Friend Ryan Goodman shared a colorful essay by FOX News & Commentary host Todd Starnes, and I have to say I agree. The New York Times misunderstands Southern cooking.
The Times showcased a new crop of Southern chefs and farmers in last month’s article “Southern Farmers Vanquish the Clichés” by Julia Moskin.
The story originally ran with the charming headline “Vanquishing the Colonel—Farmers work with chefs to restore Southern cuisine’s dignity.” Now tell us how you really feel, NYT.
Smart, talented, green, these rebel chefs and farmers are reviving the culinary practices and ingredients of the Old South. Restoring Southern cooking to its rightful place, so to speak.
It’s an interesting read. The deliciously described history and recipes combined with the Times’ exemplary writing tempt this GRITS (Girl Raised in the South) to scoot on over to Travelocity. Secure me an airplane ticket to Charleston or Birmingham. Quick and cheap, please.
Quick because I need that food NOW. Cheap because I will pay dearly for my dinner. According to Moskin’s story, these young chefs “are paying (and charging) big-city prices for down-home ingredients” just to stay in business.
No doubt gourmet Southern cuisine like hoppin’ John prepared with fancy red peas and heirloom rice is heavenly. But is it accessible to most folks? And is the food most Southerners cook and eat really undignified?
“Today, purists believe, Southern cooking is too often represented by its worst elements: feedlot hams, cheap fried chicken and chains like Cracker Barrel,” commiserates the Times.
Its worst elements? Them’s fightin’ words where I come from.
Emile DeFelice of Caw Caw Creek Farm in St. Matthews, S.C., producer of rare breed “heirloom pastured pork,” says in the article:
“My mother didn’t cook like that, and my grandmother didn’t cook like that. And if you want to come down here and talk about shrimp and grits, well, we’re tired of that, too. Southern cooking is a lot more interesting than people think.”
Well, Emile, maybe your mom didn’t cook like that. But lots of Southern moms did and still do.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one to pass up the world-class cuisine of a chichi restaurant. Tra Vigne in Napa when Michael Chiarello was still the chef. The long time gone Spruce in Chicago when prodigy Keith Luce reigned supreme.
Dennis Quaintance and Nancy King Quaintance’s memory makers Lucky 32 and Green Valley Grill in Greensboro. The cozy sophistication of The Best Cellar in Blowing Rock.
And then there’s Chapel Hill’s finest Crook’s Corner. Sad to admit I’ve never actually eaten there. Doesn’t matter. I know, as all good Tarheels do, Crook’s is famous for shrimp and grits. We don’t tire of it in North Carolina, Emile.
This food is special occasion fare. I don’t eat that way on a daily basis. It’s not affordable or practical. I love highfalutin dining, but I love Cracker Barrel, too.
Road trip across these great United States with the family in tow, then you tell me. What’s better than seeing the sign of the old man, the barrel and the chair?
With it comes the assurance of window shopping for toys, candy and sentimental knickknacks. Chicken, catfish and okra fried up right. Comfort food for many a weary traveler, a mere interstate exit away.
The rising stars of Southern cuisine deserve the spotlight. What they’re cooking and reviving is beautiful and exceptional.
But did the Times have to disparage the rest of the genre? Why imply down-home country cooking is undignified? Why insult Paula Deen in the first paragraph of the story?
Most Southern cooks I know cook with butter. And pork. And greens. Acquired from the grocery store. Or The Fresh Market. Or their own gardens.
True purists still own a FryDaddy and make the pilgrimage to Lexington for the Barbecue Festival every October.
And me, a GRITS living in the Midwest?
I followed an old Southern Living recipe to make hoppin’ John for New Year’s. With canned black-eyed peas (gasp!). Frozen collards (shame). Jasmine rice (what?). And Canadian bacon (traitor). Purchased at my local Midwestern grocery store.
In case you’re wondering, it was good. Just ask my husband.
That’s the point of Southern cooking and all good cooking. It’s accessible. Warm and welcoming. Hospitable and delicious. It makes artful use of what we have. There’s dignity in that and room for everyone at the table.
Don’t think you are better than you really are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us. Romans 12:3 NLT
Now if you’re feeling down and out, come on, baby, Drive South.
Disclaimer: I happily endorse, without compensation of any kind, the fabulous restaurants, store, and barbecue festival mentioned in this post. Yum-O.