Southern dishes and their cookbooks are hot. Georgeanne and I both claim a bit of Southern heritage so we’re happy. Even the James Beard Foundation awards will be given in Knoxville, Tenn., this month. From barbecue symposia to magazine features, America is looking south again.
James Beard awards are to the food world what Oscar nominations are to Hollywood; even nominations are coveted. The South received, as they say, a gracious plenty. For example, Nathalie Dupree’s and Cynthia Graubart’s book, “Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking,” is one of three Southern books in the American Cookbook Section to be a James Beard semifinalist.
On their way to receive their awards, Dupree and Graubart were hosted at a party in Sacramento given by our friend and food writer Elaine Corn. Ironically, I couldn’t go because I was in the South where restaurants, so many of which are getting awards this year, are plain hard to get into.
My trip began in New Orleans, which Saveur Magazine featured in its April edition. I started with blackened fish in the no-frills Felix’s Restaurant and Oyster Bar, and proceeded to another James Beard nominee — chef Tory McPhail of Commander’s Palace in the Garden District, for Easter jazz brunch.
I spent the only spring rainy afternoon at The New Orleans School of Cooking tasting gumbo, chicken creole, greens and pralines. The gumbo was thickened with okra, which is how we make ours. Georgeanne’s getting ready to plant okra in her spring garden; speaking of which, we’re both slow-cooking the last of our winter garden kale in the fat of home-cured pork belly.
I dined at the classic restaurants recommended by Saveur. My favorite was Galatoire’s in the French Quarter. Though far from white linen tablecloths, I also loved the no-frills — and no reservations possible — at Morning Call Coffee Stand and the Café Du Monde for the requisite beignets, or French-style doughnuts covered in powdered sugar.
New Orleans was followed by a road trip along the Gulf Coast. I ate my share of shrimp and grits, which I’ve been making at home since I returned. I headed northward at Mobile, Ala., and drove on up and over the Selma Bridge, through Montgomery and on into Birmingham, a city which, like so much of the south, has reinvented itself over the past 50 years.
For my last meal, I lunched at Chez Fonfon in Birmingham on avocado salad with shrimp and sauce rémoulade, followed by a slice of four-layer coconut cake. Serendipitously, I met co-owner Frank Stitt, who was inducted into the James Beard Hall of Fame in 2011. Along with his wife Pardis, author Nathalie Dupree and John Egerton, Stitt is one of the 50 founders of the Southern Foodways Alliance.
Founded in Birmingham in 1999 to document and celebrate the diverse food cultures of the South, the alliance is housed at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, and hosts an annual symposium on barbecue. Corby Kummer of the Atlantic Monthly called The Southern Foodways Alliance “this country’s most intellectually engaged (and probably most engaging) food society.”
The alliance promotes on its website Southern tourism through its popular trails programs — like barbecue, boudin, gumbo and tamales. Part of the changing face of the South is that of immigrants from Latin America and Asia.
In a nod to Asia, chef Andrea reusing of The Lantern in Chapel Hill, N.C., provides Asian food with a Southern twist. The Lantern was one of about eight restaurants in North Carolina’s “Research Triangle Area” to receive a James Beard nomination this year. It was joined by some other favorites of mine — Nana’s of Durham and Poole’s Diner of Raleigh.
Many foods from the heart of the South are part of the African-American heritage. “High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America” by Jessica B. Harris chronicles that history and tradition. The culinary journey of African-American foods from the South to the rest of the nation mirrors perhaps the migration of American blacks as they fled the South for places north, east and west.
Some blacks who left the South, or their sons and daughters, are returning to farm. They join multi-generation Southern farmers who never left, as well as first-generation immigrants in providing food for the new South. “The World in A Skillet: A Food Lover’s Tour of the New American South,” by Paul and Angela Knipple, traces the continuing evolution of Southern cooking.
With the 50th anniversary of civil rights in Birmingham this year, and Southern food once again in the forefront of America’s food culture, all eyes are indeed upon the South.
Slow Cooked Greens
These greens are prepared the way I grew up eating them in my summer visits to Durham, N.C. They use fatback, but I use my homemade pancetta or bacon.
3 bunches dark leafy greens such as kale, collards or chard
½ cup pancetta or bacon pieces
Putting it together:
Over a medium flame, in a large Dutch oven or other heavy pan (with a tight fitting lid), sauté pieces of pancetta or bacon until they release the fat, about 5-7 minutes, without the lid on.
Wash the greens and remove the middle rib. Roll the remaining leaves, a few at a time, into a cylinder and finely chop the leaves into ¼ inch ribbons. Add these to the pot.
Reduce the heat to simmer, and place the lid on the pot. Check occasionally to ensure there is enough fat and water at the bottom of the pan to prevent burning. Simmer until tender, about 1-2 hours. Stir. Serve warm, with a plate of grits fixed your favorite way. Serves 4 as a side dish.
— Ann M. Evans and Georgeanne Brennan are coauthors of the award winning “Davis Farmers Market Cookbook, Tasting California’s Small Farms,” (2012.) They have a food and agricultural consultancy, Evans & Brennan, LLC. Their national blog “Who’s Cooking School Lunch?” features personal stories of front line men and women cooking school lunch. Reach the blog at www.whoscookingschoolunch.com and Ann and Georgeanne at email@example.com.