Joni Woolf: It’s about food — and Pat Conroy

Published 2:16 pm Saturday, August 18, 2018

It’s been almost 40 years since the late, great novelist Pat Conroy wrote an Introduction to a classy cookbook entitled simply, “The High Museum of Art Recipe Collection.” My dear friend and former business partner, Lynn Stovall Cass (who has many Americus connections) gave the book to me as a birthday present the year I turned 52 — a lifetime ago. Over the years I have used a number of the recipes (a couple are included here), but what moves me, all these years later, is the Introduction. Although Conroy was writing about cooking in Atlanta, where he lived at the time, his words about cooking reach beyond the city or state or even country limits. They are universal. And his command of the English language lives on, in all its elegant overstatement. He says,
“The art of cooking is private and strange and beautiful. It is one of those solitary arts, like reading or composing letters, that is good for the soul by its very nature. It is no surprise to the cook that most religions of the world have included offerings of grain and fruit and sacrificial beasts to the gods of both harvest and storm. Food lovers are the happiest, the most inspired universalists. They take their pleasures where they find them and offer their praises and benedictions to any culture which honors the preparation of food. They are also the most cunning and least repentant of thieves. They will steal form the French, the Chinese, or the Scandinavians to improve the quality of the cuisine they set before their families and friends ….
“A good cook is the most valuable artist. Each day, each sunrise we are confronted with our own human dependency on food. We eat quickly to survive; we eat slowly to remember and to become more deeply human and alive. Food is intimately connected to memory and the fine meal reposes in deepest honor in the lightest cells of our brain. When an exquisite meal is set before us and we are among friends who are splendid conversationalists and whom we will love the rest of our lives, when the wine is breathing, when the aromas of the kitchen bind us together, when there is laughter and hunger and remembrance, it is a time of astonishment and the possibility of magic is all about us.
“Time in the kitchen is no longer considered peonage but a call to artistry. It is a time for the … cook to summon the bright spirits of creative hubris to arms — a time to preen, to strut, to display subtly the gentlest and most imaginative mysteries of cuisine … By owning this book, you will understand that the history of cooking is a history of genius, that it was a singularly uncommon human being who first matched the lemon with the fish, who took the creative leap to combine the yellow coinage of orchards with the fruit of the sea. You will discover that eating is often the surprise of the unimagined, the mystery of confronting the unknown … and … you will let historians of the future know what the people who loved and supported the arts in the 1980s put on their tables. They will know you ate very well.”
Sometimes too verbose, too wordy, Conroy could at times transcend his own verbosity to say exactly what needed to be said, and to say it in words that broke your heart — while they lifted it. His essay on food is one of those times. I am sorry he is no longer a part of us.
Tonight I wanted pasta with pesto (I had a pot of basil growing to full flower on my deck), and a few tomatoes. I went through a dozen cookbooks, in vain, before I remembered that the pesto recipe I used many times was in the High Museum Cookbook. I found it, prepared it, and had a delicious meal consisting of only those three things. Here is the pesto recipe.

Pesto Genovese (Serves 4)
1 cup basil leaves, fresh
10 sprigs fresh parsley
½ cup pine nuts (I rarely have these on hand, so they were omitted)
3 garlic cloves, peeled
¼ cup Parmesan cheese, freshly grated (do not use the already grated — buy the block)
¼ cup Romano cheese, grated
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons soft butter
Place all ingredients in bowl of food processor and blend thoroughly.
(This is a famous Italian sauce for any kind of freshly-made pasta — or the kind that comes in a box. After cooking and draining pasta, toss well with the pesto.)
I put about ¼ cup on top of 1 cup cooked penne pasta; any pasta works just as well. Then I added fresh tomatoes, quartered. It was a perfect, light meal.

Outrigger Rice
4 cups cooked white rice
2/3 cup chopped onions
1/3 cup butter
1 13 ½ ounce can pineapple tidbits, drained
½ cup seedless raisins
Salt to taste
½ teaspoon curry powder
1 teaspoon ground oregano
Saute onion in butter. Chop pineapple into very small pieces. Stir all ingredients together and place in a baking dish. Bake 20 minutes. This is an excellent side that isn’t much trouble and travels well.

(Note: Both these recipes are from the High Museum of Art Recipe Collection.)

Joni Woolf, a writer and editor, now lives in Schley County, having moved from her home in Macon several years ago. Contact her at