Beginning to Define the Cuisine(s) or, the Tip of the Iceberg
The most useful fact to know in attempting to define Southern cooking is the same one Marcella Hazan addressed of her own native cooking in The Classic Italian Cook Book: “The first useful thing to know about Italian cooking is that, as such, it actually doesn’t exist.”
She goes on to explain that cooking in Italy varies from region to region and from town to town within those regions, so “Italian cooking” isn’t a single cuisine, but a collection of many.
Likewise, the most useful thing to know about Southern Cooking “is that, as such, it actually doesn’t exist.” As is true for Italian cooking, it also is not, and never has been, a single, homogenous cuisine. Read More
Recipes and Stories
Beginning to Define the Cuisine(s) or, the Tip of the Iceberg
One day around the new year, when pots of collards and field peas were simmering away in so many Southern kitchens, a discussion arose among some of my colleagues about the frequency with which collards seemed to be turning up on so many so-called “new” Southern restaurant menus, and of how these greens were mostly being used and presented in ways that had nothing to do with Southern cooking.
The nicest thing one could say of most of these misbegotten things is that they’re bewildering. Read More
Today is the Feast of the Epiphany, commemorating the visit of the Wise Men to the Christ Child. It marks the end of the twelve days of Christmastide and, since the wise men arrived bearing gifts, is in some traditions the day that presents are exchanged.
Where Christmas day is considered the first of those twelve days, the Eve of Epiphany (January 5) is when “Twelfth Night,” the last hurrah of Christmas, is celebrated, but where the twelve days begin on the day following December 25, the twelfth day is actually feast of the Epiphany.
Since I didn’t grow up in either tradition, we’ve sort of made up our own in our house, and will celebrate our Twelfth Night this evening. Read More
Every year when the winter holidays roll around, I begin to crave that old-fashioned Southern holiday treat, drinking custard. Eggnog, at least, the real thing laced with bourbon or brandy, wasn’t something we had in a Baptist pastorium. But drinking custard was another thing. We could enjoy it not only at Christmas, but throughout the cold season.
If you’ve not encountered it, drinking custard is the same thing as custard sauce, only made with fewer egg yolks or whole eggs so that it’s thin enough to sip from a cup the way you’d do eggnog. For many Southern families, it was and still is a long standing holiday tradition and is actually the base that is often used for eggnog, especially if it contains no alcohol.
Mama used to tell stories of the days when my father was in seminary in Louisville and pastored a small country church Read More
They’re always saying that one can take the boy out of the Baptist Church, but one can never quite take the Baptist out of the boy. I’ve been an Episcopalian all my adult life, but at this time of year, like a Ghost of Christmas Past, my Baptist childhood comes back to me, whispering the name Lottie Moon to my conscience.
For those who don’t know, Charlotte Digges (“Lottie”) Moon, born on December 12, 1840, was a Baptist missionary to China from July of 1873 until December of 1912, Read More
When I was growing up, Christmas day always began (well, after plundering a roomful of Santa loot) with a traditional Southern breakfast: grits, eggs, my granddaddy’s perfectly seasoned pork sausage, country ham with red-eye gravy, homemade biscuits, usually with fruitcake, ambrosia, and sometimes drinking custard added in.
Nowadays, unless we have friends drop by, there are just two of us here on Christmas morning: Our children and grandchildren live three states away; my parents and siblings are four hours away. And one of us is a church musician with a command performance at Christmas Day Mass. We rarely have the luxury of time and leisure for a breakfast like that.
And, to be completely honest, the last thing I want to do on Christmas morning is stand in the kitchen monitoring a grits pot, hot oven, and panful of sausage patties. Read More
The dessert in the Christmas dinner that was shared in my last column was a lovely, old-fashioned thing called wine jelly. It’s not jelly as in a spread for toast, but jelly as in the stuff invalids are often fed when they’ve been off a solid diet.
