A Man For All Seasonings

Southern Living gets a taste of guy power, as Food Editor Scott Jones
shows his culinary chops.

By Reagan Walker, Atlanta Journal-Constitution
June 13, 2002


BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — For 36 years, Southern Living magazine has been a steady companion in the kitchen for the South’s home cooks — sort of like having your grandmother standing over your shoulder while you stir.

Wait a minute.

That’s no matron at Southern Living headquarters reviewing the food photos for a Halloween story, evaluating recipes for stuffed French toast and planning a special Christmas Southern Living publication in the warmth of spring.

This guy is young. And handsome. He’s a dad and a cool dude, with pluck, purpose and a prestigious culinary degree.

And, he’s . . . a he — the first man to serve as a food editor for the most successful regional magazine in America, with 2.5 million subscribers and13.7 million readers.

At lunchtime one day last month, Scott Jones circles the test kitchen along with a dozen other food editors and writers, dishing out samples of a low-fat and a nonfat blue cheese dip and stuffed French toast.

They gather around a long conference-dining table and begin to taste. It is serious work. They assign each recipe a number from 1 (a failure) to 3 (as good as it gets). After a few moments, Jones asks for impressions. The French toast needs work, they decide. Maybe baking it uncovered will help it crust up.

But a consensus emerges on the dip — the nonfat version is as good as the low-fat version. Jones asks each editor for a rating and one by one they unanimously give the recipe a solid 2.

Truth is, there are no matrons at the table. Though at one time the food staff may have been composed of home economics graduates from Southern universities, today the staff has an eclectic mix of academic and culinary degrees, a range of cooking and writing experiences and a variety of ages, ethnic backgrounds and family situations. So Jones, with magazine and culinary diplomas, fits right in. He just happens to be the first to break into the all-girls club.

“We weren’t sure how to deal with him at first. We had been a group of all women for so long,” says senior writer Donna Florio of Jones’ arrival in 1999. “But he brings a lot of enthusiasm and passion about food. And he has the viewpoint of someone who is trained as a chef . . . but he also cooks for his family every night.”

Jones, 35, earned two degrees in service journalism and publishing from the University of Mississippi. His love of food was stoked during this time as he worked in restaurants and served meals at a sorority house to earn money.

Then, he and his high school sweetheart married and went to Hollywood. He worked in motion-picture development for Paramount Pictures and Walt Disney Studios; Deanna Jones was an agent’s assistant before forming a business with supermodel Vendela Thommessen.

“Cooking was my form of recreation then,” Jones says. “And God knows, in Hollywood I prepared enough lunches and dinner parties to last a lifetime. It’s a way of life there.”

GOODBYE, BIG CITY

The entertainment business was heady and demanding and essentially a test of endurance and ethics, Jones says. He began to burn out, and, after being severely beaten in a robbery, he “had an epiphany” — and it wasn’t to read more scripts.

Jones decided to take his magazine background and combine it with his passion for food and wine for a more soulful pursuit. He and Deanna went to New York. She moved her work there; he enrolled at the nation’s top cooking school — the Culinary Institute of America — with an eye to working at a food magazine. He wasn’t looking South, though.

“In the world of food publishing, you think San Francisco and New York.” Jones says, “Not Birmingham.”

At least not until lately. The magnificently landscaped offices of Southern Progress Corp., part of the Time Warner empire, are home not only to Southern Living but also to several publications including Cooking Light, which has become the top-selling food magazine in the country.

Jones put his name in the hiring pool in Birmingham, thinking Cooking Light would call. Instead, he got a call from Southern Living, whose regional role was not lost on him. “I feel very strongly about our mission here to preserve Southern foodways,” Jones says.

Birmingham also seemed like a nice family place.

The Joneses have a daughter, Tallulah, 21/2, and are expecting a second child.

Jones directs a team of about 15 food staffers. (There’s one other man in the test kitchen.) In the time-twisted world of magazines, he has Christmas on his mind in June and July 4 in December.

In May, the staff was examining photos and reviewing plans for holiday publications. Jones presented Halloween-themed photos and stories in a staff slide show and reviewed hundreds of Christmas photos on light tables with photographers and designers. In the photo studio, photographer Charles Walton IV worked for more than six hours on a Thanksgiving buffet photograph for the November cover.

The food features may start with big ideas — often hashed out at a yearly planning meeting — but they come down to excruciating details. Jones, like all others on staff, knows his work will have to sing to the magazine’s top editor, John Alex Floyd Jr., who has a fine-tuned sense of all things Southern.

KEEPING UP WITH TIMES

On this day, Floyd questioned details such as the use of an oversize sweet potato in a photo (no Southern cook would choose such a large potato) and ordered the brussels sprouts out of the staged Thanksgiving cover photo (they don’t sell).

But having a perfect “Southernness” pitch, Jones stresses, does not mean the magazine is staid, any more than the region is. Sure, the magazine wants to keep its faithful-if-graying readers satisfied. But Southern Living also wants to engage the under-40 crowd with adventurous palates but little time to cook.

“Ten years ago, it would have been taboo to use convenience products in many of our recipes,” Jones says. “Now we do, because that’s what our readers do.”

Pick any issue and it’s as likely to include a recipe for Greek lamb as a slow-cooked pork. In the April issue, Jones wrote a feature story on the sweet bread, or pan dulce, of the Rio Grande Valley in Texas.

“He was really gutsy to take that on,” says Florio. “I honestly didn’t know how he was going to get those recipes. Many of them were in Spanish and for 100 servings.”

But Jones did coax the recipes from the makers and coddle them through the testing process to come up with breads that can be made at home.

Southern Living takes care in presenting ethnic cuisines in an approachable manner. For instance, a feature that includes quick meals that are Asian-inspired may bear an unintimidating headline such as “Summer Suppers” to lure the reader in, and then explain Asian ingredients in the text.

Another enduring philosophy that distinguishes the magazine from much of its competition: More than 80 percent of the 800 recipes chosen each year for the magazine come from readers. The rest are from the source of a story, such as the Mexican bakers, or a chef, or developed by the staff.

READERS CONTRIBUTE

Hundreds of recipes from readers pour into the Southern Living offices each month. 

“We want something for the novice cook, something for the intermediate cook and something for the advanced cook,” Jones explains.

Recipes are tested in the magazine’s kitchens, which look like four home kitchens except that they’re clustered and have a total of eight ranges. “We intentionally set our kitchens up on the residential model because we want to be cooking in the same environment as our readers,” Jones says.

At noon each day, the food staff gathers to taste and rate tested recipes. “If it’s a story on coconut cake, then you eat coconut cake for lunch,” he says.

Taste is the biggest consideration, but appearance and preparation also are factors. “People don’t want to invest great portions of time,” Jones says, “but they want it to taste great and look like a million bucks.”

A trained foodie such as Jones could be frustrated with such a double standard. But all Jones has to do is go home after his 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. workday (and a workout at the gym afterward), where he confronts the same problem as everyone else: what to cook for dinner.

“I do a lot of batch cooking on the weekends, and then throw things together on weeknights,” says Jones.

“But I’m just a madman. I have to cook something every night, even if it’s just green beans. I need the tactile sensation. I need to hear water boiling or the saute pan sizzling. It’s just so therapeutic.”