A gen­er­ous serv­ing of Southern de­lights

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - By Aram Bak­shian Jr.

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.

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