Something by Way of a Philosophy

Food is a passionate issue for many people, and some foods are certainly controversial. Barbecue, for instance, is a highly inflammatory subject, but almost any food can become a flash point; I was once involved in a heated discussion about how to make the perfect grilled cheese sandwich (Do you use mayonnaise? I don’t…).

Arguments over foods range from the sublime to the ridiculous, but unless you’re one of those self-styled and overly-promoted griddle Napoleons or oven Antoinettes you can get your fill of almost everywhere—or just an all-around jerk yourself—talks about foods and cooking tend to be cordial and convivial, albeit with the necessary measure of peppering. People who enjoy food and cooking are gregarious, open, and giving. At any gathering I’ve ever attended, activity revolves around the food. What semblance we have of hearth nowadays lives on in kitchens, and hearth and home are practically inseparable. Most people will agree that the best meals are home-cooked, and home itself must be one of the warmest words in the English language. Home entails more than place; the word implies security, comfort, congeniality and much, much more. Here in the South, the word has become infused with almost mystical implications, evoking a poignancy and mystery peculiar to the region. When we talk about home cooking, we’re talking about foods with a voice in the family and in the community, a cuisine that sings of time and place, a balm for the mind, a madeleine for our memory.

Foods without history and bereft of geography are just plain bad. When I was growing up in the `Sixties, America’s tables reflected the mentality of Levittown, and the only really good cooking was found in rural and ethnic homes, those permeated with a sense of the past, of family, and often of the earth itself. I grew up in north Mississippi, which is home to the cooking of the middle South, of the yeomanry, of the people who were the rule rather than the exception in the rural South of their day. Theirs was not a light cuisine; it sustained people through long days of hard labor. Breakfasts usually featured biscuits made from lard, grits, eggs and pork in some form or the other; other meals were made from fried or stewed meats and vegetables cooked with fatback. My people are descended from small farmers who came into this area from Virginia and the Carolinas, and the way my ancestors cooked still informs the cuisine of the region to this day. They fed themselves and their families on the same basic foods the colonists at Jamestown ate: corn and pork augmented by whatever fruits and vegetables they could get to grow as well as game and fish. Food was important to them because it was their only unadulterated source of pleasure. They planted and harvested, cooked and baked, canned and preserved, making the most of what they had season to season, year to year, generation to generation.

Recipes are dead words; it’s up to the cook to breathe life into them. It’s an unwritten law of cookery that the same recipe in the hands of, say, six or seven cooks will produce different (often surprisingly different) results. If you want to learn how to cook, then you must cook yourself. Once you’ve become more secure in your abilities and more confident of your results, then by all means be more creative. One of the glories of cooking as an art is that it lends itself easily to experimentation, but be “original, not outrageous,” as Alice B. Toklas cautions. Capote once said of writing that you must learn the rules before you can break them, and this is true of cookery as well. Bear in mind that most people prefer the familiar to the exotic, and even slight variations in a favorite dish might give pause to your most appreciative audience. So if you’re determined to try seasoning a pound cake with cayenne or bake catfish with pickled peaches, don’t be surprised to hear, “Honey, I love you, but . . . “ Those might well be the kindest words you’ll ever hear.

“Young Cook in the Kitchen” Joseph Bail (1893)


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