Ah, Southern food. Celebrated for its pork-fat-laden, bourbon-scented decadence and reviled for its artery-clogging tendencies. While the South is geographically far from Baja Arizona, many of the same vegetables thrive in both regions: okra, green tomatoes, sweet potatoes, winter and summer squash, and heaps of winter greens. As a Southern transplant here in Tucson, I find myself returning to the recipes of my youth frequently, so it seemed apt to review a few recent books focused on Southern food.
In her new book, The Edible South, Marcie Cohen Ferris approaches the complex history of Southern food from an anthropological perspective, telling its story through historical vignettes. Through meticulous research, she points out that Southern cuisine represents a rich history of culinary innovations and ingenious uses of meager resources; indeed, its recipes and classic dishes were often developed by oppressed and unsung slaves.
This isn’t a cookbook. Instead, Ferris tells the tale of the South based on what was on the supper table. She begins with the first inhabitants, nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes who arrived in the region at least 13,000 years ago, followed by the southeastern Mississippian peoples who relied heavily on corn. The arrival of the first Europeans in the South (the colonizers of Jamestown) was marked by a culinary exchange between settlers and the Algonquins, but it was also rife with racism and exploitation of Native people and their land.
Ferris moves chronologically through the following eras. The antebellum South was a time of lavish entertaining and overindulgence—the cooking done mostly by slave women, who shaped the region’s cuisine indelibly. Wealthy slaveholding families often raised their own hogs, poultry, dairy cows, cattle for beef, imported rice from South Carolina’s Low Country, and grew their own sweet potatoes, greens, and other vegetables.
Cooking methods practiced by enslaved African-Americans often had their roots in Africa itself. For example, Ruth Hastings, a northerner who moved South to be a governess on a Carolina plantation, wrote to her family that a proper bowl of rice appeared “white, dry, and every grain separate,” rather than the watery, porridgey rice typically served up North. This mirrored the West African practice of cooking rice through steaming and absorption, leaving a crispy brown skin on the pot (which was discarded in those days).
Then came the war, during which almost no one was spared the threat of meager rations and starvation. One Union strategy was to cut off the South’s food source, resulting in riots and looting, and widespread malnourishment. African-American soldiers fighting for the Union received less pay and inferior food than their white counterparts, often subsisting on “meat tea,” or weak broth. Confederate soldiers and much of the Southern populace resorted to eating mule, rats, and cats and dogs. Only a Southerner would take mule and make “boiled mule bacon and poke greens,” “mule foot jelly,” and “mule tongue ‘Cold à la Bray.’”
Such lean times shaped much of the modern Southern table. Even after the Civil War and Reconstruction, most Southerners subsisted on the “three M’s”—meat, meal, and molasses. Cornmeal represented a staple of the Southern diet, and was normally served as a simple “pone” or porridge. The meat was either bacon or lard—most Southerners rarely ate any fresh meat or fish. Finally, blackstrap molasses—full of iron, copper, manganese, and potassium—provided nutrients in lean times.
Booker T. Washington—a champion of African-Americans disenfranchised by the Jim Crow laws—was instrumental in researching dietary problems in the South. Research under his direction at Tuskegee Institute revealed that the “three M’s” diet was linked to many health problems among African-Americans and poor whites, and that the problem was linked to an economic system that favored rich white landholders.
Research is woven alongside humorous anecdotes, like that of Carol Ruth, a young woman from Boston who first encountered Southern cuisine after she was put in jail for her participation in the Freedom Rides—she wrote in her journal about the “light and hot” biscuits served behind bars.
Ferris is careful to explore honestly the racism and power struggle that shaped the region, and to give credit where credit is due in the development of southern food. Her extensive research and use of first-person accounts add zest and humor to the historical narrative.
“What I cook is who I am,” writes Edward Lee, a Korean-American cook who grew up in Brooklyn before becoming one of the South’s top chefs as the proprietor of 610 Magnolia in Louisville, Kentucky.
As a youngster, Lee fancied himself a graffiti artist, but he always had an appreciation for ethnic foods. He ate everything from his grandmother’s Korean food to fried plantains with ketchup and honey at his Puerto Rican friends’ house. He learned to cook in New York City, but fell in love with the South when he moved to Kentucky in 2003.
