Sunday, October 4, 2009

Southern Cooking: Lost in the Translation

For years, when I lived down South, I would hear transplants from “the North” bemoan the South and its food. I admit a bit of my Southern pride would be wounded. I’d go to the same grocery stores they did, eat at the same establishments, and wonder what they meant. I didn’t fully understand their frustration, until I moved to upstate New York. I discovered the frustration cuts both ways.

The grocery store frustration makes sense now. When I first walked into a local chain here, I was literally overwhelmed at the choices I was presented. Fresh crème fraîche. Meats and cheeses I’d only read about. Varieties of vegetables that were both familiar and foreign were available to be explored. Funny thing is that I have friends who moved here from Los Angeles. They found the selection underwhelming. If that’s the case, then down south, they’d find themselves damn near suicidal.

I didn’t realize how quickly I had adapted, until recently. While my wife and I were on vacation on the coast of North Carolina, I made a trip to a grocery store chain there. When I asked if they had arugula, the clerk wanted to know what it was. I found myself becoming a bemoaning “Yankee”. Crap.

Another thing I have discovered are the specialty stores. In our town it’s the Italian Grocery and Deli, Roma’s, that makes me understand a little further the passion of Italian food. I’ve stood and looked at no less than 30 varieties of Balsamic vinegar. Don’t get me started about the olive oil selection. While this store is relatively small, I could spend an entire afternoon there reading the ingredient lists, and smelling dried spices and cheeses. The grocery itself is only half the story.

I never understood the concept of the deli. I mean, I’d been to Subway, right? It wasn’t until I stopped into the Italian grocers and I was starving. It was the perfect moment to be introduced to mortadella.

It was 3:00 in the afternoon and I hadn’t eaten. I walked up to the counter. I was bombarded with an overwhelming selection of meats and sandwiches, but the name of mortadella was summoning me. When I tried to order, the man behind the counter became frustrated. I didn’t really know how to do this I explained. “I’m from the South and don’t know how to order this.” The man’s whole demeanor changed. He happily walked me through the process making recommendations and suggestions. My result: “I’ll have a large mortadella on a hogie roll. Lettuce, tomato, oil and vinegar-olives on the side to go”. I’ve discovered that the “to go” part is crucial. The ingredients need time to fuse and meld together to make the flavor a cohesive whole. But that’s a sidebar to the main feature.

Mortadella, I speak the name in hushed tones, like a lover summoning the focus of his passion. There is some confusion with this sacred meat mixture and American Bologna. True, they are made by a similar process: chunks of pork and fat are puréed to the consistency of mayonnaise at about 60 degrees, put into a casing and cooked. Mortadella takes this a step further by incorporating extra chunks of fat. Sometime pistachios are added. In Spanish varieties olives or peppers are incorporated. But, if you order Mortadella, by law in the European Union, it must be manufactured in the Bologna region of Italy in order to be allowed to carry the name. But, I digress.

The point is, the chances would have been pretty slim of me ever finding this in the deep South. Bologna is a poor substitute. Yet, many are willing to accept it. But if you look closely, each region in Italy has a subtle variation (7 that I could find), yet here, Oscar-Meyer produces a “meat product” and calls it Bologna, in essence taking away its original meaning and value. The same thing happens in transplanted cuisines in the US. Specifically “Southern Cooking” when it crosses the Mason-Dixon line.

Here in Saratoga Springs, NY, there are two noted restaurants among locals. Not to disparage local eateries, I’ll keep them nameless. One serves barbeque, the other serves “Southern Food”. Neither succeeds. That may seem a harsh criticism, but from someone raised on both types of food-each is a poor substitute. What I have discovered is that unless you know the difference, then it might seem pretty good. Unfortunately, I do know the difference.

To understand this, first you have to understand that southern cooking is derived from a confluence of influences.

