A Culinary Love Letter From The South
Ah, the South. Is there a more distinct, yet diverse, curious and dichotomous region than the lands south of the Mason-Dixon Line? I doubt it. Often thought of outside its hallowed borders in terms of stereotypes, some deserved and some completely off base, I am a twee-bit biased and protective when it comes to my native lands. As the saying goes: American by birth, Southern by the grace of God.
Thus, it is always with a sense of trepidation that I approach any work, be it fiction or non-fiction, that addresses Dixie, its people or its culture. Will the work do us justice? Will it slander our name? Will it perpetuate a myth? Or will it be a thoughtful, honest and respectful look at a place that I know and love intimately?
In A Love Affair with Southern Cooking: Recipes and Recollections I have found the latter. Award winning author Jean Anderson, whose previous cook books have won best cook book awards from Tastemaker, IACP and The James Beard Foundation and the present book is nominated for the 2008 James Beard Award in the Americana category as well as the IACP Best Regional American category, has produced a work that, for the most part, paints an articulate and accurate picture of the South's cultural and culinary legacy.
Ms Anderson describes her work "â€¦as much culinary memoir, indeed a culinary love letter, as cookbook. It is notâ€”repeat notâ€”â€˜the definitive southern cookbook.'" She is right on both counts.
The recipe selection is heavily influenced by her own Carolina Lowcountry roots and, blessedly, doesn't try to nail down all of Southern cooking in one book. That would be an impossible undertaking.
She covers and provides recipes for all of the major points and fashions of Southern cooking: our love of stuffed foods, from pork chops and mushrooms to yellow squash all things fried, five different versions of fried chicken our fascination with congealed salads, both sweet and savory the Southern penchant toward heavy appetizers, and, yes, deviled eggs are seen as often at swanky affairs as they are at picnics a myriad of biscuit and corn bread variations complete with much discussion over what brands of self-rising flour to use and what variety of corn meal Southerners prefer and the pride of a Southerner's kitchen, cakes, confections, and preserves of all sorts.
Along with old family recipes graciously given, and selections from community cookbooks from all over the Southland, Ms Anderson also draws recipes from the wealth of contemporary Southern chefs who are putting new spins on classic Southern dishes. To name a few: an appetizer salad of fried okra and crawfish with basil vinaigrette (Chef Daniel Landry), black-eyed pea hummus (Chef Robert Carter) and Vidalia onion soup with smoky bacon (Chef Brian Stapleton). Need I say it & yummy!
Her â€˜love letter", as she calls it, takes its form from such a large portion of the book being dedicated to history, anecdotes and a running time line of people and events that molded Southern cuisine beginning in 1513 and ending in 2007, along with a glossary of "The Language of Southern Food" for those who need larnin' about what constitutes chit'lins, a mess o'greens and real lard.
For the most part, it is a delightful read. Still, this love affair might garner criticism from non-Southerners who simply don't understand that meandering story telling and seemingly disjointed text complete with ornamental fonts are intrinsic parts of the Southern experience. To produce any work on Southern cooking in any other format would render it irrelevant and soulless & the polar opposite of Southern culture.
Being born of Yankee parents in the South, Ms Anderson has a unique perspective on all things Southern. She waxes poetic about the singular pleasure of sipping sweet tea from silver goblets & a virtually ceremonial activity in which native-borns are inclined to indulge & and writes with a special sense of pained jealousy over the breakfast sausages, collards and hush puppies that her peers grew up with but rarely graced her mother's Midwestern table.
Perhaps it is her "Stranger in a Strange Land" experience coupled with a decades- long sojourn to New York City that gives her the ability to create a work that is authentic to Southerners, yet translates easily to those who were not privileged to come of age in the land of pimento & yes, that is how we spell it & cheese sandwiches.
However, I do have a couple of bones to pick with a few of the recipes and some of her commentary. First and foremost, no Southerner would advocate using a "mayo and relish blend" when making deviled eggs. It might save time, and we might do it occasionally but we would never tell anyone, especially not in print.
She also occasionally, obviously not with intention, can come off as slightly condescending when treating certain aspects of Southern lifestyle. We are well aware that our Deep South vintages of "dessert-sweet" muscadine wines are not the "grown-up wines" of chardonnays, cabernets and Rieslings. I will agree that Southern wine making has come along way, but there is no other nectar on earth like a sweet scuppernong wine on a balmy Southern evening.
But all of my nit picking is just that, nit picking, the sort of thing one engages in when you surreptitiously come across those love letters written to your husband by the other woman. As you read, you find yourself nodding your head in places, giggling in agreement in others. But you can't help hunting for faults and looking for reasons to not like the author who penned such passionate words about your own true love, especially when her talents are so evident.
Whether you are Old South yourself, or from such far away nations as Zimbabwe or New York City, a professional inclined to broaden your horizons or just someone who loves to eat good food, A Love Affair with Southern Cooking is, in more ways than one, a delicious addition to any culinary library. In it you will find that Jean Anderson gives us, in the Southern way, "a gracious plenty."