The news of Leslie Kelly's departure from Memphis spread like wildfire in the local dining scene. The Commercial Appeal 's food writer is leaving the Bluff City to take a position at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
Since her arrival three years ago, Kelly has deftly worked her way into the close-knit dining community, gathering groups of loyal followers and angry detractors.
Kelly's husband, John Nelson, the CA's art director, is the reason why she's off to yet another adventure. "Somebody told him about the job at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and after he interviewed for it, everything happened really fast," Kelly says.
The couple didn't intend to leave Memphis so soon, but part of the Intelligencer's offer included a position for Kelly: taking over for the paper's current food writer who'll be on maternity leave.
"This is like a dream come true for me. I've wanted to write for this paper for a long time, and Seattle is truly home for me," Kelly says.
Kelly grew up in Bellevue, Washington, a suburb of Seattle. She graduated with a B.A. in journalism from Western Washington University and says that she wanted to be a writer since high school, when she wrote for the school's paper. Her love for food started even earlier.
"I've always been interested in food, and I probably started cooking when I was 9 years old," Kelly says.
Late in 2003, she gave up her 15-year stint as the food and wine writer for The Spokesman-Review to come to Memphis. A few months before she moved, one angry Spokesman reader suggested that her reviews were negative and self-serving, and if she didn't like things, she should move. Well, she did and spiced up things around here.
She began to put down some roots during her first couple of months in Memphis, announcing that she was officially a Memphian after signing up for a library card, opening a bank account, and buying a house. Admitting that Southern food was new to her but that she was willing to try anything once -- including chitlins -- she ate her way through Memphis and the South, ignoring people who thought of her as just another Yankee who got lost on her way home.
Kelly's fascination with the South and her appreciation for the food are real and still haven't worn off. Some might find the kid-in-the-candy store manner annoying, but then, wouldn't we all like to have a bit of that vivacious spirit -- crying out with glee when we first discover fried dill pickles, shrimp and grits, cornbread, beans and greens, fried okra and catfish, sweet potato pie, smothered cabbage, and fried green tomatoes?
"I feel very fortunate that I got to experience the South in the way I did," Kelly says. "People on the West Coast are very phobic about fried food, and I learned to really appreciate deep-fried food and home cooking while I was here. I'm still amazed how friendly people are around here. One of my Memphis highlights -- if not one of the highlights of my career -- was to sit in B.B. King's tour bus and talk to him about the foods he grew up with."
Surely, Kelly will take many more Memphis memories back to Seattle and maybe even become an ambassador of Southern food around those so-called Yankees.