Cooking Through the South’s Past, Present & Future
Three new cookbooks, Sean Brock’s “South,” Rob Newton’s “Seeking the South,” and Toni Tipton-Martin’s “Jubilee,” tackle the roots of Southern cooking and its modern influences.
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The most quotable, perhaps the only quotable thing William Faulkner ever wrote, gets plucked from the sea of lengthy sentences, neologisms, and rippling complexity because it is succinct and it bends to the needs of those who use it—as it will here. It resonates with the whole South, a region that is forever wrestling with history and identity. The South isn’t the South. It’s not even a place.
But that hasn’t stopped folks from writing about it and three new cookbooks confront the South, or the legacy of the South, in completely different ways.
Whenever I read Brock’s work, or read stories about him, I sense in the subtext that he is a seed saver. To me, it is his defining characteristic. A seed saver wants to carry forward bits of the past, bits of heritage, and germinate that heritage to grow again. A seed saver also believes that this responsibility falls to him. It is an apostolic position, and it is a certain kind of person who believes themselves an apostle. The relationship of duty and ego is complicated: to spend one’s life pursuing the preservation of tradition, the germination of the past into the future, is a big responsibility, but one has to feel called to do this work. (Just like Batman looking up into the sky and knowing that Gotham’s signal flashes only for him.)
“I hope that someday I will be remembered for helping people everywhere understand that Southern food should be considered among the most revered cuisines of the world,” he writes in the introduction of his new book. And I agree that the cuisines of the South have very little to do with “the stereotypes of heavy, greasy, and overdone dishes.” What’s interesting to me, however, is how easily he could have written that Southern food should be revered and left his own legacy out of it. That’s the thing about apostles: they always want you to name the chapter of the book after them.
Brock looks at the South as a collection of microregions, rightly pointing out that “The food in the parts of Virginia that border Kentucky is different from that found in the region that borders Tennessee.” It is not monolithic, he writes, but it is linked together by cultural connections.
In his pixelated version of Southern cuisines, the South has as many cuisines as continental Europe. His vision of how to study and understand it is to be hyper local.
The rules he sets out are strict. “If you eat only vegetables that you and your neighbors have grown or fill your pantry with grains, oils or other fats, and dried herbs and spices produced in your own community, your relationship with food and cooking will change pretty quickly. And that is the only way to re-create what a day tastes like in the South, or in your region, in a very pure sense.”
Luckily, these beliefs are aspirational. He’s added koji rice (the national flavor of Japan) to his recipe for hot sauce, and there’s Manchego cheese grated over the top of his baby collard Caesar. This came as a relief.
None of which is to say that this vision of the South isn’t worth having. It’s very much Sean Brock’s and here it’s very much focused on the home kitchen and the pantry. Gone are the restaurant plates of his last book, replaced with gorgeous, practical recipes for steaks and burgers. There are here fantastic presentations of crock fermented sour corn, jars of mixed pickles, tomato-okra stew, and pit-cooked chicken sandwiches. Ambitious cooks looking for fun projects will find recipes such as crab roe bottarga, bologna, and watermelon molasses. There are asides on country ham and cast iron, and some of the recipes are really love letters. Canned greasy beans—so called because of their slick and shiny skin, not because of a fat—for instance, is hardly a recipe. It’s just instructions on putting beans in jars with a little salt and then pressure canning them. Important instructions, in other words, included here not because of the recipe but because Brock loves greasy beans, and feels that your pantry should have a few jars in it, too.
Interestingly, Rob Newton’s vision of the South is also one in which the South is divided into sub regions. His divisions are pretty straightforward: Upper South, Deep South, Gulf Coast, the coastal plains and Piedmont, Low Country and the southeast coast. (He smartly leaves out most of Florida and all of Texas, as well as barbecue. Each of those things is its own world.) These regions each also have their own terroir—different kinds of fish, different growing seasons. (Brock points out the same point with a great little table about different grits and different types of shrimp served across the South.)
What’s different here is who is using the shrimp. Newton introduces each section with “a little bit of the history of each region and the forces (geographical, political, and demographic) that have shaped it over time.” Which, of course sounds like lots of Southern cookbooks and the syllabus for a high school civics class, but he also writes: “Today, I drive across the South and see Asian markets and Mexican restaurants in even the tiniest towns, and I think about how excited I am to get to know my new neighbors.”
That is decidedly not what we’ve come to think of when we think about Southern food and Southern cookbooks.
Newton writes that there is no dogma in his kitchen. “The biggest pleasure in cooking Southern cuisine is finding ways to make it your own.” And he means that for everyone, which is why he’s included beautiful dishes such as his Kalbi-Style Grilled Beef with Summer Vegetable Pancakes. Pickled okra is right there next to kimchi, which makes a ton of sense. Consider a recipe for Shrimp and Country Ham Lumpia with Soy-Sorghum Vinegar Dipping Sauce, which he links to the Filipino community around Virginia Beach. He credits Cathy Mai, of Greenwood, Mississippi, (“daughter of the woman who ran the Delta’s first Chinese restaurant in the 1970s”) for inspiring his Hot Potlikker, which I suppose is pretty close to a typical hot pot, but with potlikker broth as the bubbling soup base that grows more delicious as the meal progresses.
The Black-Eyed Pea Falafels just make you want to look at his recipes for fried chicken or buttermilk biscuits. He didn’t box out the standards, because he knows that they’re not being replaced but just reinvented. In the dynamic, forward-looking South, acculturation means that we can now have biscuits with Masa-Fried Flounder that’s topped with a dollop of Tomatillo Salsa Verde.
Jubilee isn’t a Southern cookbook. It’s a scholarly book that includes recipes and is the product of Toni Tipton-Martin’s impressive study of African American cooking. She began in her previous book, The Jemima Code, examining the patterns of cuisine, the fusion of flavors from Haiti and the West Indies, for instance, with traditions that survived the Middle Passage, which formed the foodways of the American South. Her new book looks at how these dishes were then taken all over the country and adopted by cooks far from the South. Tipton-Martin herself grew up in the Los Angeles hills and writes about a childhood of comfort during which she learned to embrace diverse culinary traditions. She now sets what she calls “a global table” in her own home. “Cast-iron abides with bone china, crystal and damask, and iconic Southern and international dishes are served alongside one another and seem right at home.” (See kimchi and pickled okra, above.)
She writes: “I knew what my family and our friends and community are, and yet, traditional written history and modern social media consistently ignored our style of cooking. Some restaurant critics mischaracterized inventive Afro-Asian fine dining as ‘inauthentic.’ Others panned mid- to upscale African America restaurants that didn’t serve soul food or Southern fare.”
Tipton-Martin wanted to set the record straight and honor the joyous diverse cooking from the South no matter where said cooking took place. She has certainly succeeded. She wants us to end our dependency on using the labels “Southern” and “soul.” Because, to paraphrase Faulkner, really, the South isn’t even the South, it isn’t even a place.
So here we have wonderfully French beef stew and Roasted Leg of Lamb with Rosemary and inset on that page is a historical recipe for Roast Shoulder or Leg of Mutton from a book by Tunis G. Campbell, published in 1848. (Tipton-Martin’s knowledge of historical black cookbooks is astounding.) Within a few pages the book drifts into African flavors with a peanut sauce that is introduced as being inspired by a Senegalese cookbook, and then to Caribbean Roast Pork.
There are also plenty of recipes for what the South is known for, including étouffée, gumbo and barbecue. There’s a whole page on biscuits in general before a few recipes for biscuits of different types.
It all comes together on the table, like she promised it would, cast iron sitting right next to bone china.