A Microinterview with John Currence
This issue features a micro-interview with John Currence conducted by Jack Pendarvis. Currence, an award-winning chef, first cooked professionally as a deckhand on a tugboat. He worked his way up in the restaurant business, starting out as a dishwasher at Bill Neal’s seminal Southern restaurant, Crook’s Corner and later, cooked in various kitchens for the Brennans, the famous family of restauranteurs. He wound up in Oxford, Mississippi, where one of the first friends he made was the writer Larry Brown. Their meeting was the beginning of Currence’s long association with the town’s writing community. At his restaurant Big Bad Breakfast, almost all the dishes are named for books by local authors. For Faulkner, there’s the Pylon, a hangover cure of jalapeños, chopped hot dogs, chili, pickles, oyster crackers, and other things too numerous and insane to mention, on top of a waffle. David Chang loves it. At last count, Currence owns four restaurants in Oxford, including his flagship, City Grocery, where his work has won him (among other honors) a 2009 James Beard Award as Best Chef South.
THE BELIEVER: In Alan Davidson’s definitive Oxford Companion to Food, which first appeared in 1999, Mr. Davidson states in his definitive way that parboiled possum is a “favourite Southern dish,” which makes it sound like a widespread and frequent meal. He’s wrong, isn’t he? I have lived in the South my whole life and have never come close to eating a possum. Have you?
JOHN CURRENCE: I’m led to believe that if you are going to prepare possum, the best thing you can do is to hold it in your oven for three days and feed it nothing but water to purge it.
BLVR: That doesn’t sound right. Aside from the horrific cruelty, wouldn’t the possum poop in the oven?
JC: I feel certain the possum would. I generally avoid the rodent family when eating, though Larry Brown’s wife Mary Annie makes an outstanding squirrel and dumplings. For now, that’s as deeply as I will indulge myself here. There’s too much other good stuff to eat out there.
BLVR: Most underrated vegetable?
JC: In the clubhouse turn, spaghetti squash and Brussels sprouts are neck and neck. I impersonated a vegetarian briefly in my early twenties (which goes against my very nature), all in the hopes of growing closer to a girl I was involved with. Anyhow, fake me was amazed at what the girl could do with a spaghetti squash, which was something that real me had never encountered before. In retrospect, I think fake me was as fascinated with how easy it was to make a meal from spaghetti squash as fake me actually “enjoyed” the squash itself. Real me does, from time to time, return to the spaghetti squash, armed with some Italian sausage and marinara for a very quick and very delicious meal. The Brussels sprouts were something I was tortured with as a child. It wasn’t until I discovered pairing them with balsamic vinegar and bacon that I experienced the Rapture. It is my favorite food to force on people. Notice how porking both of these made them special?
BLVR: Tell me about cheese.
JC: Anything that can be construed as masterful, but which was probably originally the result of neglect, I love. I think about the origin of things and try to imagine how they first happened, like psychedelic mushrooms. I mean, who was the first person who saw a fungus growing through a crack in a pile of fermented cow dung and thought, “I wanna eat that”? I am convinced it was a part of the first Native American practical joke. Molds, rennet and other things you wouldn’t consider ingesting are a huge part of the process that takes something as simple and, for most people, forgettable as milk and turns it into spectacular curds. Plus, what would the Grilled Cheese be without it? Just the Grilled. It would make being sick entirely not worthwhile.
BLVR: When I am eating shrimp in Bayou La Batre, they have a certain clean taste that I don’t experience when I eat shrimp elsewhere. Is that because the shrimp are coming straight from the Gulf, fresh, or is it my imagination, or is there something different about Gulf Coast shrimp? When I was reading up on the oil spill, I noticed that 80 percent of shrimp in the U.S. comes from foreign sources… and that was before the BP oil spill.
JC: Let me try to explain what you’re experiencing by using another example. The New Orleans po-boy is, or can be, a thing of true beauty that is entirely unachievable anywhere else and it largely has to do with the bread. There is absolutely nothing else in this world that I have been able to locate that approximates Leidenheimer’s French bread and without the proper bread, the po-boy simply doesn’t float. That being said, even if you rush the fresh-baked bread to a distant location and assemble a sandwich of the perfectly executed ingredients, it still suffers not being consumed in the familiar sensory surroundings of New Orleans, whether it’s the sounds of the French Quarter, the smell of the river or the sight of passing traffic on St. Charles Avenue that triggers the neuro-responders in you, nothing fires the same if you are not having the experience in that place. This is why “eating” and “dining” are so incredibly different from each other. One is a primal activity, the other the confluence of a thousand different experiences, culminating in a single unique moment.