On Tuesday night, popular Atlanta fine-dining destination Restaurant Eugene hosted local novelist Susan Rebecca White and a nearly-full house—more than 55 guests—for the inaugural of its Eugene Author Dinners, a quarterly event designed by chef Linton Hopkins and director of hospitality Judith Winfrey to illuminate the common space shared by literature and cuisine, while expanding the reach of both. Though there’s nothing wrong with “using restaurants to promote cookbooks,” Hopkins says, he thinks they can also be used to explore and celebrate a more challenging, less obvious relationship between the two art forms.
Besides being a James Beard-nominated chef, Hopkins is also a book collector and one-time employee of legendary, long-defunct Atlanta indie bookstore Oxford Books, where he stacked the shelves with every edition of Tolkein he could find. For her part, White considers herself a “passionate foodie”; she met Hopkins and Winfrey at the annual meeting of the Southern Foodways Alliance and describes the way it came together as beshert—meant to be. It doesn’t hurt that White’s latest novel, A Soft Place to Land (Touchstone), features such chef-inspiring creations as Elvs, a fictitious ice cream sandwich that puts caramelized banana ice cream between two peanut butter cookies, then rolls it in bacon; Hopkins served a “deconstructed” version for dessert.
The balance of the menu was drawn from White and Hopkins’s shared Atlanta roots, with nods to everything from bygone city social organizations like the Piedmont Driving Club to home-cooked family meals. But just as important as the food were the ideas: between entrees and dessert, diners were treated to a discussion between Hopkins and White, moderated by author Alan Deutschman (White’s husband), which delved into the complex legacy of “Southerness” and how their respective art forms help them engage that legacy. Breaking even further with book-events-as-usual, the talk featured a reverse Q&A, in which Linton quizzed the audience—including award-winning Atlanta poet Natasha Trethewey, Pulitzer-winning author Hank Klibanoff, and Decatur Book Festival founder Daren Wang (who helped bring the dinner to fruition)—about their own experiences with southern food, including a poll of who in the room had eaten squirrel, raccoon, possum, or rabbit (none of which appeared on the evening’s menu).
Local bookseller Frank Reiss, owner of A Capella Books, was on hand to sell copies of White’s latest, as well as her first novel Bound South, though each attendee of the $95-a-head dinner received a complimentary copy of A Soft Place to Land. The next Author Dinner is already slated for November, featuring Mark Kurlansky, author of Salt: A World History (Penguin) and a forthcoming novel-in-parts called Edible Stories (Riverhead). As for the series’ future, Hopkins and Winfrey plan to make the Author Dinners into a signature event for the restaurant; as Hopkins enthuses, the “possibilities are endless.”