Southern Style Food and Cooking
South is a big place
First we should define some terms, Southern cooking for our purposes will come from the states east of the Mississippi and below the Mason Dixon line. Texas will belong to a future article about the South West and Louisiana deserves its own article although the influence of Cajun cuisine will poke through from time to time.
I came to Florida some 35 years ago and took a job as a chef in a country club. In my kitchen was a lovely older black woman, born and raised in the same neighborhood as the club. That was Jonny-Mae and she introduced me to true Southern cooking, “me,” being a transplanted Yankee from NH, following the sun and family to Florida. One day, early on in my career there Jonny-Mae asked me, “Where’s the 'maters?” I said “Huh?” JM: “maters!” I: “Excuse me?” well this went on back and forth, for a long time and Jonnie-Mae was as exasperated as I was but eventually someone came along and told me that she wanted tomatoes. Ah Hah! I brought Jonnie-Mae some ripe red specimens and we were on our way preparing the next meal. One I got the dialect down Johnnie-Mae proved to be a wellspring of knowledge about real Southern Cooking.
Soul Food and Southern Cooking.
The difference between Soul Food and Southern Cooking is slight or nonexistent. Southern Cooking is becoming more sophisticated and Paula Deen is single handedly promoting the genre but the roots are in poverty, with rootlets coming in from indigenous people, African, Spanish, French and Caribbean cooking. Southerners are fortunate to have such a long growing season but slavery was a dominant factor for hundreds of years. Much of this style of cooking was created either by slaves, using scraps to feed themselves or in cooking for the masters who kept them as house slaves.
Today, in many parts of the Old South, you will still find street vendors, selling the produce from their own gardens, nowhere will you find fresher greens, melons, tomatoes et al than from some wizened old farmer selling the fruits of his labor. This is, of course, a holdover from the days before refrigeration and supermarkets but it is valuable extra income for those involved. This has become such an institution in the South that some entrepreneurs will set up stands and sell what they can buy at wholesale regardless of the source. Some of these vendors have made lots of money selling trivialities. If you are travelling through the south, look for someone selling off the back of a truck, those folks are usually the ones that grew it themselves.
Beat your Biscuits
Biscuits are an indispensible part of a good Southern meal; there are two types and many variations. Lard is the original fat used in biscuits because it was cheap and available even to the poor. Using butter was for those with means but cannot be discounted for flavor, vegetable shortening has been widely denounced as unhealthy and you won’t find any in my kitchen. If you are horrified by the concept of cooking with lard, don’t be! All things in moderation of course but lard contains arachidonic acid that is related to polyunsaturated fatty acids (Omega-6). Omega-6 is part of heart, brain and kidney tissues and essential for their proper functioning. Lard is healthier than vegetable shortening and it imparts a unique flavor. Lard contains just 40 percent saturated fat (compared with nearly 60 percent for butter) Recipes for drop or rolled biscuits are ubiquitous so we will not go into that here except to say biscuits are easy to make and require few ingredients, if you want to try using lard, replace the shortening or butter in the same amount with lard.
The tips for biscuits
1) Before you begin; freeze the lard or butter! Now with your frozen lard, use a box grater to cut it into small shreds. This makes the dough more uniform and it will require less working to get it to combine. When you have little bits of fat surrounded by flour you also get a flakier and tenderer biscuit.
2) Remember is to work the dough as little as possible for drop biscuits or to “relax” the dough for rolled biscuits. Relax just means to put the dough in the refrigerator for an hour after mixing and again after rolling to relax the strands of gluten, this will yield a more tender biscuit.
3) If you prefer a flaky biscuit like the ones out of a can, that’s more work. Roll the dough out to a rectangle and place thin slices of cold butter on one third of it, fold the 2 sides over the butter and roll out to the original size, fold this back in thirds and repeat the rolling and folding three or more times. You are creating the flakes each time you fold. Relax between each folding and finally roll out to a half inch thickness, cut and bake
Biscuits at The Joy of Baking
Beaten Biscuits Gravy
Beaten Biscuits are the second type of biscuit and this one is unique to the south, especially from Virginia and Maryland, these are an essential accompaniment to Smithfield ham and they take a lot of work and are becoming quite rare.
