Just Keep Rolling Along

The first time I remember taking a train I was 19. My roommate’s grandfather had died that week. They were very close, and she was utterly devastated by the loss, so her boyfriend (at the time, my other best friend) and I decided to go down to Long Island for the funeral, for support. Now it’s true that I may be forgetting some other journey in my youth, and I’m choosing to omit little jaunts on the Conway Scenic Railroad on summer vacations to New Hampshire. But this was the first trip that stuck. I bought a ticket, boarded a big Amtrak snake of steel, and rode it south.

The trip was an emotional one. I was hurting for my friend, searching for a way to make things easier for her, inexperienced in dealing with this kind of all-consuming, world-altering grief. I was lucky at that point; the only major loss I’d personally suffered was that of my paternal grandfather, and I was only 5 at the time, so I was far more traumatized by the sight of my own daddy crying than at the knowledge that I would never see the big man with the deep voice who read me the Cajun Night Before Christmas again. There was something about the permanence of this loss — Christina kept begging, in a broken voice, for the chance to talk to her grandpa just one more time — that hit me like a freight train (no pun intended), the awful forever-ness of it. But despite the emotional toll, the trip also planted the seed of a great source of joy and happiness for me.


I love trains. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a great road trip as much as the next person, and I have this thing about airports and cloudscapes and the world spread out in miniature below a 747’s window. But if I had to choose, there’s no question: I would do all of my travelling on rails. I know I’m not alone in this. Scout is also a rabid train devotee, and among the general population trains seem to inspire a romanticism that no other mode of transportation quite does (except for maybe those vessels that fall under the category of “the sea,” but that’s a whole other story, and more to do with the landscape traveled than the vehicle in which one is doing the travelling, I think). A few years ago Amtrak even started offering mobile “residencies.” Writers could apply and, if they were chosen, they would get to crisscross the country for free, round-trip on one of the company’s longest routes, while the rhythm of the rails got their creative juices flowing. In the first round alone, they received over 600 applicants: 24 were chosen. There are songs about trains, and poems, and folktales. And even though the United States lags far behind most of the other continents in terms of train travel, there still seems to be something quintessentially American about rumbling along a track that cuts through small towns and wheat fields, under urban grids and over river deltas.


There are of course practical factors that make train travel ideal. It is efficient (if you stay within a certain set of departure points and destinations, particularly when talking about American travel). It requires none of the security rigmarole or early arrival times of air travel. It doesn’t necessitate the focus or engagement that driving does, enabling you to, say, write a blog post while in transit. But I think the true appeal of train travel lies in the bones of the structure itself.

A train travels along a track, on wheels that hug rails, which cut through the landscape in an uninterrupted stream from Point A to Point B. This means two things. One, there is a rhythm to train travel that neither planes nor buses nor automobiles have. It’s even in the name: Toddlers across the country will delight in discussions of choo-choo trains and their chug-a-chug-chug.  The train rocks you, gently, as it propels you forward. It’s why, when Scout and I made this month’s playlist, we dismissed any song without a sense of momentum, of forward motion, of purpose. You can feel it in your bones. Two, a trip by train allows you to see.  Now some people will argue that a car or plane does this too, that by driving you see the road and by flying you get a big picture panorama of the distance traversed. And both of these statements are true. But neither of them let you really see the trees that line the road, the cars that sit in driveways, the geese resting on a lake. Planes go too wide and cars too narrow. But from the window of a train, you can watch the whole coast go by, uninterrupted. You see the landscape transform and, at this time of year, the leaves shift into increasingly violent shades of scarlet and saffron and tangerine.


I went to Washington, D.C., this weekend to visit my sister, after a week that had been, emotionally, a lot. There were many factors to this, many of which are still too fresh or too personal for me to articulate in this space, but suffice it to say that this trip, planned a month ago, turned out to be very timely indeed. Friday afternoon, I boarded my train and found myself a window seat. We burst out of the tunnel into New Jersey, the sun shining defiantly on watery canals and trees just kissed by autumn. And something inside of me started to unclench.

@sadieharlan I'm coming for you!

