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Jenny Turknett: What is Southern food?

credit: Mark Hill/CNN

credit: Mark Hill/CNN

What is Southern food? Is it about ingredients? Cooking methods? Traditions?

These are just a few of the questions discussed at a secret supper hosted by CNN’s Eatocracy last week. It was the first in a series of secret suppers across the country to discuss regional food.

Guests included John Kessler, (the AJC’s chief dining critic) Christiane Lauterbach, (recent winner of the Craig Claiborne Lifetime Achievement Award from the Southern Foodways Alliance), noted Southern chef Virginia Willis, and several prominent Atlanta food bloggers.

Chef Linton Hopkins and his staff at Restaurant Eugene prepared dinner using ingredients from Southern farms and artisans. Benton’s bacon, White Oak Pastures beef, and Anson Mills grits all made appearances on the menu. The dinner was certainly delicious. But was it Southern?

credit: Mark Hill/CNN

credit: Mark Hill/CNN

That question was the subject of a lively debate that ensued on the Eatocracy blog about the dinner – a debate I’m sure the folks at Eatocracy expected. And at its core was how exactly you define Southern food.

The Southern antipasti, beef shortribs over grits, and sorghum cake with macerated citrus were all made using ingredients harvested and produced in the South. Does that make it Southern? Or are only certain ingredients Southern? What if it’s made by a Southern chef?

For some, Southern food means food that is made EXACTLY the same way grandma made it. Cooking methods and use of specific ingredients are the defining factors.

But what if we use any ingredient grown in the South? Didn’t Southern food originate from

Sorghum cake, credit: Mark Hill/CNN

Sorghum cake; credit: Mark Hill/CNN

what could be found locally on the farm? Is that not the real essence of Southern cooking?

Atlanta’s own Chef Steven Satterfield of Miller Union told Eatocracy, “We are experiencing a renaissance right now with the sweep of awareness of where food comes from. This is great because it gives us a chance to redefine what Southern is – to revise a recipe with a chef’s perspective, to create something new that tastes nostalgic - to cook with heritage ingredients and think about our ancestors.”

So what do you say? What defines Southern food? And how do we let it evolve while remaining true to traditions?

Food for thought.

Jenny-Turknett-TaglineCheers to Eatocracy for sparking this conversation!

– by Jenny Turknett, Food & More blog

– Jenny Turknett writes about Southern and Neighborhood Fare for the AJC Dining Team. She also publishes her own blog, Going Low Carb.

56 comments Add your comment

Henery Schaffer

November 17th, 2010
11:18 am

I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you down the road!

Hungry Gringo

November 17th, 2010
12:01 pm

“Southern food means food that is made EXACTLY the same way grandma made it.” People have no perspective for what constitutes “traditional”. A lot of people would say “traditional casseroles” require Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup and Ritz crackers, but both of those ingredients are relatively new on the scene. People forget that Grandma didn’t use those ingredients because they were “traditional”; she used them because she was lazy and cheap.

To be fair though, I LOVE casseroles with Cream of Mushroom and Ritz crackers.

Jury Dell

November 17th, 2010
1:12 pm

Soupbeans with fatback for flavor and a big slice of onion. Butter milk with cornbread crumpled in it.
Even going to the mountains and stopping at a roadside stand to get boiled peanuts. It’s the food that poor farmers once made do with when they couldn’t afford anything else. Southern food is a part of our history and heritage. It’s what I was raised on!

TQ

November 17th, 2010
1:12 pm

Southern cooking, to me, is comfort foods (a lot of them made with fat back, bacon grease, etc.). It tastes wonderful, but isn’t that good for you. My favorite Southern meal is pinto beans, fried potatoes, cornbread and a slice of onion! And, don’t forget a glass of cold sweet tea! That’s not just Southern, that’s country!

JEM

November 17th, 2010
1:18 pm

How about just descibing dishes/recipes asTraditional Southern and Contemporary Southern? Case closed!

Jury Dell

November 17th, 2010
1:19 pm

I just happened to remember something else. When Jimmy Carter was president the white house chefs were going nuts trying to suite him with attempts at southern cooking. They couldn’t. As you recall, his answer was to pardon from prison an A.A. lady and bring her to the white house to cook in the kitchen and get the recipees right and deliver what he was used too.

