If you happen to follow me on social media, you might know I recently had my first book published.
The book is “The Culinary History of Pittsburg County: Little Italy, Choctaw Beer and Lamb Fries,” (History Press, $19.99), and my editors at The Oklahoman have been kind enough to allow me to tell a little about it and how the project came to fruition.
When I became food editor in 2008, my dirtiest little secret was never having been to Krebs, one of Oklahoma's unique culinary destinations.
That gustatory sin had not yet been rectified until last October when I booked a two-assignment trip to Pittsburg County.
Turns out, the trip yielded much more than the two stories and cooler filled with coils of Lovera's sausage, caciocavallo cheese gourds and an Andre Champagne bottle filled with homemade Choc beer I brought home.
Within a week of the trip, I got a call from Becky LeJeune, of History Press in Charleston, S.C. LeJeune said her employers had, for the past year, expanded their titles to include tomes on regional food culture. She asked if I knew of anything or place in Oklahoma that might make an interesting book.
“I'm pretty sure I just left the place you're looking for,” was my response.
It took me until after Christmas to find the time to put together a pitch for what the book would be, but it took only a few days before the folks at History Press recognized what people in Oklahoma have known for more than eight decades: the food history of Pittsburg County is as colorful as an Italian flag and richer than J.J. McAlester's bank ledger.
With a strict word count and 60 days to work, I began researching, interviewing and, of course, eating my weight in pasta, lamb fries, sausage and cheese — oh, the sacrifices we endure for our craft.
Thanks to interviews with folks in the Prichard, Lovera, Giacomo, Robertson, Brewer, Pecchio, Fassino, DeFrange and Scarpitti families and a lot of work published through the years, I was able to cobble together a narrative trying to explain the age-old mystery of why for decades folks have come to Pittsburg County in droves every weekend to shop at Lovera's and eat at Pete's Place, Minnie's Place, The Isle of Capri, GiaComo's and Roseanna's.
A single answer didn't arise, though proximity to some of Oklahoma's most lush landscapes, Lake Eufaula, political good fortune and even the state penitentiary have contributed to the multigenerational success of the aforementioned eateries.
Seeded in tragedy
But I could feel in my bones there was a more profound reason why the draw to Krebs remains so strong. The evidence quickly made it clear.
Pittsburg County's culinary prosperity was seeded in tragedy. The unforgiving nature of life on the coal belt in the late 19th and early 20th century was an almost constant exercise in natural selection.
A conversation with former Oklahoman reporter Julie (Bisbee) Wheeler helped me pin the tail on the donkey in my mind. “You've got a frontier survival story,” she said.
She was right: The raviolis, spaghetti, meatballs, lamb fries, steaks, cheese, sausage and Choc beer we still enjoy today in Pittsburg County were born of sheer desperation by families who had lost their breadwinners to the cruelty of coal mining.
The daily feast that's cycled in perpetuity since 1926, expanding in 1946, '50, '59 and '75, is a tribute to seeds planted with pure conviction. The daily struggle to offer food, drink and hospitality that began with Pietro Piegari (Pete Prichard) and Minnie Pecchio and was carried on through Dominic Giacomo, Mike Lovera and their many descendants is a gift of not only great food but a living history of Oklahoma's rich past.
The book also offers an explanation why southern Italian food is pervasive in the U.S. and how the Choctaw Nation became a Mecca for home brewing despite the absence of any significant beer-making tradition in Indian culture.
And no story rooted in Pittsburg County carries too far before Little Dixie politics or Big Mac (Oklahoma State Penitentiary) pop up.
“The Culinary History of Pittsburg County: Little Italy, Choctaw Beer and Lamb Fries” by David Cathey is available at Full Circle Bookstore and local Barnes and Noble stores. It's also available through History Press
Cathey also is scheduled to sign copies as follows (all in Oklahoma City except Steve's): Full Circle, 6:30 p.m. Thurday; Barnes and Noble Quail Springs, 2 to 4 p.m. Sept. 8; Steve's Sundry, Books and Magazines, 1 to 3 p.m. Oct. 19; and Barnes and Noble on N May Avenue, 2 to 4 p.m. Nov. 29.