A video posted by jharlan12 (@jharlan12) on

I am not unhappy in New York the way I was when we started this blog. As a whole, in fact, I have come to love it, to love my life there and especially the people that make it whole.  But not hailing from such a frenzied, urban environment, I do find that my lungs remember how to expand just a little further, my shoulders to ease down that extra fraction, whenever I get out of the hustle and bustle.  And there’s something about the train in particular that pushes me that extra mile. I relax into my speckled teal seat, stare out at the yellow leaves streaming by, feel the chug-a-chug settle into a steady rhythm in my gut, and despite whatever else may be going on, I feel just a little more at peace.

And so I put in my headphones. I hit play on our new autumn playlist, Eva Cassidy and Brandi Carlile and Houndmouth filling my ears. I opened up my laptop. And I began to write.

Autumn 2016: Rain-Soaked Highway

Autumn has rushed into Brooklyn. The air is crisp and cool. Zelda is unfurling her cavalcade of scarves. Kids are heading back to school. and Scout is heading back below the Mason-Dixon line on a 12-hour road trip to attend yet another wedding (she’s actually quite excited about this one), and Zelda is off on a journey her own this weekend, to our nation’s capital. So we’ve combined the wet October streets of New York in the fall and the open winding roads of the Appalachian mountains to bring your a road-trip playlist for a rainy day.

We’ve combined some of our new summer favorites, like Sarah Jarosz and Brandi Carlile, with old standby’s like Houndmouth, Ingrid Michaelson, and Audra Mae for a playlist that will propel you down the rain-soaked highway, be it in your mind or actually laid out in front of you. Lean your head against the window, and watch the world go by.


As always, you can listen along here, or we’re on YouTube and Spotify.

Not Unhappy

I’ve tried to write this post multiple times before. I’ve never succeeded. I’ve never finished it, because I constantly worry that talking about my depression will make me seem petty or weak, that because I don’t have it as bad as some people, people won’t understand why I just can’t deal with this seemingly little problem. But I’m trying to overcome that, to recognize that my feelings — my mental health diagnosis — are completely valid, and I’m allowed to acknowledge them. My experience is mine, and I don’t have to compare it to anyone else’s. This story is mine to validate

(Illustrated by Gretchen Cutler from You’re the Worstwhich has produced the most accurate TV story line about depression that I’ve seen)



Let me start at the beginning. When I was 14, my mom came home to find me curled up on the floor in a corner of my room sobbing. It was the third or fourth time that month that it had happened, but this was the first time she had found me. She asked me what was wrong, and I half-yelled through a runny nose and continuing tears that I didn’t know. I didn’t understand why I was crying, but it just kept happening. She told me to tell my doctor at my upcoming check-up.  After more tears and trying to explain that just working up the will to do things was hard, my doctor put me on anti-depressants, and I started going to a counselor. I was lucky: No one wrote me off as just “moody” or hormonal or whatever other excuses people use to explain away mental illness in teen girls. I got the support I needed, and because of that, it didn’t get worse. The meds and the counseling helped. They really did. But once I felt “normal” again, I stopped going to the counselor. Once I felt “good” again, I stopped taking the antidepressants. And by the time I graduated high-school, I felt like I had my “issues” fixed.

But depression doesn’t just go away. It sits dormant for a while and then comes rushing back all at once. I suppose “rush” isn’t really the right word. It creeps in and slowly weighs me down. It did that most of junior year of college. Slowly, it crept back into my life, making it harder and harder to do things: to get out of bed, to go to class, to write papers, to see and talk to my friends. That was the first time I had felt like that in a long while. The crying bouts returned, and eventually I went back on anti-depressants to get through the end of the year. That winter I switched meds because the original meds I had been taking made me so tired that regaining the will to do things was cancelled out by not having the energy. I’ve been on those same meds ever since. Sometimes I try to stop taking them because I think I feel okay, but it never sticks. And since I’ve moved to New York, the spaces between bad bouts have gotten shorter. I don’t know whether it’s because I’m in this city, or maybe because I’m getting older. But I’m not going to try to rationalize it. That doesn’t work for me.

I’ve had three really bad periods since I moved here. The first one was in my first six weeks in New York. I hadn’t started school yet and spent a lot of time lying on the floor of the tiny apartment I was sharing with three other people trying not to cry, and failing. I would have mild anxiety attacks on the subway; I’d start shaking and not be able to think straight, sometimes hyperventilate. It got better, slowly. I made friends and had people I could open up to. I took my medicine on a regular basis. I worked through it. Funnily enough, Hurricane Sandy hitting actually helped. It distracted me.

