Dishing With the Kitchen Virgin
by Susan Reinhardt
Published by Kensington
227 pages, 2008
Susan Reinhardt has been called “the Southern Belle’s answer to David Sedaris” and “a modern-day, Southern-fried Erma Bombeck or Dave Barry.” An award-winning syndicated humor columnist and author of three books -- Not Tonight, Honey: Wait ‘til I’m a Size 6 (2005); Don’t Sleep With a Bubba Unless Your Eggs are in Wheelchairs (2007); and Dishing with the Kitchen Virgin (2008) -- Reinhardt says there’s no chance such praise will go to her head because, while she appreciates it, she doesn’t fully believe it.
She really should, though. Born and raised in the South, the author and journalist lives in Asheville, North Carolina. She has a knack for telling stories that make readers laugh out loud, both at her own antics -- and there are plenty from which to choose -- and those of the myriad colorful characters she writes about.
Perhaps today more than ever, people need to be on the lookout for things to laugh about. Thankfully, Susan Reinhardt makes the search a little easier.
Mary Ward Menke: You’re a staff columnist at the Asheville Citizen-Times and your column is also syndicated. What made you decide to become a humor columnist?
Strange and funny things always seem to happen to me or my family and friends. Since humor and storytelling come natural to me -- in other words I talk too much and laugh too hard -- it fit nicely.
Are you a real “Southern Belle”?
Ha! Well, I’m from Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina, so I’m Southern for sure. As for the Belle part ... I guess you could say I’m a slightly risqué (at times) Southern Belle. I don’t drink mint juleps on the veranda nor is Gone with the Wind my favorite movie, though I do like Scarlett.
Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
No, girl. I wanted to be a nurse, but after giving too many enemas and sponge baths, plus seeing corpses in nursing school, I switched to my true passion, which is writing. Oh, I did wake an ancient and comatose man from the dead with one of my sponge baths. Mama wasn’t proud.
Were you a good student?
I was good in some areas and bad (think math) in others. I had good grades in high school, but sort of messed up by attending too many keggers in college. Somehow, though, I graduated.
You’ve been compared to Erma Bombeck, Dave Barry and David Sedaris. How does that make you feel?
I like hearing it, but don’t fully believe it. So it hasn’t gone to my head. Everything tends to go to my belly. Everything. I’m a bloater. By the way, I do love all those writers you mentioned, and was so honored to speak at the Erma Bombeck Humor Writers Conference in Dayton in 2006 and meet all of her family. Betsy Bombeck bought two of my books. I was elated.
Has humor always been an important part of your life? Where did your sense of humor come from?
My dad is the funniest man alive and my sister is the funniest woman on the planet. For example, she recently couldn’t get her kids to bathe, so she just put them in the golf cart and ran them through the car wash. She also had an e-Bay bidding war to win a possum fur coat. She said it has a tire mark through it, too.
Do you think there’s a difference between “Southern humor” and other humor?
Oh, yes. Lots of Northerners don’t seem to get all of my material. Southerners are, by nature, strange and wonderful creatures. We live with such gusto and love to tell tall tales. We also like our food fried and our tea sweet.
Is it true you’re an expert unicyclist?
Expert? I used to be great on the old unicycle; however, now at 46, I look more like Big Bird trying to roll around on the thing. I can still ride it pretty well if I practice. My kids think it’s weird. Well, quite a few people think it’s strange to see an “old lady” atop a unicycle.
I understand you were nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. How did that come about?
I wrote a few feature stories that must have been pretty good. But not good enough. It was years ago while I was still writing four-to-six part narrative series pieces.
You’ve written three books: Not Tonight, Honey: Wait ‘til I’m a Size Six; Don’t Sleep with a Bubba Unless Your Eggs are in Wheelchairs; and Dishing with the Kitchen Virgin. Did you come up with those titles yourself?
All but Don’t Sleep with a Bubba. I hated that title, and fought with my agent and editor (in a nice way) and lost. I wanted to call it Chimes from a Cracked Southern Belle.
Do you have a favorite among the three?
I’m partial to Not Tonight, Honey, because it was my first. Plus, it’s still making a little pocket change.
You write a lot about family members. Have they ever complained?
I am going through a challenging divorce and don’t write about my estranged -- I hate that word -- anymore. When my family members call, they’ll either say, “Get your computer ready,” wanting me to type their wild adventures, or they’ll say, “This is not for print.” And yes, I’ve gotten a complaint from my teen son before. My daughter is now 10, and starting to get picky about her portrayal in the paper. I guess I’d better find another weird family to chronicle.
What about the other “colorful characters”? Any complaints there?
I get some hate mail and it used to bother me. For the most part, if you live in the South, there’s not a lack of colorful characters. I had this one man who kept calling and saying a gorilla was sitting behind the wheel of his old Ford. Another woman called and said there was a band of prostitutes living under her singlewide.
Don’t Sleep with a Bubba isn’t all fun and games. You talk about your struggle with alcoholism, depression and your half-hearted suicide attempt. Many famous comedians have struggled with similar issues. Why do you think that is?
