by Jill Warren Lucas
If you think there’s something familiar about the fast-growing interest in and reputation of North Carolina’s diverse food scene – the success of its organic farmers, chef-restaurateurs and celebrated cookbook authors – you’re not alone.
“I think there are a lot of parallels to what’s happening in North Carolina now and what came before in California,” said Elaine Maisner, Senior Executive Editor at the University of North Carolina Press, who helped introduce Mildred “Mama Dip” Council and Ben and Karen Barker of Magnolia Grill to an appreciative public through award-winning cookbooks.
As a culinary student and intern in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, Maisner had a front-row seat to see how such groundbreaking hotspots as Deborah Madison’s Greens Restaurant and Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse made their marks and inspired brilliant cookbook careers. There and here, Maisner said, it all starts with a keen appreciation of local, sustainable farming.
“From the coast to the mountains, the fantastic agricultural attributes of our state create an environment where farmers find strong markets for their products,” said Maisner, who spoke to the October meeting of Culinary Historians of the Piedmont at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. “The relationships between growers and buyers and cooks across our state have been essential to creating the cycle of success that has brought well-deserved attention to North Carolina,” she said. It’s proof that people who care deeply about where their food comes from tend to use that food with the greatest creativity.
That’s where Maisner comes in. With deep roots in university-based publishing, she has cultivated an extraordinary network to identify and promote the talents of North Carolina chefs who bring an original perspective to the crowded cookbook market. Her last two titles – Sandra Gutierrez’s New Southern-Latino Table and Sheri Castle’s New Southern Garden Cookbook – both have earned enthusiastic reviews and strong sales.
While UNC Press has an impressive track record of publishing books featuring some of this region’s best-known chefs, including the indispensable Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking and the Bakers’ award-winning Not Afraid of Flavor, the coincidence of being based here is not enough to land a cookbook contract.
“We look for people who have a special talent of taking traditional Southern food and popping it up several levels,” said Maisner, pointing to Gutierrez’s creative fusion of Latino flavors. Another example comes from Marcie Cohen Ferris, who had the chutzpah to blend Jewish tradition and Southern fare in the much-honored Matzoh Ball Gumbo.
“Our books always have a cultural significance that goes beyond recipes,” she added. “We publish people whose food has a real sense of place. It’s important to know where food comes from and how it shapes what we do.”
UNC Press’ next culinary production will be the fall release of The Southern Sides Cookbook: Mouthwatering Dishes That Really Make the Plate by Fred Thompson. There’s also a project in the works for 2013 that will involve several North Carolina contributors.
Jill Warren Lucas, a member of CHOPNC, lives in Raleigh and blogs at Eating My Words. Follow her on Twitter at @jwlucasnc.