The second period was two years ago. It began when I forced myself to go to a friend’s birthday party, even though I had a panic attack on the steps of my apartment building as I was leaving. I was shaking and hyperventilating and crying, but I told myself that I should be able to support my friend on her birthday. My body was telling me not to try and interact with people or the world, but I tried to ignore it, to push past it. I ended up bursting into tears at said party and making a quick exit. Thankfully, my friend understood. She had gone through similar struggles, so she got that sometimes you don’t get to choose when you’re high-functioning and when you just can’t. That particular period culminated a few months later with my crying through a fight with my mom at a brewery in Portland.

Then there was last week, in which the crying bouts that had haunted my teen years came back in full force. A lot of things are changing at my job right now, and I tried to chock it up to that. But the truth is, I’ve felt it coming for a while. I’ve tried to keep taking my meds and maintaining self-care strategies that have worked for me in the past. But something just broke, and all the crying I’d been holding in until I got home or ducked into a bathroom stall came pouring out of me. I cried at my desk four times last week, prompting my co-workers to ask what was wrong. I answered that I was fine, it’s just a bad week, a bad month. And most people just chock it up to the changes that are happening around me, which is fine. But I know it’s not going to go away once the dust settles.


And that’s the most important discovery I’ve had to make, and accept, about my depression: It doesn’t just go away. Even when I feel okay or good or great, it’s always there, in the background. I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that I have to be the one to keep it in its place. Which is hard. Just thinking about finding a therapist in this city sends me into a whole anxiety spiral. That’s the issue, really —that taking steps to treat myself long-term makes everything worse in the moment.

It’s not that I’m unhappy with my life. I think that’s important to say. I really, really love my life right now. I’m in a great place with great friends and a supportive family. I’m so lucky, in so many ways. But my depression doesn’t care about that. It does what it wants. It doesn’t care that my birthday is soon, or that I’m supposed to get drinks with friends. My depression doesn’t give a shit about my plans. I’m not going to be able to just snap out of it when I’m in that place. And I’m working to treat it, to keep it where I need it to be, I can’t win depression, I can’t beat it, but I can manage it. But it’s a long process, and a hard one, and some days it’s just too much.

I’ve been wanting to write this for a while — to share with Z&S the thing that makes writing for this blog hard for me sometimes. This is part of me, and of my life here in the city. Maybe it doesn’t totally fit into the theme of the blog, but as usual with New York life, we make the pieces fit the puzzle, not the other way around. I’m happy that this feels like a safe enough space that I can talk about it. I’m glad to have created that in my life.

Bless Your Heart, New York: Goldilocks and the Three Roommates

Dear New York,

It’s been a minute since we’ve had a chat, just you and me. In general, you’ve been kind to me lately. Your air is finally starting to turn crisp, the hot garbage perfume of summer being swept out by the smoky leaf notes of my favorite season. You’ve given me karaoke nights and poetry readings, outdoor movies farmer’s markets, drinks on my rooftop and lazy days strolling around the park. But there’s something that’s been on my mind lately, dear, and my mother said never to go to bed angry, so I think it’s time I got it off my chest.

I wrote to you last year, New York, about how unreasonably cruel and withholding you were when I was looking for a new apartment. You made me jump through seemingly interminable hoops, bled my over-worked printer dry copying form after form, and crushed me with an August heat wave as I drove back and forth through your crowded streets with a good chunk of my worldly possessions. But things worked out in the end, bless your heart. I’ve been in my apartment for a little over a year now and, despite noisy upstairs neighbors and perilously thin walls and a club around the corner that renders many of my weekends on the sleepless side (the police chief said he’s working on it, dear, but I do wish he’d hurry it up), I like it quite a bit. I’ve made it homey and cozy, decorated walls, and forged happy memories within its walls. I thought we were through having this housing fight, at least until I have to move again. But then one of my roommates moved out and we embarked on a quest for a third. And that was when I realized what I thought was a closed discussion had merely been tabled for later.


Before I go any further, I want to assure you that this story has a happy ending. We did find a new roomie, eventually, and she is lovely. But the road to finding her, New York, was a freaking roller coaster. The remaining roommate (let’s call him Todd) and I, started by putting feelers out, making it known to friends and acquaintances that we were in the market for a new housemate — and, hopefully, a friend. Todd and I sent dispatches out along the webs of our social networks, online and in person, hoping one of those lines would trigger a bite. But none took. In this city of constant flux, where it seems somebody is always coming or going or in search of a pad, the moment we opened up our home seemed to be the one time that all of our friends, and friends of friends, were already housed.

