Thumbing through the pages of Amber Wilson’s new cookbook, it’s hard to believe that her childhood dream was to work for the space program. After writing her senior thesis in geography about how food defines the South, she turned down a job offer from NASA to pursue a career as a food writer. A self-taught home cook with an insatiable desire to honor the culinary culture of the South, she started her food blog, For the Love of the South, in 2012. In her new cookbook of the same name, she pays homage to her Southern roots while creating new dishes that draw on her experiences throughout the South.
Taste of the South (TOS): In the introduction to your book you say the spirit of hospitality is ingrained in Southerners. Tell us about this.
Amber Wilson : Growing up in Cajun country in southwestern Louisiana, I was surrounded by the most generous, kindhearted people I have ever known. Whenever we had visitors, we let them have the best of whatever we had to offer. They were made to feel welcome even if they dropped by unannounced. The same went for us as we visited friends and family. Everyone shared what they had, even if it wasn’t a lot. I grew up in a place where hands were always open to others without expecting anything in return. To me, that is the spirit of hospitality.
TOS: Your book is as much a love letter to the South as it is a recipe book. Which did you enjoy the most—writing the stories or developing the recipes?
Amber: For me, there is a great bond between the stories and recipes. Whenever I developed a recipe in the kitchen, a memory would be triggered from the sounds of bacon frying or the scraping of a wooden spoon on the bottom of the skillet. I can’t have one without the other!
TOS: You say that all of your memories begin and end with food. How so?
Amber: Looking back, some of my greatest memories were surrounded by food from family celebrations around picnic tables piled with boiled crawfish to cozy breakfasts spent over yeast rolls, boudin, and chicory coffee. I got to know my husband’s family around plates of homemade pickles, Alabama white sauce, pimiento cheese, and biscuits in Alabama. And presently, we’re making new memories here in Nashville. Food seems to always find its way, whether in the foreground or the background, in my greatest and most treasured memories.
TOS: Who are your greatest influences in the kitchen?
Amber: If it’s not too cliché to say, the women in my family. But it goes deeper than that. My grandmother tells stories of her mother who worked every day but still made time to make homemade root beer for her grandkids, kept a garden filled with okra, figs, and satsuma trees, and made strings of fricassees for her family. She influenced and inspired my grandmother, and in turn, my grandmother influences me. I hope to be that same influence on my children and someday pass on not only the recipes but that same legacy these great women carry.
TOS: What are the greatest lessons about life you’ve learned from the kitchen?
Amber: One of the greatest lessons I have learned is how to adapt. Life is full of beautiful and messy bits, but it’s what we do with the constant ebb and flow that matters. Cakes collapse, water boils over, cornbread burns, but it’s what we do with these moments that matters. Do we crumble under the weight of it all or do we cut the burnt crusts off the cornbread and pan-fry it in brown butter and make the most out of it? I choose the latter in the kitchen and in life.
Photos reprinted, with permission, from For the Love of the South by Amber Wilson, copyright 2018 by Amber Wilson. Reprinted courtesy Harper Design, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.