Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Robert St. John: Mississippi Mornings, The Photo Shoot Begins

 Over the course of the past 20 years, I have written 11 books. Four were collaborations with my friend and watercolorist, Wyatt Waters. Four were non-fiction works— two were compilations of my writings, one was a nationally published book on the South, and the most recent release was last fall’s comprehensive tome on the Mississippi artist, Walter Anderson, with friend and collaborator on several fronts, Anthony Thaxton. Three were solo cookbooks. The second book I ever wrote was a solo cookbook that took the heritage recipes I grew up eating in the South and updated them and modernized them for the new century.


Based on that cookbook, “Deep South Staples or How to Survive a Southern Kitchen Without a Can of Cream of Mushroom Soup,” I was asked by my agent to fly to New York and sign a three-book deal with Hyperion, an imprint now folded into the Walt Disney Company. The good thing about that book deal is that they liked the “Deep South Staples” content and design so much they re-released it on a national scale. Great news for me because a three-book deal turned into a situation that I would only have to write two books to fulfill the contract. 

At our first new-projects meeting I told them I wanted to release a party cookbook with full-color photography. There were long discussions in their New York headquarters about what that book would look like. Ultimately, they wanted to take the retro design of the first book and bundle it into a three-book package with the same retro theme throughout. I argued against that point telling them that there would be a disconnect putting the modern party recipes into a retro package. “The first cookbook used old recipes that were updated so it made sense to be in a retro-feeling package,” I said. “This party book contains modern recipes. I believe there will be a disconnect.” 


“Trust us. We know what we're doing.” 


I looked around the boardroom and figured, “I'm here in a national publisher’s office on the Upper West Side, they are in the book business, they are successful, they obviously know what they're doing.” Two weeks into the release of the party book the publicist in New York called and said, “Robert, we have a disconnect here.” 




Luckily the third book I released with Hyperion was the book wanted to do with them all along. It was a very successful grilling cookbook with full photography. They sent a very talented photographer down from New York and we shot the book in 10 days on my front porch. He did a great job. The shots were beautiful. The publisher didn't add a food stylist to the budget, so I ended up being the de facto food stylist. The first couple of days were rough, but after a rocky start I began to get the hang of it and enjoyed food styling. I haven't done much of it since, other than some of the food shots we do for social media. But I have always hoped to get back to a cookbook photo session for one of my books.


That is happening today.


As I type, we have a small army of people at my house— a different house than the last time—cooking, composing, styling, and photographing breakfast recipes for my new book, “Mississippi Mornings,” which will be released around Thanksgiving this fall.


I have wanted to do a breakfast cookbook for the last 15 years. I originally pitched my New York publisher a Christmas book and a breakfast book as the two books to fulfill the contract. They weren't interested in a Christmas book— and wanted to change the name to “holiday cooking,” so I moved on from that idea quickly— knowing that I could release a Christmas cookbook under my own publishing imprint one day. The second pitch I threw out for discussion was a breakfast cookbook. I can't remember exactly what their reasoning was for not wanting to release a breakfast cookbook, but at the time, I deferred to them because I assumed they knew best. Ultimately, that was a great experience, because I learned that I had a way better idea what works best for me and the people who follow my work and purchase my books. 


After the party cookbook disconnect, I started going with my own instincts. And after the grilling book I went back to using my own imprint which gives me 100% autonomy, 100% creativity, and allows me to make sure that my books are only sold in local, independent bookstores, and no big-box mega national chains. I'm blessed to have a loyal following in this region and even more blessed that I don't need a national publisher to share my work with those who are interested.


Back to the small army currently in my kitchen and backyard. I have worked with Chefs Linda Nance and Scott Strickland for over 20 years, each. They are both alumni of the Purple Parrot, Crescent City Grill, and several cookbook tours and demos. The three of us started recipe testing this book back in February. They are here in my kitchen preparing all the food for the photo shoot. 


Longtime friend, Chef Martha Foose, and I have been working on a project that I am extremely excited about and will announce in the coming days. As we prepare to get that ball rolling, she is here taking charge of food styling and design, while putting to good use everything she’s learned while working on her four cookbooks and dozens of other people’s cookbooks. 


Nashville photographer, Kate Dearman is the eye behind the lens, and— so far— that eye is proving to be spot-on perfect. She’s the newbie to the crew as this is the first time we have worked together, but her mother and I grew up together and I have known her family all my life. Based on the early results, we will definitely work together again.


My wife, and our friend Justin Jordan, have been on prop duty and my assistant, Simeon is handling logistics, as always. Anthony Thaxton is designing the book, after doing such a great job on the Anderson book. It’s a true team effort. I am in the middle of the three rings bouncing back and forth while finishing writing all the stories, front matter, and headnotes under a deadline that has long since passed.


