Justin Fox Burks is one of the bloggers behind the Chubby Vegetarian, a talented photographer, and a dear friend of ours here at the Flyer. Many of the photos you see in this paper, and most of those in this column, are his. We sat down with Burks and his wife and blogging partner Amy Lawrence to learn more about their newly released cookbook, The Southern Vegetarian.
Let's start with the Chubby Vegetarian. Where did the idea come from?
Justin: We started the blog in 2008 as a way for us to share the things we were making in our kitchen. Then people started asking for the recipes. We were thrilled when 40 people a day were looking at the blog. We have over 3,000 visitors a day now.
So how did you transition from bloggers to cookbook authors?
Justin: Two years ago, I was working on Jennifer Chandler's cookbook, Simply Grilling. She was talking to her editor who was telling Jennifer about how they really wanted to do a vegetarian book and did she know anyone. Jennifer said, "Justin and his wife Amy have a blog you should check out." They saw the huge volume of Southern-inflected things we were doing and said, "What if we took the Southern part of what you do and run with it?" I'm from Greenwood, Mississippi, and Amy's from Flowood, Mississippi, so we loved the idea. It's authentic to us. We ran with it.
"Southern" and "vegetarian" aren't words most people associate with one another. How do you handle the skeptics?
Justin: In the South, there was this idea that Southern cooking was only meat, all the time, and if you so much as mention vegetarianism you were sort of laughed at. Then people started running into health problems and realized the value of vegetables and the key role they've always played in our Southern history. This is an agrarian part of the country, and it should be a huge part of how we eat.
What was the hardest part in pulling together the cookbook?
Amy: Editing. Editing is not easy, because there is always something to improve. At about the seventh round of edits, it got to be a bit taxing.
Justin: Cutting down the recipes was the most difficult part. There's 860-something recipes on the Chubby Vegetarian, and we went from 600 recipes, cut it down to 300, cut it down to 200, which really hurt, and then it was like Sophie's Choice getting it down to 100.
Some of the recipes come across as very sophisticated, even a bit intimidating. What do you say to new chefs who pick up your book?
Justin: As a home cook, we were very conscious of other home cooks and being able to follow each of the steps to a good end. Whereas a lot of chefs, when you read their cookbooks, you see that they know a little more than you do. We're not trained. We didn't go to culinary school. And we don't own a restaurant. We're home cooks. There's nothing here beyond a home cook's capacity.
Out of all the recipes in the book, which one would you want if you were stranded on a desert island?
Amy: Triple-Ginger Apple Crisp.
Justin: Red Beans and Rice with Andouille Eggplant. It's life-sustaining, with good protein. It's healthy and spicy, and there's a lot of it.
What's your favorite cookbook?
Amy: Betty Crocker, with the red and white checks — my first one. Also, How It All Vegan!'s dessert section taught me a ton.
Justin: Charlie Trotter's Vegetables. It's gorgeous. It really helps you see vegetables in a different light.
No Joy of Cooking? No Alice Waters?
Justin: That's an interesting point. This is not Alice Waters-type food. Alice Waters is awesome, and I love what she does, taking something and keeping it simple. We're trying to make people think differently about vegetables. To let that vegetable take the protein position on the plate. While lightly sautéeing some greens in a little olive oil is a great approach, it's not how we're cooking here. We're taking the chance to elevate things.
Justin Fox Burks and Amy Lawrence will be signing The Southern Vegetarian at the Booksellers at Laurelwood, Tuesday, June 4th, 6 p.m. They'll also be selling The Southern Vegetarian at the Cooper-Young Community Farmers Market, Saturday, June 1st, 9-11:30 a.m.