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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Nobody’s Poet

February 21, 2024

In the late 1990s I was asked by my local newspaper to write a weekly food column. I politely declined citing an overloaded schedule and lack of any known writing skills. They were persistent and kept asking until one day, after the fourth or fifth ask, I gave in and agreed. Once that first column was written and submitted, they may have regretted the ask. The writing was bad. Seriously bad. I don’t have access to those columns I wrote in the early months, but I’ve re-read some that were published in the first year and I cringe every time.

I was almost 40 years old when I started this writing gig. I had shown a proficiency for writing in high school, but after graduation I set my sights on the restaurant business, hit the tunnel-vision button and focused— almost solely— on furthering that career. Restaurants were first and foremost in my life. Before this column it was a labor to write a letter to someone.

But the newspaper didn’t give up. They stuck it out. In time, the writing got a little better. Then other newspapers called. Within a couple of years, I was writing a thousand words a week in over 30 newspapers.

It was a laborious task at first. But eventually, as the writing improved, and the readership response grew more favorable, I began to develop a passion for writing. The problem at that point was that I was in my early forties but— since my writing skills had been mothballed for decades— I was writing at the level of a college freshman who was struggling in Comp I. Around that time I went back to college, finished up the six hours that had gone uncompleted, got a degree, and then kept taking undergraduate, and the graduate-level creative writing courses and workshops at The University of Southern Mississippi.

College is different in one’s forties. I no longer showed up on the first day of class, looked for the prettiest girl in the room and grabbed a desk by her, hopefully in the back of the room. I sat in the front of the class. The desks were smaller than they had been a couple of decades earlier, but I wasn’t distracted, and— as in all my restaurant business classes years earlier— I was engaged and interested.

The graduate-level writing workshops made the biggest difference in my work. I was getting skewered by 22-year old grad students, weekly. It was rough, but it made me a better writer, and I began to make wiser choices. In those days I would begin to turn a phrase that I thought sounded clever and literary (often called little darlings) but would stop myself knowing that those students would rip that line— and the guy who wrote it— to shreds. They were often unrelentless, and I’m a better writer for it.

The writing was better, yet I still hadn’t found my voice. In a review of one of my early books I was described as a “food-humor writer” and my style was labeled as “Lewis Grizzard meets Emeril.” I was flattered and started writing in that vein. The problem was that my writing skills weren’t anywhere in the same ballpark as Lewis Grizzard, and my culinary skills and knowledge couldn’t match Emeril’s even on my best day. The writing and humor were forced. It wasn’t me. It was a written version of what I thought I should be. I don’t consider myself naturally funny or clever, even.

In 2011, I flew my wife, 10-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter to Sweden, bought a Volvo, and spent the next six months in 17 countries and 72 cities on two continents. I continued to write the column every week. Somewhere on that journey, probably in some small European outpost, this Mississippi boy’s writing found its voice.

There is some type of bunker mentality that is developed when traveling at that pace and under long-term conditions. Normal rules don’t apply. The comforts of home are gone. Combine that with wide-eyed wanderlust and a new and historic adventure around every corner and nothing is forced. The words almost write themselves. The directives of my workshop professors the Barthelme brothers began to ring true— “Write what you know.”

This column morphed from an affected “food-humor” feature to an honest accounting of food, travel, family, and my love of the American South.

The most often asked question I receive about my writing is, “Do you ever run out of things to write about?” The answer to that is always, “No.” Though in the early days I would be somewhere, and a comment or incident would trigger a thought and I would tell myself to remember that and write about it in the future. Then I would forget about it until something triggered the same thought and I would remember I wanted to write about that two years earlier. After that, anytime I had an idea, thought, or inspiration, I opened the notes feature in my phone, jotted down the thought in rough form, and filed it away.

I sit down to write this column on Monday mornings. I typically know what I want to cover. Though if I’m at a loss, I open my notes and take my pick. At present there are 262 column topic ideas filed in my notes app. I take solace in the fact that if the idea well ran dry tomorrow, I’d have at least five years worth of topics to cover.

The newspaper business model changed several years ago. I’m still carried in a couple of dozen each week, but most of my readership is online via email and my website. Though I am a newspaper guy to my core. My grandfather owned the local paper and my father worked there as well. It’s in my blood.

I never set out to be a syndicated weekly columnist. But I never planned on writing books, producing documentaries, hosting travel groups, or hosting television shows. My goal early on was to own one restaurant so I could wear t-shirts and shorts every day to work. Yet after 13 books, a couple of regional Emmy awards, 1,000 travel guests, and five seasons of television, here I am. If I’ve done anything right in my strange and sorted career, it’s been that I have been open to opportunities when they fell in my lap and followed my passions. Nothing more. Nothing less.

For the past 25 years I have written 1,000+ words, every week, in this space. I have never missed a week. That’s over 1.3 million words in print. That’s a lot of typing for someone who never paid attention in his high school typing class and still uses keyboards with three fingers. But the streak is alive. I don’t know how long I’ll keep writing. I feel like I should probably write a few back up columns and put them in reserve in case I’m in a car wreck or a coma and I can keep the weekly streak alive until I regain consciousness.

In the meantime, I’ll remain open to opportunities, do my best to follow my passions, and try to keep my writing— and my voice— authentic and true.

Onward.

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