Southern is complicated.
Excerpt from Edna Lewis’s (1916 – 2006) essay “What is Southern?,” http://www.gourmet.com:
“Southern is an early spring morning shrouded in a thick mist. The warmth of a bright sunrise reveals shimmering jewellike dewdrops upon thicket and fence. A large spiderweb glistens, a spider trying desperately to wind its prey into the web. My father set out to prepare for planting corn. The first day, I walked behind him while he was plowing and singing one of his favorite hymns. For me, it was a great moment. Walking along, pressing my bare feet against the warm plowed earth. All of the chickens were behind me, picking up the earthworms and bugs. He turned up roots of sassafras bushes2, which we took to the house for the next morning.
Southern is a spring breakfast of herring with its roe. It is the most delicious of the first-caught of spring. Shad is more advertised. They both are spring fish, then they disappear until the next spring. Herring roe is of a finer quality than the shad and wonderful sautéed in garlic, lemon juice, butter, and herbs.
Southern is a meal of early spring wild greens—poke sallet3 before it is fully uncurled, wild mustard, dandelion, lamb’s-quarter, purslane, and wild watercress. These are greens that are looked for as the first taste of spring, boiled in pork stock and served with cornmeal dumplings. The next delightful green vegetable is wild asparagus, delicious and tender, found around fence posts where birds drop the seed. They are picked at the right time, steamed and served on toast, with a rich cream sauce spooned over. Southern is a midday dinner of potted squab, tossed until done in a covered iron pot. Served with those first wild greens, a casserole of white potatoes4 baked in chicken stock, and a delicious strawberry shortcake of biscuit dough.
Southern is an evening of turtle soup. We would find the turtle, having been washed out of the stream in a thunderstorm, crawling toward the house, so we would pick it up, keep it for a few days, then clean and cut it up. There would be great excitement if it contained eggs, which we would add to the stew. After cooking the turtle slowly for hours, we would strain the broth, season it well, add good Sherry5, chop up some of the meat, and make dumplings to add to the soup with the eggs.
Southern is Truman Capote. When dining at Café Nicholson, he would request that I make him some biscuits. Southern is a guinea hen, a bird of African origin. They live in trees around the house and make a big noise if strangers come around. Like any game bird, they have to be aged before cooking. They have a delicious flavor and are best when cooked in a clay pot with butter, herbs, onions, and mushrooms.
Southern is Bessie Smith. Give me a pig foot and a bottle of beer. Southern is a great yeast roll, the dough put down overnight to rise and the next morning shaped into rolls and baked. Served hot from the oven, they are light as a dandelion in a high wind. Southern is a sun dog6—something like a rainbow, or the man in the moon—on a late summer afternoon.
Southern is a mint julep. A goblet of crushed ice with a sprig of mint tucked in the side of the glass, a plain sugar syrup the consistency of kerosene poured over the ice, then a jigger of bourbon. Stir and bruise the mint with a silver spoon. Sip and enjoy. Southern is a hot summer day that brings on a violent thunderstorm, cooling the air and bringing up smells of the earth that tempt us to eat the soil. Southern is Tennessee Williams and Streetcar. Southern is a springhouse filled with perishables kept cool by a stream running through. And a spring keeper7—a salamander—is there, watching over.
Southern is Bourbon Street and Louis Armstrong. Southern is a seafood gumbo of crab, okra, tomatoes, scallions, onions, green pepper, bacon, garlic, and herbs. Southern is fresh-made corn fritters, light and crisp enough to fly away. Southern is an okra pancake in a cornmeal batter. Southern is a platter of deviled crabs prepared with soaked slices of white bread torn and mixed with chopped onion, fine-cut scallions, melted butter, fresh-ground black pepper, cayenne, eggs, and the best crabmeat. Baked in the oven, served hot, a morsel to die over. Southern is a pitcher of lemonade, filled with slices of lemon and a big piece of ice from the icehouse, and served with buttermilk cookies. Southern is a delicious chicken salad at a bride’s luncheon.
Southern is a bowl of shrimp paste, rich in butter, shrimp, Sherry, spices, and lemon juice. Blended to a soft consistency and served over a plate of grits, a delicious breakfast treat. Southern is a barbecued pig that was cooked for hours and served with a tomato- or vinegar-based sauce, as well as coleslaw, potato salad, baked beans, hush puppies, and iced tea. Southern is a bowl of homemade peach ice cream, served during the peach season. Southern is Richard Wright and his “Bright and Morning Star.” Southern is an oyster roast. Guests are presented with white gloves for shucking and pots of melted butter. Southern is leftover pieces of boiled ham trimmed and added to a saucepan of heavy cream set on the back of the stove to mull and bring out the ham flavor, then served spooned over hot biscuits, with poached eggs on the side.
