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Published: 10/26/2010

Deep in the taste of Dixie: Southern cooking is more than just food

BY DANIEL NEMAN
BLADE FOOD EDITOR

First of all, a brief lesson in how to speak Southern:

1. “Y'all” is singular. “All y'all” is plural.

2. The nicer a Southerner talks to you, the more she despises you.

3. Southerners find an elegance in drawing out words. A true Southerner can take a full six syllables to say “theater.”

Southern cooking is a little harder to pin down.

Is it just an abundance of butter in everything, like Paula Deen uses? Is it the consumption of vast quantities of mayonnaise? Is it merely dosing iced tea with mountains of sugar?

Tammy Algood, whose "The Complete Southern Cookbook" came out this month, said she thinks it is more about an idea than a method of cooking.

“My definition of Southern cooking is tied to the land that we know,” she said. “Which means exotic ingredients are not really a part of Southern cooking, traditionally. And that same thing of tradition — it is passed down from generation to generation.

“Part tradition, part local ingredients, and part fulfilling, satisfying food,” she said on the phone from her home in Nashville.

Food is the force that drives Southern society, she said. It doesn't matter how rich or how poor you are, if someone comes over to visit, you always make an effort to have good food for them. It is the leisurely consumption of a simple, yet well-prepared meal that leads to good conversation.

“One of the things that I really love about Southern cooking is it's food that has a draw to it. For a lot of people, that is something they have never [experienced]. They don't have tradition on their side,” she said.

She means food that calls out to you and pulls at your soul. For Southerners, she said, that means cornbread. It means macaroni and cheese — a comfort food for Southerners even though it is not indigenous to the South. It means biscuits.

“Southerners consider biscuits the original fast food. It was portable. Mother made them and you just might grab one with some jelly on your way out to school. Biscuits to me are the epitome of Southern cooking, followed extremely closely by cornbread,” she said.

She recommends her Best Ever Biscuit recipe as the perfect teaching tool to introduce children to some of the fundamentals of cooking: measuring, kneading, rolling, and baking. And they only use three ingredients “that everyone

should have in their pantries” — self-rising flour, butter, and milk.

In the South, nothing goes with biscuits like gravy. Ms. Algood recommends pairing the Best Ever Biscuits with a sawmill gravy, which is best known as the white sauce that tops chicken-fried steak.

For some in the South, or at least for Ms. Algood, food even serves as a sort of calendar.

“You could see the seasons change by the kind of cake we had in our house growing up. We had coconut cake at Thanksgiving, he had red velvet cake at Christmas, we always had caramel cake in the spring. And pretty much the rest of the year we had Mississippi mud cake, Coca-Cola cake, pound cake, or angel food cake,” she said.

These cakes would be embellished by whatever fruit was in season — as a topping, a filling, or even mixed into the batter — which was another way of telling the time of year.

“When I grew up, we knew what we grew. If we didn't grow it, we didn't know it. So we had no lemongrass or anything like that. We had what we grew in our gardens or at farmer's markets, and only occasionally we went to the grocery stores,” she said.

Butter was not unknown in Southern cooking, but it was not used to the extent that it is used by Paula Deen, who is thought by many to be the epitome of Southern cooks.

“I wonder how much of that has become kind of a joke for her. She does tend to use inordinate amounts of butter. Everyday Southern cooks realize that foods don't need that much enhancement,” Ms. Algood said.

Nevertheless, there is one flavor enhancement that she uses without hesitation: bacon.

“We called it concentrated essence of pig. It was the perfect thing if you just needed a little something to season something,” she said. In addition, she said, “I am not opposed to using fatback at any time.”

And mayonnaise is also a key ingredient in Southern cooking, although Ms. Algood said it was not the main focus in her family's kitchen.

“We grew up with Duke's mayonnaise. I've only used Duke's my whole life. [Mayonnaise] was something that my grandmother actually made for a very long time, and when Duke's came out she said, ‘Why make it when Duke's is

just as good?'”

The same grandmother also used to wonder why okra was not the state flower of every Southern state.

Of course, it is possible even for Southerners to go overboard on their mayonnaise.

Mary Mac's Tea Room is an Atlanta institution, the longtime center of down-home cooking in the busy metropolis.

