On a spring day in 2014, while in the parking lot of a H-E-B supermarket in Houston, Amy Evans received a phone call from a close friend from the Mississippi Delta.
“Martha randomly dialed me up and said, ‘Amy, the titles of your paintings would make really good headlines for recipes,’” Evans recalls. “I was like, ‘Yeah, whatever.’”
Evans, who had just moved back to her home state of Texas after living in Oxford for about 13 years, was not convinced when Martha Foose, award-winning chef and cookbook author, first presented the idea of collaborating on a cookbook.
It wasn’t until about a year later that Evans finally began to see the potential of Foose’s vision. While attending a panel discussion on collaboration during the Southern Food Writers Conference in Knoxville, Evans decided to reach out to Foose without hesitation.
“I was sitting in the audience, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is what Martha is talking about. We could do this,’” Evans said during a phone call with Mississippi Today. “So I texted her from the audience during that panel and was like, ‘Do you still want to do that book with me?’”
Soon after, Evans and her daughter, Sofia Grace, took a road trip to Foose’s hometown of Pluto. Evans brought her paintings, which she describes as “folksy, nostalgic and Southern,” and camped out in Foose’s kitchen where the two women talked about the recipes that would best correspond with each piece of art.
“I just remember being in that kitchen and being so excited that these paintings I’ve done for the past 15 years were being given another life through Martha’s recipes,” Evans said. “It just all clicked. It was so easy for us to connect the dots and have the paintings inspire the recipes and then fully develop these characters I introduced in the titles of my paintings.”
“A Good Meal is Hard to Find: Storied Recipes from the Deep South” features 60 recipes and 60 paintings categorized under the quirky cookbook’s five chapters: “Morning Glories,” “Lingering Lunches,” “Afternoon Pick-Me-Ups,” “Dinner Dates & Late-Night Takes” and “Anytime Sweets.” The cookbook’s release date is Tuesday, April 28.
Copies are currently available at Square Books in Oxford, where Foose first fell in love with cookbooks as a teenager in the 1980s.
With headlines like Lucille’s Lemon Lavender Float and Ula Mae’s Spoonbread with Oysters and Artichokes, the book’s recipes all begin with a short paragraph providing a glimpse into the lives of these Southern, female characters and their finesse in the kitchen.
“It was such a fun process,” Evans said. “I flushed out my painting titles to kind of extend the stories and wrote a short little paragraph that told you a little bit more of my original character that I conjured up for the painting.”
Evans, who attended graduate school at the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture and worked for the Southern Foodways Alliance, says her paintings have always been about Southern women with old-fashioned names like Josephine and Esther. The theme is inspired by her maternal grandmother, Alla Grace Browder Riley, whom Evans would visit every summer in Alabama as a child. It was in her grandmother’s kitchen where she developed an interest in the South and a love of Southern food and culinary traditions.
“This wouldn’t have happened without Amy’s paintings,” Foose said. “I had always been a fan of her artwork. The titles of her paintings always tickled me. It was so fun for us to just sit around and think about the characters and what they would do in their kitchens.”
Foose says readers can expect a broad range of recipes suited for any type of cook. Some recipes, like Grace’s Four-Corner Nabs, require a more involved process. But, on the other hand, one can still come across simple recipes with Jiffy mix on the ingredient list. And the Yazoo City native doesn’t think anyone should be embarrassed for freestyling or wanting to do things their own way in the kitchen.
“I don’t think folks should be shamed,” she said. “Everybody’s busy. And these days, now that we’re all locked in, you just have to make due with what you have. If you’re making an effort to cook for people you love or even yourself, do what you have to do and make the best of it.”
Foose points out that with the popularity of social media sites, such as Pinterest and Instagram, known for their food-styled visuals, it’s easy for folks at home to feel the pressure to emulate what is pictured. She hopes the photo-less cookbook she created with Evans will encourage people to take a leap of faith and be more creative.
“This cookbook is for whoever wants to read a fun story and get in the kitchen,” Evans said. “In the back of the book, we encourage people when they make a dish to send us an image of it so we can put it on the Good Meal is Hard to Find site. We’re letting readers and home cooks drive how the story ends in their kitchen.”