Edible Memphis is a quarterly magazine that showcases the local food scene, highlighting farmers, chefs, activists and home cooks, and reframing the way we think about food. Throughout her journey with the magazine, Editor and Publisher Melissa Petersen has been able to do some hilarious and remarkable things, including wearing a bee suit to check out a hive, cooking with local chefs, cradling adorable baby pigs, photographing chickens and spending an entire (beer-fueled) day on a river in Mississippi “noodlin” for catfish. During production time, she does it all — researches and edits articles, styles and shoots food, keeps the books — you name it. And when not working for Edible Memphis, Melissa does freelance design work for 50-plus magazines each year. As the publication gears up to start its 10th year, we are delighted to introduce you to the witty and passionate Melissa Petersen, today’s FACE of Memphis.
Tell us where you’re from. Native Memphian? If not, how did you get to Memphis?
I’m originally from Southern California, Yorba Linda to be exact. No one knows where Yorba Linda is, but it’s the home of the Nixon Presidential Library. I went to college in San Diego and stayed for 15 years. I worked in marketing for about 12 years before I decided to go to culinary school. I worked in a few restaurants and at a very large catering company. After we got married, my husband and I wanted to try someplace new, so we moved to Portland, Oregon, and ran a catering company there.
We had blocked out time for a vacation, but never actually booked anything, so as the days off were approaching I said to my husband, “You’ve always wanted to go to one of those BBQ things. Is there one of those going on?” It turned out that Memphis in May coincided perfectly with our days off. We spent about a week here and loved it, then went back to the dreariest Portland winter ever. We moved to downtown Memphis exactly a year after that first trip. Never try to have a moving truck park on Front Street on the Friday of BBQ Fest!
Describe your early career. Where did you work and what were your jobs?
Before college, I worked as a cook at a summer camp (You haven’t lived until you’ve made 20 gallons of green Jell-O!), at a craft store and as a meat wrapper in a grocery store. I stayed with the meat department all through college, and it paid well.
My degree is in International Business, but I started as a lowly technical writer in my last year of college. Remember when there were manuals that accompanied software? That’s what I did. I also designed the manuals, which led to other design work, which pulled me into the marketing department where I then also planned large events — conferences and trade shows.
I stayed with the corporate thing until one day I saw a commercial saying, “Have you ever considered a career in the culinary arts?” and I thought, “Why the heck have I never considered that?” It was just like someone wrote bad dialogue for a TV show. So, I quit my job and went to culinary school, and it was the best decision I’ve ever made.
Do you have a mentor or role model?
I’ve been lucky to have many, many people mentor me, whether they knew it or not. They teach me by their attitude and actions. My dad, my husband, teachers, co-workers, friends — really a lot of people who were generous enough to share knowledge that you can’t get in a book or at a school, or their time or support. Sometimes you need a mentor to hold your hand; sometimes you need them to give you a push. I am fortunate enough to be around lots of smart people who will do both. I grab little bits of knowledge — personally and professionally — from just about everyone I meet.
What are your hobbies, and how do you unwind?
Bring on the yarn! Knitting, weaving and dyeing … Yarn just makes me happy. I also love getting together with my girlfriends — coffee, lunch, drinks, even just dropping by to pick something up. My friends are not a “hobby,” but rather a high priority for how I can spend free time. I also read every day. Every. Day.
Actually, we cook at home a lot. (I’m lying, my husband cooks a lot!) I love the farmers’ market season when we can load up on a ton of veggies; toss them in olive oil, salt and pepper; and put them in foil on the grill. Really great food is pretty simple. That’s my favorite meal in town, but I do like the treat of going to a restaurant for something we don’t cook at home. I love the badass nachos and shrimp and grits at Sweet Grass, the chicken pot pie at McEwen’s on Monroe, the duck patty melt at SOB, and the BBQ nachos at Central BBQ — I substitute fries for chips.
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What’s your favorite Memphis attraction and why?
Grizzlies games! I love that the town stops and stays up late for them. I love all the “Go Grizzlies” signs that adorn businesses, homes and even churches during the playoffs. I love that they give it their all. I hate when people leave before the final buzzer sounds — shame on you! You can immerse yourself in a crazy, loud, fast-paced environment and scream your head off for a few hours. What’s not to like about that? Plus, everyone looks good in blue.
What is your greatest accomplishment?
I’m more of a jack-of-all trades than a master of anything. However, I trained for about two years to first ride and then cross-country jump horses. The goal was a week jumping horses for five hours a day in Ireland. I lost stirrups. I lost reins. But I cleared all the jumps and never fell off. Jumping involved more than just learning something. I also had to overcome fear — of speed, of stone walls, of immovable objects and of another being’s will. When it comes down to it, it’s just you and the horse — no excuses and few do-overs. It was a challenge for brain, body and soul, and it was a heck of a lot of fun.
I’m proud of what we’ve done with the magazine, really cheerleading the local food conversation that was in its infant stages here, but that involved lots and lots of people, so though I was part of it, it’s not my accomplishment.
What inspires you?
People who do things really well — could be a speaker, a writer, a chef, a parent, an artist, a farmer. They practice their craft, their skill, and they just do it well. Seeing a skill done well makes me want to be better at my skills or try new ones.
Finish this sentence: If I had a superpower, it would be …
That my “withering” glance would actually accomplish something! I’ve been informed that Wonder Woman’s lasso isn’t an actual “superpower.” Dang!
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
First day on the job at the grocery store … “Save your steps wherever you can. There are better things to spend that energy on.” I remember it almost every day.
What are three lighthearted things you can’t live without?
Blue jeans, books, and yarn
Thank you, Melissa! To learn more about Melissa’s work at Edible Memphis, visit ediblememphis.ediblecommunities.com.
Thanks to Micki Martin for the fabulous photos of Melissa!
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