Rummage through any thrift store and you’ll probably come across an old spiral-bound community cookbook a lot like The Magnolia Bayou Country Club Ladies Auxiliary Cooking and Entertaining Book, full of quirky recipes and little anecdotes about the food and its preparation. The difference is that, although the recipes are real, the town of Magnolia Bayou, the country club and its ladies auxiliary are all fictional.
The Magnolia Bayou cookbook is a new work of fiction from Atlanta artist Matthew Terrell, a compendium of real recipes paired with fictional anecdotes about a set of characters in an imagined small town in the American South. ArtsATL caught up with Terrell to discuss the new work.
ArtsATL: For those who are unfamiliar with the concept behind The Magnolia Bayou Country Club Ladies Auxiliary Cooking and Entertaining Book, how do you explain it?
Matthew Terrell: It’s a fictional Southern community cookbook. It’s inspired by those classic comb-bound church and community cookbooks. . . . My version is based in the fictional community of Magnolia Bayou and is full of fictional characters, but the recipes are all real and very delicious. You learn about the people and place through the food in my book.
ArtsATL: There are individual stories and anecdotes, but the broader story takes some time to take in. Can you tell me about the overarching story?
Terrell: The overarching story is that this is a complete look into the fictional community of Magnolia Bayou, the people who live there and the history of this place. You learn all about who started Magnolia Bayou and how it became this idyllic place to live as you read the cookbook. You also learn a lot about the different residents, their life stories, what brought them to the community and the town gossip.
One of the challenges of writing this book was that I knew there had to be some pivotal moment, some part of the plot, that made this book so different. As you read the cookbook, you discover the residents of Magnolia Bayou commissioned it as a fundraiser for a local park; however, something happens because of the cookbook that throws the community into turmoil. The deeper you get into the story, the juicier it becomes.
ArtsATL: Do all the recipes work? Do you have a favorite? Something you wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole?
Terrell: Yes, the recipes really work. When I first started writing this book, a lot of people assumed it was going to be joke recipes — like green olives and celery in lemon-lime jello aspic — but it was always my intention to give people real, working recipes that they would enjoy making.
Granted, not all of them are easy. . . . There are a lot of picky details in the cookbook about the right way to slice an onion so it’s not stringy and tough, about using white pepper in light-colored dishes, about chopping ingredients to consistent sizes . . . I’m a firm believer that great food takes a lot of care.
In terms of favorite recipes, the Grape Delights are a standout. They are green grapes, wrapped in goat cheese, rolled in pistachios. They are a lot of work to make, and disappear fast, but are so delicious. Some of the recipes are meant to push boundaries of taste and acceptability. “Cheese Salad Sherbet” is basically blue cheese ice cream, and you serve it on warm red-wine poached pears. It was a take on serving pears and blue cheese as dessert and is a recipe that activates every part of your palate. When we taste tested it, people either loved it or loathed it. The blue cheese ice cream is a lot better than it sounds.
ArtsATL: In my copy of the book, a bunch of interesting stuff fell out when I opened it, just like in a real cookbook you might find in someone’s pantry. There are old letters and recipes cut out from magazines, little notes and drawings. Do you put all the same stuff into each copy of the book?
Terrell: This was a very important aspect of the cookbook for me. When I was imagining what I wanted to create, I didn’t want to just make a cookbook. I wanted to make a piece of art that people could experience. I imagined the experience of opening an old cookbook from my grandmother and all the bits and pieces that fall out — clippings, recipe notes, etc. I wanted to recreate that experience for the reader, so this is not just a cookbook but someone’s cookbook. And when you look through the items that fall out, they also continue the story off the pages and into the item. I mixed up real and fake elements — like real newspaper clippings and a fake newspaper I printed — so it feels as authentic as possible.
ArtsATL: The book takes place in the South, but it’s clearly an imagined South, a sort of a dreamy, diverse, gentle, better South. And a lot of the food is Southern or Southern fusion. The book, its recipes and its stories really go all over the place, but is it fair to say the South is the subject here? What are you trying to say about the South, the real one and the one you’ve dreamed up?
Terrell: I grew up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, which was a very diverse place. I knew many people who were immigrants, who spoke languages other than English at home, who were Italian Americans, who moved here from somewhere else, who had parents of different races . . . but in the end, we were all Southerners.
In particular, Southern food is what bound everyone together. It is a cuisine that is very good at absorbing influences from other people and cultures and still remaining distinct to its roots.
Through this all, I wanted to show how diverse the South truly is. I have characters from all over the South, the United States and the world. There are disagreements between the Charlestonian and New Orleanian, but in the end they make beautiful food together. Characters from India, Korea and Mississippi all mesh together in this book. It’s not just fusion cuisine but a fusion community. I intend for this to be an antidote to our needlessly divided times. I wanted to present a vision of harmony amongst disparate people and show how food is what brings them together.