When I decided that I wanted to feature the culinary mind behind Southern Fried Festival I had no idea that I was in store for an interview of epic proportions. I first met Peggy while she was sitting talking with a pal of mine from The Courier. Steve was in doing photographs for an upcoming feature, I was in having a cuppa and the quick intro was made. I say quick, but do you know that way that some people have? Where they hold your interest instantly, make you sit up and pay attention. Peggy Brunache is one of those.
She was talking with uncontrolled passion about the soul food served up at Southern Fried Festival. Now, talking about food is the basis on which some of my lifelong friendships have been built and I always feel that anyone who can become fully animated over candied yams is certain to be a great person to know.
So, she’d been in my head, swirling around with her BBQ ribs and peanut soup and with just a little bit of twitter stalking and the joining up of Perth contacts like a dot-to-dot, I found myself sitting, in complete rapture, listening to one of the best stories and most fascinating women this side of Soul Food.
Peggy Brunache is a mother, wife, archaeologist and university lecturer. And for a few months a year she is also the culinary consultant for Horsecross’s Southern Fried Festival. Her roots have stretched all the way from Miami, Florida to finally settle in Perth, where she lives with her Scottish husband and 11 year old son. How do I seamlessly fit in that she has also lectured for Scottish Enterprise, for Black History Month and is a regular pundit on BBC Radio Scotland’s Kitchen Café? At only 49 years old she seems to have crammed in a lifetime’s worth of “stuff” and it all pours from her with the raw, undressed ease that you find exclusively in unpretentious, intelligent women.
Let's start with the obvious question. How did this child of Caribbean immigrants, who grew up in Florida, gaining a PhD in Historical Archaeology from the University of Texas, find herself living and working in Perth, Scotland?
“It’s not as crazy as it sounds at first….” Her accent hasn’t diminished in her 11 years in Scotland but the long, drawn out vowels you’d expect from a woman who grew up in Miami have all but disappeared. She has one of those voices that holds you in, like a glorious, rich, golden syrup.
She starts her story at the time of her Masters degree; she was studying the 'Transatlantic Slave Trade from Africa' at the University of Southern Carolina and this was her first real experience of living outside of her native Florida. When she left her home state she found herself immersed in a food culture that was at odds with her colourful, culinary upbringing. People were preparing the same food but in very different ways and the melting pot she had grown up around gave way to a more traditional American diet.
“In Miami I lived in a multi-cultural environment. I had friends from all over and the food I ate, enjoyed and experienced had strong influences from across the globe. Latin American and Eastern European were prevalent but I also ate Jewish, Vietnamese, Korean and of course, the amazing food of the Deep American South.“
“When I moved to Carolina I could see the ingredients I loved but it was prepared in a way that was alien to my taste buds and this fascinated me. I was amazed at my new friends and their dietary habits and it was at this point my informal studies of food and food culture began.”
Missing her own food, and in particular the combination of Haitian and French Colonial that her mother had made for her growing up, Peggy set about cooking for herself and she found that the days spent in the kitchen with her mother, honing her skills and learning the expected role of a young Caribbean girl, had in fact, been time well spent.
“When I was a kid I was very much the ‘child of immigrants’. I remember wanting desperately to eat the same food as the other children, y’know, pizza and Mcdonalds. Instead my mother would travel miles to a local market to buy ingredients for the traditional Haitian dishes that we were served. I wanted so much to fit in and one day in defiance asked her why she did it. ‘Why do you drive miles when the pizza parlour is right there? Why don’t you just shop in the grocery store in town?’ “
Peggy’s mum was to give a simple, eloquent statement that has remained with her to this day.
“Because, this is who I am.” (When Peggy tells me this, she looks right me and its as though her mum is right there. I get goosebumps).
It wasn’t until she found herself standing cooking in Carolina that Peggy fully understood and appreciated exactly what her mother meant that day; as her love of great food evolved into what was an innate passion she began to explore the role that food plays in our culture and everyday lives.
“Food has never been about the simple act of consumption and survival. It unites communities and conjures up nostalgia. We treasure it. The explosion of cookery programmes since the late 90s may have pulled it into the media spotlight but we have been viewing food and cooking as entertainment long before that. There is something about pulling back a curtain and watching someone prepare a meal that is wholly wonderful. It’s engaging and it adds to the enjoyment of eating all the more.”
