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)

 

Grits and Eggs

For six servings, cook one cup grits in one and a half cups water and one cup whole milk with a teaspoon of salt and a tablespoon of butter. Once done, add a half cup of shredded cheese (I like Edam or Gouda). Pour into an oiled casserole or skillet to cool until just warm. Make six depressions in grits about two inches apart with the back of an oiled spoon and break an egg into each hole. Sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper and bake at 350 uncovered until eggs are how you like them (about ten minutes for hard-cooked).

A Culinary Classic from Water Valley

The B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery Cookbook spotlights small town Main Street South and focuses on good, real people creating real good food and helping to make the world a better place. With this book the authors, entrepreneur Alexe van Beuren and chef Dixie Grimes, celebrate their home in north Mississippi. Like many towns in the rural South, Water Valley has languished; once busy squares and streets are lined with broken sidewalks and historic buildings are being sold for bricks. But in Water Valley, community is in focus, and though the B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery has become a vibrant element in the town, Alexe and Dixie will be the first to tell you that the B.T.C. Grocery did not revive Water Valley: “Water Valley revived us.” Their book pulses with heart and glows with the warmth of their revival: a cornucopia of extraordinary food, exceptional writing and bountiful spirit.

The B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery Cookbook often ranges far from the table, but first and foremost it is about food, beautiful food. Chef Dixie Grimes cut her teeth in local restaurants, and her talents are enriched by time. In the B.T.C. cookbook, Dixie’s foods can be divided into two broad categories: traditional Mississippi recipes, many she learned in the Oxford kitchen of her grandmother Vetra Stephens; and progressive dishes that are the product of years of experience and an exceptional feel for the ingredients and how they work together in any given recipe. Dixie says that the food of Mississippi is too easily overlooked or dismissed because of its simplicity and her respect for and propagation of the traditional ingredients and time-tested methods of Southern cooking are a dominant theme.

Any Mississippian, especially one from north Mississippi, will feel as if they’re at their own grandmother’s table with many of these dishes, or at any family reunion or church homecoming, where you’re bound to find such favorites as three bean salad, chicken spaghetti and sweet potato pie. Dixie includes a perfect cornbread recipe (yes, of course it has bacon grease), along with instructions on how to swipe your hot skillet with that grease before pouring in the batter. Such details distinguish a really good cookbook from one that’s simply rote recitation with pretty pictures. (Speaking of which, take it from someone who knows; food photography is tricky and takes a lot of care and thought. My hat is off to Ed Anderson for his beautiful work in The B.T.C Old-Fashioned Cookbook.)

With the corn bread recipe comes one for corn bread dressing, a Southern staple, along with a dictum for our fellow countrymen beyond the Mason-Dixon Line to understand that “There is no stuffing in the South.” Dixie makes her Thousand Island dressing with mayonnaise and chili sauce, tomato sauce, ketchup and other things just as everyone did before Wishbone. (Note: in central Mississippi, this same concoction is called “comeback”, and is used on anything you can put on a plate.) Yellow “crookneck” squash casserole is another summer standard, and let it be known that Dixie, like her fellow Mississippian Craig Claiborne, offers a chicken spaghetti recipe as well as one for pickled eggs. It is also altogether fitting and proper that the B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery’s pimento and cheese is “red rind” cheese with pimento, which for me brings to mind the vivid image of a hoop of red rind cheddar sitting on the counter of a small country store under a wrap of wax paper ready to be sliced and eaten with saltines and a hunk of baloney or a can of Viennas. Being in Ole Miss’ back yard, of course the B.T.C. has a Hotty Toddy Beer Chili, which is a best-seller even when the Rebs aren’t slugging through the S.E.C.

When Dixie spreads her wings, magical dishes come to the table. Water Valley is in the Catfish Belt, and the book offers three recipes. One, with a nod to our neighbors in New Orleans (there’s a grillades recipe as well), is a blackened catfish that Dixie takes to higher ground with a Tabasco beurre blanc tanged with lime. This recipe is an exquisite example of what a top-rate chef who knows her methods and ingredients can do with a modern-day classic. Dixie’s honey pecan catfish is also a splendid work of innovation, and her catfish gumbo will stand up to any in the South. Her asparagus strawberry salad is an inspired combination of seasonal favorites, her watermelon salad (Water Valley’s Watermelon Carnival draws over twenty thousand people every year) is just brilliant, and her Brussels sprouts casserole is a winner. The roasted pear and zucchini soup was featured in The New York Times, so I’m pretty sure it’s good, too.