To make 6 dozen beaten biscuits:
2 - pounds of flour, 1- tspn sugar, 1 - tspn salt, 6 - ounces lard, ½ - teaspoon baking powder, 1 cup cold water.
Mix this well and turn out on a sturdy counter or chopping block, form it into a large disk and beat it all over with a hammer for at least a half hour! Use a rhythm with your pounding so it is regular and even. You do not need to beat the hell out of it but what you are doing is incorporating air into the dough. This technique is from a time when chemical leaveners were either not available or too expensive for a poor cook. When the dough “blisters” and is smooth and glossy it is time to bake. Roll out to a half inch thickness, cut and bake at 400 degrees or grab bits of dough and squeeze them into small balls by forming your hand into a fist and squeezing the dough out between your thumb and index finger, tear this off and flatten them, prick with a fork and bake golden brown.
Biscuits and Gravy is a perennial favorite Southern breakfast; crumbled sausage is fried in a skillet, flour added to absorb the fat and milk is stirred in to make the gravy, seasoned heavily with black pepper and poured over a biscuit. This is so popular that even convenience stores offer it as a quick meal, ready to go, also called Sawmill gravy in some locales.
Catfish and Hushpuppies.
This is another tradition in the south that is making inroads in the north. Louisiana especially has catfish farms and wild caught are out there for anyone with a line and bait. Catfish had been one of those food for the poor that has won wide acceptance by chefs and consumers across the country. If you are thinking about broiled catfish perhaps you should go home, this is, by tradition, fried in a coating made from cornmeal and fried in lard. Restaurants are not likely to be frying in lard and restaurants buy their fish according to cost, which means their fish may be Chinese. Avoiding a diatribe about the quality and safety of food coming from China leads me to suggest the best way to enjoy true southern catfish is in a household or small trusted restaurant. Hushpuppies are just deep fried bits of cornbread batter, redolent of chopped onions. The tradition is not to have sweet hushpuppies or cornbread for that matter but either can be delicious or horrible depending on the talent of the cook.
Corn, Grits and Moonshine
Corn has become ubiquitous in America. Thanks to the taxes we pay the government subsidizes corn production. HFCS sweetening your drink, corn gluten, corn starch,corn fed to animals and turned into ethanol in our gas tanks all from our taxes. In the South, they even serve corn as part of their meals. You cannot avoid corn in the South, grits, hominy or cornbread will show up on your plate whether it is for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Northerners may find this rather strange. A plate of fried fish being served with grits may seem, to the un-initiated, something akin to serving oatmeal with your dinner instead of another starch. Nevertheless, once you regain your composure, grits make just as good a side dish as potatoes and they are bland enough to accompany and pick up any source of flavor. If you are new to cooking grits, the first tip is to cook them slowly for a very long time. With everyone being in a hurry this is a fading art but if you cook them very slowly for a long time you will find they have a satiny texture that is divine, instant grits just do not measure up. Moreover, for the sophisticate, what is the difference between polenta and grits? Functionally they are almost identical but the difference is in the corn used. The type of starch (endosperm) in its kernels classifies corn. The dominant milling corn of the American South is known as dent, with a soft, starchy center. This is the source of grits while the Italians use Flint corn, usually yellow) for their polenta, flint corn has a hard, starchy endosperm and produces grittier, more granular meal. Grits are different from cornmeal because grits are made from hominy, which is dent corn that has bees boiled in a weak lye solution, then washed and dried. Hominy is ground into grits or cooked and enjoyed as a side dish on its own. Cornmeal provides the makings for cornbread and true Southern cornbread is never sweet! Sweet cornbread is something brought in by damned Yankees like me
Moonshine, the Scots have their whisky and the Irish offer whiskey, the Caribbean has rum while Kentucky has Bourbon but all over the Deep South, we have moonshine. All you need is corn and sugar with a place to hide from the Revenuers to turn a crop of corn into white lightning. In the early days of America, whiskey was the important cash crop with even George Washington having a still at Mount Vernon, now there are a few legal moonshine producers and more illegal. Nascar owes its origins to bootleggers driving fast cars to outrun the law.