So we went further. Todd crafted a lengthy Craig’s List post, whose details and witticisms, we thought, combined fact and whimsy into a work of residential poetry. We futzed with phrasing and details for days, trying to strike a balance between the rigid (price not negotiable, no smokers or pets) and the casual (but we want them to think we’re fun and nice!). Finally, it was time to send our message in a bottle out into the internet ocean. The replies came fast and furious at first, Todd and I fielding emails and stalking Facebook (me) and LinkedIn (Todd) profiles all afternoon. We thought you were on our side, you see, rewarding our efforts with good housing juju and a speedy end to our quest. Boy were we wrong.


Your capricious cruelty really revealed itself the next day, when you sent us candidate A. A was sweet and funny, if a bit young. She effused praise for our humble home, gushing over how adorable and homey it was and swearing that it was “totally awesome and definitely her first choice.” She swore she was in, if we would have her. Todd was at volleyball, so I promised to discuss with him and relay our answer ASAP. We talked. We agreed. We marveled over how painless the whole process was. We sent her an enthusiastic yes, complete with our smiling selfie faces. And in return, A said…nothing.

It took a few days before the glow faded to anxiety, which finally sunk into the realization that you had punked us. We had been ghosted, no other word for it, and our confused little hearts spasmed with rejection and fear. Clearly, you weren’t in the mood to make this easy for us. We were going to have to work for it, hard. We pushed the panic away, buckled down, and reposted our ad. I was going away for the weekend, so Todd bravely fielded the bulk of the requests, showing off the apartment and giving his best sales pitch for why folks should want to be in the business of being our roommates. As for me, I waited.


Sunday night I got a text. “This is B. I showed her the apartment this evening, and she is amazing. I offered her the place on the spot. Sorry but she is so wonderful, I’m confident you would approve. I know you’re at the music festival but can you text her? She said she’d be happy to set up a time to talk with you tomorrow.” The text was swiftly followed by an email extolling B’s virtues and explaining why Todd felt sure this was the girl for us. “I need you to reel her in with your charm,” he said. I fired off a text, full of exclamation points and smiley faces, but not so effusive as to be creepy. I waited. “Did you talk to B?!?” Todd asked. “Texted her, no response,” I replied, with the “teeth gritted in anxiety” emoji. The next morning, you hit us with the news: B was happy to have met us, she thought we had a lovely home, but she had decided to go in a different direction. She wished us luck in our search.

At this point, things kicked into high gear. Since I work nights, Todd scheduled showing after showing, sometimes double booking, in the evening when he and the majority of our prospective roomies were free. It felt like we were on some warped dating show, one of those MTV deals where a parade of prospective matches goes by, sizing you up and swiping left. Each night, Todd would send me detailed minutes and analyses of the days applicants (nothing brings out Todd’s inner corporate executive like housing). Some were ok; some were clear no’s. But none of them came close to A or B. We were down in the dumps, beginning to despair. Would you really betray us like this, New York, leave us adrift and strapped with an extra room’s rent that neither of us was eager to take on?

And then, there was C.


C viewed the apartment on a Tuesday, at the same time as another candidate, D. D wasn’t a great fit, but she texted Todd afterwards: “Not the right place for me, but thanks for showing me your home! Also C seems wonderful and like a great fit, so I think you guys should take her!” All signs were pointing up, but we had been burned before. I quickly set up a phone call with her for the next day. I confirmed with Todd that, if I liked her, I should go ahead and offer her the room. I went to bed with butterflies in my stomach. Would she like me? Would I like her? All I could do was wait.

The next day, our phone date arrived. And New York, darling, you finally, finally came through. C had found us on the internet. She was not a fellow graduate of Todd’s and my alma mater or a friend of a friend. I had all sorts of visions of the perils of welcoming a stranger from the internet into one’s home, fueled by one too many viewings of Criminal Minds. And yet, within the first few minutes, something told me that C was the one. We chatted for a while, just to be sure. She nervously confided that we were her top choice, and she would be thrilled to fill out the paperwork ASAP if we wanted to have her. Taking a deep breath, I popped the question, officially. And C, in her words, said yes to the dress.

