Where's the Beef?

It's not in these down-home Southern recipes.

Amy Lawrence and Justin Fox Burks

photographs by Justin Fox Burks

What would beef bourguignon be without the beef? Throw in a hearty helping of portobello mushrooms in a “beefy” broth of porcini mushrooms. You won’t miss the meat.
A BLT without the “B”? Smoked coconut flakes can easily serve as a non-bacon bacon.

That comfort-food standby: chicken pot pie but minus the chicken? Substitute seitan.

And for a veggie burger to end all veggie burgers, crumble some tempeh and mix in more of those mighty portobellos and porcinis. This is one great burger, according to Memphians Justin Fox Burks and Amy Lawrence. It may even be “the one” — the one recipe to convince the most die-hard meat-lover that going meatless doesn’t have to mean going without soul-satisfying flavor.
Same goes for Burks and Lawrence’s recipe for meatless meatballs, the #1 favorite among followers of the couple’s “The Chubby Vegetarian” blog and one of the recipes in the couple’s forthcoming volume, The Southern Vegetarian: 100 Down-Home Recipes for the Modern Table, to be published by Thomas Nelson in May.

By “down-home,” Burks and Lawrence mean it: basics such as biscuits and waffles, cheese straws and cheese dip, pepper jelly and red-eye gravy, “pork” rinds and hoppin’ john, strawberry shortcake and banana pudding. To wash it all down: Sazerac iced tea or a tumbler of bourbon with basil and lemonade granita.

Some of this may not be standard vegetarian fare, but it’s still backed by what your mama and grandma ordered: Eat your vegetables!

Burks and Lawrence certainly do, Southern-style but with updatings and an international outlook: caprese salad from Italy, curry from India, and south-of-the-border tamales and tacos. Other recipes are off the beaten path. Anyone hungry for Dirty Fried Rice, King Oyster Mushroom “Scallops,” and Creole Coconut Sauce? Or Peach and Tarragon Pesto Pizza? Anyone will be hungry viewing Burks’ mouth-watering photographs in The Southern Vegetarian.

“These are not dainty recipes. It’s not tofu with sprouts on a plate,” Burks says in an interview that included his wife, Amy. “We think of the food as good food that happens to be vegetarian — vegetarian food not only for vegetarians. A lot of people want to do, say, meatless Mondays. Or they’re cutting down on the amount of meat in their diet generally.”

Burks and Lawrence have cut back too on their intake of bread and cheese, so that word “chubby” in the name of their blog is now a little misleading. Since starting “The Chubby Vegetarian” in 2008, Burks, who these days trains as a marathon runner, has lost 70 pounds. Lawrence, for her part, has lost 20. But there’s been no loss of quality when it comes to the couple’s keen eye for the appetizing.

“It’s important to point out that the recipes on our blog and in our book are our breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” Burks says. “It isn’t styled for the photograph. We haven’t used tweezers to put it together. After the picture was snapped, that food was eaten. We want others to see the photos and feel like they can pick up a fork and dig in too.”

"It's important to point out that the recipes on our blog and in our book are our breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It isn't stylized for the photograph. We haven't used tweezers to put it together. After the picture was snapped, the food was eaten. We want others to see the photos and feel like they can pick up a fork and dig in too."

Readers of The Southern Vegetarian will recognize Burks’ quality camerawork. In addition to photographing for Memphis magazine, the Memphis Flyer, and other local publications, his photographs have appeared in Food & Wine and Garden & Gun and in Memphian Jennifer Chandler’s most recent cookbook, Simply Grilling, which was also published by Thomas Nelson, a company out of Nashville. Burks has written on food for the Flyer and the magazine Edible Memphis too. But it’s Lawrence, an eighth-grade English teacher at the Hutchison School, who has the deeper background in writing. She was an editorial intern at Memphis magazine during her student days at Rhodes College, she was winner of the magazine’s annual fiction contest in 2003, and she went on to write the magazine’s “Dining Out” column from 2009 to 2011. She too writes for Edible Memphis, in addition to editing the couple’s blog and doing her share of the home cooking.

“Amy likes to bake, and baking’s beyond me. I’d rather fly by the seat of my pants,” Burks says. “Amy thinks ahead three steps and doesn’t take a taste until it comes out of the oven. I like to eat as I go.”

“We do a lot together,” Lawrence admits. “We write. We develop recipes. We cook.”

And they often cook what the other has in mind.

Lawrence, who favors appetizers and desserts: “At home, we don’t cook meat, but when I’m out, I’m open to other stuff. I can try a restaurant’s pork buns, for example, and tell Justin what it tasted like. He can recreate it as vegetarian.”

Burks: “My goal in the home kitchen has been to get Amy to eat her vegetables. Amy doesn’t necessarily even like vegetables. That’s had more impact on the way I cook than anything else.”

If Lawrence is mainly vegetarian, Burks has been a committed vegetarian since the age of 12. (This despite once working at a local McDonald’s.) The two were born in Mississippi but grew up in the Memphis area and began dating when they were students at Houston High School. Nine years ago, they married. But their love for traditional Southern cooking started in childhood. As Burks says, “Amy and I are from Mississippi. Southern cooking is in our blood.”

The couple’s editor recognized that. Make it more Southern was what she told them, and they culled their hundreds of blog recipes down to 200, then 100 accordingly.

“You don’t realize that what you eat, people from elsewhere don’t eat,” Lawrence says of the book’s focus. “It’s helped us appreciate where we’re from.”

That was Burks’ discovery as well: “I thought everyone ate pimento cheese!”

Many of the entries in The Southern Vegetarian come with fond family memories, and Lawrence’s father, who maintains a farm in Mississippi, regularly drops off his fresh produce at the couple’s door. That produce — in addition to the wide offerings at Memphis’ thriving farmers’ markets — is the springboard for the seasonal recipes that have appeared on the couple’s blog.

Those recipes include last year’s collection of Thanksgiving dishes, which made it to The New York Times’ “Well” blog, under the headline “Southern Flavors on a Vegetarian Table.”

National attention is something Burks and Lawrence should see more of once their cookbook appears. (Burks has already been a guest judge on the Food Network’s Great Food Truck Race vegetarian challenge when it stopped in Memphis.) But the couple is plenty well known on the city’s food scene thanks to their blog, their participation in dining events, and their close ties to local and regional chefs, many of whom served as inspiration for the recipes in The Southern Vegetarian. One of those chefs, John Currence of Oxford, Mississippi, wrote the book’s foreword, which celebrates the South’s bounty and salutes the work of Lawrence and Burks. But when it comes to cheerleading, let the co-authors have the final say, and it’s not about them. It’s about their town, whose support Amy Lawrence describes as “humbling.” Justin Fox Burks agrees:

“Here in Memphis there’s been such wonderful support for what Amy and I are doing. It speaks to the bigger sense that there are people here cheering for what you’re trying to do. This community wants you to succeed. Amy and I are so grateful for the nice things people have said about us that — and this is unusual for me — I’m almost at a loss for words.

“Amy being a writer working her way into food writing . . . me being a photographer working my way into food photography . . . our love for cooking at home . . . and now this book: It seems like everything has been building up to . . . we’ve been working toward . . . this moment.” 

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