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Susan Rebecca White

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Lakeside Retreat: Novelist Susan Rebecca White’s highs and lows on a mountain lake in the Smokies

My in-laws own a rambling gray house in Scaly Mountain, North Carolina, a tiny community seven miles south of Highlands. The house overlooks a sloping lawn, dotted with hydrangea bushes, that leads to a small lake. You can take a fishing boat with an electric motor out on it, but I like to explore by kayak. That way, everything slows down, quiets. There is the light reflecting off the water. There is the ridge of mountains, an undulation of tree-topped rocks. There is the lap-lap rhythm of the paddle. There is the quiet when you stop, in the middle of all that water, allowing the kayak to bob and float.

Six years ago, during a weekend at the lake with my husband, I walked alone to the dock after supper. I was twelve weeks pregnant, and the sky was full of stars. As I lay down on the dock and looked up, it felt as if the starry night were a blanket I could pull over me, for comfort, which I needed. A recent test had revealed that I was infected with the Toxoplasma parasite. If the infection reached the fetus, it could be devastating. Further testing was scheduled. It would be another two weeks before the doctor confirmed that the baby was okay, but on that night, under that starlit sky, the sound of the water lapping against the dock, I felt a prescient sense of peace.

These days, I often take my five-year old son, Gus, to the lake for weekends. We stop along the way at Osage Farms in Rabun Gap, Georgia, to purchase peaches, tomatoes, corn, and lady peas, along with a quart of pulled pork from Tomlin’s Little Red BBQ Shack next door. My husband comes when he can, and when he does, my in-laws babysit so that we can have a date night at Fortify Kitchen & Bar in nearby Clayton, where the gazpacho rivals the iconic cold soup I first fell in love with in Seville, Spain, and the fried green tomatoes are as good as any I’ve gobbled from the cast-iron skillets of friends in Atlanta. But often it is just my son, my in-laws, and me.

My son calls his grandfather “Dir.” This is a mispronunciation of “Sir,” which is the name my father-in-law chose to be called by his first set of grandchildren, my niece and nephew, now in college. That he chose “Sir” tells you a lot about him—his sense of self and his sense of humor. That he cheerfully adapted to “Dir” tells you more.

Every morning at the lake, Gus wakes up asking, “Where’s Dir?” If, God forbid, Dir has driven off somewhere (often to buy his grandson a treat from the Dollar General down the way), Gus repeats this litany every few minutes until he returns. And why wouldn’t my son be searching for his granddad? Dir is so much fun. Here is the “to-do” list that was waiting for Gus the last time we arrived at the mountain house: FISH / ZIPLINE / TREE HOUSE / BOW & ARROW/ TRACTOR RIDE / WRESTLE / FLASHLIGHT WALK / BOAT RIDE.

My son chose to go on a boat ride first. Once we were far enough from the dock, Dir let him take hold of the tiller, and Gus turned us in circles until I cried, “Enough!” After Dir retook command of the motor, we made our way lazily around the lake’s periphery, the sun-dappled water sparkling. There I sat with two people I love dearly, content and afloat.

Susan Rebecca White is the author of four novels: Bound South, A Soft Place to Land, A Place at the Table, and We Are All Good People Here, published in August. A graduate of Brown University and the MFA program at Hollins University, White has taught creative writing at Hollins, Emory University, SCAD, and Mercer University, where she was the Ferrol A. Sams, Jr. Distinguished Chair of English Writer-in-Residence. An Atlanta native, she lives in the city with her husband and son.

This article appears in the Fall/Winter 2019 issue of Southbound.

How I learned to love my own (small) space after a divorce

The big house

A decade ago my now ex-husband and I purchased a nearly 100-year-old wood-framed house in Inman Park. Built in Colonial Revival style, it was white with black shutters and a red front door. The wide front porch, flanked by Doric columns, evoked visions of sipping sweet tea, or perhaps bourbon. The house had high ceilings, five fireplaces, and wavy glass windows through which the midafternoon sun would cast rectangular sheets of light onto the hardwood floors, where our two cats would sun themselves.

Behind the gracious facade, we were struggling. I had married a man 11 years my senior in San Francisco, presuming that we would return to my hometown of Atlanta and live in a grand house. It was a fantasy I had been raised to believe in, having grown up in a Philip Shutze house with back and front staircases, plus interior doorbells that had once summoned servants.

