Author and food tour guide Akila McConnell will be addressing the Buckhead Heritage Society Book Club on Jan. 13 to discuss her career and her first book “A Culinary History of Atlanta,” a finalist in the 2020 Georgia Writer Association Author of the Year Awards. McConnell holds degrees in philosophy, accounting and law, and is the founder of Unexpected Atlanta, which offers tours about the city’s history and food culture.
Her Buckhead Heritage appearance will be held virtually at 7 p.m. and is free, but registration is required at BuckheadHeritage.com.
Tell us about your book.
It’s a food history of Atlanta, of course, but really it’s about recognizing stories that we usually don’t hear. I had read pretty much every history of Atlanta and most of those focus on the role famous people play, but I was more interested in the people you don’t hear about, such as Myra Miller, a Black woman who after the Civil War became one of the city’s most famous bakers.
Who was the first restaurateur in the city? Who was doing food production? It was women. During the antebellum period, it was the slaves. It became the African Americans after slavery, and today it is our immigrant population. They are doing the bulk of food production both from a cooking angle and the food we get from our factories.
You write about Martin Luther King Jr. being something of a foodie.
Absolutely, yes, he was a huge foodie. The Civil Rights Movement was very much a grassroots organization and they needed places to have their meetings, and so Atlanta’s restaurants played a huge role in that. Paschal’s, which is still open, was a huge location for human rights gatherings — also Busy Bee Cafe [and] Frazier’s Lounge. Restaurants had an impact on the Civil Rights Movement.
How did you go from practicing law to writing about food?
My passion was not in the law. It was in telling stories associated with food. I quit my job when I was 30. My husband and I decided to travel around the world for three-and-a-half years. I started writing a blog about food and travel and the history behind food in different places. This blog became super popular. We were picked up by the L.A. Times and USA Today and others, and so I realized I could make a living writing about food. Then I found out that I was having a child, so we came home to Atlanta and it only made sense that I focus on Atlanta’s food stories.
What are your thoughts on Atlanta’s food culture during the pandemic?
The big change I see is there is going to be a reliance on takeout long-term. This is something that restaurants have to face, especially high-end restaurants, which is kind of unthinkable. Another thing is, the pandemic has revealed a lot of food disparities — you see these huge lines of people at food banks. It also has revealed some real flaws in our warehousing system because there are people struggling to get food and at the same time there is all this food that’s going to waste.
Another long-term consequence is that there will be more direct-to-consumer options. I own a food tour company and we have shifted to doing foodie gift boxes. It’s basically getting the middleman like the grocery store out of it. We take a much smaller margin.
What’s your take on the restaurant scene in Buckhead?
Pre-1950s, it was a high-end residential area. The restaurant scene at that time was relatively small, but then Lenox [Square] mall opened up and that was a total game-changer. When you think of places like Dante’s Down the Hatch, a Buckhead institution, it’s not a coincidence that it was located directly across the street from Lenox mall. It was very intentional because that’s where everybody in the city was coming to shop. There was nowhere like Lenox anywhere in the South.
Even today you see all the restaurants congregated mainly on Peachtree, around the Lenox mall hub. A single anchor can define what a neighborhood becomes. Buckhead continues to evolve and is more upscale, continuing to push that gourmet level higher, whereas in some other locations there is less of that. That’s fascinating to me.