A generous serving of Southern delights
Southern cooking is a little bit like Scarlett O’Hara: wickedly bewitching, multifaceted and potentially harmful to your health ... but awfully hard to resist. For starters there are the ingredients; as I stated in a piece in the Wall Street Journal some years back, the Southern food pyramid seems to be constructed on a foundation of salt, sugar, starch and lard. But no one can work more creative magic with these base ingredients — transforming them into kitchen gold — than a really good Southern cook.
I use the word “cook” deliberately; one good, homegrown cook is worth a dozen mediocre, academy-trained chefs. While there is a current bumper crop of Southern celebrity chefs, you’ll still find the very best Southern cooking in unpretentious local spots down South, including family kitchens and backyard grills. It isn’t that southern food doesn’t travel well; it’s just that it tastes its best prepared by Southerners in a genuine Southern setting, whether it’s a little roadside barbecue place where patrons are served by bee-hived waitresses of a certain age who call everybody “hon,” or a mahogany-paneled club or hotel dining room presided over by an imposing black majordomo of near-biblical dignity and a calm, courteous command presence.
Perhaps because the South is the only part of the United States that fought and lost a war on the homefront and then underwent a humiliating occupation, it has preserved more of its original character than the rest of the country. The very post-Civil War poverty that held much of the South down economically also meant that it was not a magnet for mass immigration. Today’s Southerners — both white and black — are more likely to be able to trace their roots back generations in the same community. This has its drawbacks, but it’s great for perpetuating authentic atmosphere and cuisine.
Hunting, fishing, farming, frying and barbecuing are still living traditions in most of the South, which explains why, in the first quarter of the 21st century, the region can still inspire a magazine called Garden & Gun, the editors of which have produced a handsome, beautifully illustrated survey of Southern eating, encompassing, to quote their subtitle: “Recipes, Wisdom, and Stories” from the 14 Southern states ranging from Maryland to Texas. That’s a lot of real estate, including climate ranging from temperate to tropical, terrain from mountainous to swampy, and weather and soil capable of yielding almost any kind of crop you could think of, literally from apples to oranges, with okra, rice, yams and watermelon in between. And then there’s all that seacoast, from the Chesapeake Bay to the Gulf of Mexico — not to mention the lakes and rivers feeding into it — offering a dizzying variety of fish, shellfish and bivalves Southern cooks have been working miracles with since early colonial days.
“The Southerner’s Cookbook” includes more than 125 recipes running the gauntlet from appetizers to dessert, with a section on Southern cocktails — the South being the region where the classic American cocktail originated — thrown in for good measure.
There is helpful information on substitutes for hard-to-find regional ingredients, the recipes are all clear and easy to follow, and the selection is broadly representative, including standard classics like Brunswick Stew, Maryland Crabcakes and Bourbon Balls (a dessert that has allowed many a teetotalling Southern hostess to sneak a pleasant jolt of alcohol without resorting to Lydia Pinkham’s), three distinctive gravies to grace your country ham (including coffee-based “red-eye” gravy), and even more barbecue sauces to choose from, ranging from tart, vinegary North Carolina style to the all-too-sweet Memphis style dominated by brown sugar, ketchup and chili sauce.
Every once in awhile you may suspect the editors of pulling your leg, as in their recipe for “Not-QuiteSo-Cooked-To-Death Green Beans,” a sufficiently soggy concoction that follows an entry for “Smothered Country-Style Green Beans” in which the even-moreovercooked prime ingredient is green in name only. And then there’s “Collard Pesto” which assays to replace the tender, fragrant and subtle flavor of Sweet Basil with what is probably the coarsest, rankest product of Southern vegetable gardens, ordinarily stewed for hours in hog fat just to render it edible.
It’s enough to drive one to drink, preferably in the form of an “Antebellum Julep,” a recipe that predates today’s Bourbon-based juleps: a simple but perfectly balanced composition of fresh mint leaves, sorghum syrup, cognac and good Jamaican rum.
Now that’s what I like about the South.
THE SOUTHERNER’S COOKBOOK: RECIPES, WISDOM, AND STORIES From the Editors of Garden & Gun
Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.