We had not finished unpacking the moving boxes before my husband began plotting ways for us to return to San Francisco. He missed his friends, he missed the culture, but mostly he missed the freedom of renting an apartment—where if your finances changed, you could always move into cheaper digs. As writers, our finances were always changing, and our income hit a downward spiral just as our first mortgage statement arrived. Then the housing market crashed, and the true folly of what we had done sunk in.

We lived there for five years, our savings quickly drained, our credit cards maxed out. During that time we also came face-to-face with just how mismatched we were as a couple. In San Francisco we had been good at going out to dinner and discussing writing. But over the nitty-gritty details of building a shared life, we agreed on very little. We could not even decide whether or not to have a child, and so we did not, which in hindsight was a blessing.

Our marriage finally ended, appropriately enough, in Reno, Nevada, where my husband had taken a professorship. He had made it clear that he wanted a fresh start not just from our life in Atlanta, but also from me. That year I also received an unexpected royalty check from my second book, so we were finally able to sell the house, at a significant loss.

After the divorce I returned to Atlanta and picked up enough adjunct teaching gigs to keep me afloat. I answered an ad for a carriage house apartment situated behind a stately two-story home in Druid Hills. The space was small, about 450 square feet, but it had hardwood floors and French doors with glass panes separating the bedroom from the living area. The walls were painted a pale yellow, the trim a creamy white. There was a gas stove, a bathtub, and best of all a washer and dryer, a true luxury after months of using the Laundromat. I placed my Persian rug on the floor, hung woodcut prints on the walls, and spread a blue-and-white quilt on the bed. The space was both colorful and peaceful.

Still, each night when I arrived home, I would look at my landlord’s gracious house and think, “I used to live in the big house. How did I wind up here?”

I confessed all of this to a wise friend, who suggested I reframe my narrative. She suggested that instead of lamenting my loss, I should tell myself: “There was nothing I could afford about that big house. My new home is bright, cheerful, safe, and absolutely within my budget.”

I said those words when I parked in front of the carriage house after work. I said those words as I climbed up the rickety steps that led to my front door. I said those words as I opened my door and walked into my very own space, cozy and warm—and affordable.

It did not take me long to realize how very true those words were.


Susan Rebecca White
Susan Rebecca White

Photograph by Dorothy O'Connor

About the writer
Susan Rebecca White is the author of three novels: A Place at the Table, A Soft Place to Land, and Bound South. Her nonfiction essays have been published in the Bitter Southerner, Salon, Tin House, and by the UNC Press. Additionally, she has written food criticism for Atlanta magazine. Susan has taught fiction writing at Hollins, SCAD, and Emory, and has led workshops on spiritual writing at her church and in small groups. Susan currently lives in a 1,100-square-foot bungalow with her husband, Sam, and their son, Gus.

This article originally appeared in our Spring 2017 issue of Atlanta Magazine’s HOME.

The burger as fetish

Growing up, I was terrified of my best friend’s grandmother, tiny but fierce with her shellacked black hair, penciled eyebrows, and penchant for telling us girls to “stand up straight.” When I confessed I had never eaten a burger at the Varsity, she declared my situation “un-American, un-Southern, and un-Christian.” That afternoon, she took us to the Varsity Jr. (now closed), where I first heard the siren song, “What’ll ya have? What’ll ya have?”

Illustration by Mikey Burton
Illustration by Mikey Burton

Thirty-some years later, the burger takes up more cultural space than ever. Fancy burger joints have become a destination, and the hawkers of these high-end patties have taken self-aggrandizement to a new level. Consider that Poncey-Highland’s Flip Burger Boutique boasts valet service, with the most expensive cars parked out front. Or that a bill for two at Yeah! Burger routinely tops $40. One restaurant in London has even stacked its burger with gold leaf, lobster, caviar, and Wagyu beef. It’s perhaps the world’s most expensive burger, costing more than $1,700.

There’s an upside to this burger buzz: We are thinking more critically about our meat and how it’s sourced. Sure, it’s easy to kvetch about a $10 burger, but if it comes from a cow that lived on grass and not corn, which the federal government subsidizes, the cost is justified. But here’s my beef: Ordering “right” has become a mark of privilege that easily slides into self-satisfaction. It’s going to be a long slog to fix our country’s troubled food system. Perhaps we should save the trumpeting for when even the calls of “What’ll ya have? What’ll ya have” presume decent, well-raised meat.

Of course, I’ll probably be a grandmother by then.

