Tuesday, November 25, 2014

7 Questions with Chef Virginia Willis

(Chef and food writer Virginia Willis hails from Atlanta and is the author of Bon Appétit, Y’all and Basic to Brilliant, Y’all.  Her latest book is titled Okra.)

1. How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?

One of my heroes growing up was Ben Franklin. I have always been a history geek. I loved Williamsburg, Virginia as much as Disney World as a child. I feel a real connection to the past.

2. What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?

I was actually a history major at UGA, so this email request was so exciting! As a chef and food writer, I continue to educate myself about the history of food.

3. How is/How was history a part of your professional life/career?

Undoubtedly, my love of history has contributed to my affinity for Southern food and cooking. I like to look at the social and anthropological aspects of cuisine. I have a very strong belief that everything we believe in has something to do with what we eat and how we eat it. Our worldview of who, what, and how we are can often be summarized by what is on our forks. If we’re devout Jewish or Muslim, we don’t eat pork. If we lean toward the liberal end of the spectrum we may only eat locally harvested food and meat harvested under humane conditions. If we’re radical conservative, we may disavow all forms of government jurisdiction as related to our food and prefer to hunt our own meat and game. If we’re educated, we may have a tendency to eat more healthily. If we’re not educated, we may not.

4. Why is studying/knowing history important?

We are apt to make mistakes; it is our nature as humans. If we see the past, we can learn from our mistakes and perhaps not repeat them. We can also be thankful of progress and change if we are aware of what existed in the past. History is a spectrum, and as soon as a moment has passed, it is history, but still has relevance both today and tomorrow.


5. What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?

I concentrated on British history at UGA because I was an extreme anglophile. But now, I like digging deeper into American food and culture, specifically Southern food and culture. I devour nonfiction micro-views of subjects, as well. Books like Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World or Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky or Four Fishes by Paul Greenberg are a stimulating combination of history and  present. I recently read Sugar, Salt, and Fat by Michael Moss, which is basically the history about how food giants hooked us on, well, sugar, salt, and fat. It’s a very modern history – and is a theme that is very relevant and in action today.


6. Why are food and history so connected, especially in the South?

The study of Southern food and food history helps us understand more about what we eat and the foodways we embrace. Why do Southerners eat okra? How did it come to this country? The study of food and food history is also a lens to examine various human experience and provokes a deeper understanding of our overlapping and evolving cultures and societies. Traditionally, Southern cooking was actually a vegetable-based cuisine. This is the fertile land of okra, green beans, tomatoes, and corn. This diet was not remotely for health reasons. The plant-based diet was due to poverty for both black and white. That bit of fatback in the greens might have been the only meat in the pot. Southerners grew their own food and harvested wild game and seafood from the forests, rivers, and sea. Now, poverty affects us in different ways. Eating home-cooked fried chicken and biscuits isn’t what made the South so fat. It’s poverty. When someone is on limited income, they buy cheap food. And foods that are cheap tend to have a lot of sugar, salt, and fat. The South has some of the highest poverty rates in the nation. This is our history and only by learning from our history can we change.


7. Southern and soul cooking seem to be hot topics in foodie culture now. Why is that?

Because it tastes good!! First, however, I would say that Southern cooking and Soul food cooking are not interchangeable and are not the same. I would say that all Soul food is Southern, but not all Southern food is Soul food. Southern food is born from many areas, people, and economic levels. Southern food is not one food, but many regional foods combined. It originated from a complex combination of Native American, European, and African cultures. There’s the Low Country cooking of the Atlantic coast that showcases rice and seafood, Deep South cooking that makes use of corn, the mountain cooking of Appalachia, French and Spanish influences that permeates the cuisine of Louisiana. The food of the South is rich and diverse. I think that in these times of crisis that Southern food is a comfort food. People have simply wanted comfort. Our agrarian-based table has created a culinary tradition really like no other in the US, and that food is comforting.


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