Like Goldilocks and the porridge, our third match was the charm. You took pity, I guess, seeing our stress, and sent us a roommate who is fun and sweet and clean and one of the kindest gifts you’ve given me in my time here. Also, she has yet to try to murder us in our sleep (as far as we know), so plus one for internet connections. Everything, I suppose, worked out better than expected, and in the end we lucked into a roomie who fits into our new triangle like a charm. But man oh man, New York, did you really have to make it so hard?

Until next time.



Roomies! @thaisonofny @sojustinesays

A video posted by jharlan12 (@jharlan12) on

All the Fixin’s: An Introduction

Hello lovelies! Over the past year, one of our favorite series to write — and one of the most popular with you guys, according to an overwhelming majority of folks who filled out our reader survey — has been “Eat This, Drink That.” Scout has explored many wonders of the Southern culinary canon, and Zelda has really honed her cocktail skills. Some of the recipes have gone brilliantly according to plan; others, not so much. But all of them have taught us more about our food heritage, not to mention pastry skills, simple syrups, and how to handle a cocktail shaker.

With this new year, we wanted to turn a new page in the blog as well, but we didn’t want to abandon the food and drink posts that we, and y’all, have come to enjoy. And we also wanted to get back to the original concept of the blog: exploring the idea of home and heritage and what it means to us, in this time and this place, to be “Southern.”


So without further ado, we present to you our brand-new series, “All the Fixin’s.” The idea comes from a few places: wanting to learn more about Southern cooking and expand our kitchen repertoires, wanting to get in touch with our specific Southern heritages and what they mean to us, and wanting to explore not just the mechanics of making Southern dishes but also the history and stories and cultural weight that they carry. As Zelda wrote in her last Required Reading, food is an essential piece of what binds a culture together, feeding both our bodies and our souls. So much of our history and traditions are bound up in the bread we break together, be it challah or cornbread or buttermilk biscuits. And so with this series, we’re diving deep, each into a cookbook that pulls together the specific flavors of our family trees.


For Scout, that book is Victuals: An Appalachian Journey with Recipes. Recently written by Ronni Lundy, Scout’s somewhat-distant-but-not-that-distant cousin (she’s not quite sure combination of first’s, second’s, removed’s, etc. applies here), it combines recipes with narrative and history, and really gives some context to the dishes. Most of Scout’s Southern recipes come from her grandmother’s binder, cut from local papers or back issues of Southern Living and stuck together from being carted around for so long and splattered with various batters, and Victuals basically takes those conversations around the kitchen table and puts them in book form. It also doesn’t hurt that the book itself is beautiful, with full-color photos, courtesy of Johnny Autry, of the mountains and the people and the food that accompany their story.


As for Zelda, she’s taking on Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen. A good quarter of her blood comes spiced with Cajun flavors, Tabasco and okra and andouille and the like. Some of the recipes in this very book are childhood dishes she grew up with (see, the jambalaya her mom makes every year for Mardi Gras), and all of the dishes bring up memories of childhood story time, when she and her siblings would beg her dad to tell them stories of his childhood, and his dad’s childhood, in the bayou of Louisiana. Those were summers spent under magnolia trees, watching gumbo or étouffée appear like magic under a great aunt’s spoon. And while the most essential Cajun recipes in her house come on stained and crumpled scraps of paper, passed down from generation to generation, when asked to pick an actual, publicly sold text from which to learn the region’s cooking, this is the one both of her folks picked.

So that’s where we’re going, and we hope you’re as excited to come along with us as we are to get started. There’s shrimp creole and chicken and dumplings and maybe even beignets in our future. Some things may (hopefully) go brilliantly. Others may fall flat. But all will teach us something about who we are and where we come from. And it doesn’t hurt that it will make for damn good eats.

Adventures in Organization: School Supplies

“Don’t you just love New York in the fall? It makes me want to buy school supplies.”

I’m the overly organized one at my office. My labelling has become the stuff of legend. I’m basically an organization superhero: Color Code Girl: Volume I — Adventures in Scheduling. I’ve taken to buying my own Post-It notes because I have a very intricate system that would use up our office supply. I’m so specific about color and size and and general usage that it’s really best that I feed my habit myself. I think the whole thing goes back to school supplies — the highlight of any young person’s school year, right? [Zelda’s Note: Of course right.] I loved back to school shopping so much, some years I would do it before second semester too.