Just how much does a burger with fries cost these days?
$2.38 
Cost of Cook Out, the cheapest tested
$11.49 
Average price of all those tested
$27.20 
Cost of Rathbun’s, the most expensive

Back to 20 Best Burgers

This article originally appeared in our January 2015 issue.

The Luminary

Originating as brewhouses, many brasseries were started by Alsatians who moved to Paris after their homeland was annexed by Germany in 1871. These establishments kept late hours and served food all day—food that sounds fancy because most things said in French do: fruits de mer, pâté, choucroute garnie, duck leg confit, and mousse au chocolat. Translation: the bottom feeders of the marine world, lowly cuts of offal and meat, and desserts that anyone from a toothless baby to a toothless old man might enjoy. But despite the cuisine’s many humble ingredients, the feel of a brasserie is often glamorous; its Belle Époque origins are apparent in the globe lights, chandeliers, and mirrored bars. Which is all to say that the classic brasserie is an exercise in contrasts.

Hanger steak with maître d’hôtel butter
Hanger steak with maître d’hôtel butter

Photograph by Johnny Autry

So, too, is Eli Kirshtein’s new Inman Park brasserie, the Luminary, named after Atlanta’s first newspaper, a pre–Civil War weekly that ran from 1846 through 1848. Kirshtein’s is the first restaurant to open in the still-under-construction Krog Street Market, located in what was part of a factory that produced cast-iron potbelly stoves for nearly 100 years (later, the space briefly served as Tyler Perry’s movie studio). Paces Properties is now turning it into a massive food hall, with an A-list of Atlanta chefs signed on as tenants, and vendors such as the Little Tart Bakeshop, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, and the folks from the Spotted Trotter setting up shop.

Consciously or not, the design of the Luminary—a mix of fin de siècle elegance and postindustrial minimalism—mirrors the inherent tension between tradition and progress that characterizes Inman Park, a historic neighborhood facing a tidal wave of new construction and its corollary traffic. Period lights extend from the otherwise blank white walls above the leather booths. Slender chairs with curved backs are paired with square pedestal tables. An oversized mirror topped with a row of bare bulbs is framed by the bar, which, true to its brewhouse origins, has a couple of dozen beers on tap. A neon sign announcing the restaurant’s name glows against subway tiles. But before cabaret music starts playing in your head, look up at the soaring twenty-foot ceiling and you’ll see exposed metal pipes. And what are those irregularly placed round lights clustered above the raw bar? Massive pearls? Tiny spaceships? Gaze out the plate glass windows that separate the dining room from the patio, and in the distance, just past Kevin Rathbun’s diminutive Krog Bar, your eye will land on the massive, multistory parking garage under construction.

Photograph by Johnny Autry
Photograph by Johnny Autry

In a sprawling city with an anemic public transit system, where there is development—even a block from the BeltLine—there must be parking. Marinate on that for a minute, then turn your attention to Kirshtein’s menu, which, at first glance, offers iconic French food you might find at any brasserie: towers of seafood from the raw bar, chicken liver mousse, mussels, fish, steak frites. But look closely and you will see that the menu is deceptively wry, loaded with subtle quirks that personalize the cuisine. Take the “Expat snacks,” foods that reference places such as Vietnam where France once, um, exerted influence. One of the snacks is chicken wings “Nuoc Ma’am,” a winking reference to the pairing of wings you might find at Taco Mac—and I mean that as a high compliment—and nuoc cham, Vietnamese sweet and sour sauce. The crispy catfish brandade is a Southern take on a brandade fritter, substituting catfish for the traditional salt cod. Or consider the deli-style pickle that accompanies the croque monsieur (which I wish had less bread and more béchamel) instead of cornichons. In these clever variations, Kirshtein proves that he learned the rules before choosing to break them.

With other dishes, Kirshtein sticks closer to the traditional, such as the beef tartare: a patty of perfectly seasoned chopped hanger steak, cornichons, hard-cooked eggs, and Worcestershire sauce. His duck leg confit, propped on lentils du Puy, is an homage to the classic, though I yearned for something more acidic to counter the richness of the meat and was put off by the garnish of hard cubes of carrots. But I’d return weekly for Kirshtein’s steak frites—rosy slices of meat flecked with fleur de sel, gilded with flavored butter, all lemony and herbaceous, and accompanied by killer fries—thin, hot, and crispy.

