September 2018

Southern Bred and Southern Fed: The evolution of Southern cooking

Author: Linda S. Hopkins

On a recent ramble through what’s left of my cookbook collection, I ran across a long-forgotten treasure: an original hardbound copy of Southern Cooking, by Mrs. S.R. Dull, published in 1928, that was handed down to me from my maternal grandmother, “Mama Whit,” who could lay out a platter of the best fried chicken on the planet.

Thumbing through the yellowed, dogeared pages of Dull’s book was a trip back through history, stirring both my imagination and memory, while sending me reeling back to a tiny kitchen on Bryan Avenue in East Point, Georgia, where grease sizzled in a hot iron skillet over a gas flame and my stomach rumbled in anticipation of the tender, juicy meat dressed up in its crispy, golden Sunday best. Yep, there was some kind of magic happening in that pan.

But back to my reading. The directions for the “Real Housewives” of Dull’s generation started out with: catch chicken, wring neck, chop off head, drain blood, plunge in boiling water, and remove pinfeathers. It is my understanding that future editions were modernized to reflect the availability of pre-dressed chicken fryers in butcher shops and commercial grocery markets. Nevertheless, Dull’s intimate and instructional cookbook was the epitome of “scratch” cooking—a step-by-step guide that defined Southern food for decades and is still relevant today.

Farm-to-table
Before the term “farm-to-table” became so chic and overused, Southern cooks were instinctively feeding their families this way. As a child of the 1960s, growing up in the South, although I didn’t live in a rural farming area, what we ate was largely a matter of what was available seasonally, what we had on hand, and what we could afford.

In the summer, we sat on the porch shelling peas and butterbeans, shucking corn, and snapping string beans. After all that hard work, nothing tasted better than fresh-from-the farmers market tomatoes, sliced and slapped between two pieces of white bread slathered with mayo (no B or L needed). Then there was watermelon, just off the vine, from my paternal grandparents’ garden, in Fayetteville, Georgia (“the country” back then), where roosters crowed at dawn, cows kept the grass trimmed, and scuppernongs and blackberries—perfect for homemade jellies and jams—grew wild along the fence.

Fall and winter brought out the home-canned and frozen iterations of summer’s bounty, along with dried peas (seasoned with ham hock), winter squash, and hearty dishes such as beef stew, and pot pie. Year-round staples included grits, of course, and an abundance of casseroles, perfect for stretching a dollar.
Other foods of my childhood included pork chops, country fried steak, pan gravy, fried okra, squash, sweet potatoes, cornbread, biscuits, and an enormous array of congealed salads. (It’s amazing what our foremothers mixed into Jell-O and called a salad!) Cinnamon toast was my favorite breakfast treat; lunch boxes were packed with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on white bread with the crusts cut off, an apple or banana for good measure, and a Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pie, if I got lucky. When times were hard, we had scrambled eggs or pancakes for supper, and on special nights when Mama was too tired to cook or the cupboard was bare, we got a sack of Krystal hamburgers—10 cents each back then.

And did I forget to mention sweet tea and Coca Cola?

In Southern households, no meal was complete without dessert. Favorites were made from simple ingredients and, again, what was available and affordable: peach cobbler, strawberry shortcake, banana pudding, rice pudding, pound cake, and fried pies. On holidays and occasions, such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, Sunday potlucks at the church, or funeral receptions, we had fancy scratch-made layer cakes like chocolate, red velvet, caramel or coconut—and pies: apple, sweet potato, pecan, lemon, and chocolate—baked to perfection in tender, flaky homemade crusts, served à la mode or topped with sweetened whipped cream or lightly toasted clouds of meringue.

Blame it on the pork fat
Somewhere along the way, all this deliciousness began to get a bad rap. I think it was largely due to three factors: the predominance of pork fat used in our cooking, our love of all things battered and fried, and the influx of convenience foods. Pick up any Junior League cookbook or collection from the Southern church ladies from the 1960s on, and you will find pre-packaged soups and sauces in the ingredient lists, making the dishes less healthy than earlier renditions cooked purely from scratch.

