Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Robert St. John: In Search of Voice

For the majority of the 23 years I have written this weekly column, the primary focus has been on food and restaurants. In 2011, a dozen years into my writing career, I spent six months overseas with my wife and two kids and the column morphed into a semi-travel column, at least during the times I am away from home base.

I was 40 years old when my writing career started. The local newspaper called one day and asked if I would contribute a weekly column. I said, “no” initially as I was too busy, and probably too scared to put myself out there. In those days it was a labor for me to write a letter to someone. I was 20 years into my restaurant career and had tunnel vision while trying to keep all the concepts afloat. Though newspaper editors kept pressing and I eventually relented.

The early writing was poor. Embarrassingly so. Occasionally I go back and read some of the early stuff and cringe. I was 40 years old but writing with a 15-year-old’s skill set. It makes sense because that was my age when I stopped trying to write anything of substance. My early columns read like a 9th grader’s forced composition paper.  

In those days I wasn't even using my own voice. An early review stated, “St. John is a cross between Emeril Lagasse and Lewis Grizzard.” I was a fan of both of those guys, and probably tried to live up to that billing even though it wasn’t who I was, on any level.

There was a lot of humor— or attempted humor— in the early days. When I read back on the pieces from the first five years, and in the early books, I wince because it's not even me who's writing. I can remember reading an early piece my friend John T. Edge wrote about Waffle House. I was inspired by it and tried to write my own piece about Waffle House. I would imagine if I went back and read both pieces back-to-back, mine would have been more than merely inspired by his. I didn't know any better. I never took any journalism classes or spent any time trying to write creatively.

After a few years, the writing improved, and other newspapers began to contact me asking if they could carry the column. Once that happened, even more newspapers called. At the height of the newspaper business— sometime around the early 2000s— I was in 32 newspapers from Louisiana to Florida, every week. The books grew out of the newspaper column, but it wasn't until that six-month trip to Europe that I started writing in my own voice.

There is something about being with your wife, 14-year-old daughter, and 10-year-old son traversing through 72 cities in 17 countries on two continents that makes life more efficient and to the point. That is what happened to my writing as well. The prose grew more honest and proficient. Instead of trying to make people laugh. I just spoke the truth— my truth— about what was going on in, and around, my life at the time. It’s what I still do today.

I found my voice and have been writing in that voice— such as it is— ever since. My vocabulary is fairly limited, and my writing is not flowery, but conversational and to the point. I never set out to be a writer. Though the column has provided me with the experience I desperately needed to communicate through the written word. Over the past 22 years I have written over 1,000 words a week, every week, never missing a week. With over 1.1 million words in print, I'm starting to get the hang of it.

It's why I told my two children to take all the English, composition, and creative writing classes they could during college. It is my philosophy that, no matter what the profession, one needs to be able to communicate through the written word. When I read things my children have written I am impressed. They, in their early 20s, are much better writers than I was in my early 40s.

When I look back at my early education there were two teachers who had the biggest impact on my life. My 4th grade teacher Mrs. Nell Smith recognized that I was severely ADHD. I was diagnosed as “hyperactive” as they didn't have a proper term for this condition back then. Mrs. Smith was able to channel my creative energy by allowing me to skip our daily lesson plans. Instead, she encouraged me to write plays and cast my fellow students as actors in the plays. Whatever subjects I missed that year— whether math or science— pale in comparison to the out-of-the-box thinking that wonderful woman blessed me with in 1969. At 60, I still benefit today.

The other great influence in those early years was a lady named Bettye Boyd. She was my high school English teacher and still one of the finest teachers I've ever known. I write today knowing that Mrs. Boyd may have her red pencil out correcting my grammar, punctuation, and structure. She surely has better things to do, but I’m a better writer knowing that she may be reading.

The advice I give to kids when I'm speaking at a school or to a group is, “Always be open to opportunity. One never knows what the future holds.” In high school I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. As soon as I started working in restaurants, I knew. Though I just assumed I would be a restaurateur. My goal was to own one restaurant so I could wear T-shirts and shorts to work every day. Then the writing started, and this column began. Twelve books followed and then TV and all the other ancillary projects with which I am involved. 

