Q&A with Sam McLeod

Ham biscuits cause Sam McLeod to go weak in the knees. So does his mama’s meat loaf, fried chicken done right, mac-and-cheese with oysters, and pie of any sort, although chess pie is his favorite. Like a lot of southern folks, Sam McLeod has rarely met a meal he didn’t like.

Sam gives the skinny on several of his all-time favorite dishes in his uproariously funny book, Big Appetite: My Southern-Fried Search for the Meaning of Life. It’s a memoir gone wild and seasoned with dash of southern cuisine.

Imagine if the Little Rascals had invited Will Ferrell to be a member of their gang. Those are the kinds of romps that Sam takes the reader on as he revisits the Nashville neighborhood of his youth.

Sam doesn’t live in Nashville any more. He lives 30 miles up yonder from here, in a sweet little spot that could pass for a holler if the West had hollers but it doesn’t. It has wide open spaces and big blue skies.

How two southerners found their way West and became writers is one of the tales Sam McLeod and Karen Spears Zacharias swapped at Detour Farm, the McLeod’s 160-acre farmstead, a few miles due west of Walla Walla, Washington.

Big Appetite has been selected by the Southeast Independent Booksellers Association as an OKRA book pick. But like his Aunt Wiese’s strawberry pie, this book is bound to be a favorite with readers on both sides of the country.

Karen: When you were growing up in Nashville, did you think you’d grow up to be a writer?

Sam: Yes. I’ve thought about writing this book since I was 16. I’d go to bed thinking about these stories. I’d wake up in the middle of the night thinking about these stories. The stories grew in importance and I would embellish them. I’d wake up at 3 in the morning just to write them down.

Karen: Where did you go to college?

Sam: University of Virginia. (Sam met his bride Annie at UVA. She is a Richmond native. They’ve been married 35 years.) I majored in English and studied under Irby Cauthen. I was thinking about going to graduate school and went to his office to ask if he would write a letter of reference. He leaned across the desk and asked, “Have you ever considered banking?” Irby knew me pretty well. I think he realized that teaching English was not my calling.

Karen: You went into banking?

Sam: Not right away. I worked as a Haberdasher – a thread salesman – for a year. I took a job in banking and we moved to Chicago for three years. We loved Chicago – we were young and had two incomes – but the winters were brutal. That first winter we were there they got the most snow in Chicago’s history. The next was the coldest in history. That third year we moved back to Virginia and I enrolled in law school at Washington & Lee.

(Sam worked as a corporate attorney for 10 years. It was a job that gave him plenty of opportunity to fine tune his writing skills.) I was writing briefs and business plans and letters. Anything that needs to be written was passed off to me.

Karen: How did you end up out West?

Sam: I thought I’d try my hand as a Venture Capitalist. The job required me to be in Seattle. I’d fly to Seattle on Monday and back to Virginia on Friday.

(That routine lasted until the couple’s three daughters reached high school age, then Annie suggested that maybe they ought to make the move to Seattle.)

Karen: How did your family react when you told them you were leaving Virginia for Seattle? Are they praying for your salvation?

Sam: Yes. They think we’re crazy. They can’t figure out why in the world we’d want to live way out here. They keep asking when I’m going to come home. But by home, they don’t mean Richmond, or even Nashville – they mean Jackson, Tennessee – the original homestead.

Karen: Seattle is a long way from Richmond. People who haven’t made the move don’t appreciate the culture shock of such a move. Did you experience any of that?

Sam: At first it was like moving to a foreign country where they spoke English. It is a different world. But in Virginia we’d been doing the cocktail party scene with the same set of people for years. They were good people but they were lawyers or a spouse of a lawyer. I remember one of our first dinner parties in Seattle there was the gardener, a cabinet-maker, the fellow who coached a soccer team. People from all walks of life. People who weren’t lawyers.

Karen: So how did you get to Walla Walla from Seattle?