“I had to reinvent my identity, both culinary and personal, through the lens of tobacco and bourbon and sorghum and horse racing and country ham,” he writes. And yet, many Southern foods reminded him of his grandmother’s Asian kitchen. “Soft grits remind me of congee; jerky of cuttlefish; chowchow of kimchee.”
Lee has a deep romance with his adopted home. “Something is simmering wildly through the American South,” he croons, noting the many confluences between Southern and Asian fare. His Korean forefathers loved pickling, and so do Southerners. Smoky flavors also connect the two cuisines, and Lee delights in adding bourbon and smoked country ham to pump up the smoke factor of his dishes.
How does such a unique blend of Southern and Asian fare pan out? If you asked Lee, “What do you cook?” he might reply with a cliché: “Soil to Mouth, Local-Global, New Asian, New Southern, New Anything.” But you’d be better served checking out his recipes: Togarashi Cheesecake; Creamed Corn and Mushroom Congee; Collards and Kimchee; and Southern Fried Rice all unite his two main influences.
Lee also preserves some of the more classic American fusion techniques from his days cooking at swanky haunts in New York City. His Orange Lamb-Liver Pâté, for example, is topped with braised mustard seeds. His steak tartare is accompanied by strawberry ketchup.
Occasionally, Lee will veer into a different cuisine entirely, though usually roping in a bit of Asian or Southern flair. His Kimchee Poutine makes use of homemade red cabbage-bacon kimchee. His recipe for ropa vieja uses soy sauce and is served with Carolina red rice.
But Lee’s bottom line is staying true to the South’s traditional cuisine. Reading Smoke and Pickles in tandem with The Edible South highlighted this point. Lee’s Cornbread, Sorghum and Buttermilk Ice Cream Milkshake makes use of one of the “three M’s” that has made up the Southern diet for centuries. And Lee’s recipe for An Imperfect Bowl of Rice, with a crispy brown crust sounds a lot like the bowl that Ruth Hastings described during the antebellum South. But Lee recommends eating the crispy brown crust, just like a bowl of bibimbap, a signature Korean dish.
In contrast to Edward Lee’s transition into Southern cuisine, Sean Brock is “as country as a turnip green.” He grew up in rural western Virginia, where Brock claims everyone has a kitchen garden and reveres homemade food, out of both tradition and necessity.
From his humble beginnings, Brock has become a star in the food universe, with his well-reviewed Charleston restaurant Husk. He also appears alongside David Chang on PBS’s The Mind of a Chef, where he imbibes with Chang at the Pappy Van Winkle distillery, chronicles the Southern tradition of preserving foods (pickling, fermenting, and curing), and sports a hat that says “Make Cornbread, Not War.”
He may look like a good ole boy, but Brock’s first cookbook is an elegant and beautifully styled tome, reflecting the refined spin he puts on Southern food. The only complaint a home chef might have is that some of these recipes are just a little too frou frou. Thirty-Minute Meals, they ain’t. But Brock’s philosophy is that beautiful food takes time and care. For a cook who’s up for a challenge, this book delivers.
Brock’s devotion to seasonal vegetables dictates that certain recipes can only be made when those veggies are in season. The morels in his Quail Stuffed with Morels and Cornbread must be foraged in the Southern wilds only in spring, and after a recent rain.
Some of his recipes, though, are more accessible to cooks everywhere. The Slow-Cooked Pork Shoulder with Tomato Gravy, Creamed Corn, and Roasted Vidalia Onions uses humble ingredients and the brilliantly lazy low-and-slow cooking technique common in Southern cooking. Farrotto with Acorn Squash and Red Russian Kale will be a go-to recipe for this Tucsonan all winter. Pickled Shrimp with Cilantro and Fennel is dead simple, and the classic Charleston dish makes great picnic fare. Brock’s chapter on “Saving Up” instructs on classic Southern techniques of preserving; tomato jam, bread and butter pickles, and pickled okra are necessary staples of the Southern table.
Even if you can’t find the ingredients for all of Brock’s dishes, his book is a feast for the eyes and senses, and offers insight into the philosophy of one of the most creative chefs in the South today. ✜
Molly Kincaid is a Tucsonan who is obsessed with tinkering in the kitchen and reading cookbooks. Her favorite foods are, paradoxically, kale and pork belly.