not a part of her history she’s been especially “vocal” about with her own daughter. She adds though, that her most dangerous experiences on the road came, not in the form of murderers/rapists, but in winding up in cars with people who “clearly had no business driving. Like the couple in Kansas City whose car was completely filled with five-gallon containers of gasoline. ‘Why?’ I don’t know why. Maybe they were just afraid they’d run out of gas.”)
It’s this kind of mass of not-quite-contradictions that emerges, refreshingly and consistently, throughout her writing and her life.
She characterizes it as “integrating the traditional southern culture that shaped me with this ‘modern hippie chick’.” In so doing, she has gracefully combined the best of the southwest, the south, and a 60s aesthetic – all of which mingle to make the perfect roux that is her latest book.
Butter Beans to Blackberries: Recipes from the Southern Garden, is actually not really a cookbook at all – though it contains the recipes promised in the title of course. But the book is actually equal parts anthropology, sociology, fine literature, family history, and travelogue. It takes its place in the southern food pantheon with the likes of Eugene Walter and John Egerton.
The famous anecdote about Faulkner and Porter, related by Walter, provided at least part of the inspiration as to subject matter, and the above referenced quote prefaces the introduction to this book “about Southern beans and berries and fruits and squash and the whole garden of treasures that every Southerner remembers and loves but hardly ever sits down to write about.”
Far from a Martha Stewart guide to the perfect table (or the perfect anything), it is, instead, the culmination of a life well lived – and presented with great warmth, style, verve, and adventure.
Over the course of a morning’s front-porch storytelling, it’s easy to let her slip in an occasional “yadda yadda yadda” without realizing that she’s just skimmed over an entire decade which might include anything or anyone from Baba Ramdas (“be here now”) to an interview with THE Dr. Bronner (of the peppermint soap fame).
Futile attempts at chronology and vitas quickly give way to makeshift shorthand in between bites of scones, country ham biscuits, and sips of coffee.
To be southern is to suffer wonderful agony.
Lundy attended the University of Kentucky, beginning around 1967, and emerging around 1971. She recalls that at some point, she majored in print, radio, and television journalism, maybe a semester or so in education (“an obligatory girl thing at the time – the teacher’s certificate”), and was “maybe a philosophy major for about 20 minutes.”
She admits that her family thinks she’s more proud than embarrassed that she got in three years as a sophomore, and she recalls that she managed to attain the rank of junior before she left.
When she visits classes these days, and the teachers encourage her to give the students some how-to advice, “Oh Ms. Lundy. Tell the students what you majored in and what you need to do to do this,” [“this” being her glamorous career as a writer/gourmand] she confesses to being at something of a loss.
She says, “I don’t think there’s anything a degree would’ve made me wiser about,” but frankly acknowledges that the lack of one “made me hard to get hired… and easier to under pay.”
She recalls being awarded an internship – only to have the offer withdrawn, once they realized “Ronni” wasn’t a guy.
When girls and women she knows today express outrage, and wonder why she didn’t sue or take some similar legal action, she reminds them of the difference in the eras. Although she feels she had many more breaks than her older sister (who came of age in the 50s), she was still born in a time “way ahead of the feminist curve.”
So instead, she battled a common tendency among women who came of age on the cusp of feminism to “internalize to some degree the sense that maybe I was inadequate.”
Silver is the southern woman’s proudest possession and highest priority…The night before her daughter’s wedding, a Southern mother will sit on the bed and talk intimately about silver. Every decent woman goes to her husband with twelve ‘covers,’ and if the knives have hollow handles he’ll be running with other women before the year is out, you wait and see. No man respects a woman with hollow handles.
Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady
Leaving behind academia for good, she and her friend Cindy lit out for the west in 1971 in a 64 Valiant, heading for Pouder Canyon on the recommendation of fellow UK student, Christopher Platt (she remembers having class with him before he opened the head shop, and before the seminary), back when he wore suits to class. She remembers that they collaborated on a project where they would begin sentences with “But rather however” to lend a certain faux-gravity to whatever subject they were introducing.
The Canyon was everything they were told it would be, “beautiful cabins, trout leaping in the air,” and it wasn’t long before the two of them were “bored out of [their] minds.”
