2000s Archive

What Is Southern?

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Southern is Bessie Smith. Give me a pig foot and a bottle of beer. Southern is a great yeast roll, the dough put down overnight to rise and the next morning shaped into rolls and baked. Served hot from the oven, they are light as a dandelion in a high wind. Southern is a sun dog6—something like a rainbow, or the man in the moon—on a late summer afternoon.

Southern is a mint julep. A goblet of crushed ice with a sprig of mint tucked in the side of the glass, a plain sugar syrup the consistency of kerosene poured over the ice, then a jigger of bourbon. Stir and bruise the mint with a silver spoon. Sip and enjoy. Southern is a hot summer day that brings on a violent thunderstorm, cooling the air and bringing up smells of the earth that tempt us to eat the soil. Southern is Tennessee Williams and Streetcar. Southern is a springhouse filled with perishables kept cool by a stream running through. And a spring keeper7—a salamander—is there, watching over.

Southern is Bourbon Street and Louis Armstrong. Southern is a seafood gumbo of crab, okra, tomatoes, scallions, onions, green pepper, bacon, garlic, and herbs. Southern is fresh-made corn fritters, light and crisp enough to fly away. Southern is an okra pancake in a cornmeal batter. Southern is a platter of deviled crabs prepared with soaked slices of white bread torn and mixed with chopped onion, fine-cut scallions, melted butter, fresh-ground black pepper, cayenne, eggs, and the best crabmeat. Baked in the oven, served hot, a morsel to die over. Southern is a pitcher of lemonade, filled with slices of lemon and a big piece of ice from the icehouse, and served with buttermilk cookies. Southern is a delicious chicken salad at a bride’s luncheon.

Southern is a bowl of shrimp paste, rich in butter, shrimp, Sherry, spices, and lemon juice. Blended to a soft consistency and served over a plate of grits, a delicious breakfast treat. Southern is a barbecued pig that was cooked for hours and served with a tomato- or vinegar-based sauce, as well as coleslaw, potato salad, baked beans, hush puppies, and iced tea. Southern is a bowl of homemade peach ice cream, served during the peach season. Southern is Richard Wright and his “Bright and Morning Star.” Southern is an oyster roast. Guests are presented with white gloves for shucking and pots of melted butter. Southern is leftover pieces of boiled ham trimmed and added to a saucepan of heavy cream set on the back of the stove to mull and bring out the ham flavor, then served spooned over hot biscuits, with poached eggs on the side.

Southern is hunting season, a time that men take off to hunt rabbits, squirrel, opossum, deer, quail, partridge, plover, and dove. We used to trap snowbirds8 and enjoy a pan of them baked. Southern is a Brunswick stew of squirrel or rabbit, beans, corn, tomatoes, onions, herbs, fresh-ground black pepper, and salt. Long cooking results in a great stew. Southern is a wild pig served with pork liver sauce, peanut sauce, rice for spooning the sauces over, and spicy sauces for the sliced pork.

Southern is Thomas Wolfe and Of Time and the River. Southern is Craig Claiborne, for more than 25 years the distinguished food critic of The New York Times. Southern is a country steak smothered with onions on a Sunday morning, with gravy and spoon bread to spoon the gravy over. Southern is she-crab soup, thick with crab eggs and crabmeat, served with benne biscuits. Southern is a lemon-flavored pound cake served with brandied peaches and homemade blackberry wine.

Southern is a moss rose, a camellia, a buttercup, a tea olive tree sending its fragrance through the air and into the kitchen. Southern is the call of the whip-poor-will at midnight.9 Southern is Reynolds Price discussing his mother’s cooking.10 Southern is a pot of boiling coffee sending its aroma out to greet you on your way in from the barn. Coffee was always served piping hot, so much so that if someone talked too much, they were told, “Save your breath to cool your coffee.”

Southern is a walk along the streams in September to find out if the fox grapes are ripening. The aroma they send out is a sign of where they are. Southern is Scott Peacock, one of the South’s most creative young chefs. Southern is weeks of canning, pickling, and preserving—cucumber pickle, artichoke pickle, pear pickle, tomato pickle, watermelon rind pickle, citron preserves, green tomato preserves, fig preserves, cherry preserves, grape conserve, crab apple jelly, wild blackberry jelly, fox grape jelly, quince jelly, guava jelly, wild plum jelly, wild strawberry preserves (the best).

Southern is Christmas, a wonderful time of the winter. In the early history of the South, there was no Christmas tree. Beautiful flowers such as camellias were used in Charleston. And it was a German professor—a refugee—who, while boarding with a family in Williamsburg, brought them stories of Christmas decorations in his native Germany.

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