The South's love affair with fried chicken, collard greens, gumbo and biscuits is being challenged — and changed — by an unlikely influence:
Which may seem strange — or even heretical — until you stop to consider that Southern food has always been a confluence of cultures, an amalgamation of its African, European and Native American locals. It just happens that this time around it's the North that is infusing its ideas into the culinary mix.
Credit for this fresh face of Southern cooking goes to a growing band of chefs — some born in the South, many not — who are looking North as they reinterpret the classics.
Take Vivian Howard. The 35-year-old owner of the Chef and Farmer restaurant in Kinston, N.C., is a true Southerner, the daughter of a North Carolina hog farmer whose grandmother baked candied yams with butter and brown sugar. Yet the yams Howard serves are smashed and double fried, like a Caribbean plantain, a reflection as much of her time spent cooking in New York as of her heritage.
In Louisville, Ky., a Korean-American from Brooklyn marries sorghum and local lamb — and bourbon! — with Asian flavors. In Georgia, Canadian Hugh Acheson showcases the Mediterranean potential of Southern staples such as ramps, morels and veal sweetbreads. And in Carrboro, N.C., Matt Neal — whose dad Bill Neal helped revive Southern cooking in the 1980s — channels his love for New York City in buttermilk biscuits topped with pastrami.
Many argue that Southern food is the country's only true regional cuisine. But much of its distinctiveness comes from its ability to blend. African slaves brought their rice-growing culture, laying the groundwork for iconic dishes like gumbo and jambalaya. Sweet potatoes resembled the yams they knew from home and were used to fill European items like pies. Native Americans contributed their knowledge of the land and its ingredients, showing newcomers how to use corn for foods like cornbread and grits.
These rich food traditions often are what attract chefs from other parts of the country. At Louisville's Magnolia 601, Brooklyn-born Edward Lee seamlessly blends tradition with the flavors of his Korean heritage in dishes like crab cakes with green tomato kimchi and mango with red onion and daikon sprouts. But rather than corrupting tradition, Lee says such innovation moves it forward.
"I'm not a Southerner and I don't cook Southern food," he says. "I cook my food with a nod to Southern food and culture. I'm playing on their culture and history. I'm not making it better or worse. I'm just doing something different."
In North Carolina, New Jersey native Andrea Reusing projects memories of childhood trips to New York's Chinatown into whole fried local flounder and tea-cured local chicken. She plays on a Southern classic with Korean-style fried chicken wings that offer a brittle crunch and a sweet-spicy glaze. Country ham shows up in fried rice, and field peas dot black sticky rice instead of hoppin' John.
"A lot of these Asian flavors are also Southern flavors," Reusing says. "Crunchy fried chicken, salty ham, a great whole fish. Peanuts. There are so many similarities."
At his two Athens, Ga., restaurants, Acheson adds French, Italian, Spanish, even North African flavors to Georgia ingredients, with dishes like grilled octopus and purple cape beans, cioppino-style local seafood with stewed collards and roasted local chicken with red peppers and sesame. He even has kimchi creamed collard greens, a nod to the classic creamed spinach. Such interpretations, Acheson says, fit into the South's history.
"Eighty percent of what we think of as Southern food is from slaves who were not indigenous," he says. "It's amazingly geographically different, inflected from so many parts of the world."
While some may think of the newcomers as carpetbaggers, Howard is flattered by the attention. Playing with Asian flavors or adding Mediterranean accents not only helps develop the region's food culture, she says, but also honors it. "It says a lot about what people have come to appreciate about our regional cuisine here."
Howard is one of a growing number of Southerners who traveled or lived outside the region, then returned with fresh ideas. Trained in New York at WD-50 and Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Spice Market, Howard tried to bring Northern dishes to the South. The response was lukewarm.
So she began embracing all the things she'd grown up on — collards, sweet corn, cucumbers, field peas — but reinterpreting them, drawing on lessons she learned in the North. Baby collards are flash fried like potato chips, and lima beans are slow cooked with mustard greens and sausage until they melt on your tongue. A pecan pie isn't a pecan pie at all, but something between a chocolate-chip cookie and a salty, crunchy nut bar.
"What I'm trying to do is translate my region," Howard says. "There are all these subcultures of Southern food. People are familiar with low country, with Appalachia. I'm trying to do that same thing with the cuisine of the frugal farmer in eastern North Carolina, but do it in a way that's attractive for people who live here and is interesting for people who don't."
Like Howard, 41-year-old Matt Neal first fell in love with New York and its food during a childhood visit to the legendary Second Avenue Deli. Back home, he says, he and his wife Sheila finally gave up on someone coming from the city to open a deli they could eat lunch at, so they decided to do it themselves.
"I'm not Jewish or Brooklynese or anything like that, but I figured we could figure out how to make pastrami," he says. "I had smoked meat before — whole pigs — so pastrami wasn't a huge stretch."
At Neal's Deli they serve that pastrami on Southern buttermilk biscuits and offer a roster of groovy hotdogs like the Chilean "completo," served in the style of Chile with mayonnaise, sauerkraut, avocado and housemade hot sauce. The pimento cheese is made not just with cheddar, as per tradition, but with Swiss and provolone as well.
These chefs are successful, observers say, because their audience also has been traveling.
"What is happening in the South is that we are more open to discovery," says Southern cookbook author Jean Anderson. "There's always a core of Southern recipes that will be there forever. But I do think, and it's because many Southerners are much better traveled and much better educated, they're open to experimenting."
An influx of immigrants over the last couple of decades has inspired a more adventurous spirit in chefs and home cooks alike, say Paul and Angela Knipple, authors of The World in a Skillet: A Food Lover's Tour of the New American South. Vietnamese immigrants, Kurdish refugees, and in the last 10 years many Hispanic farm workers have all brought their culinary cultures.
"The cuisine our grandchildren will eat will look a lot like it does now, but the flavors will be different," she says. "Southern cuisine is made of immigrant cuisines. And it will slowly embrace the cuisines that come in, as it always has."