By Robert St. John
For the majority of the 23 years I have written this weekly column, the primary focus has been on food and restaurants. In 2011, a dozen years into my writing career, I spent six months overseas with my wife and two kids and the column morphed into a semi-travel column, at least during the times I am away from home base.
I was 40 years old when my writing career started. The local newspaper called one day and asked if I would contribute a weekly column. I said, “no” initially as I was too busy, and probably too scared to put myself out there. In those days it was a labor for me to write a letter to someone. I was 20 years into my restaurant career and had tunnel vision while trying to keep all the concepts afloat. Though newspaper editors kept pressing and I eventually relented.
The early writing was poor. Embarrassingly so. Occasionally I go back and read some of the early stuff and cringe. I was 40 years old but writing with a 15-year-old’s skill set. It makes sense because that was my age when I stopped trying to write anything of substance. My early columns read like a 9th grader’s forced composition paper.
In those days I wasn’t even using my own voice. An early review stated, “St. John is a cross between Emeril Lagasse and Lewis Grizzard.” I was a fan of both of those guys, and probably tried to live up to that billing even though it wasn’t who I was, on any level.
There was a lot of humor— or attempted humor— in the early days. When I read back on the pieces from the first five years, and in the early books, I wince because it’s not even me who’s writing. I can remember reading an early piece my friend John T. Edge wrote about Waffle House. I was inspired by it and tried to write my own piece about Waffle House. I would imagine if I went back and read both pieces back-to-back, mine would have been more than merely inspired by his. I didn’t know any better. I never took any journalism classes or spent any time trying to write creatively.
After a few years, the writing improved, and other newspapers began to contact me asking if they could carry the column. Once that happened, even more newspapers called. At the height of the newspaper business— sometime around the early 2000s— I was in 32 newspapers from Louisiana to Florida, every week. The books grew out of the newspaper column, but it wasn’t until that six-month trip to Europe that I started writing in my own voice.
There is something about being with your wife, 14-year-old daughter, and 10-year-old son traversing through 72 cities in 17 countries on two continents that makes life more efficient and to the point. That is what happened to my writing as well. The prose grew more honest and proficient. Instead of trying to make people laugh. I just spoke the truth— my truth— about what was going on in, and around, my life at the time. It’s what I still do today.
I found my voice and have been writing in that voice— such as it is— ever since. My vocabulary is fairly limited, and my writing is not flowery, but conversational and to the point. I never set out to be a writer. Though the column has provided me with the experience I desperately needed to communicate through the written word. Over the past 22 years I have written over 1,000 words a week, every week, never missing a week. With over 1.1 million words in print, I’m starting to get the hang of it.
It’s why I told my two children to take all the English, composition, and creative writing classes they could during college. It is my philosophy that, no matter what the profession, one needs to be able to communicate through the written word. When I read things my children have written I am impressed. They, in their early 20s, are much better writers than I was in my early 40s.
When I look back at my early education there were two teachers who had the biggest impact on my life. My 4th grade teacher Mrs. Nell Smith recognized that I was severely ADHD. I was diagnosed as “hyperactive” as they didn’t have a proper term for this condition back then. Mrs. Smith was able to channel my creative energy by allowing me to skip our daily lesson plans. Instead, she encouraged me to write plays and cast my fellow students as actors in the plays. Whatever subjects I missed that year— whether math or science— pale in comparison to the out-of-the-box thinking that wonderful woman blessed me with in 1969. At 60, I still benefit today.
The other great influence in those early years was a lady named Bettee Boyd. She was my high school English teacher and still one of the finest teachers I’ve ever known. I write today knowing that Mrs. Boyd may have her red pencil out correcting my grammar, punctuation, and structure. She surely has better things to do, but I’m a better writer knowing that she may be reading.
The advice I give to kids when I’m speaking at a school or to a group is, “Always be open to opportunity. One never knows what the future holds.” In high school I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. As soon as I started working in restaurants, I knew. Though I just assumed I would be a restaurateur. My goal was to own one restaurant so I could wear T-shirts and shorts to work every day. Then the writing started, and this column began. Twelve books followed and then TV and all the other ancillary projects with which I am involved.
The beauty of my situation today is that I am blessed to have 100% creative control in everything I do. It’s something that I never take for granted. Whether it’s books, television, or restaurant development there’s no one looking over my shoulder dictating what must be done. It’s not that writers don’t need editors, and businessmen don’t need financial advisors, but to unleash the full creative beast that lives within, one needs a substantial amount of freedom. I’m blessed for many reasons, but that’s the one I am most grateful for today.
Grilled and Chilled Asparagus with Dill Mayonnaise
For the asparagus
2 lbs Asparagus, fresh
3 Tbl Olive oil
2 tsp Kosher Salt
1 tsp Black Pepper, freshly ground
Toss the asparagus with olive oil, salt and pepper. Arrange the asparagus on a medium-heat grill and cook for 5-7 minutes. Turn the asparagus often to prevent burning.
Remove from the grill and cool.
Note: Asparagus can be baked in an oven set to “broil.” Place on a cookie sheet, roll in olive oil, sprinkle with salt, and broil for five minutes or until al dente.
2 Egg Yolks
1 tsp Salt
1 /2 tsp Dijon Mustard
1 1 /2 tsp Lemon Juice, freshly squeezed
1 tsp White Vinegar
1 cup Canola Oil
1/4 cup Fresh Dill, chopped
In a small mixing bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, salt, and mustard. When mixture becomes light in color, add lemon juice. Blend.
Drizzle oil slowly into the yolk mixture, whisking constantly. After adding half of the oil, stir in vinegar. Continue whisking and add remaining oil. Add fresh dill.
The mayonnaise may be held refrigerated for one week.
To serve, arrange the chilled asparagus on a serving platter. Serve the mayonnaise on the side for dipping.
(Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur and cookbook author who lives in Hattiesburg, Miss.)
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