Food & Drink

Davidson food writer travels the world to land in the South

Jennifer Brule of Davidson is the author of “25 Southern Classics 3 Ways.”
Jennifer Brule of Davidson is the author of “25 Southern Classics 3 Ways.” dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

It’s not supposed to be this easy. You’re not supposed to want to write a cookbook and then just write one.

You’re not supposed to want a cookbook contract and then just get one. You’re not supposed to dial a cookbook editor’s phone number and have her pick up the phone – and be willing to talk to you.

And you’re really not supposed to be able to write a good Southern cookbook if you’re not from the South.

In the intensely competitive world of food writing, it hardly ever happens like that. But it did for Jennifer Brulè of Davidson. Her first book, “Learn to Cook 25 Southern Classics 3 Ways,” will be released by UNC Press Sept. 6, and she already has a contract for a second book.

Brulè (say it “BREW-lay”) waited a long time for a food-writing career and now that she has one, she’s not wasting a minute.

“All I think about all the time is cooking,” she admits. “I wake up at 3 in the morning and I think about what I’m going to cook in the morning. When I cook in the morning, I’m thinking about what I’m going to cook for lunch.

“I couldn’t stand to be around me if I wasn’t me.”

Around the world in recipes

Brulè’s kitchen in Davidson on a summer morning comes with a certain level of chaos. Seven girls roam in and out, her own four daughters plus assorted friends. Three dogs stick close, all long-haired dachshunds sporting curls as lush as 18th-century wigs.

The vegan daughter wants vegan chorizo. The running daughter needs help with shoes. Somewhere up the stairs, her husband, Jeff, is working from home.

Of the four daughters – 18, 16 and 11-year-old twins – one is vegan, one is mostly vegetarian and two are carnivores. That’s fine with Brulè: More things to cook.

Years ago, before the kids and dogs, Brulè, now 48, went to culinary school, not to be a professional cook but to become “an educated food writer.” She wrote for a few places, like the New England News Service and the Augusta Chronicle. But Jeff is an engineer for a Dutch-owned chemical company and got transferred a lot. Every time they moved, she had to find a new place to write.

Then came the big move, to Switzerland, in 2003.

“I wouldn’t change a thing, but Europe was difficult and wonderful,” she says. Between Switzerland and a stop in England, they developed a big circle of expatriate friends, all from different countries.

“These people were my tribe,” Brulè says. They swapped dinners, held potlucks and shared recipes.

The Brulès had moved to Switzerland with daughters Claire and Camille. After they arrived, Brulè got pregnant again, with twins Mimi and Tess. It was a high-risk pregnancy. The twins were born prematurely and needed care. Brulè became a fulltime stay-at-home mom and put her writing on hold.

She never stopped writing about food, though. She just didn’t share it.

“Even when I wasn’t being paid to write recipes, I wrote recipes every day. It’s like an artist who paints every day even if they don’t sell their paintings.” Still, the usually cheerful Brulè found herself feeling sad.

One morning, she told Jeff, “ ‘I’m mourning my career.’ I had all this in me. I’d just write these recipes and they’d go in a (note) book.”

Back to her future

Six years ago, the Brulès came back to America. The company has a plant in Stanley, so they settled in Davidson: They wanted a college town, for the combination of a small town with lots of people who had lived in other places.

“When I got here, it was ‘Oh my God, here’s my chance.’ ” She started freelancing again – The Observer, Lake Norman magazine, Charlotte magazine. She started doing appearances on “Charlotte Today.”

“My goal has always been to encourage people to cook,” she says. “Knowledge of food has become global, but the practice of cooking has become rare.” She was shocked when she returned to America and found so many women with families and deluxe kitchens who never made anything more than chicken nuggets and grilled cheese sandwiches.

She had started blogging in Europe as Finding Tasty, although she admits she wasn’t very good at it: “I had four followers. My mother didn’t even follow me.” But her new neighbor in Davidson, Scott Galloway, is a producer for the Food Network, and she got tapped in the channel’s national search for bloggers to do a video series.

When she heard about UNC Press’ cookbook series “Savor the South,” with two dozen small books on single ingredients, she was fascinated. While Brulè is from Ohio, a lot of the family’s moves had taken them around the South. Even while in Europe, they kept a beach house in the Carolinas and came back every summer.

On a whim, she looked up the phone number for the series editor, Elaine Maisner. Then she dialed it. And Maisner answered.

“Total dumb luck,” Brulè says. Galloway and Brulè eventually talked to Maisner and her colleagues about doing a video series based on the books. It didn’t come to pass, but they stayed in touch.

Then Brulè came up with an idea for a twist on a Southern cookbook: Classic dishes, each done three ways – a traditional Southern version, one with a healthful twist and one with an international spin.

