As any fan of Roy Blount, Jr.’s prolific contributions to Garden & Gun magazine, NPR’s quiz show Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! and Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion can tell you, the writer, humorist and raconteur is a polymath whose depth of knowledge is matched by his breadth of interests.
Blount, who was born to Southern parents in Indianapolis and raised in Decatur, Georgia, is a New York Public Library Literary Lion who has jumped out of an airplane. He interviewed Martin Luther King, Jr. at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and has sung live with the Rock Bottom Remainders, an author’s rock band. And he is probably the only contributor at Sports Illustrated magazine who has written the screenplay for a fairy tale, HBO’s The Frog Princess.
The author of 24 books, Blount is an unabashed omnivore whose latest memoir, Save Room for Pie (Sarah Crichton Books, 304 pp), does for fried chicken, sweet iced tea and hot sauce what Proust did for the madeleine — elevate the ordinary through a collection of essays, poems, songs and limericks.
The literary equivalent of a meander with a beloved family patriarch, talking about everything and nothing simultaneously, Save Room for Pie has no predetermined agenda or destination. Instead, the book is long on wisdom, charm and remembrances of an extended family who “ate till we got tired. Then we went, ‘Whoo!’ and leaned back and wholeheartedly expressed how much we regretted that we couldn’t summon up the strength, right then, to eat some more.”
Which explains why Blount, who divides his time between Louisiana and western Massachusetts, experienced culture shock upon first leaving the South.
“When I moved to the Northeast, I met someone who said she liked to stop eating while she was still just a little bit hungry. I was taken aback. Intellectually, I could see it was a sound and even an admirable policy. It kept her in better shape than mine did me. I just thought it was crazy.”
Other brushes with insanity are recounted when Blount and his then-girlfriend/now-wife, Joan, shared a banquet dais with CBS’s Mike Wallace. During the course of conversation, the couple watched in stunned silence as the 60 Minutes correspondent reached over and skimmed the top off of Joan’s creme caramel — uninvited.
In hindsight, Blount, who is rarely at a loss for words, theorizes that Wallace was probably accustomed to sitting next to subordinates “who would never challenge his droit de TV.”
Good old-fashioned horse sense peppers Blount’s storytelling, affirming both his powers of observation and rapier wit. “Eating primarily for health is too much like marrying for money,” he cautions. “In other words, it’s not completely crazy, but unless a meal or a relationship commences with ‘Yum,’ I don’t see it going anywhere.”
There is very little in the way of food and drink that doesn’t whet Blount’s appetite. He writes lovingly about the sound a cork makes as it is unplugged from a bottle of whiskey, and rhapsodizes about the joy of being carnivorous. “Eating a steak,” he claims, in typically colorful language, “should be like wrestling a worthy opponent.”
Blount ain’t too proud to defend his delight in little things like chicken gizzards and the tiny, tasty morsels that he noisily sucks from between the rib bones of a fried chicken with gusto. Campari, brussels sprouts and broccoli, with its “too fuzzy top and too stalky stalk,” are some of the foods Blount has grown to love. He acknowledges a weakness for frozen waffles and oyster crackers. He cannot, however, extend himself to enjoy red beaned desserts and draws the line at nondairy creamers, Hostess Twinkies and Hot Pockets, which he vows, “will never pass my lips.” In addition, he is unequivocal when asked about prevailing trends in molecular gastronomy, stating “I don’t think there’s any reason to convert food to foam.”
In a cruel irony, Blount reveals that he suffers from a condition called anosmia — caused by past sinus operations — which leaves him smelling-impaired from time to time. “On good days,” he chuckles, “the smell of coffee leaps up and gives me a big smack on the cheek when I’m grinding beans in the morning. If not, it’s ‘Uh oh … I have waked up and not smelled the coffee.’”
Blount hopes the former will be the case when he returns to his alma mater, Decatur High School, on March 21 for a book signing and conversation with James Beard-nominated chef Kevin Gillespie, where pie will be served.
“I’m sure people on this book tour will be serving me all kinds of special foods,” he predicts, “and I will certainly be eating them. But I hate to think I’m not appreciating each one of them as much as I should.”
Regardless of the state of his tastebuds this homecoming, Blount will likely make two important pit stops: First, to the Varsity for two chili dogs with onions, fries and black walnut ice cream; and second, to the Iberian Pig on Decatur Square, which is nothing like the historic district he remembers as a child.
“You expect your hometown to feel retro, but when I go to Decatur I feel retro,” deadpans Blount. “Like I say, you need to develop your tastes just to keep up … even with your own hometown!”
Roy Blount Jr. in conversation with chef Kevin Gillespie
Decatur High School, March 21 at 7 p.m.
**A portion of the proceeds from the book signing will benefit the Decatur Education Foundation.