As a kid, I loved going back to school, mostly because of those afternoons spent perusing the Five-Star products like it was my job. I liked getting all new binders and notebooks and what have you for the beginning of the school year — the idea being that if I liked the stuff I had to take to class enough, I would enjoy class more. I say “more” because I was at my core definitely the kind of kid that enjoyed school already, or at least the learning part (the social part is a story for another day). It’s the same idea behind buying cute exercise outfits in an attempt to make yourself work out more. I looked at every new school year as a chance to improve my note-taking regimen until it was at peak efficiency and peak aesthetic appeal, and each new semester found me prowling the Target aisles with annotated list in hand.

In grade school, I stocked up on Lisa Frank folders, because it was the 90’s and that what you did. In middle school, I made the switch to the more austere five-subject notebooks, but I still spent a good hour searching bin after bin for the right colors, and then parsing out each section for one of my main classes: English, Math, Science, History, and Foreign Language.

Every year of high school had a new approach, until I eventually settled on the utilitarian yellow legal pad and a folder for each class. This was largely because they didn’t have rings and were easier to fit in my messenger bag (and also maybe because they made me feel like a cool intelligentsia type of person — I think I probably stole the idea from either Rory Gilmore or Jess Mariano, or possibly both, since they were at the time the epitomes of nerd chic). These legal pads were used for taking notes during the school year, and then when finals rolled around, those notes were ripped out and, along with various handouts, hole-punched and placed in meticulously color-coded binders used for test prep (this strategy was brought back during grad school). This was often coupled with Zelda and I recording videos of ourselves narrating key events in European history — anything to make AP Euro prep fun.


My supplies gradually went from what I found prettiest to what was most useful. In high school art history, my real love affair with Post-It notes began when I started putting them in my textbook next to the art, so I could take notes with the art illustrated right there. Later, when I ran out of Post-It’s, I started writing directly in the margins; art history textbooks are notoriously hard to re-sell anyway, and I’m pretty sure the girl I lent my books to the next year appreciated the annotations. In college, I switched to steno notebooks so I could carry smaller bags and write on both sides of the page without having the wire rings cut into my hand when I flipped the page over. In grad school, upon finding out that my “textbooks” consisted of over 1,000 pages of scanned PDF documents, I bought an iPad and a stylus and downloaded a note-taking app — all my notes right there in one place. The point is, I put a lot of thought into the supplies that got me through the school year, and even though I am three years out of any type of school at this point, I haven’t quite kicked the habit. 

Now to be fair, my current position revolves largely around schools, so the beginning of the academic year is still a big milestone for me. And so I find myself back once again in that aisle at Target, stocking up on Post-It notes and new pens and colored paper and…everything, really. We spent the last week cleaning the office, and my desk is newly refreshed and ready, my calendar color-coded just as meticulously as my high school binders. I still find it a little hard to kick off a new school year without new stuff. Maybe this is materialistic of me, but it helps me stay on my game.  And there’s something thrilling about sitting down in this little area you call your own and seeing everything neatly organized and color-coded, reaching for pens that you picked out and letting your personality shine through in a world of cubicles.

One of the things I miss most about my schooldays is the way that every year got to be its own, with its own identity. With each semester, you got a chance to start fresh. This isn’t true with most adult jobs. As we grow up, we stop marking the year by semesters, stop having finals to pass and grades to make. We just have to keep going, get through another day, and then another, and then another. And maybe if we’re lucky, we have a job that gives us something concrete to show for it. I think that’s one of the hardest things about being an adult: So often, what you do every day may not be working towards anything tangible. It can feel like it’s just something to do, something to pass the time. We’re not learning or hitting milestones; we’re moving forward without seeming to travel anywhere. So I’m lucky, because my job revolves around the school year. I get benchmarks, and holiday breaks, and my time gets marked by semesters, by finals, by in-service days. Most of all, I’m lucky because every year in September, I get to start again and try to make this year better than next.

Academics aside, from where I’m sitting, September still is the beginning of a new year: the Jewish one. I like that Rosh Hashanah often coincides with the beginning of the school year. We get a spiritual clean slate, and I’m lucky enough to get a professional clean slate as well.  And as our calendar (at least mine and Zelda’s) flips from 5776 to 5777, kids get on buses, we welcome new interns, leaves change, I get new office supplies. That’s just how it is.

