Richmond, Virginia, has popped up my radar recently as it’s fast becoming a foodie destination, thanks to innovative chefs like Kendra Bailey Morris.
If you haven’t already heard of her, Kendra is an American cookbook author, food writer and cooking tutor. And she’s recently released her new cookbook The Southern Slow Cooker which is helping her pioneer a new kind of Southern food which is healthier and lighter, but still stays true to Virginia’s ‘comfort food classics’.
I was lucky enough to meet Kendra for lunch in the Amba Hotel Charing Cross recently. She was visiting London to attend the Taste of the South food event at the American Embassy.
We got talking about food trends in Virginia, how food bloggers have changed the food scene and why Richmond is the hottest culinary destination for 2015.
Here’s how it went…
Hi Kendra. Tell us how you got into food writing…
I always wanted to write about food but I wasn’t sure in which capacity – as a journalist or restaurant reviews. But I started working as a food writer for a local publication in Virginia called Style Weekly and I did that for three years.
During that time, I attended a food writing symposium in West Virginia and met Lorena Jones – the then vice president of Ten Speed Press.
Marina was a Southern girl like myself and we got talking about me writing a cookbook. Ten Press had published the cook book White Trash Cooking and they wanted to do another book in the series. She said: ‘You know what, we think you’d be perfect for it. Can you develop a book proposal?’
Seven book proposals later they finally accepted! I was a columnist for a newspaper in Richmond and a travel writer for a little while…but this is my first book and I’m really proud.
Your book is focused around ‘lighter’ Southern cooking. Is healthy eating a problem in Virginia?
Yes in some ways it is. You may remember, Jamie Oliver did a series about healthy eating in the States and he was showcasing the part of the Appalachian region heritage that’s been lost.
I was raised by parents who both came from the Appalachian Mountains and the food we ate was fresh from the garden. People today don’t know how to start a garden and cook fresh food, so many of the traditional ways of cooking have been lost. Instead, they will buy processed food because it’s cheap and will drive a quarter of a mile to buy a burger!
So what was your upbringing like and how did this influence the kind of food you ate?
I was born in West Virginia and as I say, my whole family is from the South West region of Virginia, right in the Appalachian Mountains. We didn’t have a lot of money and so we grew many of our legumes, greens and corn fresh from the garden.
As we were up in the mountains the temperature would frequently fall below zero and the summer growing season was very short. So during the short summers, we had to harvest what we could and then we would ‘can’ the rest as a way of preserving it for the winter months. So you’d can your corn, you’d can your beans, and you’d can your fruit – we’d call it ‘putting up’.
Did you eat any meat?
Not very often, but yes, my grandfather would slaughter a hog and it was a very sustainable way of living because we would do everything we could to use every part of the animal. So anything we couldn’t eat, we would share with our neighbours or we would make sausage and ‘can’ it.
Thankfully we don’t have to do this so much anymore but I still embrace the fresh food ethos. There were no fast food chains and perhaps that’s why my grandmother lived to 100 and my other grandmother is 100 right now.
So are you trying to change the reputation Southern food sometimes has as being unhealthy?
Yes, very much so. A lot of people think that putting ten pounds of butter in everything is the norm in Virginia but it’s not. OK, so Southern food can be heavy but there’s a real movement happening in Virginia right now and thankfully we’re shifting towards a lighter style of cooking, which is reflected in many cookbook authors right now.
You may have heard of Virginia Willis, from Georgia, who brought us ‘Bon Appetite y’all’ and her recently published second book, ‘Lighten Up Y’all’.
My book, The Southern Slow Cooker is going along the same route – lighter, healthier recipes that incorporate the kind of cooking traditions I grew up on.
Can lighter Southern food and comfort food still go together?
Yes! You have still indulge in your comfort food like macaroni cheese – which is in the book – you just need to go easy on the butter. The Southern Slow Cooker actually has both – some lighter dishes and some slightly heavier, more indulgent dishes, all designed for a slow cooker. But as I say, I was very adamant about using all fresh ingredients and no preservatives. I’m determined to keep cooking natural.
What else is happening in Virginia to highlight the lighter style of Southern cooking?
