Chef Sean Brock and Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers Talk Southern Food and Music

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As Yahoo Y’All week comes to a close, chef Sean Brock (of Husk in Charleston, South Carolina, and Nashville, Tennessee, as well as the casual taqueria Minero in Charleston) sits down with one of his music idols, Patterson Hood of the Southern rock band Drive-By Truckers, and learns that the admiration is mutual. Below, the two talk about what Southern food and music mean to them and the ways in which the two are intertwined. 

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Patterson Hood, top left, and the Drive-By Truckers. The band released its 10th full-length studio album, English Oceans, in March. 

Patterson Hood: I’m in Providence, Rhode Island, and they’re having this blackout. The entire city is without power! So I’m like in a hotel room and it’s just discombobulated. Everything’s weird. There are sirens everywhere, but no one seems to know what’s going on. I don’t see anything burning, so that’s a good sign.* Anyway! Congratulations for all the honors and all the awards you’ve been winning. I’ve been keeping up and see that you’ve got a new restaurant, in Charleston? A new one?

Sean Brock: It’s a Mexican restaurant. I was trying to do something unexpected. People would never ever probably in a million years think I’d open a taco place, but to me, it was something that was missing in Charleston. I really just honestly did it for selfish reasons: so I would have a place to eat tacos and drink micheladas.

P.H.: Some of the best decisions are made for those kinds of reasons.

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Sean Brock on the cover of Fool Magazine.

S.B.: So, there’s no question that I’m a huge Drive-By Truckers fan: I listen to the music everyday. I’ve been following you since ‘97, when I moved to Athens. I was working at the Forty Watt [a local club] and I just remember you guys just really captured this spirit of the South that hadn’t been celebrated. But the thing that really caught my attention was the story telling. I try to do the same thing with food: I try to tell a story or teach a lesson or inspire someone to do something. So my question is, based on your music: What kind of restaurant would you open tomorrow? 

P.H.: I mean that would be assuming that I can cook at all! I’m such a mediocre at best cook. But assuming I could cook… honestly it’d probably be something along the lines of what you’ve been doing. The whole farm to table rage… I think that people getting exposed to more and more of that type of cooking and eating is a healthy thing for the people. As a human who loves to eat, I really applaud it, [though] I don’t necessarily make the healthiest choices. You know, I might eat too much pork. But by golly, it’s really good pork.

S.B.: Awesome. I’ll probably spend the rest of my life trying to understand the various cultures that exist within the different micro-regions of the South. It’s so fascinating. It’s like trying to study Europe. What really fascinates me is how geography can influence the way someone paints, or the way a song sounds, or the way food tastes. And I’ve just been constantly obsessed with where you’re from. Northern Alabama, and the [Muscle] Shoals region. Like what the hell is it about that place that produces this music? I can’t figure it out.

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Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers. 

P.H.: I can’t either. I’ve spent most of my life trying. Like most young people I spent a lot of my youth trying to get the hell out of there, but even then I always reviewed the music that had come from there and could never understand how. How that happened there. And that’s with me having a ringside seat because my father was such a big part of the music that came from there. My dad was part of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and he played on massive percentage of those records. And I don’t understand it, but I know that it undeniably influences the music I make. Even then, I can see the Muscle Shoals influences in how I approached punk rock. But I have always loved art with a strong sense of place, whether it’s music or food or films. I’ve always kind of kept a pretty specific sense of place in the music I make.

S.B.: I know exactly what you’re talking about, we deal with it everyday. It’s why we cook barbecue in a certain way in South Carolina versus in Memphis versus in Alabama. Geography has a lot to do with that and agriculture has a lot to do with that. I am very, very curious about what you ate as a kid. Like what was your Grandma’s cooking?

P.H.: She made mostly the foods she grew up on. I loved turnip greens as a small kid. I don’t think kids are supposed to like turnip greens, and I loved turnip greens. I loved to take the corn bread and bake it up in pot liquor and then drink it. I’d put so much bread in the pot liquor that you could actually eat it up with a spoon.

S.B.: Red neck cereal!

P.H.: Oh man, I love red neck cereal.