Chef Dixie shares the B.T.C. kitchen with sous chef Lori Ward, the Breakfast Queen of Water Valley, and with Cora Turnage Ray, the in-house baker and owner of Mississippi Mud Bakery. Cora, a native “Vallian” makes everything from scratch. Cora’s recipes tend to run to the traditional as they very well should in a small Mississippi town, with “old school” three-layer cakes such as coconut, strawberry and Lane, but she too breaks with tradition; her sweet potato pie rests in a rosemary crust, and her chess pie includes buttermilk. More notably, her “fried” pies are baked, “a practice that sets many an old-timer nodding and saying that’s how his or her mother did it,” resulting in light, flavorful pastries. But that’s not all; Alexe and Dixie put another leaf in their table by sharing the recipes of friends, neighbors and significant others. They include Coulter Fussell’s red beans and rice, Miss Vetra’s chicken noodle soup, Mrs. Jo Turnage’s banana pudding and Cliff Lawson’s hominy San Juan. Alexe’s husband, Kagan Coughlin, gets into the act with a pickle recipe, but Kagan’s biggest contribution is his renovation of the old building, which took five years and uncounted hours, working nights and weekends cleaning, moving stairwells, restoring thousands of square feet of heart pine flooring, throwing up walls, installing plumbing, building counters and hauling in appliances from all over north Mississippi. (Did I mention he makes pickles?)  The writing is in Alexe’s voice; warm, often intimate, charming in its candor and gentle in its humor. The introductory essay, “Welcome to the B.T.C.”, sets the stage for an adventure. “Everybody Asks” explains what B.T.C. stands for (and more), and the three essays in the “Soup” section, “Winter”, “Summer”, and “Fall (a.k.a Football)” are delightful. My favorites are “Where Food Comes From”, “Friends and Neighbors”, “Let There Be Leeks: Brother Ken and Co.”, “Billy Ray Brown” and “Mississippi: A Long, Slow Seduction”, which offers a thought-provoking outsider’s view of my homeland.

The B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery Cookbook stands out in the motley crew of current works on food with both recipes and writing, but what lifts the work to an even higher plane is that this book has voice, and not just one. Most cookbooks aren’t written so much as they are compiled by some editorial body with recipes and accompanying quotes from the purported author, who is usually some griddle Napoleon or oven Antoinette with a sufficiently high media profile to justify the printing costs. Unlike those efforts, this work isn’t eaten up with ego: there is no “I, me, my”; instead you find “we, us, and ours”. Any book of length written about food should mirror a time and place, and this work does all that in full. Alexe and Dixie set out to write about “the magical place where we have found ourselves” and “to give back to the people and community that has given us so much”, echoing a welcome spirit unheard in a very long time, a spirit of independence, enterprise and love.

Save Room for Pie: A Review

With 47 books under his belt, it’s a wonder Roy Blount, Jr. can dish out another helping, but Blount is always ready with a serving of his special brand of eclectic linguistic hijinks, and Save Room for Pie has plenty and to spare. In this jaunt to the center ring, Blount takes on food, and as a native of Decatur, Georgia, his take has a decidedly Southern perspective.

Blount’s prose is riddled with non-sequiturs, often to the point of distraction; in fact, the entire work is a hodge-podge of anecdotes, stories involving food and the many celebrities with whom he has rubbed elbows (who are legion), light verse and sidebars. We shouldn’t expect a humorist to give us anything resembling a straight-forward narrative, and Blount not only meets but surpasses these expectations, which can be wearying in a work spanning 280 pages.

Not to say that Blount isn’t entertaining; he takes on dietary guidelines and healthy eating with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. “Inside every thin Southern person,” he claims, “is a fat person signaling to get out.” He states that Velveeta has “more protein and fewer bad fats than many real cheeses” (being made of whey), and says that he has heard good things “from authorities recognized by my wife” about watermelon, egg yolk, cane syrup, lard, oysters, beef (“if raised right”), whiskey hot peppers, coffee, (dark) chocolate and butter.

His light verse covers such subjects as hamburgers, grease, eggs, gumbo, “love apples” (tomatoes), grits, catsup, “A Dark Sweetness” (cane syrup) and of course peaches. Among the more entertaining essays are on gizzards (“”The gizzard is what a chicken has instead of teeth.”), “Mississippi Music Notes” (“Did I mention that ‘Put Down the Duckie’ is the greatest music video ever made?”) and “Eating Out of House and Home” (“I’ll tell you what’s good though. Baked beans without a fly in them.”), though many of the others are just as rife with Blount’s own brand of lightly sardonic humor.

Admittedly, I am not a great fan of Blount’s writing; I prefer his off-the-cuff performances on NPR’s Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, but while with Save Room for Pie Blount loads the plate with a lot of superfluous sides (earthworms and professional bass fishing, for instance), the book is a great addition to any fan’s library, a light-hearted jaunt through Southern foodways, a worthy read if only to discover that Mary Hartwell Howorth puts lawn clippings in her pimento cheese.

The Edible South: A Review

If you care about the culinary history of America, then The Edible South: The Power of Food and the Making of an American Region by Marcie Ferris is a necessary addition to your library. The scope of this work, its scholarship and its pervasive voice of authority provide a much-needed center of gravity for the study of Southern foodways as well as a panoramic portrait of the society and culture of the South through the lens of an essential element: food.

