Having perused, by conservative estimate, several thousand books of cookery and food in my life, I've come to the conclusion that the ideal cookbook writer is someone who loves to grow food as well as prepare it and eat it, who is a recipe collector and a storyteller, and who has a taste for both journalism and history.
Ronni Lundy is such a person, having written two previous narrative collections of note (Shuck Beans, Stack Cakes and Honest Fried Chicken in 1991, and The Festive Table in 1995).
Now comes her latest, which is about Southern beans and berries and fruits and squash and the whole garden of treasures that every Southerner remembers and loves, and once again it's the soft but knowing voice of Ronni Lundy herself that carries the day.
Butter Beans to Blackberries is informal and chatty, almost like a diary or journal, yet it's brimming with useful information about all sorts of fruits and vegetables, and it flows smoothly from the pages, as clear and sweet as a spoonful of sourwood honey. A longtime resident of Louisville, Lundy has deep roots in rural Kentucky and has traveled widely in and out of the South. She is a first-rate cook and gardener, a former newspaper and magazine journalist, an oral history interviewer, a careful listener with an ear for good stories, and a talker who knows how to spin a yarn.
With these gifts, Lundy comes across as a writer who loves foodways and food people, rather than as a cook who likes to write. She displays keen senses: of organization, of description, of place and pace, of humor. Her sidebars, called Mail Order, Road Notes, and Farm Markets and Festivals, impart hard facts about where and how to get such things as heirloom seeds, fresh ramps (a rare but prized mountain scallion), and Carolina fig preserves, all the while introducing a charming gallery of characters she's met in her travels.
There are scores of excellent recipes, old and new as traditional as skillet-fried corn, and as nouvelle as pecan-crusted trout with black-eyed pea relish. Lundy's fresh corn fritters are homemade to perfection, her creamy red pepper soup is a summer treasure, and her rendition of Kathleen Castro's black-bottom banana cream pie is worth the price of the book all by itself.
For cooks and eaters, and for readers who devour cookbooks as vicarious entertainment, like novels, Ronni Lundy's beans and berries add up to a garden basketful of pleasure.
John Egerton is the author of the classic Southern Food and, more recently, Speak Now Against the Day.