After she completed her masters Peggy had a real desire to be near her family’s roots and explore her culture deeper. When she was making choices about her PhD she identified an archaeology dig in the sugar plantations of Guadeloupe as her base and went about the study of the ‘Slave Plantations in the French Caribbean’.
It was here that the remains of the slave trade that had so oppressed her ancestors, brought to her the tools she needed to tell her story and build her thesis for her PhD. On this dig, she discovered a huge number of food items such as bones, nuts, shells, vessels and utensils that gave a clearer understanding of the eating habits and culture of the slaves working in the plantations. Peggy will tell you with great certainty that the slave food of the sugar plantations was the starting point of the modern day Creole and Soul Food that adorns trendy bars the world over in our 21st century culture.
And so, her informal study of food had reached into her PhD giving her the perfect reason to continue down this path she had created, exploring her passion to its end. Peggy’s greatest joy among all of this was that she could sit down and talk about her work with her mum. The subject was so close to their hearts and with food at its core, the high-brow, technical academia that would normally come hand-in-hand with a PhD in Archaeology was irrelevant. "Everyone can connect over the love of great food."
Imagine me at this point; I’m now just sitting listening to a story about food, and talking about my mum’s cooking with a woman who loved her mum’s cooking. I am pages and pages of notes in by the time I remember I have a link to Perth to explore.
So, where does Scotland fit into all of this?
Peggy nods across the table to her husband, who has been sitting quietly drinking coffee during our chat.
“Well no one warned me how persuasive a Scotsman could be. I was not prepared for that one.”
We laugh, I look at this unassuming man in his baseball cap and Southern Fried T-shirt, smiling at his wife and Peggy picks up the story.
“We were at a South By South West music conference in Texas in March 2005 when we met. We hung out, we enjoyed the concert, we hung out for a few days more and then Andy headed home to Scotland. We stayed in touch and we did the long distance thing for a few months before I came over for a visit in the summer. Then I came again in September. And then in March 2006 I had moved to Scotland.”
Andy, for the record, is grinning like the cat who got the best of the Southern Fried cream. And I am clapping wildly at the whirlwind-love-story bonus.
They had an official marriage in December 2006 at City Chambers in Perth and then in June 2007 they brought a huge mix of cultures over to enjoy the party. There were Irish, biracial Kenyans, Afro Columbians, Aborginal Taiwanese, biracial Afro-Koreans and a whole bunch of Peggy's many white American friends! All in kilts, all in Perth and all looking to celebrate the marriage of their friends. By the end of summer 2007 their son, Ruben, was born and Peggy’s roots has moved clean across an ocean and settled in Perth.
“You know, if you had sat me down and wagered that my life would end up here I would have bet you all the money I owned that you were wrong. I’d have asked ‘Are you CRAZY? Are you INSANE?’. But here I am, dramatically different and so, so happy.”
The rest as they is history. Well, Black History actually. Someone was looking for an expert on Slavery and her name was pushed forward. This led to her addressing a Black History conference in Glasgow and soon her name became synonymous with academic excellence in her chosen subjects. Andy meanwhile had started to look at the Southern Fried Festival and when he decided he wanted to bring a whole Americana experience to Perth, he knew his wife was the only person worth asking about the soul food that would make it complete.
She, of course, said yes and so the first Festival of its kind was born; to this day there is not a more authentic Southern festival in the UK. Peggy is about to take Southern Fried’s Soul Food into its 11th year and as we established on our first meeting she goes at it with a relish that leaves your mouth watering and your head full of all the good stuff that Alabama, Louisiana and Texas (to name a few) have to offer.
Authenticity is important to Peggy and together with Horsecross’s chef, Martin Buchan, she dishes up a spread that has all the simplicity and honesty of her home and her roots.
“When my mother had me in that kitchen, carrying out my ‘woman’s duties’ I hated it. That peasant culture that kept a woman in the kitchen was never going to be for me. She tried to explain, that as women, we hold this power and the food is what puts it in our hands. She was right.”
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