PJ

November 17th, 2010
1:20 pm

Ingredients are key in southern cooking, though I love the way the idea of southern cooking is being played with and reinvented in many of our region’s best restaurants. I can’t imagine grits as anything but southern, but they are easy to manipulate and make into an elevated dish. So that means, to me, that ingredients take precendence over preparation in declaring something “southern.”

@Hungry Gringo – Good southern casseroles contain Cream of Whatever soups. My mom, a small-town southern girl, had no problems using those “shortcuts” in her cooking, espeically when the casseroles were for friends in need. In fact, many of my friends from the North haven’t ever heard of a Casserole Caravan.

droopydawg

November 17th, 2010
1:30 pm

It is not a false “either/or,” it is a combination of ingredients and cooking style. And butter.

Jury Dell

November 17th, 2010
1:36 pm

I do think southern cooking has evolved and spread. A good example is the way meat bisquits have caught on in fast food restuarants and are marketed across the country now and not just the south.

Jury Dell

November 17th, 2010
1:38 pm

Hey Droopy, you’re starting to sound like Paula Dean.

Jury Dell

November 17th, 2010
1:49 pm

A friend of mine takes a container of slaw when he goes to Five Guys and a baby hamburger joint. They are headquartered in D.C. and menus are planned there. Some habits are hard to break.

Michael

November 17th, 2010
1:51 pm

Honestly? Too much salt and way too much fat. When it doubt, make it sweeter. Dishes made for people who work in the field but now sit in an office all day.

Most of the dishes aren’t originally Southern anyway. They seem to be leftovers from the British isles like the accent or came with the immigrants like collard greens, etc.

Even barbecue isn’t Southern, the word’s a derivation from the Caribbean word for the dish

Native Atlantan

November 17th, 2010
1:53 pm

I’ll second the “traditional southern and contemporary southern”. I learned to cook from my grandmother and Mrs. Dull. I love green beans, squash and onions, fried okra and all the other stuff I grew up with. I still cook them traditionally.

On the other hand, I love to see what creative southern chefs come up with. The menu mentioned in the article sounds pretty good to me.

Native Atlantan

November 17th, 2010
1:58 pm

Now that I think of it, I’m probably the only guy I know who keeps a jar of bacon grease in the refrigerator.

Now… what to cook for Thanksgiving……..

Carlton

November 17th, 2010
1:59 pm

Hey Michael: You sound like you know everything about everything. Let me know your cell # so you can enlighten me. Thanks.

Atlanta Native

November 17th, 2010
2:04 pm

I’ve got to agree on the “traditional – contemporary” reasoning, too.
Southern food is what happened when you mix Africans and Brits in a new world where people worked hard and needed the calories and fat to keep going. I love it, but don’t eat that way every day. I know how to cook it and how to tell if it is authentic, but just like the Supreme Court’s definition of porn, I con’t define it but I can tell whether it is true southern cooking when I taste it.

Atlanta Native

November 17th, 2010
2:06 pm

Native A, I got rid of the jar and fry up for what I need. My mom used to fry up a pound of bacon when the jar looked low, just to be sure we did not run out. One of my favorite liens from “A Man in Full” was when the cook was asked why the vegetables she made were so good:”Welcome to grease!”

Becky

November 17th, 2010
2:08 pm

Guess it’s as has already been stated..Great food that taste good but isn’t good for you..TQ, you have the perfect meal (for me) if you add fried pork chops..That is the meal that I would request for my last meal..Milk is also good with this..:~)I also like Jury Dell’s cornbread and buttermilk..Not many people that I know will even try that..

James

November 17th, 2010
2:12 pm

@Michael – Yes, since the original humans did not first appear in the southern U.S., our food is by necessity going to be derived from food that originate from peoples elsewhere. This would be true of virtually every regional cuisine on the planet. If you’d like, we can simply do away with regional cuisine labels and just call everything “Earthling food”.

And there is no such thing as too much fat.