Salty caramel ganache tart, chocolate sorbet
Salty caramel ganache tart, chocolate sorbet

Photograph by Johnny Autry

In a city where every new restaurant seems to have some sort of raw bar, I’d skip the Krog Street Platter—two tiers of chilled seafood, including raw oysters, questionable clams, mussels, and shrimp cocktail—and order the peel-and-eat shrimp cocktail instead, a fine display of the sweet treasures of the Georgia coast. The monkfish with leeks hovers on bland, but dip the fish in the sauce Nantua (which Kirshtein creates by combining a reduced lobster and shrimp stock with beurre blanc), and suddenly the flavors meld and marry—and a happy marriage it is.

And though I love Kirshtein’s twists on classic French desserts—such as the profiteroles stuffed with hazelnut and coffee cream and his caramelized honey crème brûlée—it is the salty caramel ganache tart atop a chocolate sable crust, served with a quenelle of chocolate sorbet, that has catapulted to the top of my cravings list.

As much as I enjoyed my meals, there is a note of artifice to the Luminary. This is in part due to the fact that construction is still going on all around. But even inside the restaurant, I felt a bit ungrounded, almost as if I were on the set of a play that could be dismantled at any moment by the stagehands—strange, considering how steeped in history the Luminary is, located in a historic building in a historic neighborhood and named after the city’s first newspaper. Although the food represents a distinctly Southern spin on the cross-cultural pollination that defines a French brasserie, I still wish that the space itself told a clearer story. The crisp white walls display no photos or artifacts, as if they were blank pieces of paper in need of ink. What story of Atlanta might they tell, of where we have been and where we are going? I’m ready to be illuminated.

The Luminary
Rating: 2/4 stars (very good)
99 Krog Street
404-600-6199
theluminaryatl.com
Hours: Dinner: Tuesday–Sunday 5–11 p.m.; Brunch: Sunday 11 a.m.–3 p.m.

Lusca

Photograph by Johnny Autry
Photograph by Johnny Autry

It’s early evening, and once again I am at Lusca, Angus Brown and Nhan Le’s south Buckhead restaurant in the revamped space of what was once the nouveau slick Bluefin. Sipping Prosecco and eating fresh, cold oysters, I watch the place come to life as the setting sun casts a mellow light through the floor-to-ceiling windows. My corner table offers an excellent post for observation—a good thing, because though I was impressed with much of the food on previous visits, I am still struggling to figure out what Lusca is all about.

On this night, as on my previous visits, the music is loud and sometimes jarring, probably more suited for the kitchen staff than the diners, most of whom are preppy and middle-aged. The decor is restrained—crisp white walls, wooden tabletops inside metal frames, subway tile, and a new tin ceiling—with the notable exception of two massive murals of octopi, their tentacles stretching off the wall and onto the ceiling. One hovers above the raw bar; the other guards the liquor.

Although the murals stand out, they also make sense. Lusca refers to a giant octopus of Caribbean lore. It’s an apt name, in part because of the many chefs who work collaboratively to create an eclectic and mostly excellent—if inconsistent—menu, making Lusca a restaurant with one body and many arms. But the name, gilded in 23-karat gold across the restaurant’s front door, is also fitting because of Lusca’s heritage. Lusca might have valet parking and an uptown address, but this Buckhead baby was born across town, sprung from the feral Octopus Bar, Brown and Le’s raucous, after-hours, cliquey East Atlanta hot spot.

Lusca_Atlanta-7_cmyk
Photograph by Johnny Autry

Octopus Bar originated as a popup but is now open six nights a week, sharing space with Le’s Vietnamese restaurant, So Ba. Like a club kid starting his evening fashionably late, Octopus Bar doesn’t open until 10:30 p.m., only after So Ba has closed. It’s a place for restaurant insiders to drink up, chow down, and unwind over a ballsy menu, such as the homemade pasta tossed with pancetta and uni (the gonads of sea urchins).

Lusca’s strongest similarity to Octopus Bar is the menu: Both are heavy on seafood and designed to be shared. But Lusca’s offerings are more extensive. The menu essentially combines three restaurants into one: a sushi joint, a charcuterie, and a formal kitchen. Butcher Jonathan Sellitto’s charcuterie boards are a standout. Succulent rabbit liver mousse melts on pastry chef Brooke Lenderman’s pain au levain. The marbled coppa, rimmed in Espelette pepper, is a wonderful balance of smoke and spice, silk and chew.

