There is an article in the October 31 edition of The New Yorker about Homer Sean Brock, the latest molecular gastronomy darling, and his two New Orleans restaurants. Like most of the brilliant, insightful, well-written articles in The New Yorker, I did not finish it (food articles always lose me when they bring in Ferran Adria. I’m sure El Bulli is the be-all and end-all of culinary endeavor but do we have to drag the man into every food discussion?) Nevertheless, I was struck by this statement:
“Southern food has had no lack of would-be saviors, but it has proved mulishly resistant to change…The worst knocks against Southern food — that it was heavy, fatty, bland, and simple-minded, long on fried meat and short on vegetables — were what people loved best about it.” (Keep in mind that the author of the article, Burkhard Bilger, is himself a Southerner. In case the name doesn’t give him away.)
And that is why I like Miss Sara’s book. She has updated this beloved cuisine enough to remove or minimize the elements that were bringing it down and threatening to give it a bad name: the over-reliance on fat and under-use of seasoning, the default to sweet in every dish, and the wilful neglect of most vegetables. And yet, she has maintained the heart and soul of Southern classics, old and new.
Her approach is straightforward, her recipes simple, and her instructions clear. Her affection and respect for her subject is obvious and unwavering. Of the recipes I tried, the downright inedibles were few (one to be precise: the incendiary Memphis-Style Barbecued Spare Ribs). Some, unmemorable: Friday Night Steak Sandwiches, Mixed Bean Salad with Herb Vinaigrette, Creamy Potato Salad, Spicy Pepper Jelly-Marinated Grilled Pork Tenderloin, and the Farm-Stand Peach Ice Cream (grainy and a disappointing waste of in-season peaches).
To-be-made again (and some already have): Deviled Ham Salad, Spring Pea Toasts with Lemon Olive Oil and Fresh Pea Shoots, Pimento Cheese, Salt and Pepper Skillet Cornbread, Summer Corn Cakes with Chopped Tomato and Avocado Salsa, Kate’s Sweet Potato Refrigerator Rolls, Crispy Chicken Cutlets with a Heap of Spring Salad, Fried Green Tomato BLT, Slow-Roasted Pulled Pork Butt, Anytime Hoppin’ John, Summer Succotash, Fried Green Tomatoes with Buttermilk Green Goddess Dressing, Summer Squash Casserole, and Sour Cherry Preserves.
It’s telling (to me anyway) that there are still many recipes in this book that I want to try. I didn’t even start on the grits section; the Caramelized Red Onion Tarts and Caramelized Fig Crostini with Country Ham and Goat Cheese are soooo appealing. I had the ingredients to make the Cream Biscuits with Sugared Strawberries a couple of times but was never able to follow through for a variety of reasons that would bore you to tears. Squash Puppies? That sounds great. As does Skillet-Fried Catfish with Herb Tartar Sauce, Baked Butter Beans, Lemon Rub Pie, Bourbon Apricot and Sweet Potato Hand Pies, and Molasses-Bourbon Pecan Pie. And the Autumnal Chicken Pot Pie was just waiting for the right season (now) to dive into.
If you are as unfamiliar as I was with Southern cooking, this book is a solid introduction. If you are a multi-generation Southern family with a bursting file of tried-and-true recipes but think some of them could stand some updating, you will also enjoy this book.