A lot of planning goes into coordinating an effort such as this. There are groceries to be purchased, food to be ordered, plates and props to be gathered, schedules to be coordinated, dishes to be prepared— and prepared again, and again— recipes to be tweaked, lighting to be set, weather to consider, and it all must come together in an instant as dishes need to be photographed within minutes of being cooked. It sounds complicated, and maybe it is, but I love every minute of it. I love the creative process. But mostly I love creating with other people, whether it is one person, a team on a cookbook photo shoot, or hundreds of people who get up every day and allow our restaurants to spin in greased grooves. 


I am a blessed man. I love what I do. I have surrounded myself with talented people— much more talented than I— my entire career, and I get so much joy from the collaborative process (especially when the creative control is based in Hattiesburg, Mississippi and not the Upper West Side of Manhattan). When this breakfast cookbook is released in November, it will have my name on the cover, but it will be the result of a lot of hard work and passion of many, many people.



Amaretto-Brulee Breakfast Bread


1 /3 cup           Butter, melted

3 /4 cup           Brown sugar

2 Tbl               Honey

2 Tbl               Pecans, chopped (optional)

2 Tbl               Almonds, slivered and blanched (optional)

8                      French bread croutons, cut into 1-inch thick rounds

4                      Eggs

2 /3 cup           Milk

1 /4 cup           Heavy cream

1 /8 tsp             Cinnamon

1 /8 tsp             Nutmeg

1 Tbl               Vanilla

1 Tbl               Amaretto


French bread croutons should be cut out of a baguette-style French bread loaf. Slices should be one inch thick. 


In a cast iron skillet, combine butter, brown sugar and honey over medium-high heat. Cook mixture, stirring constantly until bubbly and sugar has dissolved. Add nuts. Pour Brulee into the bottom of a round, two-quart Pyrex baking dish. Allow Brulee to cool slightly then top with the French bread croutons. 


In a large mixing bowl whisk eggs, milk, heavy cream, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla and Amaretto. Pour mixture evenly over the croutons. Using the tips of your fingers, press bread down gently to force custard into croutons without breaking. Cover dish with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. 


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. 


Allow custard to come to room temperature one hour before baking. Bake uncovered until French bread is puffed and edges of croutons are golden brown, (approximately 40 minutes). Place a plate on top of the baking dish. Using dish towels or pot holders, invert dish onto a plate. Top with powdered sugar. Yield: four to six servings


Anonymous said...

Not enough Amaretto.

Anonymous said...

The last several times I ate at the Crescent City Grill in Hattiesburg , I thought that Mr. St John should stop writing books and go beck and check on the quality of his restaurant food. It is nowhere as good as it use to be. I loved eating there , but now no more.

Krusatyr said...

10:02 "Not enough Amaretto"
Ditto. Or just skip it and use plenty of vanilla and almond extract.

Anonymous said...

My carb loving heart is drooling, but my workout plan says no.

Anonymous said...

I've always admired St. John, But he needs a "writing coach" (for lack of a better term).
Robert often "comes across" as a self-centered,arrogant and bragging man.
Although I've never thought that was his intention.

One minute he's whining about about lost income due to Covid, And then his next essay is about spending three months traveling around Tuscany ?

You can't have it both ways , Mister St.John.

Anonymous said...

I'm really glad for a column on cooking. I didn't really know who he was and was beginning to wonder if he really cooked or just traveled.

Please more columns on cooking. Maybe some recipes for good sauces for fish.

Ophelia said...

June 8 at 6:35 p.m., I believe what you mean that he needs is an editor. And you didn’t need to put quotation marks around “comes across.” I just used them, because I am quoting you, but you were using a well-known expression in the common vernacular. Like unnecessary ALL CAPS, these things distract from one’s message.

But I agree with everything you wrote.

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Trollfest '09

Trollfest '07 was such a success that Jackson Jambalaya will once again host Trollfest '09. Catch this great event which will leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Othor Cain and his band, The Black Power Structure headline the night while Sonjay Poontang returns for an encore performance. Former Frank Melton bodyguard Marcus Wright makes his premier appearance at Trollfest singing "I'm a Sweet Transvestite" from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Kamikaze will sing his new hit, “How I sold out to da Man.” Robbie Bell again performs: “Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be Bells” and “Any friend of Ed Peters is a friend of mine”. After the show, Ms. Bell will autograph copies of her mug shot photos. In a salute to “Dancing with the Stars”, Ms. Bell and Hinds County District Attorney Robert Smith will dance the Wango Tango.

