Sean Brock wants you to appreciate heirloom foods. He wants you to experience how good rice can be if it's the right rice, meaning the flavorful Carolina Gold type that went almost extinct around the Great Depression. The chef—known for his restaurants McCrady's and Husk in Charleston and Nashville—and author of the recently released cookbook, Heritage, wants to bring back foods that were once staples, like savory, toasty benne that was brought over to the South from West Africa, and the flavorful cowpeas that were once planted as a cover crop to improve Southern soil. He hopes to encourage demand for less-common breeds of chickens, lambs, hogs, and cattle. He's a seed-saver and a book-hoarder, collecting old classics and community cookbooks with the aim, he says, of owning every American cookbook that was printed in 19th century.
I asked Brock a bit about his cookbook trove—the books that first bolstered his interest in Southern food and those that particularly impressed him recently. Here's what he had to say.
How many cookbooks do you own? What started your collection? Honestly, I am scared to count how many books I have. I most definitely have a problem and spend thousands of dollars on books per year. I hope that I'll always be able to do that and die with a legendary library. That's my goal. I started collecting cookbooks when I was in high school. The book that changed everything for me was The French Laundry Cookbook. I'd never seen food like that before. The attention to detail, the refinement, and the celebration of the producers blew my mind. I started looking at food in a different way and became obsessed with cooking that way while I was in culinary school. Inspiration is powerful; this is why cookbooks are important.
What's a cookbook that you'd consider essential in the Southern canon? Ronni Lundy's book Shuck Beans, Stack Cakes, and Honest Fried Chicken will always be a very special book to me. I'll never forget how I felt when I opened that book and started reading about the dishes I grew up with. It made me feel differently about my roots. I was overwhelmed with a sense of pride that I had never experienced before. It made me realize that I needed to spend every spare minute with my grandmother, and I did. I look at that book once a week. It keeps me grounded.
What is your most treasured cookbook? I have a first edition Virginia Housewife that I wouldn't trade for anything in the world. Since I'm from Virginia I obviously have a huge emotional connection to that book. I am determined to own all of the cookbooks printed in America during the 19th century. I love the way they feel, the way they smell, and how they inspire me to take a sensible approach to food. People were cooking for different reasons and with a different intent back then. I love the purity and honesty in that.
What cookbook taught you something new? John Egerton's Southern Food was a book that helped me realize the incredible diversity of our food and culture. I used that book while I was in culinary school to write a paper on Southern food and culture. I need to dig up that paper—I'd love to see what I had to say about the South when I was 19 years old. I was lucky enough to get to spend some time with John, and being around him was incredibly inspiring. I'll do my best to follow in his footsteps.
What new book has inspired you lately? Dan Barber's The Third Plate is a book that needed to be written a long time ago. Dan's point of view is very important. We can all learn and benefit from the work that he is doing. It's a very important book for anyone who cares about food.
What cookbook do you think does a great job with meat? I love The River Cottage Meat Book. I really wish that I could have written that book. It's a great look at where food comes from and how to handle it with care. If you eat meat, you should be required to own this book.
And what about vegetables?
Manresa is the vegetable bible. Kinch has an incredible love affair with vegetables that I happen to share, and it's fantastic to read about his approach and why he does what he does.
What cookbook do you give as a gift? I like giving people A Gracious Plenty by John T. Edge. It's some of his earliest work, and I feel like people can get a good sense of where Southern food has been and is going. Southern food isn't a trend. We have always cooked and lived this way. I love that damn book.
If you could have any cookbook author over for dinner (living or dead) who would it be? Edna Lewis for sure. She was born in Virginia and, like me, was very proud of that. One of my favorite quotes from her is from an interview in 1989. "As a child in Virginia," she said, "I thought all food tasted delicious. After growing up, I didn't think food tasted the same, so it has been my lifelong effort to try and recapture those good flavors of the past."
I felt the same way when I started working in professional kitchens, and I talk about it all the time. I was blown away when I read that quote. She was a straight shooter and possessed a very unique point of view. She lived through a period of time in Southern food that is very interesting to me. I probably would have driven her crazy though—I ask a lot of questions when I admire someone that much. Luckily I have her books to read. Her work will always inspire me to try harder.