Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Robert St. John: Nobody's Poet

This week's recipe: Purple Parrot Pumpkin Cheesecake!

In the late 1990s I was asked by my local newspaper to write a weekly food column. I politely declined citing an overloaded schedule and lack of any known writing skills. They were persistent and kept asking until one day, after the fourth or fifth ask, I gave in and agreed. Once that first column was written and submitted, they may have regretted the ask. The writing was bad. Seriously bad. I don’t have access to those columns I wrote in the early months, but I’ve re-read some that were published in the first year and I cringe every time.

I was almost 40 years old when I started this writing gig. I had shown a proficiency for writing in high school, but after graduation I set my sights on the restaurant business, hit the tunnel-vision button and focused— almost solely— on furthering that career. Restaurants were first and foremost in my life. Before this column it was a labor to write a letter to someone.

But the newspaper didn’t give up. They stuck it out. In time, the writing got a little better. Then other newspapers called. Within a couple of years, I was writing a thousand words a week in over 30 newspapers.

It was a laborious task at first. But eventually, as the writing improved, and the readership response grew more favorable, I began to develop a passion for writing. The problem at that point was that I was in my early forties but— since my writing skills had been mothballed for decades— I was writing at the level of a college freshman who was struggling in Comp I. Around that time I went back to college, finished up the six hours that had gone uncompleted, got a degree, and then kept taking undergraduate, and the graduate-level creative writing courses and workshops at The University of Southern Mississippi.

College is different in one’s forties. I no longer showed up on the first day of class, looked for the prettiest girl in the room and grabbed a desk by her, hopefully in the back of the room. I sat in the front of the class. The desks were smaller than they had been a couple of decades earlier, but I wasn’t distracted, and— as in all my restaurant business classes years earlier— I was engaged and interested.

The graduate-level writing workshops made the biggest difference in my work. I was getting skewered by 22-year old grad students, weekly. It was rough, but it made me a better writer, and I began to make wiser choices. In those days I would begin to turn a phrase that I thought sounded clever and literary (often called little darlings) but would stop myself knowing that those students would rip that line— and the guy who wrote it— to shreds. They were often unrelentless, and I’m a better writer for it.

The writing was better, yet I still hadn’t found my voice. In a review of one of my early books I was described as a “food-humor writer” and my style was labeled as “Lewis Grizzard meets Emeril.” I was flattered and started writing in that vein. The problem was that my writing skills weren’t anywhere in the same ballpark as Lewis Grizzard, and my culinary skills and knowledge couldn’t match Emeril’s even on my best day. The writing and humor were forced. It wasn’t me. It was a written version of what I thought I should be. I don’t consider myself naturally funny or clever, even.

In 2011, I flew my wife, 10-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter to Sweden, bought a Volvo, and spent the next six months in 17 countries and 72 cities on two continents. I continued to write the column every week. Somewhere on that journey, probably in some small European outpost, this Mississippi boy’s writing found its voice.

There is some type of bunker mentality that is developed when traveling at that pace and under long-term conditions. Normal rules don’t apply. The comforts of home are gone. Combine that with wide-eyed wanderlust and a new and historic adventure around every corner and nothing is forced. The words almost write themselves. The directives of my workshop professors the Barthelme brothers began to ring true— “Write what you know.”

This column morphed from an affected “food-humor” feature to an honest accounting of food, travel, family, and my love of the American South.

The most often asked question I receive about my writing is, “Do you ever run out of things to write about?” The answer to that is always, “No.” Though in the early days I would be somewhere, and a comment or incident would trigger a thought and I would tell myself to remember that and write about it in the future. Then I would forget about it until something triggered the same thought and I would remember I wanted to write about that two years earlier. After that, anytime I had an idea, thought, or inspiration, I opened the notes feature in my phone, jotted down the thought in rough form, and filed it away.

I sit down to write this column on Monday mornings. I typically know what I want to cover. Though if I’m at a loss, I open my notes and take my pick. At present there are 262 column topic ideas filed in my notes app. I take solace in the fact that if the idea well ran dry tomorrow, I’d have at least five years worth of topics to cover.

The newspaper business model changed several years ago. I’m still carried in a couple of dozen each week, but most of my readership is online via email and my website. Though I am a newspaper guy to my core. My grandfather owned the local paper and my father worked there as well. It’s in my blood.

I never set out to be a syndicated weekly columnist. But I never planned on writing books, producing documentaries, hosting travel groups, or hosting television shows. My goal early on was to own one restaurant so I could wear t-shirts and shorts every day to work. Yet after 13 books, a couple of regional Emmy awards, 1,000 travel guests, and five seasons of television, here I am. If I’ve done anything right in my strange and sorted career, it’s been that I have been open to opportunities when they fell in my lap and followed my passions. Nothing more. Nothing less.

For the past 25 years I have written 1,000+ words, every week, in this space. I have never missed a week. That’s over 1.3 million words in print. That’s a lot of typing for someone who never paid attention in his high school typing class and still keyboards with three fingers. But the streak is alive. I don’t know how long I’ll keep writing. I feel like I should probably write a few back up columns and put them in reserve in case I’m in a car wreck or a coma and I can keep the weekly streak alive until I regain consciousness.

In the meantime, I’ll remain open to opportunities, do my best to follow my passions, and try to keep my writing— and my voice— authentic and true.


Purple Parrot Pumpkin Cheesecake

2 pounds cream cheese, room temperature

1 cup Brown sugar

Pinch salt

5 eggs

4 egg yolks

3 /4 cup Pumpkin Puree

2 tsp vanilla extract

2 tsp Pumpkin Spice

Preheat the oven to 275 degrees

Place softened cream cheese in large mixing bowl and beat using paddle attachment on medium speed until VERY smooth. Scrape sides and beat again to ensure there are no lumps.

Add brown sugar and mix well. Add in eggs and yolks a few at a time, allowing them to incorporate well before adding more.

Place the mixer on slow speed and add pumpkin puree, vanilla extract, and pumpkin spice. As soon as the pumpkin is incorporated, stop mixing

Pour the batter into a cheesecake crust (recipe listed below) and bake for 1-1 1 /2 hours. The cheesecake should jiggle slightly when tapped. Remove and let cool on a wire rack. Refrigerate overnight before serving.

To cut cheesecake, run a thin knife under hot water before cutting each slice.

Cheesecake Crust

1 1 /2 cups graham cracker crumbs

3 /4 cup melted butter

1 /2 cup sugar

Combine crumbs and sugar and mix by hand Add butter in stages, mixing well before each addition.

Evenly distribute the crust in a nine-inch spring form pan, pressing it firmly on the bottom of the pan, and building crust up two inches on the sides of the pan.

Pour in the cheesecake batter and bake for 1-1 1 /2 hours. The cheesecakes should jiggle slightly when tapped.

Remove and cool refrigerate overnight before serving.

To cut, run a thin knife under hot water before cutting each slice.

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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