Welcome back to Book Club, a monthly column in which Eater contributor Sonja Groset talks to all manner of food professionals about their cookbook collections.
[Photos: S. Pratt]
Heather Earnhardt, owner and chef of The Wandering Goose on Capitol Hill, has lived in the Pacific Northwest for nearly 20 years. The North Carolina native still cooks largely Southern food, but also has a soft spot for little fishes, cold smoking, clamming, and squid jigging. Eater caught up with her to chat about favorite cookbooks and plans for a cookbook of her own.
When did you start collecting cookbooks?
I started collecting cookbooks when I was 8 years old. We lived in New Orleans at the time and I loved looking through my mother's local Cajun cookbooks. After that I started to bake from the McCall's cookbook and the Joy of Cooking. I made lemon tea bread and pumpkin muffins from those books. My mom used to make the "Perfect Chocolate Cake" from the McCalls cookbook for my birthday every year and I would help her whip the cream filling.
From there I moved on to Junior League cookbooks from all over the south. Their recipes were easy enough for a kid my age to read and follow, but in all honesty I don't remember much of them tasting very good! In my 20's I stopped following recipes and just started reading cookbooks from cover to cover. I was so broke I would go into a bookstore and write down all of the titles I wanted to buy then go order them at the library. I would keep them for the maximum three weeks then turn around and check them out again. I am a book junkie for sure.
What are some of your favorite cookbooks?
Edna Lewis is my favorite and her books stay by my bedside always. She was born in the early 1900's, as my grandmother was, so their food is similar; traditional and straightforward, full of flavor and served with integrity. While some books come and go The Edna Lewis Cookbook, The Taste of Country Cooking, and The Gift of Southern Cooking will never leave my collection.
I love John Currence's Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey and the Collards & Carbonara cookbook from Memphis. The Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook is great for the stories about Southern food. Like where red-eyed gravy comes from, or grits & grillades, chess pie, and Brunswick Stew. Smokehouse Ham, Spoon Bread & Scuppernong Wine is a great one on Southern Appalachian cooking that I've had for over 15 years.
Do you have many cookbooks in your collection that aren't Southern?
Japanese Farm Food by Nancy Hachisu is so beautiful and one I come back to and read pretty often, along with Meeru Dhalwala's Indian cookbooks. I did an event with Meeru and the food she made was not just the best Indian food I had ever had but some of the best food ever. I love the books by Ottolenghi and Tamimi (Plenty, Jerusalem, and Ottolenghi) for their pure beauty, Edible Selby for it's quirkiness and the Toro Bravo cookbook by John Gorham. John lets it all out about his childhood and growing up in the industry, and that takes a lot of guts. It's something that's lacking in most cookbooks—the story, the guts of the person writing the book. Recently I've been buying every book I can get my hands on about smoking, cold smoking in particular. I've been cold smoking oats, peanut butter, chocolate and anything I can in a cold smoker we built at home and incorporating them into new baked goods. Right now at The Wandering Goose we have a smoked oat and date cookie that we are all in love with.
Where did you learn to cook?
I realize that I really learned to cook from my grandmother. I grew up alongside her in the kitchen, with her Hotpoint oven and a little Sunbeam hand mixer. She'd make these beautiful wedding cakes—tiered with all these little flowers. She made cheese straws and petit fours, and angel biscuits with the little piece of ham in them. She never wrote anything down, it kills me that I didn't write her recipes down! I do a version Granny's Kitchen Table Cake. She had this aluminum covered cake pan on her kitchen table, and I always knew that when I'd go over to her house, there was a yellow cake with chocolate frosting underneath it.
I also learned to cook from all my friends that are cooks. I always worked the front of house in restaurants, and when you're in a restaurant, you watch the kitchen, waiting for your food to come out. I learned to cook from watching and doing. My good friend of almost 20 years, Mike Law who opened a Bourbon & Bones makes the best shrimp and grits. Today, I make a version of his shrimp and grits. A lot of what I cook are just dishes I've just been cooking over and over again over the years.
Sweet or savory?
Savory with a bit of sweet! I make a sweet potato Bundt cake with fresh grated nutmeg, a carrot upside down cake with fresh thyme, and I love this savory galette we've been making with shaved roasted potatoes, bacon, chevre, caramelized onions, and herbs.
Are there particular NW ingredient you like working with?
My husband is a fisherman, so we eat a lot of fish! He's opening a smoked fish shop in Hillman City, so we've been eating all this cold smoked fish. I really love all the cold water fish that we just didn't get in the South—salmon, herring, trout, sardines. We took the kids fishing and caught all these little fish that we just fried up whole. I love stuff like that, and I didn't grow up eating it. We go clamming with the kids, they all have their licenses. We went squid jigging last winter—it was freezing! I do a Concord grape pie—it's super labor intensive, and only possible when the grapes come in. As a Southerner, I find familiarity in the food here—fresh fish, shellfish, local produce. In the South you catch catfish, trout, puppy drum, shrimp, and oysters, and grow tomatoes, corn, beans, peas, okra, peaches, and collard greens. Here in the Pacific Northwest we have salmon, cod and rockfish alongside chard, sweet lettuces, apples, and stone fruit all grown and harvested within our own state! It's all familiar and all things I'm comfortable cooking and serving.
Do you have plans to write a cookbook?
Yes! Soon! I'm in the middle of finishing two children's books and plan to start on the cookbook right after. The publisher needs 50 recipes and it's hard to figure out which ones you want to give away and which ones you want to keep in your back pocket for a rainy day.
When you think about writing your own cookbook, will it be largely Southern?
It will definitely include a lot of things that we make here at The Goose, but also a spaghetti sauce that I learned to make from my mother, that she learned to make from her mother, who was part Italian. So, it's a sauce I've been making for over 20 years, it's not Southern but it's something our family has made for generations, and we're from the South. Also the Brownstone Front Cake that I make is very specific to a certain region in North Carolina. You can go to western North Carolina and people don't know about it. It was another dish that was always made in our family. We had it for every birthday, now I make it for all my kids' birthdays.
You're children's book, The Wandering Goose is illustrated, will you go that route with your cookbook?
We're still talking about that. I want to do something different. It seems like there is a lot of similarity in cookbooks coming out lately. If you go to Elliott Bay Books and grab five cookbooks, they have a similar layout, similar fonts, and photographs. Once in a while though, something different comes out. I love the Plenty cookbook—all of those photographs are amazing. Same for Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey. I love great photography. I have this great photo of Edna Lewis that was printed in a magazine years ago, I ripped it out and it's on my wall at home. It's of her making biscuits—it's just so beautiful. I just love that natural light, and those colors in the house.
What else do you like to read?
I read a lot of literary novels from Southern writers. All those writers from the South—it's all about food. Maybe the story isn't about food, but food is an element in the story. Writers like Larry Brown, Harry Crews, Dorothy Allison, Rick Bragg always describe the food of the South so perfectly. I read them over and over again. In A Childhood, Harry Crews takes three pages describing when at age six he ate a possum for dinner "stuffed with sweet potatoes and roasted for two hours in the oven." Not that I would ever eat possum, but he describes it in a way that makes you think you would!
What do you miss most about the South?
I'm just drawn to the simplicity and elegance of solid, Southern cooking. How do you make a biscuit made from only flour and water and some fatback taste good? You don't over knead it or over bake it, that's how. And those same rules apply to all baked goods. Food is so much a part of Southern culture. In the South, people just stop by all the time. I'd be at my grandma's house, and someone would stop by. She'd stop what she was doing, and pour us all some iced tea, and we'd go sit in the front room, the main living room, and just talk. Things were just slower, and people spent more time together.
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