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Food, Painting and Story-telling in Mississippi

There’s something about Mississippi. We seem to elevate and celebrate the story tellers among us. Mississippi claims one of the world’s greatest story tellers – the late Eudora Welty. She certainly could spin a tale and her writing is still appreciated by avid readers the world over.

“Southerners love a good tale. They are born reciters, great memory retainers, diary keepers, letter exchangers…great talkers.” –Eudora Welty

The legacy of story tellers is strong in Mississippi. And today, two of the most prolific story tellers in our midst are Robert St. John and Wyatt Waters. Robert St. John is a successful restauranteur with a collection of restaurants in his hometown of Hattiesburg. He is also a cookbook author and newspaper columnist. Waters is a well-known artist known for telling stories of people, places and events through his captivating watercolors.

Photo by Melanie Thortis

St. John claims Waters as one of his best friends. The two met Waters when St. John was working on a cookbook with recipes developed in The Purple Parrot Cafe’ in Hattiesburg. “I had a meeting with a publishing friend of one of my restaurant customers,” recalls St. John. “We talked about doing a cookbook and I told him I would like for it to be illustrated by Wyatt. The man told me that a book illustrated by Wyatt would be an instant best-seller!”

Although he had never met Waters in person, St. John was very familiar with the Clinton-based artist’s work. “I saw some paintings he had done of places around Hattiesburg,” St. John said. “Most people, when painting iconic places around Hattiesburg, would paint the dome on the administration building on Southern Miss’s campus, things like that. But instead, Wyatt found the quirky places like the old Beverly Drive-Inn movie theatre and the California Sandwich Shop downtown. I got what he was doing and really liked it.”

St. John set up a meeting with Waters. “I actually looked up his phone number and called his house, never dreaming he’d actually be there. His daughter answered, and promptly handing the phone over to Wyatt. We agreed to meet, and when we did, we talked for hours. We had so much in common – the Beatles and other music, WZZQ radio, that kind of thing. We really connected, and he got the vision for my cookbook.”

Fast forward to today, and St. John has formed his own publishing company and has published ten cookbooks, four of which have been illustrated by Waters. That first book, A Southern Palate: Contemporary Seasonal Southern Cuisine from The Purple Parrot Café and Crescent City Grill, was published in December 2002. “We ordered 10,000 copies, which in hindsight was very ambitious,” St. John says. “But the book sold out in three weeks and we had to reorder. Because there was no way to get the books in time for Christmas, Wyatt did a print that people would receive when they pre-ordered a cookbook, then they got their book around February.” Wyatt piped in, saying the book was a sort of coffee table cookbook. “I think we created a new genre of book. When it came to publishing, we didn’t know what we didn’t know!”

One book led to another, and St. John got the idea to do An Italian Palate. “I was preparing to open an Italian restaurant in Hattiesburg,” explains St. John. “Every Wednesday I made a trip to Jackson to learn to cook Italian food in the kitchen of David Trigiani. One day Wyatt joined us.” The St. John family was preparing to embark on a several-month European tour, and Trigiani suggested to Waters that he should join them in Italy to paint. “That spark of an idea really spoke to me,” says Waters. “Doing something I love in a place I’ve never been sounded wonderful.” With a goal of doing about 90 paintings, Waters ended up with 128 water colors. “I couldn’t help but find something good to paint each day. The food, the art, the architecture were all so inspiring.”

It was so inspiring, in fact, that St. John and Waters had an idea. Since they loved Italy so much, they put together a Tuscan tour for others who might like to learn more about the food of Tuscany, and for those who wanted to paint Italian scenes with Waters. The trip was a hit, so they started doing more of them, each time with an enthusiastic group of travelers primarily from Mississippi.

“One place understood helps us understand all places better.”

–Eudora Welty

Along the way, St. John and Waters became television hosts on Mississippi Public Broadcasting’s Palate to Palette. In the first season, the duo traveled around Mississippi, featuring a particular town on each show. They highlighted the food and interesting places and people in the cities they visited.

Because their Italy tours have been so successful, the duo of St. John and Waters looked for other places to travel. They enjoyed their work on Palate to Palette and learning about all Mississippi has to offer, so this fall they’ll be taking a group of adventurers on a Magical Mississippi Mystery Tour this October on a bus outfitted with a full-time bartender, movies and music on what is being billed as “the Deep South journey of a lifetime, including food, art, music, and culture” that has made Mississippi the favorite place of both St. John and Waters. The all-inclusive adventure will cover the state with stops in top-tier hotels and restaurants, live music, museum and other tours, and of course, cooking and painting.

“The excursion is the same when you go looking for your sorrow as when you go looking for your joy.” – Eudora Welty


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