Paul and Angela Knipple take to the road for a world of tastes.
Pepe Magallanes and his son, Jonathan. B.J. Chester-Tamayo. Madhavan Sadhasivam. Yilma Aklihu and his wife, Seble Haile-Michael. If the names are unfamiliar (and perhaps difficult to pronounce), that’s not the case with another name to add to the list, Wally Joe. These are men and women with one thing in common . . . okay, make that two things.
They’re all Memphians, and they’re all in the food business — Jonathan Magallanes owns Las Tortugas Deli Mexicana in Germantown. Chester-Tamayo runs the downtown soul-food restaurant Alcenia’s. Aklihu and his wife operate Abyssinia Ethiopian Restaurant on Poplar. And you know Wally Joe, who was born in Hong Kong, from his former namesake restaurant in East Memphis and his latest venture, Acre. (Sadhasivam? He’s not a restaurant owner, but he does have a side interest in teaching classic Indian cooking.)
One more thing the above individuals share: They’re all featured in The World in a Skillet: A Food Lover’s Tour of the New American South (The University of North Carolina Press) by Paul and Angela Knipple, a husband-and-wife team who happen to be Memphians (and food lovers) too.
The subtitle of their book says it all: It’s for food lovers. It’s a travel guide. And it’s a tour of the “new” South as seen through the eyes of its worldwide immigrants and their food traditions, which means in The World in a Skillet we’re all over the map — arrivals from Central and South America and the Caribbean; from India, Vietnam, China, Japan, and South Korea — serving native dishes in the restaurants they run in towns and cities from Virginia west to Texas, from Kentucky south to Louisiana.
There’s Marie Husni cooking classic Lebanese in Oxford and Hamid Hassan cooking classic Kurdish in Nashville. Elsewhere, modern-day immigrants from England, France, Belgium, and Italy are serving up lesser-known but authentic fare from their home countries. All together, they’re introducing an international array of culinary traditions to add to the already rich foundations — Native American, Scots-Irish, Creole, and African — of Southern cooking.
Thanks to the Knipples, your passport’s taken care of in handy sidebars scattered throughout The World in a Skillet. Those “kitchen passports” offer adaptations or substitutions for hard-to-find ingredients. And you can consult the book’s “Culinary Tour Guide” for the cultural significance of kitchen basics: roux, mole, ghee, hummus, to name a few. The 50 or so recipes run the gamut — from variations on the tried-and-true (“A Mess of Greens”) to the unusually named (“Pockmarked Old Woman’s Tofu”). The book’s personal profiles make those recipes richer still. And to think it all started inside a strip shopping center on Germantown Parkway.
The setting was Las Tortugas, and the inspiration was Pepe Magallanes. According to Paul Knipple in a recent phone interview:
“Angela and I overheard Pepe explaining to a customer that this is what they do at Las Tortugas: food that’s truly representative of Mexico City. Quality and authenticity are important. If he didn’t love what he was doing, Pepe said there was no point in doing it.
“I don’t know what state of mind Angela and I were in on that particular day, but we looked at one another and said, ‘We’ve got to write about this.’”
They’d been writing a blog for a number of years about the travels they made for work. Both were involved at the time in information technology, but both of them, Paul says, were “frustrated liberal arts majors,” Paul with a degree in Spanish from the University of Memphis, Angela with a background in English and music at Rhodes College. But, as Paul adds, after years in the business world, “We just weren’t happy. It was time to do something that made us happy.”
That blog they wrote happened to include, Paul says, “the crazy things we ate on the road.” It was also a chance for the two of them to develop a good researching and writing relationship in their quest to locate and describe the scope of immigrant cooking in the South.
“We’re extremely collaborative,” Paul says. “Angela’s exceptionally good at the research. She’s got a laser-guided, focused mind. (“It’s my OCD!” Angela chimes in.) I’m good at planning and logistics.”
Where Paul admits to being more analytical, Angela, he says, is more free-form and poetic.
“She softens the edges. I give her some structure. So it comes out being our writing” — food writing that’s appeared in the pages of Memphis magazine’s sister publication, the Memphis Flyer, The Commercial Appeal, and Edible Memphis magazine.
And what of the couple’s own family heritage?
“I’m English, Irish, pretty much,” Paul says. “But I have one, long, unbroken male line that goes back to a more Eastern European, Jewish ancestry — somewhere way back. My name is Yiddish. I got lucky. I got Knipple.”
“I’m mainly Irish and Scandinavian,” Angela says. “I didn’t grow up around strong ethnic food. I grew up traditional Southern, with a lot of time spent with my grandparents. They have pictures of me as a child making biscuits with a bucket on my head.”
Never mind, though, the bucket. Take the sound advice of that childhood biscuit-maker:
“Just go out there!” Angela recommends to diners faced with the new world of tastes right here in the New South. “You may not be able to read a restaurant’s sign or the menu, but don’t be scared. These are people who are excited that you wanted to come, try the food, talk about it. They want to feed you and feed you well.”
Be on hand at the Booksellers at Laurelwood on March 6th. That’s the official launch party (with food samples!) for Paul and Angela’s book. And join the Knipples along with Chef Kelly English on March 18th at Restaurant Iris in Midtown: That’s when the restaurant will prepare a five-course dinner with recipes drawn from The World in a Skillet.