Kentucky native and food writer Ronni Lundy has received the top James Beard Foundation award for Book of the Year. Lundy also received a James Beard Award in the American Cooking category.
In the debut issue of Lundy’s online food magazine, The Zenchilada, Lundy wrote of New England food writer, John Thorne, “Some might call him a food philosopher; I would call him a true ruminant, turning over a recipe or a story until his taste, his instinct leads him to the place beyond ingredient and information, the place where the fundamental can be found.”
The same could be said of Lundy.
As her agent puts it, “She’s been called a ‘rockstar of a scribe’ and ‘food goddess’ but, really, Ronni Lundy is just a Kentucky girl who likes to wander with a fork in one hand and a pen in the other.”
Victuals is the book she says she’s been writing since she was “probably about three.”
The James Beard Awards cover categories like outstanding chef, outstanding restaurant and best chef in 10 different regions, best new restaurants, rising star chefs, pastry chefs and bakers. The chef and restaurant awards were given out in Chicago May 1.
Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, with Recipes was busy making the list of 2016’s best cookbooks before it was even released (Clarkson Potter, August 2016).
In the Best Of 2016 lineup that included Ina Garten, Tasting Table wrote, “Appalachian food is about to experience its heyday, and with Lundy’s lush stories about the region’s culinary narrative, you’ll come to crave the corn, braising greens and shuck beans that come with it. The desserts are particularly alluring, like gingerbread that uses black walnuts and the ‘sorghum sea foam’ frosting on top of chocolate-blackberry jam layer cake.”
As Jane Black pointed out in the Washington Post’s rave review of Lundy’s latest, “Today, I’ve rarely seen real green beans outside of Appalachia. It’s the last place in the country where people demand them.” She adds, “to call it a cookbook seems almost unfair.”
Lundy’s books (Sorghum’s Savor; Butter Beans to Blackberries; The Festive Table; and Shuck Beans, Stack Cakes and Honest Fried Chicken) are not so much cookbooks as they are anthropology, and the latest is no exception.
Lundy says, “I would have to own that while I love to cook, recipe is not my primary interest in writing about food. I am profoundly grateful to those for whom it is and for their work, which informs mine, and I try to live up to good practice and honor great cooking when it comes to writing recipes, but I am as interested as much in why we are doing what we’re doing when we stand at the stove as the how. And that interest is personal, political, sociological and extremely historical. The great thing in writing about food (and the secret subtext hidden in many recipes) is its revelation of the voices of people who traditionally have not been consulted when history is told—even their own history. Recipe and cookbooks are where we hear what women’s lives were actually like in different eras, and what constituted daily life for the family. If you want to look at it in those terms, in food we learn the experiences of the humble, the poor and the outcast as well as those who have it made. Food is an easy door into strange cultures and stories. Plus you get to eat while you’re doing all that research.”
Cookbook author Kendra Bailey Morris writes, “Ronni Lundy’s Victuals is a beautiful testament to Appalachian food and culture. If you want to learn more about this region, especially from a culinary, historical, social context, this is your read. Oh, and recipes—pepperoni rolls, chili dawgs, fried pies, pea salad, fried chicken and white gravy. Almost heaven, indeed!” Of the “chili dawgs,” Eastern Kentucky natives need not fear that their beloved chili buns have been neglected. Lundy says the book includes “a big full color photo of Chili Bun with upstart Slaw Dogs on p. 99 and a lovingly crafted recipe for Chili Bun Chili along with tips for picking the right bun. PLUS my version of what should be the city seal of Corbin, rendered by brilliant tattoo artist Ash Swain, on the front end pages. Three pool cues crossed representing Nevels, The Dixie, and The Fad.”
Last fall’s book tour took her to Kentucky haunts like 610 Magnolia in Louisville and Morris Book Shop, before it closed.
She is on the road again, taking a victory lap with numerous signings and conferences.
A native of Corbin, Kentucky, Ronni Lundy grew up in Louisville, and is the author of Sorghum’s Savor; Butter Beans to Blackberries; The Festive Table; and Shuck Beans, Stack Cakes and Honest Fried Chicken.
Her landmark Esquire essay, The Tao of Cornbread, began with the line, “If God had meant for cornbread to have sugar in it, he’d have called it cake.”
