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THE ETERNAL ALLURE OF SOUTHERN FOOD

Hey, did you hear? "Down-home Southern cooking" and "grits" will be among the culinary buzzwords of 2011, according to people who watch what we eat. Odd, isn't it, that the favorites we take for granted — biscuits and gravy, shrimp and grits, fried green tomatoes — are trendy fare in places like New York, Los Angeles and Denver.

Trendy isn't the right word, though, to describe how digging into a bowl of creamy mac-n-cheese feels for someone a thousand miles from home, or the nostalgia that bubbles up from slathering pimento cheese on pillowy white bread. It's pure and simple Southern comfort food, no matter where you've roamed.

So now the cuisine of the South, and its attendant hospitality, is crossing borders, moving north and west. Again. Restaurants in New York are serving every manner of Southern specialties, even at Momofuku, where James Beard-honored chef David Chang blends Asian and Southern flavors in a nod to his Virginia roots. Hard Knox Cafe in San Francisco slings a mean chicken and waffles. Memphis-style ribs and mac-n-cheese are must-eats at Lady Louisa's Place in Detroit.

In the past few years, cookbooks with a Southern accent have been published at a swift pace. The topics, along with the appetite, are wide-ranging: Southern pies, Southern cocktails, Southern fusion and Southern classics. Just last month, two cookbooks were published that are likely to become go-to books about Southern cuisine. The Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook by Sara Roahen and John T. Edge (University of Georgia Press) and The Complete Southern Cookbook by Tammy Algood (Running Press) are collections, including reinventions, of Southern favorites.

"The South has long been cyclically hip," says John T. Edge, founder and director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi. "In the 1960s, black power was ascendant, soul music was hip, and so was soul food." He has a few minutes to talk via cell phone on his way to catch a flight from Mississippi to Texas. In his carry-on bag, Edge has tucked a hat that reads "Make Cornbread Not War."

Edge continues the timeline: Then came the 1970s and Jimmy Carter, grits and peanuts, followed a decade later by Paul Prudhomme and Louisiana Cajun. In recent years, sons of the South who left on culinary adventures but returned home to update country cooking have won notice for their fresh takes on barbecue, beans and biscuits. That includes chefs Frank Stitt in Birmingham, Ala., and Scott Peacock in Decatur, Ga.

Edge, who will be speaking at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg on Nov. 18, says he used to be an adherent to the idea that Southern food was the only original American cuisine. "But I left that farm," he says.

"Tex-Mex matters, too," he says. "And New England has its clam shacks and oyster stews." Plus, other parts of the country have their original specialties.

But, he says, as America homogenizes, or at least thinks it is becoming more unified, Americans go looking for "the honest, the vernacular, the real. We go looking for the South."

Though Edge is intensely interested in the traditional foods of the South, he also uses food to understand culture and to start conversations about difficult issues, including race. In the South, slavery has a deep imprint on the food that's served at both ladies' lunches and from big drum barbecues on the side of the road. It was slaves who transformed European-style cooking — and its ingredients — into what we know today as Southern cuisine. And, says Edge, food remains a way to bring us together to talk about what has divided us.

Although Southern cuisine is steeped in history and cultural upheaval, it is not a stagnant commodity.

"We are not talking about something in a gauzy past," Edge says. "Southern food culture, like Southern culture, evolves. It's a moving thing." He recounts a recent Mississippi restaurant dinner of turnip green tamales with pork cracklings and refried black-eyed peas. Not exactly what Daddy used to eat, but it's an "honest reflection of Southern food."

Bountiful veggies

When Tammy Algood talks of Southern food, she speaks of abundance. The long Southern growing season — about nine months — provides a bounty of fresh produce to be plucked from backyard gardens or purchased at roadside stands.

Her 800-recipe book, The Complete Southern Cookbook, celebrates that bounty with traditional and tweaked favorites of her beloved South. The book is divided by ingredients so that when you have a bumper crop of tomatoes you can turn to Page 443. A hankering for shrimp, spoon bread or sweet potatoes will be satisfied by entire collections of recipes. Tea — sweet, herbal or infused in a lemon cake — has its chapter, too.

Algood, who extols the virtues of home cooking on TV and radio from her Nashville base, is a food marketing specialist with the University of Tennessee Extension. She helps farmers sell what they grow.

She worked a year on the book — "a long pregnancy" — and wanted it to reflect the "true way" Southerners cook, with lots of fresh vegetables.

"When you have all those fresh foods in front of you, time becomes your enemy," she says. A bushel of okra or a bag of ripe peaches begs to be used. Now. She makes searching for recipes easy.

Southerners are widely known as lovers of fried foods, and they are masters of the technique, but Algood reminds us that vegetables are an integral part of the Southern table. Perhaps there is a big mess of mac-n-cheese for dinner, but it's likely to be accompanied by several bowls of vegetables, she says.