I think it’s because as writers, we “feel” too much and take too much to heart and soul. It’s really like being stripped of defenses, leaving one open for such mental illnesses. I’m affected each day by what I see and read and it can turn my mood in a heartbeat. I still struggle with depression, but have managed to work through it with prayer, food, a good doctor and these sessions called “Hot Yoga.”
Did you have any qualms about including such topics in what was otherwise a humor book?
Looking back, so many people said they were helped by those stories, I have no regrets. At first, when my parents were so saddened by such revelations, I wished I hadn’t included them.
It’s obvious that family is very important to you. Have your parents always been supportive?
They are the best. They just celebrated 50 years of marriage and yet my sister and I still rely on them daily for support and laughter. They really are wonderful people and I can’t imagine a world without them.
What’s life like for an author with a new book?
It’s a trip that includes highs and hell. At first, you’re nervous and excited when the book hits the shelves. Then, if it doesn’t hit the right shelves (Best Reads, Bestsellers, etc) it’s a drag. Also, I’ve had trouble in the past with publicity. You pretty much have to get out there and hawk your own wares. Pimp your product, so to speak.
Do you think it’s been easier to sell your books because you are a columnist?
Partly. But even though I’m with Gannett, a huge newspaper chain, I can’t get USA Today, which is our flagship paper, to review my book for all the bribes in the world. I’ve tried, too.
Do you read your reviews? Are there any that stand out in your mind?
I do read the reviews. Most have been good, but there have been a few clunkers.
Everyone has different tastes, and as you know, humor is so subjective. It’s hard to make everyone laugh. But that’s my goal.
What’s a typical day like in the life of Susan Reinhardt?
A typical day starts at about seven, with me rousing my sleeping kids and getting them off to school. Then I make the strongest, motor-oil-tasting coffee I can and begin answering tons of e-mail. I may write a column, or if one isn’t due, I’ll work on a novel or project.
I go to the refrigerator quite often, since I no longer work full-time in the office. I went part-time at the paper to work on more books.
What’s the weirdest or most memorable thing you’ve ever done for your job?
About the weirdest thing I had to do was go whitewater rafting with 27 prisoners. And once, as a young, stupid reporter, I covered an air show and somehow ended up in a trick plane that did loops upside down. I was terrified.
What do you read? What writers have had the most influence on your work?
I read so much. Laurie Notaro, David Sedaris, Billie Letts, Anne Tyler...
I’m in a book club so our choices are so different and cover many genres. I just love good writing, especially Southern fiction and good humor. My all-time favorite book is A Confederacy of Dunces.
If you had to choose, would you rather write your column or your books?
Now, let’s see. That’s almost like saying do you want a salad with your meal? The salad would represent columns and the full meal, the books. I want both. I’m a pig.
Where did you get the idea for Dishing with the Kitchen Virgin? Do you still consider yourself a virgin in the kitchen?
I knew I was awful in the kitchen. You know you’re bad when your kids beg for school lunches, and I’d had so many funny things in the kitchen and restaurants and food adventures occur, I decided they needed binding in a book. It’s also got some really good recipes in it, and some yuck-yucks, too.
Dishing combines funny anecdotes and recipes. Did your great-grandfather really scoop up fresh roadkill possum for dinner?
I hate to admit it, but that’s the family story. He also kept them in cages to fatten them up. My great-grandmother had to leave the house when he cooked them, they smelled so bad.
Which of the recipes in the book is your favorite?
Oh, the Green Bean Casserole or the Salmon Stew, both of which came from my mother and are truly delicious.
Has Hollywood expressed any interest in optioning your books?
They did with the first, Not Tonight, Honey. I flew to Los Angeles and met with HBO, but in the end, they said there wasn’t enough sex in the book. Mama was quite proud.
I heard a rumor that you’ve got an almost-finished novel hiding in your desk drawer. Any chance it’ll be published soon?
I hope so. I finished it, after 20 drafts and five years, and just signed with a female agent in New York. We will be shopping it soon. She’s a Southern girl, too, but now lives in the big city.
What’s next for Susan Reinhardt?
Greece. If I can sell my book. I’ve wanted to go there all my life and eat the foods and swim in that gorgeous water. Also, I better get my arse in church more.
What do you think the future holds for humor columnists and what advice, if any, would you give humor writers?
I think there will always be markets available for humor writing, but many will be online now. Newspapers have made huge cuts in staff because the print product is now moving to the Internet websites. Soon will be the day a real “paper” will vanish and most of our news, including humor, will appear online.
For up-and-coming humor writers, don’t give up. Google all the sites that are looking for humor and hit them up with some great material. | September 2008
Mary Ward Menke is a contributing editor of January Magazine and is president of WordAbilities LLC which provides writing and editing services to businesses and individuals. She recently published The Light at the End of the Tunnel: Coming Back to Life After a Spouse Dies, a collection of essays from those who have survived the death of a spouse.