Required Reading: Volume Nine

My mother collects cookbooks. It started (she thinks) with the Moosewood Cookbook, purchased in March of 1983. She had always loved to cook, and to bake especially, learning hamantaschen and icebox cookies in her mother’s Pittsburgh kitchen. From one book, her collection grew, adding Jewish Cookery and Cookie Cookery (related in name only). When my father entered the narrative, he brought a healthy dose of Cajun cuisine to their marriage and the Joy of Cooking, referred to more commonly in my house as simply “The Bible.”

At some point along the way, one cookbook blossomed into a dozen, which grew to a shelf, which ballooned into two full bookshelves and counting. My kitchen in Kentucky holds an estimated 200 cookbooks at minimum, sprawling across specialties and cuisines. I may have learned to cook in the days before Google, but our house was its own encyclopedia of recipes, with my mom the helpful librarian. I’d ask her how to make a particular dish — say, strawberry rhubarb pie — and without missing a beat she’d start pulling volumes from shelves, not to mention scraps of newsprint and magazine cut outs from her Heinz recipe box.

A tiny excerpt from my mother's collection, the "Family Heritage Shelf"

A tiny excerpt from my mother’s collection, the “Family Heritage Shelf”

This is all to say that I come by my addiction to books — cook- and otherwise — honestly. It’s in my DNA: I never really stood a chance. My parents started me off with the classics: Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Volumes One and Two), The New York Times Cookbook, Moosewood, and, of course, my own personally inscribed copy of “The Bible.” In it, my parents wrote, “In our family, cooking is an expression of love.” And while this is definitely true of our quirky little clan, I don’t think it’s a uniquely Zelda trait. Food, in its best form, is weighted with memory and steeped in sentiment. It nurtures our bodies and our souls, providing comfort or piquing curiosity as it tickles our taste buds. And it’s a cultural touchstone, too — perhaps the most essential and elemental piece of what binds a group or a region together. Who we are, as families or communities, so often comes down to the bread we break together.

Take the South as just one example. The first thing most folks think of when they hear the word Southern is food. You know exactly which kind I mean: soul food, comfort food, food of the people that sticks to the bones and comes from the heart. So much of my own personal understanding of my heritage (Southern and otherwise) is culinary: the gumbo recipe passed down from my grandfather, the hot fudge sauce that appears so effortlessly under the touch of my grandmother’s spoon, the hamantaschen that would arrive at our house each year from Queen Esther, who apparently resided in Osprey, Florida. As an adult, I started to explore Southern cooking as a way of understanding the South and my place in it. Some of my lessons were hands-on — Derby pie with a high school bestie, fried chicken from Scout’s Gaga — but many of them were from books.

My grandmother in Home Economics class at her Atlanta school, age 14 (yes, you read that correctly)

My grandmother in Home Economics class at her Atlanta school, age 14 (yes, you read that correctly)

Though I still have a long way to go to match my mother’s collection (and nowhere near enough shelf space to accommodate such a repertoire), I have amassed quite a few cookbooks of my own. I love them for the poetry of their descriptions, the beauty of their photographs, the wry wit and wisdom inked into the page by their authors. And I love them for their potential, all those untapped recipes just waiting to be brought to life. To write up all my favorites would take far too many pages, so I’ll start on theme, with the culture that brings us together in this particular corner of the internet. Some of these I own, some reside on my mom’s shelves, and many are still on my wishlist. If you want to get to know the Southern people, you must get to know their eats. This is where I’d start.


General Knowledge:

The Southerner’s Cookbook: Recipes, Wisdom, and Stories (2015): Compiled by the editors of Garden and Gun Magazine, this recent addition to my shelves runs the gamut from classics to regional delicacies, with anecdotes and advice woven in between. I’m a particular fan of the gorgeous copper detailing on the front cover, and of the glossary titled “The Southern Larder,” which goes through many of the quirkier ingredients called for in the book and explains what they are and where you might find them.

Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking (2012): Winner of the 2013 James Beard Foundation Award for Excellence in American Cooking, this tome is Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart’s answer to Julia Child’s similarly named masterpieces. Dupree calls Southern cooking “the Mother Cuisine of America,” and this extensive guide will walk you through all the essentials, from biscuits to gravy.