We cannot leave corn without mentioning hoecakes, true hoecakes are an unleavened cornmeal batter cooked on a griddle (or the back of a hoe?) and served with a sweet syrup like molasses, honey or cane syrup and butter. The corn pancakes we see made with baking powder and flour are not true hoecakes but they may be wonderful in their own right.
Pecan pie is the quintessential southern dessert and all along the highways you will see tourist traps selling pecan logs. Many people will have pecan trees in their own yards so this became a common treat. Factory and bakery pies simply do not stack up well alongside a good homemade pecan pie so avoid the chain restaurants. If you travel south far enough you will get to the Florida Keys and the home of Key Lime Pie. Key limes have a very limited growing area so much of what we see is not made with true Key Limes. Again, avoid the chains and find a little Mom and Pop restaurant for this treat. Virtually every restaurant in the Keys will offer their version of this regional favorite and some of them can be sublime. The origins of Key Lime Pie are apocryphal but the story is that William Curry (1821-1896), a ship salvager and Florida's first self-made millionaire, had a cook that was simply know as Aunt Sally. It was Aunt Sally who created the pie in the late 1800s.
Gopher is a land tortoise originating over 60 million years ago. This is an endangered species so you will not see it on any menus, at least you shouldn’t see it. As a food, it was an important source of protein for the poor for a long time. You may see a gopher ambling across the road in your travels in the Deep South, avoid running it over and allow them to rebuild their numbers. The flavor is, as they say, “tastes like chicken” but the meat is quite soft and tender when well cooked. Years ago, before gophers were protected, it was common to see a local picking up a gopher on the side of the road for that night’s dinner.
Greens, and Beans
Greens are another food sold at roadsides by farmers selling the products from their own gardens and farms. There is a certain touch to cooking greens well. Southerners love their greens. A centuries old tradition in southern kitchens, greens are little used away from the south. Greens are any sort of cabbage in which the green leaves do not form a compact head. Collards, turnip, and mustard greens are the usual fare with an occasional from kale. Spinach is a crop that calls for cool growing conditions so it is uncommon in true Southern cooking but it is far more tender than the other greens so it is cooked differently. Depending on the cook of course, a pot of greens will be simmered with chopped onions and some sort of fatty meat. Hog jowls, ham hocks, neck bones, bacon and ham all show up in someone’s pot and later the meat is chopped and added to the greens. Having a bottle of hot sauce and a little vinegar available on the table is traditional. Southerners have an entire panoply of beans that rarely poke their heads above the Mason Dixon line, we have black eyed peas and pigeon peas, crowder peas and white acre peas to name just a few but they all get cooked the same way as greens, simmer them long and slow with fatty meat.
Tips for cooking greens
1) Remember to remove the tough rib from the center of each leaf
2) When using meats like ham hocks, start cooking them first to soften and release the flavor into the broth.
3) Greens need to be cooked long and slow, this is not a vegetable to serve tender crisp, undercooked greens will eat something like hay and unless you are a ruminant that is not enjoyable.
4) Greens need a fatty meat to season them, if you are avoiding fats stick to spinach.
5) Put a tiny amount of sugar in the cooking water, not enough to make them sweet but enough to balance the bitterness.
After reviewing many collard recipes this is about as good as it gets, I would choose pork or ham as the meat and add a touch of sugar
Peanuts and Goobers, Boiled and Roasted
Hot boiled peanuts are a traditional southern snack, which comes as a surprise to many northerners. There are still scattered peanut farms across the south and people eat what they grow. You may want to remind yourself that peanuts are actually a form of bean and not a true nut, but you will see roadside stands hawking hot boiled peanuts during your sojourn through the south, shell your own. The flavor is still peanut, but the texture is a bit chewy instead of the crunch you find in roasted peanuts. You can season the water to boil peanuts and whatever you add will soak through the shell and flavor the nuts.
Boiled peanuts How To
This is a significant dish in the South; the word is derived from various African dialects for okra (i.e. quingumbo, grugombo, gumbo, gombo, ngombo). There are few African language words brought over by slaves, which have entered the English language. Some of the others are goober or goober pea (peanut), Yam from West Africa, and Cooter (turtle) of Bantu and Mandingo origin. A gumbo should contain okra, but after that, the possibilities are as endless as the number of cooks. Gumbo is a thick stew containing a mixture of rice, vegetables, and meat or seafood, thickened with sassafras powder, properly known as Gumbo filé powder. This dish owes its origins to Southern Louisiana but it has spread over the entire South to be included.