They moved to a “wild west” area outside Boulder – taking their teapot with them where ever they roamed – but Cindy eventually relocated to Chicago while Lundy settled on Santa Fe “at least six or seven years before it became so chicly hip.”
She moved in next door to her (eventual) husband, Ken, and they lived “together, next door, apart, and cross country” until they married in 76. She laughingly characterizes their early relationship as “conflicted,” and says they’ve been “married 23 years” and “in association” for 27.
The chapter on green beans in the book contains her reminiscence on how the two of them got acquainted: “In the winter of 1972, at the age of 23, I moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico…and as the New Year came near, I decided to have a party to thank my new friends. That was also the very first year I’d spent the holidays away from my home in Kentucky. Worried about how I’d survive in strange surroundings, my mother and aunts had put together a care package for me… Along with the Christmas presents, my aunt had sent me a mess of home-dried shuck beans… There were other foods at that New Year’s feast, but everyone was curious about the strange beans… One of my generous neighbors, a dark-haired, sparkly-eyed bearded fellow, wouldn’t leave the bean pot. ‘What did you say these were?’ ‘How did you say you made them?’ ‘Where did you learn to do that?’ ‘What’s your family like, anyway?” He seemed to have a new question each time he came back to fill his bowl and score another golden wedge of cornbread. I didn’t mind, since I figured that any man with such an instant and abiding affection for my beloved shuck beans was someone worth getting to know. And that’s proved right for all the years Ken and I have been together since.”
Nothing that God ever made is the same thing to more than one person. That is natural. There is no single face in nature, because every eye that looks upon it, sees it from its own angle. So every man’s spice box seasons his own food.
-Zora Neale Hurston
For a time they lived in an area which she defines as “not a commune,” but which was known only as “The Land.” Naturally, one had to “go up The Hill” to get to “The Land.”
As family members tell it (and she acknowledges that this isn’t far off), they lived on the Land, and would periodically descend into “the Town” where they would work long enough to obtain whatever money they needed to sustain them, before returning to the Land.
She says she started working at 15, actually, and has worked more often than not, ever since.
Many of her early jobs were of or related to food, and/or writing at some point. She even put in a stint as a “classified ad lady… briefly.” Later in her career, many readers still remember her as much for her time as a music critic as they do for her food writing. (She pauses to recount some conversations with Dwight Yoakam – who shared her heritage as an urban transplant with roots in the mountain south. An anecdote from one of his early concerts is also included in the text, beginning with his declaration, “I can string me some beans,” in the parking lot of a Red Roof Motor Inn near Columbus, where he was raised.)
Asked to elaborate on the hippie scene or culture that she and Ken lived through, she says, “[Many] were trust funders or druggies,” pausing to elaborate, “that’s not entirely fair to say… but it is fair to say that most of them had… equity.” Something she didn’t have. So she worked.
Lundy recalls collaborating (much later) on a piece with the late Laurice Niemtus (former music critic) about what was authentic and missed about the 60s. It was called something like “Whatever happened to 60s stuff” (long before everything retro became cool again, and long before the Gap came up with Khakis-a-go-go). They included things that had stood the test of time, like Birks and Levis, and the aforementioned Dr. Bronner peppermint soap king (whom Lundy did indeed get to interview).
Responding to a question about how much of the 60s seemed to be about everyone’s rabid goal to be “different” and to “rebel” in the exact same way, Lundy makes a reference to the “weekend longhairs,” but is generally willing to contradict this notion – asserting that while this crew was in the minority, they simply got the lion’s share of the media attention.
She says she was struck by how different her 60s experience had been from her colleague’s as they began collaborating. “Hers was very urban psychedelic. And mine was organic, spiritual, and peripatetic. We had come through a completely different counterculture.”
She describes her fellow occupants of the Land as “a bunch of personal anarchists,” moreso than politicos. She says, “I was not a joiner. I was better at walking away. Quitting.” Raised with many “shoulds,” she always felt there was some sort of “cosmic umpire” keeping track, until she learned to “create an internal judgment.” Learning that one can also become “too good” at walking away is, she says, all a part of the “balance” her life has now.