It was once a classic old holiday treat that was actually rare and special, a fact we can’t really appreciate today, since sweet, flavored gelatin has lost a lot of its luster, thanks in large part to that stuff we feed convalescents. It’s a shame, really, because it’s a lovely, light dessert that adds sparkle—both literally and figuratively—to a holiday meal, and deserves to be popular again. Read More
Coconut cake is a traditional Christmas cake in the part of Carolina where I grew up, and both my grandmother’s made it, using basically the same recipe. But my maternal grandmother, known to us as “MaMa” (we pronounced it Maw-Maw) had a special touch that no one else could match.
Hers was one the most extraordinarily moist cakes I’ve ever had. The great secret for its moistness is also the reason it tasted more intensely of coconut than any other. Read More
As the last of the Thanksgiving leftovers disappear from our refrigerators and pantries, it suddenly seems that what’s left of the year is hurtling away as if it has been greased by turkey fat. Not only is the daylight rapidly dwindling to what has been called “the crowning of the year,” we’re ushering in our biggest—and longest—season of feasting.
Unfortunately, for all too many, it’s also the most frantic. People who never entertain suddenly start knocking themselves out to do so—dusting off the dining table, digging out holiday china, polishing Grandma’s silver. Folks who never bake and cook will actually open cookbooks, pore over cooking magazines, and tie on aprons they’ve not worn since last December. Read More
This year, I’m not doing my usual planning and precooking for Thanksgiving dinner, which has not been easy. For the first time in years my house isn’t fragrant with turkey broth and roasting pecans and my refrigerator isn’t crammed with more food than will fit into it.
My father turns ninety on Thanksgiving Day, so Tim and I are heading up to my parents’ house to be with them. I’ll be cooking, but it will be my mother’s way and there will be a lot of things that I usually do that won’t be on the table this year.
Never mind. Read More
Nostalgia does odd things to us, at times when we’re least expecting it. Last week, while ambling down an aisle at the market, minding my own business and looking for something completely different, nostalgia, in the form of a large can of wild-caught “Traditional Style” salmon, jumped right off the shelf and accosted me.
“Traditional” means it was packed whole, skin, bones, and all. And standing there looking at that neat stack of pink-labeled cans, what my mind’s eye saw was a gray-striped pink cylinder of fish standing tall in a chipped and grazed creamware bowl of my grandmother’s. Suddenly, she was right there beside me, murmuring excitedly, “They’re on sale! Let’s get some!” Read More
Since fall is my favorite season for cooking, it shouldn’t take a mathematical genius to figure out that Thanksgiving is my favorite cook’s holiday. Normally, the second week in November would find me up to my elbows in planning—gathering recipes, happily mapping out every detail, stocking up on the basics.
And by the week of the feast, my kitchen is fragrant with a simmering broth pot, bubbling cranberry conserve, baking cheese straws, and toasting pecans. For the space of that week, no kitchen job—not even peeling brussels sprouts—seems tedious.
This year, however, my kitchen will be a lot quieter, not to mention less fragrant. Read More
Any writer will tell you that there’s nothing to equal the exhilarating feeling that comes with finishing a piece of writing. Whether it’s a whole book, a magazine article, or just a short essay like this, it’s like winning a door prize, finally being let out of jail, and reaching the top of an impossible mountain climb or finish line of a marathon, all at once.
But then. What immediately follows is an awful, restless sense of “what now?” It’s almost like being abandoned. That piece of writing has been your sole life’s purpose for days, months, sometimes years. And now it’s finished . . . with nothing to take its place. It’s not quite like writer’s block, but sometimes it feels worse. Read More
One of the most welcome of all supper dishes on a crisp autumn evening is old-fashioned chicken pot pie. For warming comfort it may have its equals, but it has no superior.
Like so many homey dishes of its kind, there are probably as many versions as there are cooks, ranging from the elegantly simple triad of chicken, gravy and pastry to those loaded with vegetables, herbs, and spices. Some are even embellished with hard-cooked eggs and ham.
Some are made only with a whole chicken that was cooked specifically for the pie, while others are only made when there are leftovers that need using up. Read More
My mother has capably filled many roles in her life—singer, teacher, administrator, pastor’s wife, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, but she’s never more herself than when she’s in her garden.