Jean Middleton

November 17th, 2010
2:12 pm

Native Atlantan…I am with you. So happy to see someone else follows Mrs. Dull! Inherited her cookbook from my Grandmother who was the BEST Southern cook ever! And, I am the only one of my friends who keeps a jar of bacon grease in the ‘fridge. Can’t make cornbread without it!

Becky

November 17th, 2010
2:12 pm

@Native Atlantan..My sister has a “butter tub” of bacon grease in her fridge…Ahhh, the good old days when Mom could cook like that and I could eat like I wanted (as Atlanta Native pretty much said)…

Southern Gal

November 17th, 2010
2:15 pm

I was born & raised in Atlanta…For breakfast, I grew up eating Strickalean (aka fatback), homemade buttermilk biscuits w/butter & molasses. Dinner was cube steak w/gravy, mashed potatoes, fried okra, creamed corn, squash n onions, ham n navy beans….mmm southern food!

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Lana Stuart, John Kessler. John Kessler said: Jenny Turknett: What is Southern food? http://bit.ly/aPD4hC [...]

Native Atlantan

November 17th, 2010
2:24 pm

@Atlanta Native – I worry about the jar sometimes – maybe I need to throw it away and start over every few months.
@Jean Middleton – you’re so right about Mrs. Dull’s cookbook. It’s the best.

Glad to see I am not the only one doing it the old fashioned way. Now if I could just get my daughter interested in following the tradition… *s*

@Southern Gal – boy, some hot biscuits with butter would be good… maybe tonight for supper

jrhd

November 17th, 2010
2:27 pm

I am a white male born and raised in Atlanta. My black friends all want to know why I know so much about ‘Soul Food’. I have to explain to them that Soul Food and Country Cooking are the same thing. Collards, turnips, rutabagas, pintos, black-eyed peas, green beans, cabbage, creamed corn, okra, squash, all of these are interchangeable as soul food or country fare. Through in fried chicken, cube steak or pork chops and you are in culinary heaven. All you need now is biscuits or corn bread and some sweet tea.

James

November 17th, 2010
2:31 pm

I disagree with those who think southern food is “unhealthy” by nature. I’d contend that if we all cooked as the typical southerner did 100 years ago (cooking all meals, using real food, avoiding food products, etc.), we’d be a heck of a lot healthier than we are now… Over the past several decades as our diets in the south have become less and less traditionally “southern”, there has been a dramatic increase in the rate of obesity, diabetes, etc. in the south.

Jaye

November 17th, 2010
2:37 pm

hmmmm, hoe cakes with malasses, shrimp & grits, collard greens flavored with smoked ham hocks or neckbones. I can’t wait to get back to South Carolina so my mom can cook me my favorite breakfast… country liver pudding, grits, bacon & scrambled eggs.

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by DeeAnn Parks, Lisa Chan-Simms. Lisa Chan-Simms said: RP's Cooking Update What is Southern food? http://bit.ly/9CvLI9 #cooking #recipes [...]

jim

November 17th, 2010
3:40 pm

Okay, 53 year old native here with parents and grandparents
all from Ga. Have eaten this cooking all my life. But country
liver pudding? Please elaborate Jaye.

Jaye

November 17th, 2010
4:10 pm

Karl

November 17th, 2010
4:28 pm

smothered chicken, pinto beans, cornbread, fried okra, banana pudding and sweet tea … my Nanny would be proud of me!

PJ

November 17th, 2010
5:12 pm

@Native Atlantan – my mother always has a jar of bacon grease in her fridge.

@James – I completely agree about being able to make southern food healthy. Just because it’s southern, doesn’t always mean fried in lard. A teaspoon of bacon fat for flavor can go a long way without breaking the daily calorie suggested limit.

Kar

November 17th, 2010
5:16 pm

James, one theory that I’ve heard from nuitrionists is that the southern dishes were for an earlier time when meat was usually not available and labor more intensive. So the little bit of fat back in the vegetables or the occasional fried meat were a more healthy proportion in the average diet. Instead the daily meals were mainly vegetables and whatever starches such as biscuits or floury gravies were available.

In modern times though, people have been able afford meat at every meal, causing in part the obesity issue that many contend is a regional one. The same with salt. Instead of being used primarily as a preservative, it’s become endemic to the cuisine without the original purpose.