Discussing the moment in Prince of Tides where Tom Wingo expresses his longing that a man could have two lives to live, Lundy reflects that she’s lived many more than that in some ways. But that those impulses are now satisfied by “part of an internal landscape,” as she seems comfortably settled in a life and career that doesn’t include 23 moves in two years.
He took me home to my mother. I know this because I know it was late in the day, near suppertime, and there was nowhere else we would’ve gone. She would’ve been cooking…
“The First Grade, Jesus, and the Hollyberry Family”
After six or seven years in New Mexico, Lundy pushed for a return to Kentucky, and she and Ken moved back to Louisville, where she had grown up, and where they eventually raised their daughter. They joked at the time that it was unlikely to become “too hip to afford” and that it was one of the few places they could move where “we were the radicals.”
Of the boomerang effect that Kentucky seems to exert on so many of its natives, she does point out that it has a stronger magnetic field than many other areas of the country.
It was upon returning home that Lundy’s reputation and renown as a food writer was cemented.
She laughs, recalling one of her proudest moments in journalism – when one of her Esquire pieces on cornbread was picked up for a textbook (as an example of “process writing”). It was called “The Tao of Cornbread” and began with the line, “If God had meant for cornbread to have sugar in it, he’d have called it cake.” (The book also contains a recipe for “Real Cornbread,” p. 104.)
She’s greatly amused to imagine “educating little Yankee children about NOT putting sugar in the cornbread” (though it DOES go in the iced tea; see also review).
Although she gained both popularity and a definite measure of local notoriety as the Courier Journal’s restaurant critic, it is not a time she recalls with any special fondness.
She recalls going “to a restaurant where people had sunk their life savings into the place – well-meaning, earnest people – who just didn’t know squat about food.” However, as a critic, she worked for the reader – not the restaurant, and not even really the paper – and honesty was sometimes a difficult obligation.
She also mentions that as both a music critic, and later a restaurant critic, she fell into the trap common to many writers, which is that she “never really stopped working.” It became hard to enjoy a concert, or a meal in a restaurant, without the critic surfacing. That’s what she characterizes as “the drawback to doing what you love for a living.”
She confesses that another side effect of life as a food critic was putting on about 20 pounds, but says of her younger “yo-yo” relationship with food and weight, “never again.” She finds it absurd to have that relationship with food, saying “would you do this with other things you love?”
She mentions one of her friends who wishes there was a pill she could consume for the day’s nutritional needs, “so she wouldn’t have to bother with food” – a philosophy Lundy clearly doesn’t share.
The “plus side” of the work was that Louisville was beginning to attract “brilliant chefs” who were “coming into their own” at the time she was writing about food.
When she later moved on to Louisville Magazine (as editor), she also successfully transformed the restaurant reviews into invigorating food features.
(She describes an especially mouth-watering evening where Vincenzo [of the very popular Louisville Italian restaurant] and his brother came to her house to watch Big Night – bringing a case of fine wine and several platters of antipasto.)
She’s discovered over the years that many people don’t trust their judgment in food (or anything else). She recounts an evening at another very popular and trendy restaurant where everyone was there to see and be seen, “preening and posturing… it’s the ‘best’ so you go there; it’s the ‘best’ so you eat it.”
The closest she ever comes to a disparaging remark over the course of a morning’s conversation is, “There are people to whom taste doesn’t matter.”
Her relationship with food is a more honest one, and she encourages people to have more faith that “what I like has value.”
There was the glamorous, distant past of our heritage. Besides this, there was the living, pulsing present. Hence, it was by no means our business merely to preserve memories. We must keep inviolate a way of life. Let some changes come if they must; our fathers had seen them come to pass: they might grieve, yet could be reconciled.
-Katharine Du Pre Lumpkin,
“The Making of a Southerner“
Lundy enjoys the “almost radical political heirloom seed movement,” which is detailed in the book, along with her love affair with tomatoes. She mentions the tiger tomato (green with yellow stripes when ripe) as “proof that the tomato is related to gooseberries.”
She admits her reputation as a gardener is “totally undeserved,” describing herself instead as an “optimistic planter” (and had some success with purple hull peas one year).