Lundy attended the University of Kentucky during the late 60s and early 70s, “three sophomore years,” as she puts it, one of the school’s more creatively fertile periods. Lundy wrote about both music and food for the Courier Journal after she returned to Kentucky from New Mexico, but was far from a typical restaurant critic, acknowledging, “I was a little unusual in that I actually worked in restaurants for 12 years, front and some back of the house, before I started writing. I think that gave me a knowledge of how things worked, a little more compassion when they went wrong and more genuine excitement when someone nailed it. I still take that with me to restaurants and I’m still pretty aware of what is going on around me/under the surface. I am less interested in being entertained by food these days than a critic can be, hallelujah. I’m more interested in being nourished by something real on the plate and something genuine in the people and experience. One thing that hasn’t changed is that I have little patience with disinterested service and none with haughty—which is sadly too much the norm.”
She has served as a music and food critic at Louisville’s Courier Journal; editor of Louisville Magazine; and editor of Cornbread Nation 3: Foods of the Mountain South. She has received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Southern Foodways Alliance.
High Praise for Victuals
By RL REEVES JR
On January 2nd of this year we penned “2016 Cookbook Of The Year Award Goes To ‘Victuals’ By Ronni Lundy. The James Beard people took our lead and ran with it, and Ms Lundy’s ‘Victuals’ won first place in the ‘American Cooking’ book category. Congratulations to Ms. Lundy. Now go out there and eat a chili bun to help the Corbin, Kentucky native celebrate.
Here’s what we said in January:
We get dozens of cookbooks shipped to us in the mail for review here. It’s part of the job. We rifle through all of them, and if we’re lucky, we get one good recipe out of each work.
But once or twice a year we get a cookbook that has dozens of good recipes, and if we’re really lucky, the tales that go along with the formulae are just as compelling.
Enter Ronni Lundy. In 2016, the Corbin, Kentucky native published (Clarkson Potter) ‘Victuals’ which has quickly become one of our most prized possessions. Over the course of some 300 pages, Lundy speaks eloquently on her life as a writer and adventurer with deep Appalachian roots.
But we’re mainly in it for the recipes. While we love a good tale or backstory, the reason we routinely hit flea markets, book stores, and garage sales is to add to our absurdly big recipe collection.
Without good recipes, a cookbook is a naked fraud.
We hit the ground running for our range when we saw that Lundy had included Colcannon in her repertoire. We know this dish as stamppot but the gist is the same: creamy, rich potatoes are enlivened with fresh, sauteed greens. We’ve crisscrossed Amsterdam for 20+ years looking for the best version of stamppot, and this recipe is a fine take.
We have a big sack of ‘leather britches’ or dried, shuck beans sitting on our kitchen table right now. They were a final gift from Mom before she left this firmament last October. Lundy’s recipe is easy once the hard work of drying the beans is done. Back in Knox County, Kentucky we routinely ate our body weight in this classic mountain dish.
You couldn’t hire us to eat pickled baloney when we were kids. Fried baloney or no baloney was our cri du coeur. Anything else would have just been so much phonus balonus. But as adults our tastebuds have tempered somewhat. We haven’t tackled Lundy’s Pickled Baloney with Peppers recipe just yet but we are casting an eye toward doing so sometime this year.
Perfect fried chicken is every self-respecting Kentuckian’s birthright. More chicken is fried up each year in the state of Kentucky than all other southern states combined. Kentucky produces 1.6 billion pounds of broiler chickens each year which lands them one notch below Texas (which is nearly 7 times larger in landmass) We laud Ms Lundy for contributing her fried chicken recipe to this volume, and it’s a good one. We’ve never tried ‘lid-on’ fried chicken so we’re looking forward to learning a new technique in 2017.
To be great, a cookbook has to be more than just a compendium of good recipes. It has to have stories woven into the receipts. And this is truly where Lundy shines. While her formulae are sound it’s her narrative tales that drive the book.
While reading ‘Victuals’ it’s as though Miss Ronni is sitting on the other end of the couch with a stiff drink chatting excitedly about bootleggers, corn growers, chili buns, and tattooed ruffians who have most likely taken up the cooking trade to stay out of the pen.
Once we picked this book up, we weren’t able to put it down til suppertime, and starvation finally wrenched us off the sofa. We expect another avalanche of cookbooks to arrive in 2017 but it will take one hell of an author to knock Ronni Lundy off her perch as queen.
This article also appears in the May 11, 2017 print edition of Ace.
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