Pork, Hog Maws and Chitterlings
There is an ease with raising a hog at home that made pork an important meat in the south, cattle and sheep need pasture land but a pig will thrive on scraps. With a seemingly infinite variety of cuts and variations, this is another indispensible product for southerners. In recent years, pork has become much safer and the FDA has issued new guidelines that say pork must be cooked to a minimum temperature of 145. Pork from a small farm may still be hazardous if it was fed a diet of raw garbage, but big commercial producers are required to cook the scraps fed to pigs. Smithfield hams have gained a worldwide reputation but just about every farmer in the old days would have his own smokehouse to preserve his own meat. In the plantation system, slaves were not fed the good stuff so ham was off limits except for the master’s table. Slaves were given the scraps and they became very inventive with what they were given. Virtually every part of the pig ended up on someone’s plate and tradition means that we still have markets selling ham hocks, jowls, neck bones, ears, tails and feet. Let us not forget chitterlings, the cleaned and boiled small intestines of a pig, still grace many tables and this is not because of poverty, this is what many people grew up eating. If you ever get the chance to visit someone who is preparing chittlins, well, maybe you should stay home that day, the aroma is what you might expect from a sewage treatment plant. Once prepared by a skilled cook they are quite acceptable, lacking much flavor of their own, they take on the flavor of the dish prepared. Anyone who has eaten sausage has already eaten pig’s intestines so remember that when you turn up your nose at chitterlings. Hog maw, is the lining of a pig’s stomach, often served along with chittlins. Hog maws are popular in many cultures and may be found in Mexico as a taco filling. The relative scarcity of meat to the poor meant that meat was often used to season other foods rather than as a dish of itself. The results are delicious with greens, beans, and other items being flavored with jowls and ham hocks etc.
As cooks started using the better cuts the home smoker yielded to a barbecue. Most etymologists believe that barbecue derives from the word barabicu found in the language of both the Timucua of Florida and the Taíno people of the Caribbean, which then entered European languages in the form barbacoa. The word translates as "sacred fire pit.” Cooking over smoke is practiced all over the world but in the American South it is an institution. The south is dotted everywhere with BBQ places from the humble roadside stand to family restaurants that serve thousands of patrons daily; barbecue is big business in the south. In the South, although beef and poultry etc. can be barbecued only pork is referred to as barbecue. Regional variations abound with sauces based on vinegar, mustard and tomato all predominating in different places, the unifying factor is slow cooking over smoke.
Sorghum Syrup Sugar Cane
This has become a rare treat, hard to find away from the areas where it is produced. Sorghum grows in stalks something like corn; these stalks are ground up, and pressed, squeezing the juices out. The juices are boiled down in open-air pots until they reach the color of molasses and you have sorghum syrup to pour on your corn bread. Some sorghum syrup does make it to health food stores and if you like the flavor of molasses it is worth looking for, the mineral content is quite high. A lot of sorghum is still grown for animal feed but this is a different variety which is less sweet and juicy.
Sugar Cane grows well here in Florida and a few people still do an annual cane boil like the ancestors did many years ago.
Old fashioned cane boil in Gainesville Fl
Southern Fried Chicken
The essential southern dish is fried chicken. There are as many recipes for fried chicken as there are southern cooks, with most being passed down through generations. In spite of the number of KFCs and Pop Eye fried chicken restaurants, this is best enjoyed at a small family run restaurant. There are countless pages devoted to fried chicken recipes so we won’t dawdle here except to mention cream gravy. Served across the south, cream gravy is even showing up in convenience store chicken stands.
Tips for Southern Fried Chicken:
1) Fry in a skillet with about an inch of lard for traditional flavor.
2) Be liberal with the pepper and salt.
3) Coat the chicken in flour by tossing it in a bag, not by dipping; this develops a crunchy crust that sticks.
4) For cream gravy, drain the lard from the pan leaving just a couple of tablespoons of fat and drippings in the pan, stir in enough flour to absorb the fat and slowly stir in a cup of heavy cream, blending well. When it boils, reduce the heat and season.