Southern is hunting season, a time that men take off to hunt rabbits, squirrel, opossum, deer, quail, partridge, plover, and dove. We used to trap snowbirds8 and enjoy a pan of them baked. Southern is a Brunswick stew of squirrel or rabbit, beans, corn, tomatoes, onions, herbs, fresh-ground black pepper, and salt. Long cooking results in a great stew. Southern is a wild pig served with pork liver sauce, peanut sauce, rice for spooning the sauces over, and spicy sauces for the sliced pork.
Southern is Thomas Wolfe and Of Time and the River. Southern is Craig Claiborne, for more than 25 years the distinguished food critic of The New York Times. Southern is a country steak smothered with onions on a Sunday morning, with gravy and spoon bread to spoon the gravy over. Southern is she-crab soup, thick with crab eggs and crabmeat, served with benne biscuits. Southern is a lemon-flavored pound cake served with brandied peaches and homemade blackberry wine.
Southern is a moss rose, a camellia, a buttercup, a tea olive tree sending its fragrance through the air and into the kitchen. Southern is the call of the whip-poor-will at midnight.9 Southern is Reynolds Price discussing his mother’s cooking.10 Southern is a pot of boiling coffee sending its aroma out to greet you on your way in from the barn. Coffee was always served piping hot, so much so that if someone talked too much, they were told, “Save your breath to cool your coffee.”
Southern is a walk along the streams in September to find out if the fox grapes are ripening. The aroma they send out is a sign of where they are. Southern is Scott Peacock, one of the South’s most creative young chefs. Southern is weeks of canning, pickling, and preserving—cucumber pickle, artichoke pickle, pear pickle, tomato pickle, watermelon rind pickle, citron preserves, green tomato preserves, fig preserves, cherry preserves, grape conserve, crab apple jelly, wild blackberry jelly, fox grape jelly, quince jelly, guava jelly, wild plum jelly, wild strawberry preserves (the best).
Southern is Christmas, a wonderful time of the winter. In the early history of the South, there was no Christmas tree. Beautiful flowers such as camellias were used in Charleston. And it was a German professor—a refugee—who, while boarding with a family in Williamsburg, brought them stories of Christmas decorations in his native Germany.Our house was decorated with running cedar branches with juniper berries. Red tissue-paper bells were hung throughout the house, lending a festive air. On the sideboard were the Christmas foods such as fruitcake, homemade candies—divinity, peanut brittle, and ribbon squares—nuts, oranges, and coconut made into confections.
Christmas was ushered in before daylight with the thunderous noise of Roman candles—our father waking the community from its sleep. Southern is a delicious of sautéed oysters, cream, Sherry, salt, cayenne, fresh-ground black pepper, salsify, a spoon of butter in the bottom of the bowl, and a garnish of chervil. Southern is hoppin’ John—black-eyed peas cooked in hog’s-head stock —served with a dish of greens on New Year’s Day. This is to bring good luck in the new year to come.
Southern is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., with a dream.
Southern is William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust.11 I met him in Café Nicholson. Upon our meeting, he wanted to know if I had studied cooking in Paris. Southern is a beautiful dish of fried chicken, cooked carefully in home-rendered lard and butter with pieces of country ham added, then served with a brown gravy spooned over spoon bread.
Southern is Elizabeth Spencer’s writing in The Light in the Piazza.12
Southern is desserts galore—coconut cake, caramel layer cake, black walnut whiskey cake, groom’s wedding cake,13 fig pudding, mincemeat pie, lemon meringue pie, fried apple pies, damson plum pie, rhubarb pie with orange zest, peach cobbler, blackberry cobbler, blackberry roly-poly with blackberry sauce.
Southern is Eugene Walter,14 deep in Alabama, a Renaissance man, a gourmet, always with a brilliant thought. Southern is Marie Rudisill,15 author of a cookbook that emulates the friends she grew up with, cooked with, and loved. Southern is Carson McCullers in The Member of the Wedding.16 Southern is all the unsung heroes who passed away in obscurity.
So many great souls have passed off the scene. The world has changed. We are now faced with picking up the pieces and trying to put them into shape, document them so the present-day young generation can see what southern food was like. The foundation on which it rested was pure ingredients, open-pollinated seed—planted and replanted for generations—natural fertilizers. We grew the seeds of what we ate, we worked with love and care.”