"We have always traditionally had balance on our tables," she says.

Both Edge and Algood use okra to describe the melding of cultures and the influence of Africa on the South. She proposes okra as the state vegetable of every state in the South; it's that important. He suggests that okra could be the common ground between an African, American, European and Indian dining together for the first time. All have dishes that use the vegetable indigenous to West Africa.

As for Southern cuisine's renewed popularity, neither is surprised. They know its value as a symbol of home and hearth and its place in America's culinary and cultural history.

They've seen the march of shrimp and grits to every corner of the country. Humble grits might be big in 2011, but they've always been hot in the nation's down-home states.

Algood has her own prediction for the food trend watchers.

Look out, grits. Corn bread and all its spoon bread variations will be the next things to land on the nation's plates.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8485.

. IF YOU GO

Local Foodways discussion

John T. Edge, founder and director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi, will speak at 7 p.m. Nov. 18 at the Poynter Institute Theater, 801 Third St. S, St. Petersburg. After the talk, there will be a reception in the courtyard of the Williams/Snell houses at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Second Street S on the USF St. Petersburg campus. The Taco Bus of Tampa will provide refreshments. A $5 cash donation is requested. Edge's appearance is sponsored by Tampa Bay Foodways, USF St. Petersburg's Florida Studies Graduate Program, USF Tampa Library's Florida Studies Center, the Poynter Institute and the St. Petersburg Taco Bus, opening soon.



What the South has taught the nation to cook

How to fry anything

How to barbecue

How to cook greens beyond spinach

How to make a mess of grits

How to honor the peach

How to eat okra



>>easy

Shrimp Spoon Bread

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

2/3 cup sweet onion, diced

1 (4.5-ounce) can chopped green chilies, undrained

1/2 pound cooked salad shrimp, coarsely chopped

1 (20-ounce) package frozen cream-style corn, thawed

1 (16-ounce) package sour cream

2 eggs

1 (6-ounce) package buttermilk corn bread mix

2 cups shredded Monterey Jack cheese, shredded, divided use

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly grease a 9- by 13-inch baking dish and set aside.

In a medium skillet, melt the butter over medium-high heat. Add the onions and saute 3 minutes, or until tender. Stir in the chilies and set aside.

In a large bowl, mix together the shrimp, corn, sour cream and eggs. Add corn bread mix and stir just until blended. Add the onion mixture and 1 1/2 cups of the cheese, stirring just until combined.

Pour into the prepared baking dish and sprinkle the top with the remaining cheese. Bake 45 minutes, or until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Let stand 10 minutes before serving warm.

Serves 8 to 10.

Source: The Complete Southern Cookbook by Tammy Algood (Running Press, 2010)

>>easy

Green Pasta Salad

1 pound greens (mustard, kale or collards), washed

12 ounces dry macaroni

2 tablespoons bacon drippings, rendered from 4 bacon slices cooked, crumbled and reserved

1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese

1/4 cup coarsely chopped toasted walnuts

1/2 teaspoon seasoned salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

Bring 6 cups of water to a boil over medium-high heat in a large stockpot. Remove and discard the thick stems and cut the greens into 1-inch strips. Add to the boiling water and cook 6 minutes. Using a skimmer or slotted spoon, transfer the greens to a colander to drain. Chop when cool enough to handle.

Return the water to a boil and add the macaroni. Cook just until tender, but still firm to the bite, around 8 minutes. Drain, reserving 3/4 cup of the cooking liquid. Return the macaroni and greens to the pot, along with the bacon drippings.

Toss to coat and stir in feta, walnuts, salt and pepper. Add enough reserved cooking liquid to moisten, at least 1/4 cup. Transfer to serving bowl and sprinkle with parsley and reserved bacon. Serve warm.

Serves 6.

Source: The Complete Southern Cookbook by Tammy Algood (Running Press, 2010)

>>easy

Make-Ahead Honey Squares

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup sugar

1/8 teaspoon baking soda

Pinch of salt

2 egg whites

3/4 cup shredded coconut

1/4 cup honey

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1 tablespoon milk or cream

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease an 8-inch square baking pan and line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper. Lightly grease the parchment paper and set aside.

In a mixing bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking soda and salt. Make a well in the center and add the egg whites, coconut, honey, butter, milk and nutmeg. Mix just until the ingredients are moistened. Transfer to the prepared pan.

Bake 35 minutes, or until golden brown. Immediately remove from the pan and remove the parchment paper. Place on a wire rack to cool completely. Cut into squares and store at least one day in an airtight container before serving.

Makes 16 bars.

Source: The Complete Southern Cookbook by Tammy Algood (Running Press, 2010)

THE ETERNAL ALLURE OF SOUTHERN FOOD 11/09/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 10, 2010 12:36pm]

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