Even from hundreds of miles away, I can see her puttering in that garden as clearly as if I was standing at her kitchen window looking out at it. From early spring until well after the first frost, in the morning and again at dusk, she’d be out there, her face shaded by a big straw hat, her shoes and trousers stained with red clay dust, watering young seedlings, talking to the pest-eating critters who forage among the plants, inspecting the cucumbers, okra, squash, and tomatoes for fruit that has gone from green nub to ready-to-harvest literally overnight. Read More
This morning, my office window looks out on an autumnal scene that seems like the beginning of perfect day for soup. Through the dwindling leaf canopy of the old pecan tree that dominates the view, the early sun occasionally peeks weakly through clouds that promise rain. There’s even a bit of frost on the window panes.
Unhappily, appearances, as they so often are here in Savannah, are deceiving: Read More
It was a crisp fall evening in the early days of my graduate school work at Clemson University, and we actually had something that architecture students rarely see: an evening free of deadlines.
I’d just moved off campus into my first apartment on my own, a cozy four room half-basement affair tucked into the side of a hill, with a kitchen that, at long last, was completely mine. Every free moment back then was spent in that kitchen, experimenting, puttering, nibbling. Read More
When I once asked the late Italian cooking doyenne Marcella Hazan what she felt was the most important thing in cooking, that was her immediate and emphatic answer.
Marcella died four years ago today, just a few months shy of her ninetieth birthday. When I reflect on her life as a teacher and sum what she taught us, it all comes down to that: Taste.
It may seem obvious and simplistic, but it’s all too often overlooked in our age of so-called culinary cleverness. It’s far too easy to get carried away with being “creative,” or with taking too much to heart the notion that we “eat first with our eyes,” and lose sight of the single most important thing: that moment when we lift our forks and the food meets with our tongues. Read More
Last weekend, it was my privilege to celebrate the publication of my latest book, Ham: A SAVOR THE SOUTH® Cookbook, at the Southeastern Independent Booksellers Association’s annual conference and trade show in New Orleans. The big event was sharing a panel moderated by Ashley Warlick with James Beard Award-winning author and dear friend Cynthia Graubart and new friends Melinda Risch Winans and Cynthia Lejeune Nobles (authors of The Fonville Winans Cookbook: Recipes and Photographs from a Louisiana Artist).
But the joy in the trip was a chance to savor some of old New Orleans and it’s legendary food in the company of lovely friends. Read More
An old New Yorker friend tells me that, until recently, on Tuesday morning after Labor Day the subways smelled heavily of mothballs, regardless of what the weather was like. Since the holiday marked the symbolic if not actual end of summer, summer whites were dutifully put away and fall woolens came out of storage.
Well, it may be the symbolic end of the season, but here in the Deep South, we’re facing another full month or more of summer heat and humidity. Those white shoes may be ceremonially moved to the back of the closet, but other wardrobe changes will have to wait.
All the same, there’s a distinct shortening of the daylight hours and the lengthening of the shadows, bringing subtle changes in the light that inevitably turn our imagination toward fall. At the table, we may not be ready for heavy cold weather fare, but we’re weary of a steady litany of salads and chilled soup and are ready for the mellow flavors of autumn. Read More
We’re finally at Labor Day weekend and, at least where our somewhat quixotic late-summer weather is cooperating, many of us will be marking summer’s last official hurrah by packing a picnic hamper and blanket and heading for the beach, local park, some picturesque country landscape, or at the very least the back yard. Mind, here in the South, we’ll be able to picnic until well into October, but there’s just something about marking the end of summer by symbolically eating outdoors “one the last time.”
Magazines, newspapers, food web sites, and the air waves are full of helpful ideas for crowd-pleasing picnic and cookout fare, which is all very nice. But every good Southern cook already knows the real way please the crowd, and that’s to make sure that the picnic hamper contains an ample supply of three things: fried chicken, old-fashioned potato salad, and ham biscuits. Read More
Before summer passes, some thoughts on an old seasonal classic.
