A Crush on the South
By Megan O'Neill
At its very core, the word cuisine is complex. It's more than the preparation, sourcing and cooking; it's the food that surfaces as an expression of community and the cultural, economic and social practices that come together to form it. The country has a crush on the South, but how do you turn this yearning for homegrown cuisine into an authentic interpretation on menus across the country? This is beyond the battered call for buttermilk fried chicken or Bourbon -- there's a desire for distinctly southern moments that seem to be universally appealing. To pass the rite of consumption, to feel confident in an expression of a region's food, understand first that the soil, the stories, the agriculture and the culinary techniques are what bind southern cuisine -- not a stick of butter.
"Southern food was, until the 1960's a fairly isolated cuisine," says Melissa Hall, assistant director at the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA). "Now, like all great cuisines, it has flourished to some extent in that isolation. Once people found it, it became a cuisine that's exported to other regions of the country and beyond."
At its heart, southern cuisine is something as diverse as the people, geography and economies that inhibit it. It's a cuisine built on the land, not on cream, lard or cans of soup, and it relies on its history to tell a story. That story is what the SFA tends to. A member-supported, non-profit based on the Ole Miss campus in Oxford, Miss., the SFA documents, studies, celebrates and brings to one table the diverse food culture of the changing American south.
"Food is not only a valid but a fairly clear lens through which to view this region," says Hall. "Through the understanding of what people eat and why they eat it, we understand something about the region as a whole."
They don't hold with the South that exists in the past, a South seen in sepia-tone photographs or through the haze and memory of a Dixie long ago. Instead, they focus on the South's foodways as one that's still a living, vibrant and an ever-changing part of the cultural landscape.
Through published oral histories on their website, the SFA encourages future generations to more authentically understand the products of this province.
"Their experience of southern food and of southern makers -- that right-now-in-this-moment southern experience -- is valuable because it allows us to see the region as is," says Hall. "To understand that change within the region and its foodways is totem of vibrancy and importance."
What's just as important as telling the stories of today is reading and consulting the stories of the past -- in this case, recipes -- that bring it all full circle.
"Tradition and the technique of cooking regional food required extensive research," says Chef Danny Trace, executive chef at Brennan's of Houston. "Our Bayou City Creole cuisine balances a respect for time-honored dishes and techniques with passion for staying on the cutting edge of regional cuisine in America." Even for an established chef whose repertoire boasts the iconic Brennan's family kitchens and the New Orleans cuisine Queen herself, Ella Brennan, as a mentor, Chef Trace is still reading and learning. This time it's perfecting the Latin side of Creole cuisine.
For others, it might mean poring over reprints of cookbooks -- the likes of Mrs. Washington's 1885 "The Unrivaled Cookbook and Housekeeper's Guide," or the first African-American published "What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking." They're alive and ready to be scoured for court-bouillon inspiration or a recollection of ingredients that may have come to pass. "When you grow up making these things, it's a lot easier than someone, somewhere else using a recipe," says Chef Trace. In the end, though, they're simply guidelines, but knowledge of the way by which a dish was originally prepared is still vital.
For Hall, the bery best of southern cuisine can be found in vegetables and grains, an agrarian bounty often cooked simply with meat used as flavoring. Larger portions of meat were only served occasionally -- Sundays and holidays. The cuisine is not ultra processed. It's not all fried in lard, and it's certainly not a monochrome mound of hush puppies. So what's with the new-found definition?
For about five years, the loudest voice speaking for southern food was the vocal proponent of butter and oil herself, Paul Deen. "She was talking about the kind of food developed in the '50s and '60s almost entirely in response to the need for quick-prep meals with grocery store products," says Hall. There's nothing wrong with this style. It was simply a response when people sought comfort. The real roots of southern cuisine though are as diverse as the people who stir the pot. And organization with a like-minded view turn to the SFA to support the resurgence of these roots.
Anson Mills is one of those like-minded organizations -- a friend of the SFA that takes pleasure in the lost flavors of grains and vegetables produced with an integrity loyal to Antebellum agriculture. For American chefs, Anson Mills provides stone-ground organic ingredients milled from new crop heirloom grains, legumes, and oil seeds.
Founder Glenn Roberts conceived Anson Mills over a bowl of bad grits. At the start, it was a costly, but sound organic project focused on preserving and producing heirloom ingredients with Antebellum Carolina grains at the heart of it. But partner Catherine Schopfer believed that chefs would only support the seedsmanship and cost required providing that the flavors were outstanding as a result. It took Roberts nearly six years to achieve the flavor standard on which the company was founded.
