2000s Archive

What Is Southern?

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Our house was decorated with running cedar branches with juniper berries. Red tissue-paper bells were hung throughout the house, lending a festive air. On the sideboard were the Christmas foods such as fruitcake, home­made candies—divinity, peanut brittle, and ribbon squares—nuts, oranges, and coconut made into confections.

Christmas was ushered in before daylight with the thunderous noise of Ro­man candles—our father waking the community from its sleep. Southern is a delicious of sautéed oysters, cream, Sherry, salt, cayenne, fresh-ground black pepper, salsify, a spoon of butter in the bottom of the bowl, and a garnish of chervil. Southern is hoppin’ John—black-eyed peas cooked in hog’s-head stock —served with a dish of greens on New Year’s Day. This is to bring good luck in the new year to come. Southern is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., with a dream.

Southern is William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust.11 I met him in Café Nicholson. Upon our meeting, he wanted to know if I had studied cooking in Paris. Southern is a beautiful dish of fried chicken, cooked carefully in home-rendered lard and butter with pieces of country ham added, then served with a brown gravy spooned over spoon bread. Southern is Elizabeth Spencer’s writing in The Light in the Piazza.12

Southern is desserts galore—coconut cake, caramel layer cake, black walnut whiskey cake, groom’s wedding cake,13 fig pudding, mince­meat pie, lemon meringue pie, fried apple pies, damson plum pie, rhubarb pie with orange zest, peach cobbler, blackberry cobbler, blackberry roly-poly with blackberry sauce.

Southern is Eugene Walter,14 deep in Alabama, a Renaissance man, a gourmet, always with a brilliant thought. Southern is Marie Rudisill,15 author of a cookbook that emulates the friends she grew up with, cooked with, and loved. Southern is Carson McCullers in The Member of the Wedding.16 Southern is all the unsung heroes who passed away in obscurity.

So many great souls have passed off the scene. The world has changed. We are now faced with picking up the pieces and trying to put them into shape, document them so the present-day young generation can see what southern food was like. The foundation on which it rested was pure ingredients, open-pollinated seed—planted and replanted for generations—natural fertilizers. We grew the seeds of what we ate, we worked with love and care.


1 A setting (broody) hen is one that is ready to set, or nest, on a clutch of eggs. The hormones causing broodiness are stimulated in the spring.
2 Sassafras roots, gathered before the bushes bloom, are boiled to make an age-old beverage and spring tonic. They can be poisonous at other times of the year.
3 Poke sallet is a dish of the cooked young greens from the pokeweed plant (Phytolacca americana). The word sallet is a dialect remnant of 16th- or 17th-century spelling and pronunciation.
4 Many southerners still refer to baking or boiling potatoes as “white” or “Irish” potatoes to distinguish them from sweet potatoes, which aren’t reserved for Thanksgiving but are another everyday vegetable.
5 Miss Lewis strongly felt that if you used cheap Sherry, “you have to add so much you kill the taste of whatever you are cooking.”
6A sun dog is a bright white patch of light that appears when the sun is low on the horizon, shining through thin, high ice (cirrus) clouds. Sometimes it exhibits a spectrum of colors.
7 Salamanders are called spring keepers because they’re found in clean-running springs. Folk belief holds that if you kill the spring keeper, the spring will run dry.
8 Snowbirds are juncos, a type of finch.
9 Folk tradition also holds that the call of a whip-poor-will at midnight is a portent of death.
10 Southern writer Reynolds Price (born 1933) described pimento cheese “homemade by Mother” as the peanut butter of his childhood. Most of the versions found in southern supermarkets are, says Price, “made apparently from congealed insecticides.”
11 Faulkner wrote Intruder in the Dust in 1948 as a response to growing racial tensions in the South.
12 The Light in the Piazza, by Mississippi native Elizabeth Spencer (born 1921), explores the ties that bind.
13 A traditional groom’s wedding cake is a white fruitcake.
14 For a loving (and hilarious) tribute to the multifaceted Eugene Walter (1921–1998), visit southernfoodways.com.
15 Marie Rudisill (1911–2006) is best known for Fruitcake: Memories of Truman Capote & Sook.
16 In The Member of the Wedding, McCullers writes: “Now hopping-john was F. Jasmine’s very favorite food. She had always warned them to wave a plate of rice and peas before her nose when she was in her coffin ... for if a breath of life was left in her, she would sit up and eat, but if she smelled the hopping-john, and did not stir, then they could just nail down the coffin and be certain she was truly dead.”

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