I don’t remember hearing any discussion of GMOs or artery-clogging trans fats back in the day, nor was anyone squawking about how chickens were raised or cows were milked. One of my fondest childhood memories was an elementary school field trip to Mathis Dairy where I got to squeeze a cow’s udder and sport a button on my shirt that said, “I milked Rosebud.” (She seemed perfectly cool with it.) This was also during the time when fresh milk was delivered to our door in glass jars via the milkman, who was sort of like Santa Claus or the tooth fairy in that he showed up in the wee hours of the morning while we were sleeping.

Cooking, in those days, was more a matter of filling bellies than ensuring overall health, although Mama did her best to encourage us to eat our fruits and vegetables. Little tricks like cutting the melon into balls, making pineapple and mayonnaise sandwiches, or counting the butterbeans or carrots and bribing me with nickels and the promise of dessert worked wonders.

Today, slimmed down versions of Southern recipes are certainly available, and while your specific dietary concerns may preclude your enjoyment of the full-fat, down-home Southern experience, an occasional splurge might just be good for what ails you.

As award-winning celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse would say, “Pork fat rules—Bam!”

The Southern resurgence
While attitudes and ingredients continue evolving, the South is rising again on dinner plates around the nation as innovative chefs, under the influence of regional and global trends, bring their own spin on the classics to the modern table.

Top Chef judge Hugh Acheson, recent recipient of two James Beard Awards—one for his cookbook A New Turn in the South: Southern Flavors Reinvented for Your Kitchen, and the other for Best Chef: Southeast for his restaurant Five and Ten in Athens, Georgia—is just one of many renowned chefs helping drive the Southern upsurge and dispel some of the myths.

In a TODAY show interview, he said, “It’s as much about reinventing [Southern Cuisine] through my recipes as about changing the view of Southern food. While Southern food is hip, interesting and gets replicated in New York and other places these days, it’s reviled as being lard-rich, fattening and unhealthy. I think that’s where the misnomer is, because Southern food, in its true form, is not putting a pork chop between two Krispy Kreme doughnuts. It’s about having a small amount of fried chicken on the plate and on the table serving succotash, roasted Vidalia onions, summer tomatoes, shaved corn with basil, and hominy grits. That’s sort of the abundance of Southern food. You have to remember, it’s such an agrarian society, and I think real Southern food is based on those things.

“When you go to the South, you can read for the rest of your life the history of Southern food,” he continued. “There is just this treasury of information that helps bring the hipness out. But, it has to be the properly defined Southern food with a reverence for ingredients. The food that doesn’t have that reverence is just crappy American food; it’s not Southern food.”

Chris Chamberlain, Nashville-based food writer confirms that Southern cooking is “red hot” right now. His book, The Southern Foodie: 100 Places to Eat in the South before You Die and the Dishes that Made Them Famous, explores the South’s culinary culture, following its roots and exploring its evolution in the region’s best restaurants. His cover copy invites you to “meet the people who are keeping the tradition alive and reinventing the flavors of the South. Swing on down to the Gulf Coast, and wade into a chef’s wonderland of fresh seafood and spicy heat. Check out the culinary creativity in the Carolinas, where you’ll find traditional smoked pork barbecue alongside Southern favorites made with fresh, local produce. Explore the restaurant kitchens of Atlanta and Nashville, where the chefs aren’t shy about fusing comfort food standards with international flair and unexpected techniques.”

Meanwhile, the 2017 Trends Report from Datassential* predicts that Southern mashups will continue as chefs get more playful and adventurous. Hog & Hominy in Memphis, Tennessee, is combining Italian cooking with Southern roots in dishes like biscuit gnocchi and grits al forno. According to the survey, we can expect to see a rise in Southern/Asian concepts with ingredients like pork belly or fried chicken, topped with Asian-inspired flavors like fish sauce, hoisin, or togarashi. Southern/Latin spots may feature sweet potatoes, chicharrones, tomatoes, corn, and beans.

A Southern secret
While leading chefs are turning out new translations of the Southern classics and fancying them up for a more sophisticated palate, I would put Mama Whit’s cooking up against the best of them. Perhaps it’s the context that eludes. I can make fried chicken, following her recipe to a T, or gorge myself on someone else’s version at the finest Southern-style restaurant or backroads country buffet. But I can’t go back in time and conjure the joy or satisfaction I felt as a child being fed by my grandmother. The magic, you see, is not in the recipe, but in the cook’s passion. The secret ingredient? Love. Pass it on.

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