Sam: We were in Seattle with the house on the lake, all the cars, TVs and things that we’d been taught that if we lived the right way we’d have. Our girls were grown and gone. There we were, in our 50s, staring out on the lake one day, and we realized that even though we had everything we’d worked for, it didn’t make us happy.

We’d vacationed in Montana for 20 years. Every time I went to Montana I felt like I could breathe. All those years I spent working, flying to and from Virginia, I would dream about living in a cabin in Montana somewhere.

Our middle daughter was in college in Walla Walla at that time. During trips over to visit her, we’d find time to tool around town. We realized that Walla Walla was a lot like Montana. It had the wide open sky, the mountains in the distance, a vibrant downtown and good medical care for our doddering years.

It was that move – to a whole new way of life – that enticed Steve Johnson to adopt a pen name – Samuel Archibald McLeod, a respectful nod to Mark Twain – and to refer to his wife Neal by her chosen moniker, Annie.

Karen: What do people around here call you, Sam or Steve?

Sam: It can get confusing. I get called both names.

Karen: So what do you grow here?

Sam (laughing): It’s supposed to be natural grasses and shrubs for wildlife but it’s mostly weeds. For the past 50 years this has been a cattle ranch. They didn’t worry about the weeds. They’d put the cattle out to graze.  We took the cattle off, so the weeds are only 50 years deep.

Some famous people have passed through the house that Sam and Annie built to resemble the beloved Fish Camp homes of the South. Everyone who enters is encouraged to sign the rough-hewn beam that separates the kitchen from the living room. Diane Rehm’s name is one of dozens scribbled there. Bright paintings by local artists adorn the walls. Colorful throws made from the fleece of alpacas that roam the north side of the farm are tossed on chairs. There’s even an outdoor shower that Annie had to fight for tooth and nail. The builder could not believe that anyone really wanted an outdoor shower.

And there’s that barn, the one where Sam stripped down to his nether regions and climbed on the scale used to weigh the farm animals, and groaned. But you can read more about that in the book.

This is not his first book. Sam self-published a trilogy about his bumbling experiences as the big-city fella come to roost in the small-town. Welcome To Walla Walla, Bottled Walla and Blue Walla, were big hits with the locals. The books are carried by the various wineries and eateries about town. Sam writes a popular column for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin and from time to time, he performs in a show View from the Porch, modeled after Prairie Home Companion. One thing led to another and soon enough, New York came a’calling. Big Appetite is published by Simon Schuster and it is being promoted in Waffle Houses nationwide.

Karen: What’s the connection to Waffle Houses? How’d you get them to promote you?

Sam: My Uncle Joe opened the first Waffle House in the 1950s.

Karen: So you had a pretty idyllic childhood? That’s where you draw your stories from?

Sam: My early life was a bed of roses. I write about all the unusual characters in our neighborhood but in a nice way.

Karen: You call your mother Coco? Not Mama or Mother?

Sam: She wanted to be called Coco. That was her name. I think she liked being called something different than all the other moms. She is the driving force of the book, of course.

Karen: So what does Coco think of this book?

Sam (laughing again): She called me when she got a copy and asked, ‘Who is this kid on the cover?’ I said I didn’t know. Coco said, ‘Well, thank God they found this photo. This kid is way cuter than you ever were!’  She couldn’t wait to take it to the beauty parlor to show to all her friends.

Karen: So did you find the meaning of life while writing this book?

Sam (blue eyes moist): The creative process has opened up a whole new community of people to me. I spent a great deal of my life so busy I wasn’t paying attention. I was leading a helter-skelter life. I missed a lot because of that. I never slowed down long enough to hear the characters speak to me the way they had when I was younger. Moving to Walla Walla and writing has enabled me to reconnect with people and discover community again. I found my muse here.

Karen: Readers everywhere are going to be delighted about that. To find out more about this engaging storyteller or to schedule Sam for an event go to sammcleod.net or email sam@detourfarm.com

Dear IRS: Sam gave me a copy of his book.  I gave him a copy of my book. Oh. And Annie gave me a dozen of the prettiest eggs I ever did see.

Eat your heart out.

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