Gourmet Goes South

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“There is something about the South that stimulates creativity in people, be they black or white writers, artists, cooks, builders, or primitives that pass away without knowing they were talented.” – Edna Lewis, “What is Southern?”

Thanks to the internet and the graciousness with which epicurean magazines publish their recipes online, I have come to think of buying foodie mags as a real luxury. I don’t aspire to be a food writer so that’s not a good excuse to shell out $4 per cover, but I gravitate towards the publications’ alluring photos and delicious-sounding recipes, to which the Internet does only partial justice. Once I’ve bought these precious pubs, I keep them for a long time – much longer than necessary – the way unseemly old men keep copies of Hustler and Playboy, stashed away for future feasts and (epicurean) fantasies.

So, like any addict who knows the danger of giving in to her weaknesses, I try to practice restraint in the cooking magazine aisle. But something about Gourmet gets me. I love the swirly, Coca-Cola-like cover-title writing, the luscious-sounding feature recipes, the impression of myself as a very-accomplished-cook-indeed upon execution of the pub’s more complicated dishes. Still – I try to keep my distance. I remind myself that I have a problem, that I own plenty of cookbooks, that I recently gave a truck load of (cooking) magazines away to the American Kidney Fund.

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But this January’s issue of Gourmet – a “Special Collector’s Edition” featuring both Southern cooks (Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock in particular), and Southern writers (Ann Patchett – an old fave) – sent me completely over-the-top.

The writing in this issue is especially good, alive with colorful prose and the sort of Southern delicacies that must make all those New York foodies (who actually subscribe to Gourmet) seriously consider carpet-bagging. The cover photo pays homage to the perfect biscuit and sumptuous blackberry jam; inside, Hoppin’ John, Baked Tomatoes with Crusty Bread, and creamed collards (or winter greens) highlight the best of the South, conjuring, for me at least, the American pinnacle of food-as-experience, food-as-memory.

I come from a long line of wonderful cooks and cooking influences, all of whom are (or were) Southern and who embrace(d) the region’s culinary offerings with zeal. My grandmother, Doll, made the best homemade rolls South of the Mason-Dixon line – and taught my mother to make the same; Stell, the lady who kept me when I was just barely old enough to reach the kitchen counter, made sweet, warm, hand-squashed grape jelly that still makes my mouth water; my father cured his own country ham and sausage, and people from one end of Virginia to the other claimed they’d never tasted any better.

But the thing about all this food – like any good food – is its transcendent quality. In our house, the food and its preparation became dinner table conversation. Analysis of what did or did not go into certain dishes could entertain my family members for an entire meal. And thus, it became a memory made. It became experience shared; a generous gift to guests, hand-made and carefully measured. It became an outpouring of more than just flour and sugar, but of heritage and heart-felt celebration.

I love to cook, and to read about cooking, not just for the deliciousness of the food, but for its deeper meanings and its meaningfulness. A lot of chefs believe in food science, and I’m sure I could learn a lot from them, but in the South it seems we may be more about food-poetry, or food-religion.  I remember reading Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate and, thanks to my Southern roots, recognizing something universally true about the Latin American book’s magical realism; for me, cooking has always been tied to a sort of unavoidable emotional outpouring and it seemed perfectly rational for a cook’s emotional turmoil (and cuisine) to affect his or her dinner guests for better or for worse.

In January’s Gourmet, there appears an essay by Edna Lewis called “What is Southern?”. From time to time she references Southern writers (Truman Capote, Carson McCullers) and artists (Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith), but her most memorable passages embody with down-home eloquence the food she spent a lifetime perfecting. “Southern is a great yeast roll,” she writes, “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 dog – 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 a glass …”.

In Miss Lewis’ words and her passion for good Southern food is deference to and admiration for the culture that created her. Reading her essay makes me wish I’d known her, or that she’d written more, and it gives me new-found respect for Southern hospitality.

Southern hospitality can sometimes conjure images of white-gloved ladies, lots of sterling silver and general insincerity. But when paired with down-home Southern food, those gloves come off. (After all, who can eat fried chicken while wearing white gloves?) The combination of Southern hospitality and Southern food is a cook’s sincereist form of flattery to his guests; there is nothing more to-the-point.

I’ve gone on too long here (maybe I’m an aspiring food-writer after all!), but – you have to admit – there’s something about Buttermilk Cookies and pimiento cheese that is just downright laudable.  Take my advice and go get January’s Gourmet before it leaves the newsstand. Heaven knows I won’t let you borrow mine.

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