As a hostess, she is an amalgam of her mother and father. Growing up, dinner was about conversation, and it was “our job to converse.” Her father presided over the discussions, while her mother busied herself with the food, but was the master of “the telling interjection… She could do that verbally, and with food.”
Much like her mother, she devotes ample time to preparation – but once the guests arrive, she turns into her dad, and sits down to enjoy the guests and the meal. Guests are free to help themselves to anything they like from the kitchen, and she has the confidence to have liberated herself from the traditional southern female role of fetching and carrying.
Lundy’s mother, who passed away recently, is a bittersweet presence in the book, providing it with heart, soul, center, and certain inspiration. One memory included in the text is, “Good, crisp radishes were prized enough in my family to be eaten out of hand as a between-meal snack. My mother also sliced them thin and passed them around the table as a condiment, the perfect spark for beans or greens or roast beef. When she was a child, she told me, she and her cousin Cleta Mae would take cold biscuits out in the garden and pull spring radishes out of the ground to eat with them…” That introduction prefaces a simple, elegant recipe for radish butter.
The book opens with an essay called “At the Table,” which is an account of Lundy’s childhood memories of her family gathered around an oak table and the integral role that food played in their rites and rituals: “We eat until our bellies are full and then eat on until our souls are satisfied as well. And then we take deep breaths and make room for cobbler…or homemade ice cream, and, of course, the watermelon that has been chilling in a tub of ice water or in the bottom of the refrigerator all day.
“Through it all, through the years, the people around the table tell stories that are brought to mind (like Proust’s remembrances) by the taste or smell of foods first savored and sniffed ages ago…”
Ronni Lundy will be at Joseph Beth on July 25, 1999 for a “Southern Supper Picnic” from 7-10 p.m. July 25. The picnic is a four course meal based on the book with the Liquor Barn donating wines for each course. Lundy writes in a followup email that she will be there “to advise (?) the chef and say a few (???) words before each course.” Call the store to confirm date, time, and admission.
Her book seamlessly mingles quotations from Carson McCullers with recipes ranging from Shoepeg Salad to Middle Eastern Ratty-too, all liberally seasoned with anecdotes that span her childhood and years of adventures on the road as a freelance writer and itinerant gourmand.
Butter Beans to Blackberries: Recipes From the Southern Garden relies heavily on produce, as the title promises, but also contains hidden gems, such as the perfect iced tea. She takes some pains to explain (to the ignorant or uninitiated) that iced tea doesn’t have a season, and shows considerable courage in committing to paper the actual amount of sugar that is required for perfect iced tea. (She also makes the absolutely essential POINT of specifying that you need lemon WEDGES as opposed to SLICES.)
She is absolutely correct in her assertion that everyone at the table will ask for the unsweetened tea (oh, they think that’s what they want) – but once they get a taste of the real thing, they’ll never go back. And you’ll end up making a second pitcher, while the Yankee swill goes untouched.
The book is also a delight for “incidental” or “accidental” vegetarians – those who haven’t gone the intravenous fluid route, but casually abstain from meat on more of a de facto basis – most of the material here concentrates on the bounty of the southern garden (where the cows don’t grow).
Southern cuisine has been co-opted for some time by some of the finest chefs in the country, and is finally coming into its own and attaining the reputation it deserves – ultimately living down all the long-popular variations on white trash cooking and roadkill recipes that pass for humor. This book shows you why.
There are carnivorous delights to be found as well, but nearly all the recipes could be fairly easily adapted to serve even the most finicky metabolic, macrobiotic, kosher, vegan friends.
“Something for everyone” is rarely a compliment – it could just as easily refer to the mediocrity of a Shoney’s breakfast buffet – but in this case, it is. -RR
Ronni Lundy was born in Corbin, Kentucky and grew up in Louisville.
She attended the University of Kentucky, and estimates that she was a Junior by the time she departed in the early 70s.
She is the author of Shuck Beans, Stack Cakes and Honest Fried Chicken (recognized by Gourmet Magazine as one of six essential books on Southern cooking); and the Festive Table.
She is the former editor of Louisville Magazine and restaurant critic for the Louisville Courier Journal.
Currently, she lives in Louisville, where she is a freelance writer, and the editor of Entrez!, the newsletter of the International Association of Women Chefs and Restaurateurs. -RR