Joseph Dabney really enjoys a good purloo.
The 82-year-old Brookhaven writer grew up in South Carolina where purloo –that’s how he spells it – is standard fare in some communities.
While researching cooking in the Georgia and Carolina Lowcountry for his most recent book, Dabney renewed his affection for the rice-based dish.
“The best meals I had were chicken purloo,” Dabney said. “I’ve eaten it all my life. Chicken purloo – you just can’t beat it, if you cook it right.”
That’s high praise from a man who’s drawn national notice for writing about things Southern, notably Southern folklore and food. He’s spilled the secrets of she-crab soup, studied Scripture Cake, described Frogmore Stew and published two books about the mountain spirits better known as moonshine.
His expertise on backcountry liquor, in fact, once earned him a spot on NBC’s Today show. His home office is cluttered with mementoes from a writer’s career, including a photo from that TV appearance. Critic and interviewer Gene Shalit inscribed the photo “to the most spirited man in the mountains.”
That’s not the only thing he holds on to from his research for “Mountain Spirits,” the 1974 book he built from tales of moonshiners in the Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina mountains. His office is filled with pictures, books, files and the detritus of a writer’s life — posters for book signings, souvenir caps, a Jimmy Carter commemorative plate. Oh, and he has three copper stills, too. (Note to law enforcement: They don’t work.)
Dabney started out as a newspaperman. He wrote for papers scattered around South Carolina and Georgia and ended up at the Atlanta Journal. After that, he worked in public relations at the Lockheed aircraft plant in Cobb County, which led to “Herk, Hero of the Skies,” a book about the C-130 troop transport and cargo plane, the Hercules, which was made there.
For his first cookbook, called “Smokehouse Ham, Spoon Bread and Scuppernong Wine: The Folklore and Art of Southern Appalachian Cooking,” Dabney won the James Beard Foundation’s top award, cookbook of the year. At the awards ceremony in New York, he said, he had to explain to another attendee that scuppernong wasn’t pronounced “scoop-uh-non,” but that the first syllable rhymes with “supper.”
The publication of that book also gave him to chance to do something special as a writer. He got to sit at legendary book editor Max Perkins’ desk. “His desk is just a little thing. Not as big as this desk,” Dabney said, pointing to his own cluttered workspace. “It was just out in the bullpen, not in an office. So I think to myself, ‘Here’s the top book editor in the country … and he has such a small desk!’”
Dabney’s most recent book is called “The Food, Folklore and Art of Lowcountry Cooking: A Celebration of Foods, History, and Romance Handed Down from England, Africa, the Caribbean, France, Germany and Scotland.” (He does like long titles.)
For the new book, he interviewed cooks and old-timers up and down the coast in communities spread from Pawleys Island to Sapelo Island. He picked up a few purloo recipes along the way, of course. His book serves up purloos made from just about anything: chicken, sausage, shrimp, oysters, shrimp and oysters, okra, or, should one happen to have them on hand, dove or squab.
“I’m not really a food writer per se,” he said recently over lunch at an Italian restaurant at Perimeter Mall, one of his favorite local places. “I’m more of a folklorist and sort of an historian. I do a lot of interviewing. We don’t cook much at all [at home] anymore. As a matter of fact, my son does the cooking.”
Including, of course, the occasional purloo.
Know a special person or place in our communities with an interesting story to tell? Email Joe Earle at firstname.lastname@example.org.