Le offers a thoughtfully curated sushi menu; I was especially taken with his unctuous, puddingesque steamed monkfish liver. I loved Brown’s simple avocado toast piled high with sweet rock crab, dotted with Key lime mustard, and scattered with scallions. Perfectly seasoned quail—perched on smoky maitake mushrooms, bitter escarole, and plump beans that tasted of bacon—practically fell off the bone with the touch of a fork.

Not everything on the menu worked. A pulled-chicken stew with ricotta dumplings was bland, and despite the hype, the uni pasta disappointed; the noodles clumped, so it looked more like the world’s most un-kosher noodle kugel than silky strands of pappardelle. The rabbit agnolotti made up for the uni: three delicate pillows of pasta, stuffed with rabbit mortadella (the dignified Italian ancestor of American baloney), then set afloat in a rabbit broth as clear as it was rich.

Lusca_Atlanta-3_cmyk
Photograph by Johnny Autry

For dessert, Lenderman’s semifreddo (imagine gelato blended with whipped cream) was garnished with strawberries and served on a puddle of lemon curd with crumbled meringue on the side. Tasting like a cross between a deconstructed French macaron and my beloved grandma’s lemon icebox pie, it’s one of the best desserts I’ve had in memory. It was so charming and thoughtfully prepared that I temporarily forgot I was in a restaurant that prides itself for its edge. That is, until I ordered a cup of coffee and was told by the server that decaf is forbidden. “Our barista is a real coffee snob,” he said.

Although Octopus Bar’s origins are rooted in the ethos of the punk rock movement, Lusca has taken root in a stylish and well-appointed space on Peachtree Road. It’s on the edge of Brookwood Hills, a wealthy, established, family-oriented neighborhood of folks who surely enjoy decaf coffee and early bedtimes. And so I keep wondering, as I watch another polished couple enter the restaurant, why Brown and Le chose this location.

Brown cites south Buckhead’s central location, which intersects with so many of the neighborhoods that make up this city. But we are not a pedestrian town. We do not bump up against each other the way people do in, say, New York. Most of us navigate traffic in our cars. We don’t intersect but rather travel separately from place to place.

It is also hard for me to imagine many East Atlanta folks trekking across town to get here; my guess is they will stick with Octopus Bar. Which means that Lusca is attempting to wrap its tentacles around a new crowd, one that expects valet parking and does not blink at a $160 bill for two. Yet Lusca also wants to hold on to its bad-boy roots. The cynical part of me wonders if Lusca represents the Disneyfication of East Atlanta—the other side of town made palatable for the Buckhead crowd, with their thick wallets and expense accounts.

Cynicism aside, there might be something else going on here. Atlanta is infamous for its unchecked commercial development and sprawl, but lately there has been a new push to reclaim abandoned urban space, most notably the Atlanta BeltLine and the massive renovation at Ponce City Market. With all of this repurposing, why not invest in reverse urban pioneering—the opposite of gentrification—especially if Lusca can glide into the carcass of what once was Bluefin and give it a shock of new life? Le and Brown created something edgy and interesting in East Atlanta, catering to a crowd they know. Perhaps Atlanta is ready for a bit of East Atlanta in Buckhead. Still, it might not be a bad thing if a little Buckhead gentility rubs off on the restaurant. For starters, they could offer decaf.

This article originally appeared in our September 2014 issue.

45. Find a Madeleine moment

henrisneedrights-webThough the green-and-white awning is no longer there and a fancy cappuccino maker has replaced the old percolator, the Henri’s Bakery of today is still very much like the Henri’s of my childhood. The usual suspects—mothers with children, girls in sorority T-shirts, matrons with stiff hairdos, snowy-haired men in rumpled khakis—all wait in line to order sandwiches served on housemade bread, spread thick 
with mayonnaise and embellished with thin pickle strips.

My order also hasn’t changed since childhood (turkey with extra pickles), only now I ask for it on rye instead of white. Adjacent to the deli counter, a bakery display case tempts with chocolate chip cookies, petits fours, éclairs, and more. When my mom would take me to Henri’s as a kid, a lady behind the bakery case would always give me a free thumbprint shortbread cookie, its center decorated with a small circle of pastel icing. The bakery ladies still hand out cookies to children in what is surely a Pavlovian strategy for ensuring customer loyalty. Case in point: It is impossible for me to eat an Henri’s sandwich and not finish with something sweet.

This article originally appeared in our April 2013 issue.

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