The traditional southern dishes reflect the history and past economics of the region. Although the South was once noted for its large cotton plantations, even at that time most rural Southerners were subsistence farmers, and were quite isolated from the rest of the world. These people were most numerous in the Southern Appalachian region, and their ancestral origins were mostly Scotch, Irish, English, Germanic, and to a lesser extent, French or Dutch. They made do with what they could grow, and what they could find in nature. For example, the extensive use of corn meal probably resulted from the fact that wheat was little grown in the South. Native Americans (Indians) were major contributors to the diet of the South. From them, poor southerners learned how to use many wild or cultivated plants and game. In addition, the early African-Americans introduced several of the plants, such as black-eyed peas, okra, sweet sorghum, and watermelons, from which many prized southern dishes are derived. In many affluent households, they were the family cook, and as such, they molded and modified the taste preferences of those they served. There is little doubt that the creative use of food by American Indians, subsistence farmers, and the African-Americans were the major influences on the nature of Southern cooking, and there is historical evidence to indicate that these groups learned from each other.

There are many sub-regions where the type of cooking was influenced by local factors. One important region, as we have pointed out, was the Appalachian region that was populated mostly by subsistence farmers. The cooking of some coastal areas were influenced by their early settlement by the Spanish or French. The well known cuisine of southern Louisiana was mostly influenced by the "Cajuns", who were immigrants from Canada and of French origin.

William J. Gray

On Southern Cooking

Groovy. Now let’s take the anthropological implications a step further. Each of these distinct cultures began to merge and meld through food. Variations began to be handed down through subsequent generations. Techniques evolved and were passed along to the next crop of burgeoning cooks. Even cooking utensils were passed along. My wife proudly posses her late grandmother’s cast iron skillet. The years of carbon and curing on that mass of iron can sear a steak better than anything you can buy in the store today.

No, what I think sets most southern cooking apart is that it is generational. Subtle details that can’t be quantified. To this day, my grandmother can’t tell me how she makes her biscuits. She’ll show me how she makes them as her mother showed her. And her mother before and so on. She’ll tell me what to look for and how the dough should feel. A handful of this, some milk, some lard… it has become instinctive.

Now add to that the availability of local ingredients in the south. Martha White, White Lilly and Yelton’s Best are only three brands of many varieties of flour and cornmeal available to cooks in the south. Like the Italian Grocer and their varieties of balsamic vinegar and olive oil, there is a wealth of subtle choices that people are passionate about. Generations will stand loyal to “their brand” of flour, cornmeal or lard. These passions fueled kitchens to produce food that is far more distinctive and complex than the failed attempts I tasted. When I went to a local northern grocery chain to look for cornmeal, my only choices were from a Quaker better know for his oatmeal. My choices were white and yellow cornmeal.

Let’s establish 3 well known rules in the south: tea is sweet, cornbread isn’t, and catfish that is farm raised isn’t fit to eat. Most northern restaurants fail these test. The local choices here are no exception. Sweet cornbread, unsweetened tea and mealy, farm-raised catfish are the norm, rather than the exception.

Another test they fail is with cornmeal. In my South, it is used in in a plethora of cooking: hush puppies, cornmeal fritters, cornmeal dumplings, corn pone-the list could be longer, but you get my drift. The point is cornmeal is not for breading-with the exception of some fish, and even then it is mixed with flour. Why does this matter? To start with, flour is softer and more readily absorbs and cooks in oil. Secondly, it has a better mouth feel. Third, spices are more easily integrated. And lastly, it just taste better.

Every dish I was presented at the local “Southern” restaurant that was fried was breaded in cornmeal. Tragically the okra was no exception. Understand that for years, I ate my grandmother’s and my mother’s okra that was dusted with flour and deep fried in a 4 generation’s old cast iron skillet. A dash of salt, a bit of pepper and an eye toward brownness, yielded morsels of culinary goodness that these poor Yankee’s will most likely never understand.

So why the rant? Because, left in the hands of someone unfamiliar with a culinary culture, the food will quickly drift into the realm of bad cliché. For instance, the “Southern-Style” restaurant here in town was originally opened in 1938 by an African-American woman who was born and raised in Louisiana-that really was Southern cooking. Further, the establishment was in the former poorer section of town. The food was plain, simple and cheap. Again, reflecting a food that is born out of hardship rather than dining whims of gourmands.

In recent years, the restaurant was purchased by a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. And while the restaurant has earned rave reviews by everyone from Travel and Leisure to Bon Appetit, not one Southern news organization can be found heaping accolades on the establishment. And, I doubt that there ever will be.

I don’t begrudge the restaurant their success, I’d rather that they call the food what it is: Southern Fusion. Until then, the true taste of the south has been lost in the translation.

Don’t get me started on the barbecue joint.

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