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."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8485.