One of the loveliest standard dishes for those great old Southern institutions—church covered-dish suppers, dinners-on-the-grounds, and buffet spreads for family reunions and funerals—is squash casserole. Variously known as a casserole, pudding, and soufflé (those last mainly when it has eggs in it), it’s popularity as a covered-dish offering probably owes a lot to the fact that it was cheap (the main ingredient came right out of the back garden), easy to make (especially on short notice), and delicious with just about anything. Read More
Today, in part because of the horrendous weather that’s wreaking havoc elsewhere in the South, we’re having an unusual and welcome break from the long, unrelenting swelter that’s August in the lowcountry. With almost daily showers and high temperatures hovering at three digits, the outdoors has been a giant steam bath since July. Every year we complain that it seems worse than the last, but if we’re honest, we’ll admit it’s pretty normal for summer down here. Still, it often leads us to ponder how our ancestors got through it without air-conditioning.
The answers to that puzzle are: mountain cabins, beach cottages, and sherry cobbler. Read More
Toward the end of the summer of 1979, while I was in graduate school at Clemson University, my mother came for a short visit. As usual, she left me with a cache of produce from her garden, supplemented by baskets of fragrant late peaches and blueberries from local orchards.
It was my first apartment, and therefore the first kitchen that was wholly my own: usually, such gifts led to a day of curious cooking, but a project deadline loomed and my un-airconditioned apartment was too hot to consider turning on the monstrous avocado-green electric stove that dominated my little kitchen. Read More
One of the great seaside dishes of summer in the Coastal South, whether that coast abuts the Atlantic or the Gulf of Mexico, is shrimp salad. It’s been commonplace in the South since the beginning of the twentieth century, but I’ve not found printed recipes for it that date back much further than the latter part of the nineteenth century. That said, the same basic recipe was used for fish and lobster salads as early as the 1830s and 40s, and along the coast, shrimp would almost certainly have been made into salad in the same way.
Those historical recipes were a simple triad of cooked shrimp, chopped celery, and homemade mayonnaise. That was it. And the basic recipe has changed very little: The most that sensible modern cooks add is a little onion. Read More
Whenever I think of my Dad’s mother, known to us all as Granny Fowler, I inevitably start to crave fried chicken. My mother and maternal grandmother also made fried chicken that was very fine in its own way, but the one that we all (even Mama and MaMa) agreed was the best was Granny’s. Read More
Because it's Independence Day and I'm missing my grandmother more than usual today, tonight's dinner includes the very old-fashioned American-style potato salad that MaMa always made, with celery, sweet onion, sweet pickles, hard-cooked eggs, and mayonnaise (she used Duke's) laced with a little yellow mustard for zip and color.
My grandmother diced the potatoes and then boiled them, but I've always boiled the potatoes whole, in their skins, to preserve their flavor and keep them from being sodden. Read More
One of the loveliest mid-summer supper dishes of the Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry is a simple casserole known in these parts as shrimp and corn pie. Traditionally, almost any custard-based dish cooked in a shallow casserole is called a “pie” in Carolina and Georgia, just as our version of macaroni and cheese is known as macaroni pie, although a similar dish would be called a “pudding” in Virginia or other parts of the South.
Well, no matter what you call it, it’s one of the happiest pairings of two of our best summer staples: Read More
About two-thirds of a left over roasted chicken, half a bag of green grapes languishing in the vegetable bin, and a new bundle of scallions. Add in a steaming afternoon in which cooking is out of the question. For most people, the logical sum of all that would’ve been chicken salad with grapes, a modern standard that has been enjoyed all over our country for more than thirty years.
Most people, that is, except for me. Read More
While lingering with friends at our table after dinner recently, the discussion turned (as it often does here in the South) to food. And as we began to share some Lowcountry specialties with a member of the party who’d recently moved to the South from New England, I was given a sharp reminder of how singular our experiences with food can be. Read More