October 2004

Jan Karon

Karon’s cookbook is a sumptuous Southern treat
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Readers who love a vicarious meal of classic Southern cooking have long felt welcome in Mitford, the fictional North Carolina village that serves as the setting for Jan Karon’s popular series. Now, thanks to the lovingly assembled <B>Jan Karon’s Mitford Cookbook and Kitchen Reader</B>, fans who have gobbled up the Mitford novels for years can have their cake and eat it, too.

"I envisioned this cookbook a long time ago," Karon says by phone from her home near Charlottesville, Virginia. "I don’t think there are many, if any, cookbooks out there where you can sit down and read what for many will be their favorite series and then go into the kitchen and actually cook the very meal that you’ve been reading about. I wanted to give my readers this extra gift of making Mitford real on yet another level."

You won’t need a culinary degree to prepare most of these down-home recipes while enjoying excerpts from the Mitford series that inspired them. From Sadie Baxter’s Apple Pie to Emma’s Pork Roast to Karon’s mysterious Livermush, this collection’s motto is damn the cholesterol, full-steam ahead. There are generous helpings of color photos, cooking tips, jokes, quotes and table blessings mixed in as well. Food was much on Karon’s mind (and growling stomach) when she jettisoned her successful advertising career to hole up in the North Carolina foothills of her birth and write books about real Southern lives, dreamers and schemers.

"I had never written a book and didn’t have a clue how to write one," she recalls. "In the meantime, I had to do something to earn a living, so I freelanced. I didn’t have much in my cupboard and I was writing about food, and what I found was that all of these food references were really connecting with my readers.

"The language of food is really a language all its own. People would say, ‘I gained 10 pounds just reading your book,’ and I would reply, ‘I gained 10 pounds just writing it!’ I love food. It’s a very Southern way of communicating. It’s a way of loving people."

Food became such an integral part of the Mitford communal experience that Karon sometimes found herself in a pickle.

"Some of the food references, such as the Orange Marmalade Cake, were totally fiction, I had never heard of such a thing. I totally love orange marmalade but am not terribly fond of chocolate, so I just started talking about it. People wanted the recipe, and I didn’t have a recipe."

Atlanta chefs Scott Peacock and Edna Lewis came to the rescue with a recipe that Karon says is as challenging as it is scrumptious.

After a false start with a pricey but disappointing chef, Karon’s assistant introduced her to Martha McIntosh, a Mississippi kitchen magician who not only compiled this collection but also family-tested every one of the 150 recipes included here. Karon took great care to check the ingredients for Southern authenticity.

"For instance, Louella would use lard instead of shortening because she is in an age category where that’s how she was taught to cook, being Southern of course. What would Lottie Greer use, triple virgin olive oil or vegetable oil? She would use Crisco vegetable oil off the shelf of her brother’s country store; she doesn’t know from triple virgin olive oil. That’s the sort of thing Cynthia would cook with," she says.

Karon admits she has been far too busy wrapping up her Mitford series to cook much herself. Toward that end, the coming year will see a blizzard of Mitford books. Karon’s Christmas tale, <I>Shepherds Abiding</I>, will appear in paperback in time for the holidays. Beginning next May, each of the Mitford books will be sequentially published one time only in mass market editions, one a month, leading up to the series finale, <I>Light from Heaven</I>, in October.

Fans take heart: Karon plans to take Father Tim and Cynthia on the road in a new series that kicks off with a trip to Father Tim’s ancestral homeland, Ireland. And where Father Tim travels, can good food be far behind?

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