Fiction writers are more concerned with the turmoil of the human condition than soups and sauces, but you’re going to find food mentioned in the fiction of many; Proust particularly, also Dickens, Woolf and many others.
Margaret Mitchell was born in an upper-class home in Atlanta at the turn of the last century, and her family roots were well-established in antebellum Georgia. Given the social dynamics of her upbringing, she was certainly well-informed when it came to the period’s Southern table. We shouldn’t be at all surprised to find a notable description of the antebellum Southern table in Gone with the Wind.
After the war, when Scarlett had come home to Tara’s ruin and desolation, declaring famously (turnip in hand), “As God is my witness, they’re not going to lick me. I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!”, hunger still reigned at Tara:
There were apples, Yams, peanuts and milk on the table at Tara but never enough of even this primitive fare. A the sight of them, three times a day, her memory would rush back to the old days, the meals of the old days, the candle-lit table and the food perfuming the air.
How careless they had been of food then, what prodigal waste! Rolls, corn muffins, biscuit and waffles, dripping butter, all at one meal. Ham at one end of the table and fried chicken at the other, collards swimming richly in pot liquor iridescent with grease, snap beans in mountains on brightly flowered porcelain, fried squash, stewed okra, carrots in cream sauce thick enough to cut. And three desserts, so everyone might have his choice, chocolate layer cake, vanilla blanc mange and pound cake topped with sweet whipped cream. The memory of those savory meals had the power to bring tears to her eyes as death and war had failed to do, the power to turn her ever-gnawing stomach from rumbling emptiness to nausea.
While most of the dishes seem apt for a plantation meal in early 19th century, some people (admittedly me among them) might find the presence of collards in what we might assume is a porcelain tureen a jarring note, but stewed collards are a satisfying and substantial addition to any table.
Pick through greens, discarding the tough stems and ribs, wash very well and place in a deep stewpot with only enough liquid to cover a third of the leaves. Collards, like most greens, cook down considerably and as they do make what is called a “pot likker”, which in itself is a legendary element of Southern cuisine. Most people include a meat to season, usually pork in the form of ham bones or a thick rind bacon, but today’s more health-conscious cooks will use a smoked turkey neck or tail, and some simply cook the greens in a vegetable broth. Use a minimum of salt before cooking, perhaps a teaspoon to help leach out the liquids from the leaves, and adjust before bringing to the table. Pepper vinegar is the traditional seasoning in the mid-South, but a red pepper (e.g. Crystal or Tabasco-type) sauce is more often used nearer to the Gulf.