I’ve joined up with an organsation called the Appalachian Food Summit and in an effort to bring that heritage back, we’re going to celebrate food and cooking the way it was 50 to 100 years ago. The next one is in Abbington, Virginia.
What other traditions have you carried on from your upbringing?
Once of the other things we did to make use of a whole piece of pork was to use the bacon fat to season our braised greens during the winter and I still do that today. Ok, so it doesn’t sound too healthy, but you only use a tiny bit, like you would with butter or olive oil. You can also use it to give your cornbreads a crispy exterior or to flavour your pinto beans – it really is delicious and is a key ingredient I use today.
What would the two other key ingredients be that you can’t live without?
Cider vinegar – I love it. My mother taught me to cook with it. It balances so many different things out.
Cornmeal – it’s so incredibly versatile. You can make cornbread out of it or you can make polenta and grits. Sometimes I add a small amount of cheese to mine.
Tell me about the food scene in Virginia…
Richmond is becoming known as a major foodie destination in the South right now. We have giant food trucks and food truck parties as well as brilliant farmers markets which pop up and really embrace the farm to fork ethos. Many people in Richmond and Virginia as a whole really enjoy locally sourced, organic food. The same can be said for the eclectic restaurant scene…
What else is Virginia great for?
Virginia is lucky that it has amazing craft beer. We have over 100 breweries in the state right now and 245 wineries (and counting).
Richmond and Virginia as a whole, has a very big apple industry so there are 50 or more cideries throughout the state now and it’s so good, it tastes almost like champagne! We also have pear ciders and the craft brewery industry is really taking off, like it is in London. Oh, and we are also known for our huge peanut industry. And cornmeal!
What would your ideal foodie day entail?
My husband’s a big beer fan so we would go and hit one of the craft breweries – there’s a great one in Charlottesville, Virginia, called Blue Mountain Brewery that overlooks the Blue Mountains.
You can sit outside and their menu is all-natural ingredients and locally sourced. It’s really good quality.
We would then hit a winery as the North Western part of the state is Virginia’s wine region. There are 15 or 20 wineries there and the growing conditions are remarkably similar to Bordeaux. It’s like Virginia’s answer to Napa, California and easy to travel to if you are visiting Richmond.
What is the restaurant scene like in Richmond and the rest of Virginia?
Richmond is booming with quite all sorts of different food. There are groups of people who are really sourcing the best local ingredients that they can find. They’re presenting them in sometimes, quite creative and elegant ways, and they’re not charging you an arm and a leg for it.
On the coast, you get so much amazing seafood. The oyster population has come back and they’re as good as the ones I’ve had in France, Vancouver and Massachussetts.
Are there many different types of cuisines in Richmond?
Yes. There are so many different types of ethnic foods. Richmond in particular has a very large Vietnamese community and so we have wonderful Vietnamese restaurants for a small city. I love it because it’s healthy and it’s light and there’s so much flavour. There’s a lot of great Indian food in Richmond too.
Do you think food blogs have changed the food writing world at all?
Yes, they’ve completely changed the marketplace – in both good and bad ways.
It’s even more competitive now to get published for freelance writers, but then blogs have also allowed people to gain millions of followers which has led to publishing houses finding ways to reach huge audiences.
Which food blogs in the States would you say have been particularly influential or successful?
Smitten Kitchen written by Deb Perelman
The Pioneer Woman written by Ree Drummond. Ree is a an example of a blogger who started in 2006/2007 when not many people were really doing it, and has gone on to have many successes including book deals and making regular contributions to the Food Network.
And finally Kendra, we know we can’t be healthy all the time. So what’s your food vice?!
I love a good BBQ’d pork sandwich, southern (North Carolina) style. You have good shredded pork BBQ with vinegar with a little schmear of slaw on top.
On that note, I’m off for lunch!
Until next time x
Huge thank you to Kendra Bailey Morris for taking the time to talk to Oh So London about her love of food and exciting new cook book. You can find more information on Kendra at KendraBaileyMorris.com. Find out more on Richmond, Virginia at Virginia.org.
Follow Kendra on twitter @fatbackandfoie
Find her on Facebook