Sweet Tea, Grits, Greens and Other Southern Mysteries Explained
It's no wonder that Southerners are fat. Seriously. My oldest little brother and I will tell people that "we're not fat by accident." We know how to cook and we definitely know how to eat. Stroke-level blood pressure, sugar readings that could probably make the Easter Bunny reconsider his chosen profession and cholesterol levels that make doctors quake with fear aside, Southerners are really picky about their food, especially how it's prepared. Woe unto the woman who wants to marry a Southern belle's boy.
"Hey honey, what did you fry that chicken in?"
"Uh, canola oil?"
"BUBBA, YOU AIN'T MARRYIN' THAT WOMAN. SHE DON'T FRY HER CHICKEN IN FAT."
Because, any Southern woman worth her salt knows that you have to have either lard or shortening to make your chicken crisp up just right.
The basic rules of Southern eating are pretty simple. Gravy belongs in every meal as do biscuits, bonus points if you can eat them at the same time. If you can fry it, we will eat it. Don't skimp on the butter, don't you dare ask for the salt because our food already has enough in it to preserve your entire family and, for the love of all that's holy, DO NOT ask for anything low-fat, low-cholesterol or sugar free. That's not how we roll. Sure, you can call it unhealthy if you want to. We don't eat like this all the time but, when we do, it has to be authentic.
There are a few mysteries that sort of surround Southern foods and their preparation and, although I could be blacklisted for doing it, allow me to explain a few things!
Sweet Tea is Just Tea with Sugar in it, Right?
No! Or, as I'm prone to saying, "OH H*** NO."
People who didn't grow up with a gallon sized glass jar (that used to contain pickles - or pickled pig's feet - most likely) filled with sweet tea in the fridge are in for a little bit of a surprise. Sure, you can take a glass of unsweetened tea and put sugar in it, but it just won't taste the same. And you can't call it "sweet tea."
Families might bicker over which tea bags make the best beverage. It usually boils down to either Tetley brand or Luzianne. I'm not saying that Lipton doesn't make a tasty tea, I didn't make these rules (I usually buy whatever is on sale at the Food Lion). The one thing that they usually don't bicker over is how to make it.
For sweet tea, you can't boil your tea bags. You also can't put them in a coffee pot. We'll let you slide on the sun tea (putting tea bags in a gallon jar, setting the thing in the sun and letting nature do the work for you) but "steeping" is the undisputed queen of the methods of making sweet tea. Get some water boiling, take it off the heat and dunk your tea bags in the hot water or put your tea bags in a bowl or pitcher and pour the hot water over them. Getting the timing just right is a bit of a challenge for first time tea makers. If you don't let your tea steep long enough, it will be weak. Too long and it gets cloudy and bitter.
The sweet part is subjective. I will usually use slightly less than one cup of sugar for one gallon of sweet tea. Please note that the sugar has to be added while the tea is very warm - otherwise it won't dissolve to make the syrupy goodness that is the make it or break it part of the sweet tea creation process. Some people like it seriously sweet and might make a simple syrup for their tea. Personally, I like to taste the tea more than the sugar. Other flavorings are subjective, too. I only like tea, sugar and ice in my sweet tea, but lemon is at the top of the list of folks' favorite flavors.
For the best glass of sweet tea ever, take your sweetened tea while it's still slightly warm and pour it over ice. It's almost like eating a cookie right out of the oven but something happens when the ice melts. Also, the best way to drink your sweet tea is from an old Mason jar. Think I'm playing?
What Are Grits, Exactly?
Most people who have never lived in or traveled to the Southern United States have only had limited interactions with grits. Some of you probably have only ever joked about them or maybe your favorite movie is My Cousin Vinny (who helps his nephew beat a murder rap partially because of the required cooking time of this somewhat misunderstood and unfairly maligned dish).
Grits are a food that was a staple of many diets in the United States before it was even a county. Native Americans would grind the heck out of dried corn kernels until they were left with fine corn flour and the little bits that wouldn't grind down any further. These bits would be added to boiling water in pretty much a one to five ratio - one part grits to five parts water. What they'd end up with is a pot of thick, tasty grain that looks almost like mashed potatoes. The word "grits" actually evolved from the very old English word grytt, which described any coarsely ground grain (think oatmeal).
Folks who were raised outside of what is sometimes referred to as the "grits belt," from Texas to Virginia, may be a little skeptical about grits, and not many people know exactly how to prepare or eat them. They can be purchased in some grocery stores, usually in the cereal aisle near the oatmeal and cream of wheat, and come in two standard varieties: the quick grits (cooking time is approximately five minutes) and the even quicker grits (instant... DON'T LOOK ETHEL!!!). The further south you travel in the US, the easier it is to find "real" grits. Those suckers have to be cooked for what seems like forever but is really only about twenty minutes.
I did happen to observe people eating grits up north. I was horrified, actually, because they put sugar in them. SUGAR. Can you believe it? I would never...
Grits are meant to be eated with salt, just like everyting else in traditional Southern cuisine. Add in a little butter, some gravy maybe or even bacon and cheese and you have yourself a meal.
Just remember, if you can't stand your spoon up in them, they're not done right!
How To Make A Perfect Pot of Black Eyed Peas
Don't Skimp on the Greens!
When I was a kid, our school lunch trays often had "green stuff" on them. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say they were turnip greens, but there was a disturbing correlation between the days that the green stuff was served and the times the grass was cut on the school's property. Now, I'm not suggesting that I think they'd serve us mowed grass, but they probably would have if it had been edible. They sure served us plenty of other things that weren't!