The Heritage of Southern Cooking (1986): Camille Glenn, pictured in charming cartoon detail on the books cover, used to be the food editor at Scout’s and my hometown paper, the Courier-Journal. She left no stoneware unturned when compiling this book, which holds 550 recipes, from duck to dessert. My mom swears by her recipe for pecan pie, an essential in any Southern baker’s wheelhouse.

At My Grandmother’s Knee: Recipes and Memories Handed Down by Women of the South (2011): Faye Porter dedicated this book to “all the women in my life who have shared with me the joy of cooking, baking, loving, making a home, and giving from their hands and hearts.” And while we hate to indulge gender stereotypes (Southern dudes can cook too!), it is true that most of what we learned about cooking, and about the love of cooking, came from our mothers, our grandmothers, and the other great women in our lives.

The Taste of Country Cooking (1976/2006): It is impossible to talk about Southern cooking without talking about black Southern cooking and the essential contributions that so many African-American chefs made to the region’s culinary identity, often without receiving any acknowledgement or credit. Edna Lewis, thankfully, is a great chef who did get the spotlight she deserved, and her tribute to the foods of her childhood home in Freetown, Virginia, is considered one of the great classic Southern cookbooks.


Sweet Treats:

The Southern Baker: Sweet and Savory Treats to Share with Friends and Family (2015): It’s the subtitle of this volume, compiled by the editors of Southern Living, that I think gets at the heart of what makes Southern cooking so unique. A Southern dish is not meant to be precious. It is not fussed over or plated with surgical precision. It is meant to be shared, served up in big sloppy spoonfuls or generous slices and always, always with love.

Kentucky Sweets: Bourbon Balls, Spoonbread, and Mile-High Pie (2014): I actually interviewed Sarah Baird, back when I was writing for the Louisville Eccentric Observer and her book was just coming out. Sarah’s training is as a culinary anthropologist, and she told me, “ I have a deep interest in how food impacts culture and society: the intersections between culture, society and food; how those work together; and specifically, underrepresented or underserved stories about food.” This book was her attempt to tell some of those stories, from the often overlooked corners of her (and my and Scout’s) home state.

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Regional Specialties:

Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen (1984): My personal Southern heritage comes well-seasoned with Tabasco and filé, and this, my father claims, is the best Louisiana cookbook out there. Whether you’re looking for gumbo or jambalaya or Prudhomme’s famous blackened redfish, this book has all the Cajun and Creole classics your stomach could desire.

The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery (1992): Where my Southern roots come from the bayou, Scout’s are grounded in mountain soil. In true Appalachian spirit, the recipes in this book are interspersed with a healthy dose of storytelling and advice. The recipes in this book are unpretentious and full of flavor, just like the folks that make them.

Community Cookbooks: The South has a great tradition of hometown cookbooks, put together by Junior Leagues or women’s groups and offering the best portrait of a town, an identity, and a cuisine. Some of the best (in my, my mom’s, or Scout’s opinion) include The Mountain Laurel Festival Cookbook (Bell County, Kentucky), Talk About Good! (The Junior League of Lafayette, Louisiana), The Plantation Cookbook (Junior League of New Orleans), and Recipes to Remember: A Kentucky Cookbook (Kosair Children’s Hospital Auxiliary; Louisville, Kentucky).


The New South:

Tupelo Honey Cafe: Spirited Recipes from Asheville’s New South Kitchen (2011): Brian Sonoskus, chef and founder of the Tupelo Honey Cafe, was one of the founders of the farm-to-table movement, which has since spread from North Carolina to Williamsburg, Portland, and beyond. But what is normally written off nowadays as hipster posturing is in fact a very traditional Southern concept: that you should use the best of what your region has to offer, that you should know the folks who grow your ingredients, that quality ingredients assembled with love and care will offer a far greater reward than your fussiest amuse-bouche.

Smoke and Pickles: Recipes and Stories from a New Southern Kitchen (2013): Chef Edward Lee was born to Korean immigrant parents and raised in Brooklyn. So how did he become the most famous chef in Louisville, and one of the most innovative culinary voices in America today? This book tells the tale of his unique, Southern cooking, which mixes together flavors and techniques from his heritage with the traditions of his adopted home.

images via: Zelda’s mama’s photo archives, GARDEN AND GUN, SOUTHERN FOODWAYS ALLIANCE, TUPELO HONEY CAFE