A little over a year ago I found myself in Fredericksburg, Texas, sitting next to Stephanie Burt at lunch. I learned a lot that week about Texas wine, Texas peaches, Texas gardens, and that Fredericksburg has some pretty fascinating history attached to it. But I also learned a lot from Stephanie, who gave me great advice on everything from food writing to relationships, all with an adorable southern accent and a smile. She’s fun, and funny, and really knows her stuff when it comes to southern food. When I met Stephanie she was working as an editor at The Local Palate, and now she’s full-time freelance, based in Charleston. She’s a fantastic writer (see some of her work here), and it turns out, a fantastic podcast host as well. She launched The Southern Fork this year and already has almost 5000 subscribers!
I wish we could have had this conversation in Charleston over a good southern meal, but alas it was done over the phone on a Friday morning, coffee in place of anything fried. Either way, talking with Stephanie is always a pleasure, and I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did.
Did you always want to write about food?
No, actually. I have a master’s degree in 20th Century American Literature. I’ve always been interested in folklore. I wrote three books of ghost stories and true crime when I was teaching at the college level. Folklore was always so interesting to me, and food is really part of that. Cookbooks are even a kind of culinary history. I didn’t always want to write about food, but I think I was always destined to do this. I was that kid in junior high who watched all the PBS food shows. I took my beach money when I was 16 and bought balsamic vinegar. Other girls were buying fringe shirts. It was gonna happen. I’m really excited about writing about food. I never get tired of it. It’s a platform to talk about other things–history, culture, connection with people, community. Everybody eats. And it’s one of the best jobs to do because everyone wants to talk to you. Everyone has an opinion about food.
Tell me about your transition to freelancing.
It was very scary, like jumping off the trapeze without a net. I had been freelancer on and off since I was 18, when I had my first paid writing job. I could never quite make a living though. After working at The Local Palate and being on staff for awhile, I realized I was always more of a writer than an editor. I can edit and did well, but you have one skill or the other you master. I love being an editor, and loved being part of building the magazine and directing content. But writing and interviewing and getting to go and check out the story, getting to go into the kitchen and see what’s cooking–some people might find that boring, but I think it’s extremely fascinating. Eventually, I knew I was meant to do freelance.
The transition has blossomed my creativity. I get to go out and explore and be curious. I have relationships with enough editors that when I find something, I can say hey this is a perfect fit for you. I’m also one of those writers who doesn’t mind talking on phone or cold calling, which has helped. The Local Palate was invaluable in giving me the framework to reach out and have food conversations, but I also did a lot of work on my own developing relationships, and that has extended since going freelance. If I like a chef, I can call them and they can suggest someone else to talk to, like a farmer, for example.
Tell me about the Southern Fork. How did it come about?
After I went into freelance it was pretty scary. It’s really important to me as a feminist to be able to support myself. When I left The Local Palate, I thought ‘ok do I want to write a novel, do I want to do book projects, cookbooks…. ‘ I started to think. what is it that I do well? And what can I do that maybe a lot of other people don’t? I’ve always been told I talk a lot, and have always been told to simmer down or be quiet. I’ve been called a motor mouth millie. And by the way, all of that is very correct. I talk a ton! So I thought, instead of squelching my personality, how can I use it? I decided I was going to flip the script, and have great conversations with culinary people from farmers to butchers to chefs, pastry chefs, etc. In articles, you only get to use a few quotes. You’re leaving all these rubies on the ground. I thought, this is a way for me to talk a lot and be able to say yes to travel and to let people speak for themselves too.
I was part of this organization in Charleston called the Bad Bitches. It’s great. It’s for women in the culinary professions to bond and connect, and to fundraise for their culinary projects. I was so excited to be a part of the bad bitches, and to be able to repeat the word bad bitches over and over was part of the fun. I met and connected with so many great women, collected so much money for women to continue their education, pass the sommelier exam, get a new knife, or whatever they needed. One lady in the organization said I should apply for a grant for my podcast. I applied and got the entire amount, was able to get equipment, the software, get a website, logo, all of that, without having to pull that out of my already paltry freelance budget. The Bad Bitches gave me a professional start to the podcast, and with that I was able to build it like any other publication.