“I would never call myself a Southern authority. But I think I’m a good interpreter. I can explain how a tomato pie works. There’s a synergy. I’m in the middle.”

Going native

No, Jennifer Brulè isn’t a native of the South. But she thinks her status as an outsider who has lived so many places works in her favor.

“No matter where I live, I filter my surroundings by the foods I find,” she says. In Europe, she haunted markets and kitchens, looking at how people eat. She kept at it when she returned to the South, delighting in the weirdness of the food life here and embracing things like pickled pigs’ feet and livermush.

There’s something about the South, the way the region hugs its food traditions so tightly, that reminds her of Europe, she says. Recipes there vary from village to village, and a dish made one way in one place will be made differently a short distance away – while people in both places insist their way is the only way.

“It’s so impressive, how the South is so loyal to their recipes and won’t dilute it. They won’t dumb down the recipes. They won’t change them to be more palatable. It’s so personal. It’s not even regional, it’s smaller than that. It has character, true character.”

As an outsider, she thinks she may see food here more clearly.

“For people who grew up here, there’s only one way to do something. But if you’re coming from outside, there’s 60 ways. None of them are the only way. I can distill all the ways.”

Jennifer Brulè’s food-writing career only looks like it just happened. In reality, she prepared and practiced. What she has, she says, is tenacity.

When people ask her how to be a food writer, she asks them: “ ‘What’s your training? How do you tell people how to do this or that? Why are you an authority?’

“I’m not an authority on Southern food. I’m an authority on teaching people how to cook.”

Kathleen Purvis: 704-358-5236, @kathleenpurvis

Meet Jennifer Brulè

Sept. 8, 6 p.m.: Main Street Books, Davidson.

Sept. 15, 7 p.m.: Park Road Books, Charlotte.

Kryptonite Pimento Cheese

From “25 Southern Classics 3 Ways,” by Jennifer Brulè (UNC Press, $30). Her three variations include a traditional Southern version, and a Swiss Tartine. This one is her contemporary version, with Greek yogurt and low-fat mayonnaise to trim the fat.

2 cups shredded 2% sharp cheddar cheese

2 cups shredded 2% mild cheddar cheese

3 teaspoons grated onion (see note)

1/2 cup chopped pimento or roasted red pepper, drained

1/4 cup juice from the pimentos

1 teaspoon Asian fish sauce (see note)

1/2 cup low-fat or light mayonnaise (preferably Duke’s)

1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt

4 dashes cayenne pepper, or more to taste

Combine the shredded cheeses in a mixing bowl. Add the onion, pimento, pimento juice, fish sauce, mayonnaise, yogurt and cayenne. Mix well with a spoon or rubber spatula. Store, covered, in the refrigerator up to 3 days. Serve with crackers or as a filling for sandwiches.

Note: Grate the onion on a box grater or Microplane. It should be almost pureed in consistency. The fish sauce balances the sweetness from the low-fat mayonnaise.

Yield: 3 1/2 cups.

Black Bean Stew With Sweet Potato and Ginger

Brulè’s takes on beans include classic Southern pinto beans, a Tuscan white bean soup and this black bean stew.

1 pound dried black beans

2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil

1 (2-inch) piece of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped (about 2 heaping tablespoons)

3 fat garlic cloves, minced or pressed

1 large sweet potato, peeled and shredded (about 4 cups)

1 navel orange, stem end trimmed off, the rest cut in quarters

1/2 cup tomato puree or crushed tomatoes

8 cups chicken or vegetable broth

2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt

1 tablespoon sriracha

5 fat or 7 skinny green onions, trimmed and thinly sliced

1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro

Pick through the dried beans and remove any broken beans or small pebbles. Place in an 8-quart pot and cover with water by 3 inches. Cover and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Uncover, stir and continue to boil for 2 minutes. Cover again and turn off the heat. Let the beans sit in the hot liquid undisturbed for 1 hour.

Drain the beans in a colander, then rinse and drain them again. Rinse out the cooking pot. Pour the beans back in the pot and fill with enough water to cover the beans by 2 inches. Cover, bring to a simmer, then crack the lid and simmer for 1 hour. Drain and rinse the beans and set aside. Rinse the cooking pot.

Pour the sesame oil into the pot and set over medium-high heat. When the oil starts dimpling and is fragrant, add the ginger and garlic, stir well and cook 1 minute. Add the beans, sweet potato, orange quarters, tomato puree and broth. Cover and bring to a strong simmer. Uncover, lower the heat to medium-low or low and simmer gently for 45 minutes.

Remove and discard the orange pieces and add the salt and sriracha. Stir in the green onions and cilantro and serve.

Yield: 8 to 12 servings.

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