The quality of Ferris’ scholarship is undeniable, but The Edible South can in no way be described as bridging a gap between academic and popular writing. It is a thoroughly academic work, insightful of course, but calling it approachable is a stretch as well. This is not a book you pick up lightly and not without a solid grounding in American history, otherwise you will soon find yourself awash in a sea of dates and names, events and entities. In her introduction (following four pages of acknowledgements) Ferris states that The Edible South is an examination of “visceral connections” involving the “realities of fulsomeness and deprivation” and the “resonance of history in food traditions”, and, borrowing Zora Neale Hurston’s reference to food as an eyepiece for the examination of history, an “evocative lens” into the various aspects of Southern culture and society. The text is peppered with phrases such as “culinary exceptionalism”, “cultural conversation”, “historical interaction”, “Jim Crow paternalism” and “racial balkanization”, thoroughly saturated with information (as well as footnotes) and for the most part unrelentingly didactic, an almost incessant record of racism and misogyny, poverty and oppression in one of the most fertile regions of the globe. The narrative is occasionally gruesome: the slaughter and cannibalization of a young pregnant bride at Jamestown; the torture of a slave by being suspended with a piece of pork fat over an open flame; and the rats, cats and dogs prepared for the table during the siege of Vicksburg in addition to constant accounts of hunger, malnutrition and want, evocative to be sure, but far more often of the darker aspects of the human condition.

Ferris is vigorous and precise, as befits a writer intending to inform if not to say instruct. While she professes a passion for food, this passion is rarely evident in her prose; instead, it shines forth in her scholarship, which as noted is astoundingly thorough. The key word here is information, and The Edible South is informative on almost every level, but this is a social history (as opposed to political or economic history), focusing on the experiences of everyday people, resulting in “a ‘History from the Bottom Up’ that ultimately engulfed traditional history and, somehow, helped to make a Better World” (Paul E. Johnson). The emphasis is on race relations, gender issues, inequality, education, work and leisure, mobility, social movements and the character and condition of the working class. This is to say that food is a raison for her larger agenda, which is an examination of the social history of the South itself. While Ferris says that her approach is not encyclopedic, the result is undeniably, mind-bogglingly comprehensive. The bibliography is exhaustive, beginning with three and a half pages of primary source materials from archival collections in fifteen cities spanning fourteen states (including Michigan, Massachusetts, Ohio and the District of Columbia), followed by forty pages of secondary sources. Somewhat surprisingly, Ferris mentions Zora Neale Hurston only in connection with the reproduction of her folk tale “Diddy Wah Diddy” (1938) in Mark Kurlansky’s excellent work, The Food of a Younger Land (2010), disregarding her longer non-fiction works. I should hope to find some agreement by noting the glaring omission of Wilbur Cash’s The Mind of the South (1929). While not genre-defining—John Egerton’s Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History (1987) defined the genre—The Edible South is authoritative and comprehensive, an indispensable reference.

The academic institutionalization of Southern food is if nothing else thorough. Southern foodways studies have kept university presses rolling in recent years: Andrew Haley, an assistant professor of American cultural history at the University of Southern Mississippi, was awarded the 2012 James Beard Award in the Reference and Scholarship category for Turning the Tables: Restaurants and the Rise of the American Middle Class, 1880-1920, another product of the University of North Carolina Press; this past October, the University of Georgia Press issued The Larder: Food Studies Methods from the American South, edited by John T. Edge, Elizabeth S. D. Engelhardt and Ted Ownby; and this August the University Press of Mississippi released Writing in the Kitchen: Essays on Southern Literature and Foodways edited by David A. Davis and Tara Powell with a forward by Jessica B. Harris.

edible south photo 1Given the narrow scope of this field, overgrazing seems imminent; one could get the impression that this glut of scholarship is evidence that the academic maxim of “publish or perish” is still solidly in place. While these works are undoubtedly conceived for those who are deeply interested in the culinary history of our nation, the general popularity of such publications must be called into question. That being said, The Edible South has been included among the Southern Independent Booksellers Association’s 2014 Summer Okra Picks, along with Chris Chamberlain’s The Southern Foodie’s Guide to the Pig: A Culinary Tour of the South’s Best Restaurants & the Recipes That Made Them Famous, Beautiful at All Seasons: Southern Gardening and Beyond with Elizabeth Lawrence (by Elizabeth Lawrence) and Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good: The New Mitford Novel by Jan Karon.

After reading The Edible South, some are likely to be left with the bitter aftertaste of an eviscerated region in an age of information. The apartness of the South is what brought about its distinctive culture, but the old demonic genius loci of Dixie has been exorcised by a new orthodoxy embracing secular capitalization and academic hermeneutics, where icons are relics and texts are subjected to a democratized version of the Scholastic method. A bell jar has descended, but life goes on, people will be people, and while by academic standards Southern culture has become a global phenomenon, for better or worse it remains rooted south of the Mason-Dixon Line, where a pork chop is still more often than not just a pork chop.