Author Pat Conroy in his garage office, 1984. AJC FILE
Photo: Rich Addicks
Photo: Rich Addicks

I never met Pat Conroy, but I cooked his Southern ratatouille

I thought we would read more Faulkner.

That, to paraphrase, is what my son wrote to his high school English teacher as part of an end-of-semester evaluation last spring. It must have struck a chord because she responded with a handwritten note that arrived in the mail when school let out for the summer.

I understand my son’s sentiments. As still new transplants from the Midwest, our memory bank of the South is only a few years old. When it comes to literature, it’s one thing to be taught Faulkner. It’s another to be taught Faulkner in the South.

I feel the same way about Pat Conroy, another native son of the South. Sure, I know his best-selling books turned into films, “The Prince of Tides” and “The Great Santini.” But I have a lot of work to do when it comes to getting up to speed on all of Conroy’s works, and certainly wonder if I would be lacking in this department if I’d grown up in these parts.

I recall a day back in late 2015 when a reader’s letter landed in my email inbox. The person was upset by Wyatt Williams’ restaurant review of Southern Gentleman in Buckhead, a zero-star review that Wyatt penned using the voice of a cynical Rhett Butler.

“Is Pat Conroy having a bad day?” asked the reader.

Wyatt thought the whole thing hilarious and took it as a high compliment to be compared to a Southern literary great. Me? I was still figuring it all out. Who exactly was Pat Conroy?

March 4 marks the second anniversary of Conroy’s death. While I never met Conroy, nor was I a student of his works, it’s curious that I suddenly find myself “convening” with him.

Recently, a chance visit to a used bookstore in Birmingham, Ala., brought me face to face with Conroy. Well, his cookbook, actually. But that’s him and his big smile on the cover of “The Pat Conroy Cookbook: Recipes and Stories of My Life,” published in 2004.

The book is a signed copy. The inscription, to a person by the name of Lyela James, reads: “For the love of books and food.”

“The subject of food is nearly a sacred one to me,” he writes in the introduction, explaining that he learned his way around the stove with French chef Auguste Escoffier’s cookbook to guide him.

The book has been in my possession for only a week. I’m still reading through it, but I wanted to get started cooking from it. So, I flipped through the nearly 300 pages and settled on Conroy’s “Southern Ratatouille with Bacon.”

Ratatouille is essentially a stewy vegetable dish with origins in the Provence region of France. It’s long been a go-to for me in summertime, when zucchini, summer squash and tomatoes are at their peak and, if I’m lucky, plucked from my own garden. Conroy’s version doesn’t veer much from the typical rendition (I usually add eggplant; he leaves it out), except that he adds corn and bacon. He explains the decision about the latter ingredient in the introduction to the recipe: “Southerners cannot seem to cook anything without flavoring it with some part of a pig. I still cannot spell or pronounce ratatouille, even with the bacon in it.”

No matter your foreign language skills, it’s a good call to use bacon rather than a fat such as olive oil to cook down the veggies. Those couple slices of bacon impart just enough flavor not to take the spotlight away from the produce.

The finished dish filled a large skillet – easily enough to feed four. That was perplexing, since the recipe says it serves one person as a main course or two as a side dish.

“That’s typical of Pat,” said Conroy’s widow, the novelist Cassandra King, speaking to me from the couple’s home in Beaufort, S.C. “He was a large man, but he had this large personality. He did everything big, even cooking. He always made huge dishes, especially when we were entertaining. I didn’t have to worry about if we were going to have enough,” she said with a laugh.

Conroy dedicated the cookbook to King, calling her the “cooking partner of my life.”

As we chatted about the ratatouille, King recalled her late husband’s love affair with Italian cuisine, born from when he lived in Italy and his hankering for seafood. “He loved his seafood,” King said. Conroy’s recipe for shrimp salad, published in the cookbook, is still the one she relies on. That, and his crab cakes.

King reminisced about cooking with Conroy, divulged that he disdained leftovers and recounted how food and restaurants were an integral part their travels. “That was always the highlight of our trip,” she said.

Listening to King talk about Conroy’s relationship with food makes reading this cookbook – one already full of humorous storytelling – even more colorful. Like Chapter One, titled “Nathalie Dupree.” Conroy wrote that this grand dame of Southern cooking “seems more like a fictional character than a flesh-and-blood person.” He wrote that in 2004. Some 14 years later, the same rings true to me, a newbie among food writers in this region.

In fact, so many of Conroy’s observations about food resonate deeply with me. Like Conroy’s comments about the joy that comes with reading a cookbook, or thinking of a recipe as “a story that ends with a good meal” or the power of funeral food. “Cooking food for a grieving family and their friends is still one of the classiest ways to send a love note that I can think of,” he writes in a chapter titled “Why Dying Down South Is More Fun.”

His reflections are reassuring to this woman who often wonders whether she isn’t overly food crazed.

Often, when I finish reading a novel, or even go cover to cover with a cookbook, there’s a part of me that feels a little bit sad. In the case of “The Pat Conroy Cookbook,” I don’t think I’ll suffer from “book hangover” after savoring every delicious word from the book.

Why? It turns out King has more to tell us about Conroy’s culinary side. She’s currently writing a memoir about her time with him. “We had talked about doing a cookbook together. After he died, I thought, I think I’ll do this. We spent so much time cooking together.”

The book is tentatively titled, “Supper for One: A Love Story With Recipes.” The publisher and release date are still to be determined.

Southern Ratatouille with Bacon

Excerpted from THE PAT CONROY COOKBOOK by Pat Conroy, with permission of Doubleday, a division of Penguin Random House.

This is called Southern ratatouille because it contains bacon. Southerners cannot seem to cook anything without flavoring it with some part of a pig. I still cannot spell or pronounce ratatouille, even with the bacon in it.

Serves 1 as a main course or 2 as a side dish

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.