Food as Lens: a Q&A with Jennifer Justus

This weekend, we're excited to bring local writer Jennifer Justus, author of the recently released cookbook Nashville Eats, to the Porch for a special food-writing workshop. Jennifer will whip up some evocative dishes for you to enjoy; then she'll pair them with readings and writing exercises to provide a rich experience from which to summon your own food stories. If you've ever wanted to dabble in food writing—or if you just want a unique entry point for exploring family and personal histories—this is a great place to start! —Ed. 

Porch Program Assistant Ryne Driscoll had a few questions for Jennifer in advance of her workshop. 

How did your relationship to food and cooking when you were younger influence the place of those things in your life now?

I grew up in a small town in North Georgia and started pitching in on family meals during high school, especially when my parents worked late. As I learned more about cooking, I feel like it became a portal to other worlds—a way to experience people and places. I haven’t had the opportunity to travel to Cuba yet, but I can make picadillo and fried plantains and experience a little bit of that culture through food.

You mention growing up with parents who “worked hard outside the kitchen, but not so often in it." What do you suggest for busy parents who want to begin a tradition of cooking family meals? How about college students, with very few cooking utensils and not a huge income, who want to branch out from frozen dinners and pizza delivery?

I’ve never owned many cooking utensils myself, and I really wanted that to come through in the recipes of my book. I also wanted to keep the steps simple and ingredients basic. I don’t think we need anything more than that. So for younger people, I would recommend finding dishes that you like through trial and error and just slowly and steadily adding to a repertoire.

In your writing you seem to go so much further than just sharing recipes. You travel and really get to know the people and communities behind the food. What's your favorite place you've visited in search of the culture behind food? What did you love so much about it?

I spent some time on a farm in Dorset, England as part of the WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) program.  We would get up every morning, drink tea and discuss what needed to be done that day. For me, it usually meant a couple hours outside and then finishing the day in the kitchen helping bake bread, grating beets for salads and making soups. It was a simple way to live during a difficult time in my life, and I met great people from around the world in that little kitchen.

Who are the biggest inspirations in your career?

The people of the Southern Foodways Alliance have been my biggest inspiration: the writers, food stylists, restaurant owners, chefs, historians, teachers. It’s such a smart and interesting collection of varied people who gather a few times a year to talk about and study food in such genuine and alternative ways.

What advice would you give to an aspiring food writer?

Focus on living, staying curious, and experiencing as much as possible. Study the craft, the writing, and worry less about being an expert on the food. I like to think of food as the lens through which to tell stories about the people and sometimes make sense of the harder topics of religion, politics, race, etc. Food helps us connect and understand one another a little better.

What’s your comfort food?

It changes depending on my mood and the season. Right now, it would be spaghetti and meatballs.

What ingredients do you always have in the kitchen?

Eggs. There’s so much you can do with an egg. It’s pretty much the perfect food in my opinion.

What do you hope readers will take away from your book, other than great Southern meals?

I hope that it gives people a sense of Nashville hospitality, past and present, through the recipes and the people who make them, whether it be a cheese maker, farmer, chef, musician or home cook. It’s a love letter to Nashville, really.

What’s next for you?

The Dirty Pages exhibit that I put together with Cindy Wall and Erin Murray is headed to New Orleans next month for its permanent home at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. The exhibit showcases a diverse collection of Nashville women with their messiest recipes and the stories behind them. It’s the original version, but we’re also starting to think about the next iteration of Dirty Pages, which we hope to hang this summer.

*

Register Here to take Jennifer’s workshop, "Read It, Write It, Eat It: Food in Literature from the Page to the Pen to the Plate," October 31 at The Skillery in Germantown. Here's the full description: 

From Proust’s madeleine to Quentin Tarantino’s Royale with Cheese, food has long served as a writer’s muse. In this class we’ll read and discuss excerpts from fiction and nonfiction, and even listen to song inspired by food. We’ll explore the ways food can help us make deeper emotional connections in our work. And we’ll eat, of course, as some bites will be inspired by what we read while others will inspire us to write our own stories.