[I would like to note that the Bad Bitches website states: “We are pop-up queens with a fresh take on how to enjoy your dinner. It’s a simple recipe: 1 Part Julia Child, 1 Part Beyoncé, shake and serve straight up.” So, yeah, they’re pretty awesome].
What has been the most challenging part of starting the podcast?
I had to learn a whole new thing! I had to learn how to edit, produce, write, record my own show. mix it, and all that stuff. It was a big learning curve for me, but it was fun to be able to learn a new skill. I created a second full-time job for myself. I didn’t want to do a podcast that people couldn’t count on. I come from a publication standpoint, so to miss a week would be like not publishing the newspaper each day. On the day-to-day basis the challenges are learning how to get people to talk loud enough when you’re on location, and not have the sous chef turn up the music in the middle of the interview!
And the most rewarding?
Oh my gosh. I love it. I love the podcast. It’s a personal, quiet moment where you have to pay attention. These are non-scripted conversations. They don’t get questions ahead of time because I don’t know what I’m going to ask. I do research, then really pay attention and sit with the person. I learn so much about them in that time. I really enjoy those moments listening and following their story. I’m so excited to be there and spend that time together. It sounds so sappy, but really the people are the most rewarding part.
Ok let’s get into southern food. What makes it unique?
First, fried chicken. Come on, we’ve given the world that. There are two ways I define southern food: a cuisine, but also a geography. What southern food provides is really a story, a sense of place that is a lot more in the forefront of food culture. That doesn’t mean there aren’t stories in every food culture, these are just a little more familiar to us as a nation. The mix of cultures in this region is utterly fascinating to me. It goes from enslaved Africans all the way through the migrant workers from Central America right now bringing their wonderful food into our area. Watching these cultures touch and change each other is really fascinating. If we’re talking just about cuisine, it’s unique because fried food tastes really good and we consider mac & cheese a vegetable!
Do you have a favorite food city in the south?
Charleston. I love the embarrassment of riches I get to enjoy every day, each week. The level of food here is great. But I am also super excited when I get to go to New Orleans and eat. Nashville has some of the best food I’ve had. DC also has some kick-ass food. Atlanta is also a great food city. There’s just so much good stuff out there!
If someone was coming to Charleston, what are the top three things you would tell them to eat or do?
Fig Restaurant is consistently beautiful. If you go to Fig, you’ve had a Charleston experience. People will think “what? we didn’t have shrimp and grits!” They think of Charleston as that low country food, but Fig is Charleston at its best. Fine food, casual service, a James Beard nominated wine list, and a James Beard Award winner in the kitchen. It’s always comfortable. The level of service at Fig is how I measure service around the country. It feels good when you go in there, the food is good, it feels like it’s made with care and I know for a fact it is. It feels like everyone enjoys working there and that makes it a fun place to eat. It’s been good forever, and at that level forever, so definitely go here for nice dinner.
For cocktails and beers, I love Edmund’s Oast.
And then there’s Lewis Barbecue. I get really pumped about this place because they have a great bartender and the best beef brisket I’ve had in my life.
Charleston just has such great food. Don’t go by Yelp. Explore and ask around. There are so many great soul food, hole-in-the-wall places, lunch places, great coffee, and more. Also remember, even if a place is mentioned 18 times you don’t have to go there to have a Charleston experience.
What’s in your carry on?
Well, I always have my podcast equipment because there’s no way I’m going to check that stuff. I often have a colloidal silver spray. I’m kind of a germaphobe. It’s a silver spray you can eat, put on your hands… I always have a scarf I use as a blanket. And definitely a water bottle that I refill. Usually a book as well. I am so thrilled to not have Wifi on the plane. I bring a hard book. On one of my recent trips to Texas finally read Kitchen Confidential. Bourdain is a very well educated writer who was a chef. That book was entertaining, interesting, poignant–just great. [This is one of my favorite food books as well].
Thank you so much Stephanie for joining us this week! Her podcast is entertaining and informative, and I promise you don’t have to live in the south to love it. I also promise you’ll probably be hungry by the end of each episode.