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The cover of Sean Brock’s new cookbook, Heritage. Photo credit: Peter Frank Edwards/Artisan Books

S.B.: One of the things that has always blown my mind about the Drive-By Truckers is having multiple songwriters and how when you’re listening to an album, it just flows. To me, as a chef, that would be the same as me having two other chefs with the same amount of pull in the kitchen and trying to write a menu.

P.H.: You can’t let ego affect it, that’s a big part of it. I love being surrounded by people that play better than I can. We’ve always taken the attitude that song is king in the band. If you write a great song, then you have a great chance for that song to be on the record.

S.B.: That’s exactly what I tell people who ask, “What is the secret? How do you have four restaurants?” And the secret is to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you are.

P.H.: I am so thankful every day, and I want them to be able to play better than me and hell, write better than me.

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Shrimp and grits, Husk-style. Photo credit: Husk/Facebook

S.B.: I am going to ask you a question that I get asked all of that time that drives me crazy. I get tired of answering it, but I am curious about what your response would be. What are the misconceptions of Southern food? And what is Southern food? What is Southern culture? What drives you crazy about how people view Southern culture?

P.H.: I never like it when it’s used as a limiting thing. Like, “Oh, he is playing in a Southern rock band.” There’s a certain amount of baggage that comes with that term that I’ve never been comfortable with. A lot of the things we sing about, there is a sense of place that appeals to the region we came from. But you could be in Seattle and drive 20 minutes in any direction into the country and you’re surrounded by rural country people who live in trailers and in poor conditions and have cars up on blocks. You might as well be in Alabama with different trees.

S.B.: That’s the exact answer I’d wished for because I feel the same way. You’re traveling and you think, “There are hillbillies everywhere.” It’s really more about living in a rural place with poverty. I think the common thread is doing the best you can with nothing. That creates something special because you have to try harder. It’s the same thing as cooking Southern food for your family when you have nothing. To me, it’s just like Junior Kimbrough writing a song.

P.H.: Absolutely. My songs are often very character-driven. It doesn’t have to be about a good person or a heroic character—it can be a lousy person— but there’s got to be something about them that I can relate to. Case in point, George Wallace, who I was someone I considered kind of a villainous character growing up and still do. But I was really taken aback by what an idealistic, progressive-minded person he was in his earlier days. It’s like he let his thirst for power and his drive and ambition lead him to becoming this terrible thing. And of course, our region has so often been on the wrong side of history, which is a really hard thing for people like us to sometimes deal with. There are so many people in the South who are working so hard to raise it up and to move past the dark parts of history.

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Patterson Hood, about to indulge in some local cuisine in Portland, Maine. Photo credit: dbtph/Instagram

S.B.: That’s really interesting that you say that. It’s the same thing that happened with Southern food. It was this pure and beautiful and humble thing and then the Great Depression occurred and then World War II. Times got tough, and people had to do what people had to do to survive. There were maybe 50 years when Southern food was being cooked with really bad ingredients. The varietals of plants that built the cuisine weren’t being grown. For instance, Uncle Ben’s rice is a great example. You have the Carolina Gold of the Lowcountry, which is the most amazing rice you’ll ever eat, but you have this time period where no one was even growing that. People were cooking these iconic dishes, these beautiful old recipes that had stories to tell, with Uncle Ben’s rice that had no flavor.

P.H.: And Crisco!

S.B.: And that unfortunately formed a lot of people’s opinions of what Southern food was. It was this sort of unhealthy cuisine. It wasn’t that in the beginning. Another question for you: What’s been the standout meal of the year? Like unexpected, holy crap this is amazing! 

P.H.: I got taken to lunch the other day in New York. We went to Ippudo, a ramen place that was just to die for. That’s one of the things we did right really early on in our band: When we were sleeping on floors and touring in a beat up van, even in that era, we’d pool all our money together and go eat one meal a day that wasn’t fast food. We’d try to always find something that was at least a step up, preferably something specific to the locals. One of my favorite meals our band has ever had was at Husk. I’ve got pictures from that night I stumbled upon recently and it was just the most amazing dinner and amazing time. I don’t want to get all fan boy, but I am just a huge fan of what you do.

S.B.: I appreciate this a lot. This has been amazing.

P.H.: Thanks. It’s always great to talk to you. I guess I’ll see you in Nashville.

*Editor’s Note: A squirrel was to blame for the Rhode Island blackout.