The restaurant's cookbook, which also came out this year, reveals one secret to its fame and success: mayo, and plenty of it.

A couple of the recipes, including one for red potato salad, uses two cups of mayonnaise for four servings. That's fully one-half cup of arrhythmia-inducing mayo for each serving.

“I don't even know how to put my brain around that,” Ms. Algood said. “Does that

seem just a little outlandish to you?”

RECIPES

A+ Southern Fried Chicken

1 large whole chicken, cut into pieces

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1 cup buttermilk

2 tablespoons water

2 eggs

1 cup shortening or lard

1 cup bacon drippings (or additional

shortening or lard)

1 tablespoon butter

2 cups all-purpose fl our

1/2 teaspoon paprika

Place the chicken in a large bowl. Sprinkle evenly with the salt and pepper. Set aside 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, whisk together the buttermilk, water, and eggs. Pour the buttermilk mixture over the chicken. Cover and refrigerate 1 hour.

In a large cast-iron skillet or Dutch oven, heat the shortening, drippings, and butter to 350 . Place the flour in a shallow dish and mix in the paprika. Roll the chicken in the fl our mixture, shaking off the excess.

Fry in batches, 10 to 15 minutes on each side or until the chicken is completely done. Drain on paper towels and serve warm.

Yield: 6 servings

Source: Adapted from Th e Complete Southern Cookbook

Basic Southern Cornbread

2 cups plain yellow cornmeal

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 scant teaspoon salt

1 3/4 cups buttermilk

1 egg, beaten

1/4 cup vegetable oil or melted shortening

Preheat the oven to 450 . Place a greased 9-inch cast-iron skillet in the oven to heat while the desired temperature is reached.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl combine the cornmeal, baking powder, and salt. Make a well in the center and add the buttermilk, egg, and oil, blending well. Pour the batter into the preheated skillet.

Bake 25 minutes, or until golden brown. Transfer to a serving plate and cool 5 minutes. Cut into slices and serve warm.

Yield: 8 servings

Source: Adapted from Th e Complete Southern Cookbook

Deviled Eggs

8 eggs

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon black pepper

1/3 cup mayonnaise

1 1/2 tablespoons sweet pickle relish

1 teaspoon mustard

Paprika for garnish

Place the eggs in a single layer in the bottom of a large saucepan. Add enough water so the eggs are covered at least 1 inch. Place over high heat. As soon as the water comes to a boil, remove from the heat, cover, and let stand 17 minutes.

Drain and immediately cover with cold water. Let stand 5 minutes or until cool enough to handle. Gently tap the eggs all over and hold under cold running water as you remove the shells. Discard the shells and cut the eggs in half lengthwise.

Carefully remove the yolks, place in a small bowl, and mash with a fork. Add the salt, pepper, mayonnaise, relish, and mustard, and stir until well blended. Spoon or pipe the yolk mixture into the egg whites. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Sprinkle the tops with paprika and serve.

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

Source: Adapted from The Complete Southern Cookbook

Best Ever Biscuits

2 cups self-rising flour

1/4 pound (1 stick) butter, cubed

2/3 cup milk

Preheat the oven to 400 .

Place the flour in a medium bowl. With a pastry blender or two forks, cut the butter into the fl our until it resembles coarse meal. Make a well in the center and add the milk, mixing well.

Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface and knead 12 times. Roll to 1/2-inch thickness. Cut the biscuits with a 2-inch cutter and place on an ungreased cast-iron biscuit baker or baking sheet. Bake 10 to 12 minutes, or

until golden brown. Serve hot.

Yield: 24-30 biscuits

Source: The Complete Southern Cookbook

Sawmill Gravy

2 tablespoons pan drippings or butter

2 tablespoons all-purpose fl our

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon white pepper

1 cup milk

In a heavy saucepan over medium heat, melt the drippings. Stir in the flour, salt, and pepper until well blended. Gradually add the milk, blending well.

Reduce the heat to low and simmer 4 to 5 minutes, or until thick and bubbly, stirring constantly. Adjust the seasonings if necessary. Serve warm.

Yield: 1 cup

Source: The Complete Southern Cookbook

Contact Daniel Neman

at dneman@theblade

or 419-724-6155.



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