Wrestling returns, except this time it will be a Battle Royal with Othor Cain, Ben Allen, Kim Wade, Haley Fisackerly, Alan Lange, and “Big Cat” Donna Ladd all in the ring at the same time. The Battle Royal will be in a steel cage, no time limit, no referee, and the losers must leave town. Marshand Crisler will be the honorary referee (as it gives him a title without actually having to do anything).

Meet KIM Waaaaaade at the Entergy Tent. For five pesos, Kim will sell you a chance to win a deed to a crack house on Ridgeway Street stuffed in the Howard Industries pinata. Don't worry if the pinata is beaten to shreds, as Mr. Wade has Jose, Emmanuel, and Carlos, all illegal immigrants, available as replacements for the it. Upon leaving the Entergy tent, fig leaves will be available in case Entergy literally takes everything you have as part of its Trollfest ticket price adjustment charge.

Donna Ladd of The Jackson Free Press will give several classes on learning how to write. Smearing, writing without factchecking, and reporting only one side of a story will be covered. A donation to pay their taxes will be accepted and she will be signing copies of their former federal tax liens. Ms. Ladd will give a dramatic reading of her two award-winning essays (They received The Jackson Free Press "Best Of" awards.) "Why everything is always about me" and "Why I cover murders better than anyone else in Jackson".

In the spirit of helping those who are less fortunate, Trollfest '09 adopts a cause for which a portion of the proceeds and donations will be donated: Keeping Frank Melton in his home. The “Keep Frank Melton From Being Homeless” booth will sell chances for five dollars to pin the tail on the jackass. John Reeves has graciously volunteered to be the jackass for this honorable excursion into saving Frank's ass. What's an ass between two friends after all? If Mr. Reeves is unable to um, perform, Speaker Billy McCoy has also volunteered as when the word “jackass” was mentioned he immediately ran as fast as he could to sign up.

In order to help clean up the legal profession, Adam Kilgore of the Mississippi Bar will be giving away free, round-trip plane tickets to the North Pole where they keep their bar complaint forms (which are NOT available online). If you don't want to go to the North Pole, you can enjoy Brant Brantley's (of the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance) free guided tours of the quicksand field over by High Street where all complaints against judges disappear. If for some reason you are unable to control yourself, never fear; Judge Houston Patton will operate his jail where no lawyers are needed or allowed as you just sit there for minutes... hours.... months...years until he decides he is tired of you sitting in his jail. Do not think Judge Patton is a bad judge however as he plans to serve free Mad Dog 20/20 to all inmates.

Trollfest '09 is a pet-friendly event as well. Feel free to bring your dog with you and do not worry if your pet gets hungry, as employees of the Jackson Zoo will be on hand to provide some of their animals as food when it gets to be feeding time for your little loved one.

Relax at the Fox News Tent. Since there are only three blonde reporters in Jackson (being blonde is a requirement for working at Fox News), Megan and Kathryn from WAPT and Wendy from WLBT will be on loan to Fox. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both and a torn-up Obama yard sign will entitle you to free drinks served by Megan, Wendy, and Kathryn. Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required. Just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '09 is for EVERYONE!!!

This is definitely a Beaver production.

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Jackson Jambalaya is the home of Trollfest '07. Catch this great event which promises to leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Sonjay Poontang and his band headline the night with a special steel cage, no time limit "loser must leave town" bout between Alan Lange and "Big Cat"Donna Ladd following afterwards. Kamikaze will perform his new song F*** Bush, he's still a _____. Did I mention there was no referee? Dr. Heddy Matthias and Lori Gregory will face off in the undercard dueling with dangling participles and other um, devices. Robbie Bell will perform Her two latest songs: My Best Friends are in the Media and Mama's, Don't Let Your Babies Grow up to be George Bell. Sid Salter of The Clarion-Ledger will host "Pin the Tail on the Trial Lawyer", sponsored by State Farm.

There will be a hugging booth where in exchange for your young son, Frank Melton will give you a loooong hug. Trollfest will have a dunking booth where Muhammed the terrorist will curse you to Allah as you try to hit a target that will drop him into a vat of pig grease. However, in the true spirit of Separate But Equal, Don Imus and someone from NE Jackson will also sit in the dunking booth for an equal amount of time. Tom Head will give a reading for two hours on why he can't figure out who the hell he is. Cliff Cargill will give lessons with his .80 caliber desert eagle, using Frank Melton photos as targets. Tackleberry will be on hand for an autograph session. KIM Waaaaaade will be passing out free titles and deeds to crackhouses formerly owned by The Wood Street Players.

If you get tired come relax at the Fox News Tent. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both will entitle you to free drinks.Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required, just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '07 is for EVERYONE!!!

This is definitely a Beaver production.

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