The beauty of my situation today is that I am blessed to have 100% creative control in everything I do. It's something that I never take for granted. Whether it's books, television, or restaurant development there's no one looking over my shoulder dictating what must be done. It's not that writers don't need editors, and businessmen don't need financial advisors, but to unleash the full creative beast that lives within, one needs a substantial amount of freedom. I'm blessed for many reasons, but that’s the one I am most grateful for today.



Grilled and Chilled Asparagus with Dill Mayonnaise

For the asparagus

2 lbs                Asparagus, fresh

3 Tbl               Olive oil

2 tsp                Kosher Salt

1 tsp                Black Pepper, freshly ground

Toss the asparagus with olive oil, salt and pepper. Arrange the asparagus on a medium-heat grill and cook for 5-7 minutes. Turn the asparagus often to prevent burning.

Remove from the grill and cool.

Note: Asparagus can be baked in an oven set to “broil.” Place on a cookie sheet, roll in olive oil, sprinkle with salt, and broil for five minutes or until al dente.


Dill Mayonnaise

 2                     Egg Yolks

1 tsp                Salt

1 /2 tsp            Dijon Mustard

1 1 /2 tsp         Lemon Juice, freshly squeezed

1 tsp                White Vinegar

1 cup               Canola Oil

1/4 cup            Fresh Dill, chopped

In a small mixing bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, salt, and mustard. When mixture becomes light in color, add lemon juice. Blend.

Drizzle oil slowly into the yolk mixture, whisking constantly. After adding half of the oil, stir in vinegar. Continue whisking and add remaining oil. Add fresh dill.

The mayonnaise may be held refrigerated for one week.

To serve, arrange the chilled asparagus on a serving platter. Serve the mayonnaise on the side for dipping.

Yield:6-8 servings


Anonymous said...

I'm glad you found your voice, Robert. If we don't evolve, learn and grow, then we might as well lie down and die as far as I'm concerned. Keep on keeping on. I horde the free recipes you give us, too!

Anonymous said...

RSJ, please consider new topics.

For Gawd's sake ... we all know about your childhood, your drunk college years, your success as a businessman, and your love of Italy.
You tell us every week.

I think all of us that follow you will read whatever you type.

But tell us something new.

(Like how the Jackson water situation has impacted your new
Fondren project).

Stuff About ZeroBear PolyBear said...

Thanks for the good reads Robert.

Baked Red Snapper with Dijon Sauce

2 Red Snapper fillets
Salt and White Pepper
2 Tablespoons Butter, melted


Pan drippings from cooking the fish
1 Tablespoon Butter
2 Tablespoons Chopped Shallots
1 cup Dry White Mine
3 Tablespoons Dijon Mustard
Salt and White Pepper to taste

Chopped Parsley


Season fillets with salt and pepper. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Place an oven proof saute pan into oven and bring to temperature. Add melted butter and seasoned fillets to the pan and cook until the fillet changes color and a fork easily pierces the fillet. Do not turn the fillets while cooking. Baste the fillets with the butter at least once during the cooking. When fillets are done, transfer them from the pan, to a warm serving plate.

At medium heat on the stove top, Add butter and finely chopped shallots. Saute until the shallots are tender, then deglaze pan with dry white wine. Cook until volume is reduced by 1/2, then add Dijon Mustard, taste and season as needed with salt and white pepper.

Portion the Dijon sauce and some parsley over baked fillets on the serving plate.

Accompany with steamed asparagus. and crusty bread.

Anonymous said...

5:21 - go back to giving your talks to groups, and writing your weekly columns. If yo have a real business on the side, attend to it. All would be better uses of your time than your constant bitching about the columns others write. If you don't like them, don't read them. Unless there is something strange going on in your basement, nobody is forcing you to click on RSJ's columns every week.

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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.

Note: Security provided by INS.

Trollfest '07

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.

Note: Security provided by INS