"Their business relies on the relationships that Glenn [Roberts] is able to build with farmers across the country," says Hall. "What an operation like Anson Mills shows you is the vastness of the southern order, the variety of rice that can be grown, the variety of grains that you can be eating and eating well."
Eating well for these chefs is a synonymous with eating what's grown in the backyard, down the street and up the road. For Chef Brian Landry, a member of the Gulf Seafood Marketing Coalition and advocate for the bounty of species in the Gulf, the access to great seafood in the south Louisiana has formed the way he interacts with food today as the executive chef of Borgne in New Orleans. Like many, his restaurant was built around the foods he grew up eating and the experiences that shaped his childhood.
"We have such a variety of fish in the gulf," says Chef Landry. He and his team let Mother Nature decide what's available. On any given day, Borgne might have nine different Gulf fish on the menu -- flounder and black drum, swordfish, mahi and amberjack. "One of the beautiful parts of fresh, wild caught seafood is that you don't do too much to it to make it taste great."
Reproducing a dish with a southern sensibility may require a deeper understanding of the place you intend to interpret -- researching the textures, the flavor profiles, and the fish native to each coastline. "Where we might use a speckled trout, redfish, or others indigenous to our waters, up north they may use a halibut," says Chef Landry. "That's your nice mild, light flaky fish."
It's beneficial for a southern influenced cuisine to thrive both at home and outside its borders. It creates an appreciation of the waters and soil from which these ingredients are born. This appreciation is the backbone of Chef Danny Trace's cooking.
"One of the objectives in teaching and training cooks is really to respect the product," he says. "You have to really know where it comes from. Me, I'm a hunter; I'm a fisherman, so it's a respect issue in general. It's about the people, the farmers, and how hard they work for the product."
This respect is not wasting game; it's utilizing the whole animal or as much of it as possible. It's keeping pea shoots or sunflower sprouts cook and not wilted. It comes down to an admiration of not only the land and animals that surround you, but also the people these products affect. "It puts a different spin on things -- knowing where your food comes from and the back-breaking work involved," says Chef Trace.
The place in which one is raised and the ingredients through which an experience is created -- these are the informants of authentic southern cooking. For Chef Trace, the comfort is still there -- comfort though tradition, through local flavors and seasoning. Going through the ranks at Commander's Palace in New Orleans meant sourcing most of the products within 60 miles of the back door. This down-the-street importance has held true for southern cuisine long before the farm-to-table movement caught its stride.
"We're eating directly what's around us to know that there's an integrity to the product," says Chef John Tesar, executive chef at Knife at The Highland Dallas. "It's to know that we're supporting and building relationships honestly, not just for the sake of throwing a name on the menu and letting everyone know we're farm to table." For Chef Tesar, what he found in his Texas backyard was just what he was looking for -- 44 Farms, a Cameron, Texas-based team producing consistent, hormone-free, Texas born, raised and slaughtered beef.
"They raise angus bulls like Calumet Farm breeds race horses," he says. "We eat only what's not worthy of reproducing. And with that, we track the lineage and genetics of these animals." 44 Farms is the new wave of cattle ranching -- growing their own cotton seed, their own corn and with nearly 200 miles of self-made irrigation and an expansive infrastructure.
"If you take a look at 44 Farms, you can draw a perfect triangle between Dallas, San Antonio and Houston," says Chef Tesar. You're sourcing from down the street and in turn supporting the farmer, the community and producing a menu that's a literal product of the South.
"Our guests are just as seasonal as we are," says Chef Trace. "They know just as well as I do that we only use Texas or Louisiana-farmed product." Head just south of Chef Trace's kitchen down I-35, and you'll land at Frogerg's Farm, a family owned spot that's been specializing in strawberries since the '30s. Drive about 150 miles northwest of Houston, toward Austin, and you'll land at 44 Farms. Chef Trace gets his grits and cheese from a place north-east of that in Waco, Texas. And for him, nothing gets as good as heading south for Gulf seafood. The one-pot example that sits best for him: a seafood gumbo that's a merriment of the region's best bounty -- hand-selected oysters, local crab mean and crab stock, in-season tomatoes and okra from a farm stand up the road.
Southern cuisine is very simply the heartbeat and the diary of the region. An understanding of the past will take you far, but no matter you are in the South, the ticket to authentic cuisine can actually be found right up the street.