This year brought challenges and rewards. A look back at a busy 2019.
I’m always amazed at other scholars who keep their websites up-to-date. Perhaps they manage their time better or work harder. This year, and in particular its second half, has felt like I’ve been on a carousel waving to the people in my life, waiting for a moment to stop and rest. With fall grades submitted with 7 hours to spare, I thought I’d finally update this WordPress with one long post to say where I’ve been.
January began with my first post-tenure sabbatical, and I really felt primed to get a lot done. At the same time, I needed to recharge. The 2017-18 academic year had been savage, one in which I’d served my university and colleagues in a time of crisis, and the experience had taken a lot out of my hide. 2019 would be different, I thought. And I did accomplish quite a bit, just not at all what I was planning on doing.
It all began this time last year, around Christmas of 2018, when I had lunch with my friend John T. Edge and his son who had come to town to look at Loyola for potential college. We discussed my possibly being part of an episode of the second season of the critically-acclaimed show that he and Wright Thompson produce for ESPN’s SEC Network called TrueSouth. They wanted to do something around Creole Italian that explained the Sicilian imprint upon New Orleans food today. Needless to say I was enthusiastic about this.
John T, Wright, and Timothy Horgan, the amazing talent that runs Bluefoot TV, came down to New Orleans in late January to scout locations, and I got to be a part of that. These guys have fun on the job, but it is also quite impressive and inspiring to see how hard they all work. Academia is a very “I’ll get to that next week” kind of profession, but this crew operates on the “I’ll get on that immediately” sort of pace. I did not know at the time that this would set the tone for my year, one that has changed a good bit about the way I approach my work.
The full crew from Bluefoot returned in mid-March to film, and it was a marvel to witness. It can often be tedious to participate in TV, but not with this production. It wasn’t just their phenomenal technical prowess, but also the level of organization that set what they do apart. Of course the content vision of the all-star team of Edge, Thompson, and Horgan drive it forward. There is a reason why this show is so good.
By the time that the show aired in September, a lot else had happened in my professional life. Jess, my wife, found it amusing when strangers would come up and say, “hey, I saw you on the SEC Network!” Fifteen minutes and all that.
James Beard Awards
Unquestionably the biggest thing to happen this year was having Creole Italian receive a nomination for a James Beard Foundation Award. It was March 27th, and I was waiting for my son at a weekly appointment, giving my first-ever piece for Rouses Everyday Magazine (see below) a last look-over when I looked at the clock and realized my son would be coming out with his teacher any minute. “I’ll just glance at Twitter,” I thought. I had a notification from Jon Hochstat, a chef in Colorado and twitter friend saying “Congrats Justin.” For what? Wait… was that tweet from James Beard Foundation? My son comes out with his teacher. Time to close the computer. I text my wife to look at my TL, that I’ll be home soon.
It took a few minutes to figure out that JBF was live tweeting the nominations. The results were not on their website. But, after a bit, we found it. As I replied to Jon: Holy shit!
To say that this was not on my radar screen is an understatement. I think everyone who writes about food dreams about a Beard Award, including me, but I didn’t even know when the announcements would occur much less ever to expect such a thing. And I’ll confess that I was a little emotional. Because even if it never went any further (and it didn’t!) to be nominated is a pretty big deal for me. I’ve worked hard at what I do, and to be recognized by the people who make up this committee means a lot. This was easily the biggest, but also coolest recognition I’d had in my career.
Jess and I went to New York for the awards gala, which was a lot of fun (thank you Delta Skymiles!) but is not an inexpensive proposition for Third Coasters like us. (JBFA will give you a ticket to the gala, but the rest is on you.) In the end Anna Ziede won for her fine book Canned, and we were pretty happy just to be included.
Academic Writing & Presentations
The most academic-style writing that I’ve put out this year is a piece for a series called “What it Means to be American” hosted by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and Zócalo Public Square, and even it, like everything else I’ve done this year, was public facing. The resulting article, “How Sicilian Merchants in New Orleans Reinvented America’s Diet,” appeared in June with a title not of my choosing, but I’m content with it nonetheless!
It felt like I gave a lot of talks about Creole Italian in 2019, but it wasn’t until I sat down to write this post that I realized that the number was eleven. Some of the highlights included being on the program of the Tennessee Williams Festival in March and being invited to Los Angeles in December to give a talk at the Instituto Italiano di Cultura. I’m always gratified when people come to hear me speak, ask interesting questions, and are so gracious as to ask me to sign their copy of my book.
One thing I’ve been doing a lot more lately is thinking about placing work in more general audience publications, and I’ve been encouraged by what has to be the most fun I’ve ever had writing: Rouses Everyday Magazine. Rouses is a regional grocery store chain and they lavish a great deal of care upon its bi-monthly publication. Marcy Nathan, the editor, came to my book launch in 2018 at Octavia Books and told me to be in touch.
My first piece appeared in the May-June, 2019 issue on the use of food in James Lee Burke’s Robicheaux crime fiction series. I’ve been wanting to write about Burke for forever and have presented conference presentations on him, so it was exciting to compose something of such great interest to me. I wasn’t sure that Marcy would keep the Richard Slotkin part about mythic space but darn if she did which was awesome and bold. Since then I’ve gotten to write about the history of Chinese restaurants in New Orleans, the Chinese of the Mississippi Delta, Football Special Trains, and the New Orleans political boss and liquor distributor James Comiskey.
From a writing standpoint, these pieces are valuable exercise in which I take a dive into a topic that interests me, and turn out in a few weeks something the public wants to read. This forces me to be disciplined from both a time standpoint as well as a self-editing one. It has also helped me hone my style a bit as a food writer, crafting an identity as someone who writes about the process and cultural impact of food more than taste or style. I’m very grateful for Rouses for the opportunity.
From a research standpoint, the highlight of this year had to be my partnership with the Southern Foodways Alliance as its New Orleans connection for the Career Servers Oral History Project. I truly love both conducting oral history and teaching students to do the same. There is something almost magical about capturing memories otherwise lost, and people are without fail quite interesting. Over the summer I was able to record eleven interviews and got a chance to be working alongside the estimable photographer L. Kasimu Harris, whose portraits of our subjects are true art.
These interviews covered everything from what it was like to work in the French Quarter during the wild early 1970s to the equally wild-west post-Katrina days, engaged many of the hardships that go along with the profession, and I believe opened a window into a world few diners understand. I also learned an awful lot about what servers think that change the way I view restaurant culture, and I plan on writing something from these interviews in the near future. The short version: increase your tip.
This fall my department and college honored me with the Peter J. Cangelosi/BEGGARS Distinguished Professorship. It was a strange moment in a way. As someone who spent seven years on the job market teaching in visiting positions, I know what is like to be a have-not in academia. Here, all of a sudden I had funding to go do intellectually enriching activities that were previously off limits. This included attending the SFA Fall Symposium in Oxford, Mississippi, where my work was featured in the oral history cavalcade and where I had a productive symposium from which I returned invigorated about my new project.
While I have worked quite hard to get where I am, and have certainly suffered along the way (including moving five times in seven years!) there are plenty of others just like me who may never receive what they deserve. I suppose this is true in many fields, but it is particularly acute today in the humanities. There are no easy solutions, but it is those of us who have become academia’s “haves” need to fight for those being exploited by the system.
This year exposed me to ways of doing things that I want to see more of in my professional life. I have a new book project that I’ll be sharing more about in the near future. I’ve been working on translating some of it into the classroom as well. But plans are fickle, so all I can say is check this space a year from now to see how it actually turns out.