"Greens" is a catchall term for one of any manner of green, leafy things that are loaded with vitamins. The USDA is always telling us to eat green, leafy vegetables, but I'm not sure they meant for us to have them drenched in animal fat. Allow me to explain...
For me, as a kid, "greens" were turnip greens, the stuff that's cut off of the tops of the turnips when they're harvested. In all honesty, I don't think I ever ate an actual turnip until I was in my twenties. But turnip greens were bought by the bushel because, when they're cooked, they shrink down to almost nothing.
To make a whole pot (or a "mess o' greens" like my Grandma Mimi used to say), huge shopping bags of greens were required. They'd be cleaned (for some reason they were always sandy - I remember one enterprising young woman who put them in her clothes washer to get all of the sand out), cut into manageable pieces, then cooked down with ham, bacon or "ham hocks," which are joints from the feet of pigs that have been smoked to perfection.
There is no way to tell you how long you should cook your greens. They have to cook till they're done. Some varieties like collards, need to be cooked for longer periods of time because they can be tough if under-cooked. Other kinds of greens include mustards, kale and collards.
Some folks will eat spinach, and I love it, but I personally don't believe that it belongs in the "greens" category.
Most folks in the South eat their greens with a little bit of vinegar and a whole lot of corn bread.
If you're not into cooking your food all day, take a trip to your local grocery store and look for a brand called "Glory." They're in cans with orange labels and their foods are about as close to my grandmothers I can get without making them myself. I personally recommend the mixed greens and the black eyed peas. Tasty! (And I have found then in the North, even in New York.)
Mac and Cheese Does NOT Come Out of a Box!
When I was in my twenties, I bought the boxed mac and cheese because, well, it was cheap for one, and a novelty for two. Athough kids seem to love it, the abomination that comes in those blue boxes does NOT have a right to be called Mac & Cheese. The Cheesiest, my butt.
"I make better mac & cheese than you" is fightin' words where I come from. You won't go to a cookout, barbecue or any other kind of potluck without seeing at least one version of this stuff to try out. Seriously. This is how we show off.
There are many, many ways in which an enterprising Paula Deen wannabe can make macaroni and cheese and there are really two schools of thought involved here. One group of folks makes it "dump" style - you basically throw all of your ingredients into a great big mixing bowl, stir it up real good, put it in a casserole dish and throw it in the oven. The second group of folks makes a roux from butter and flour, adding milk until the thickness is perfect and then they start adding in the cheese over the heat to melt it. Although I enjoy both kinds, I prefer the dump style and that's how I make it.
Veteran mac & cheese makers sometimes argue about what kinds of cheese should be added. Personally, I prefer a mix of several different kinds of cheddar, maybe some Monterrey Jack or even Havarti as it melts very well. Most of us, however, will not use American, Velveeta or any other kind of processed nonsense. In my opinion, American cheese is only good for burgers and grilled cheese sandwiches and Velveeta belongs in a baked potato only.
One thing that most Southern cooks do agree on is that the only things that go into mac and cheese are noodles, cheese, milk, maybe some eggs, possibly some other dairy products and maybe some bread crumbs. Anything else makes it a casserole and pretty much bastardizes the dish. It pained me to put bacon in it recently. I promise.
Trust me, making homemade mac and cheese isn't all that difficult - it's not rocket science.
Will a Southern Cook Fry Anything?
So, will a Southern cook fry anything?
Any Southern cook worth his or her salt can fry a chicken. It's like we're born with the recipe from great-great-great-great granny Bertha's recipe encoded into our DNA. But chicken isn't the only thing we fry.
Take for instance the old classic fried green tomatoes. Personally, I don't dig them because I don't like anything that's even a little bitter, but you can bet your bottom dollar that my grandmother taught me how to make them.
Another fried Southern favorite is either chicken livers or gizzards. The latter is a little too chewy for me, but I can tear up a pound of livers. We also will fry okra, potato wedges, seafood, pork chops, steak (chicken fried, sugar, chicken fried), hush puppies, salmon cakes, crab cakes and pretty much anything that can be eaten.
A few of the rather odd things you can find battered, breaded and deep fried in parts of the South (and a few other places - mostly state and county fairs):
- Snickers bars
- Twinkies (RIP)
- Pop tarts
- Peaches, apples and strawberries
You get the picture, right? Pretty much anything that can stand up to the heat of a deep fryer (and some things that shouldn't) can and will be fried.
The "fry anything" craze has kind of caught on at state and county fairs. In years past, the only fried things you could really find on the menu were corn dogs and french fries. I went to the Dixie Classic Fair in Winston-Salem, North Carolina one year and there was a booth that had pretty much fried everything. They had this thing that started with a Twix stuffed in a Twinkie with some bacon added and deep fried. It was called a Twinx, and I almost proposed to it.
Which one of these fried foods would you try?
In Retrospect, Maybe this Hub Wasn't Such a Good Idea
All this typing has made me hungry, but I want to make something perfectly clear. Most of us in the Southern US don't eat like this every day. We do eat salads (usually with something fried on top, you can take the girl out of the country, you know), foods that are naturally low in calories and even some fresh (raw) fruit and vegetables on occasion.
I've done a lot of poking fun at myself and people who think and cook like I do in this article, but please do take it with a grain of salt (there's plenty of that to go around). As someone who has lost 70 pounds in the last year, I know the importance of eating healthy. I just wanted to shed some light on what a lot of people don't truly understand.
As always, please feel free to leave me comments - I am a social creature after all!
© 2013 Georgie Lowery