[...] more here: Jenny Turknett: What is Southern food? | Food and More with John … Uncategorized being-played, best-restaurants, imagine-grits, love-the-way, our-region, [...]

HotlantaHobo

November 17th, 2010
6:51 pm

Because the South is so large I don’t think there’s only one Southern cuisine. Mrs. Dull did indeed write out what it was in the 1920s, but Irma Rombauer did the same thing for the Midwest at the same time and Fanny Farmer did it for the Northeast even earlier. I suppose if you look at the differences in these three recipe collections, you might find what is “true” Southern cuisine.

But what we think of as Southern cuisine in the inland South is simply Scots-Irish-English cooking adapted by African cooks using the locally available ingredients. When you get to the coastal South, there’s a completely different approach since seafood becomes abundant and the ethnic groups add more people of continental European origin, such as the French and Spanish along the Gulf coast. Central Europeans somehow avoided most of the South, which explains the absence of Sachertorts in the average Southern bakery.

But now everyone from everywhere is here so Southern cuisine is whatever the world brings to the table. If we include “new” Southern cooking, it’s really just adaptations of ideas from French and West Coast chefs using local ingredients. Nothing very Southern really, but still very tasty.

Muffin

November 17th, 2010
7:09 pm

Southern cooking comes from recipes in the southern church cookbooks the ladies used to put together every year and sell!

Nana

November 17th, 2010
7:25 pm

I am a southern born and bred gal, and I keep my bacon grease in a special bowl in my cabinet and you are right, you can’t make cornbread without bacon grease. Give me fried okra, pinto beans, collards, and corn bread and that is about as Southern as you can get unless you want catfish and grits.

globeflyer

November 17th, 2010
8:59 pm

Southern Gal,
Shut your mouth!!!!!!

a grandmother

November 17th, 2010
9:09 pm

what everyone must be reminded the original ’southern food’ was created for folks who WORKED

a grandmother

November 17th, 2010
9:13 pm

Enter your comments here NOT folks who sat behind a desk but really labored therefore exercising where it be in a factory, garden or factory and they worked from dawn to dusk not 9 to 5 and got up and started again the next day for 7 days a week

Jenny Turknett

November 18th, 2010
4:27 am

Thank you all for chiming in. I’m enjoying reading about all of your favorite Southern dishes and makes me nostalgic for my grandmother’s cooking. Although, I can’t say I’ve ever tried liver pudding!

And, I think many of you are right that traditional Southern cooking and new Southern cooking both have a place. I love Chef Satterfield’s notion that we can “create something new that tastes nostalgic.”

Gene

November 18th, 2010
8:47 am

Jaye&Jim, scrapple looks different from liver mush. You can go to Ingles and find both and compare. You are right on the regional location of the product. Older people like it because it is a good source of iron.

Albany, GA style

November 18th, 2010
10:03 am

In Albany where I grew up, people who lived north of Macon were considered Yankees. So let me tell you how we did it in south GA. Sausage biscuits, not with a sausage patty but with a link made from a recent deer hunt, PEE-can pie, brunswick stew, fried chicken, cornbread, grits n gravy, catfish, sun tea, fried pork chops, blackeyed peas w/ham hock, boiled pnuts, and ernge soda…just ask Albany’s finest Paula Dean

BeccaEJ

November 18th, 2010
10:27 am

There are definitely some things you find in the south where you don’t find elsewhere- I once dated a guy when I was in college and he grew up in Massachussetts, and when he moved down here, he didn’t know what grits were…poor thing. Southern food for me is also comfort food- biscuits and gravy, turnip and collard greens made with bacon (everything tastes great with bacon) , etc, etc, etc. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it all now.

http://www.paragonfinancial.net/factoring-states/?s=Georgia

Todd Richards

November 18th, 2010
12:36 pm

Southern food is American food. It encompasses a multicultural background as well as economic status.
I believe what most people would consider southern food in restaurants such as Eugene, varies differently from “traditional” southern food based on the quality of ingredients as well as the use of the ingredients. When you have someone like Allan Benton, whom ships his bacon to tops chefs like David Chang in NYC, Duane Nutter at H.Harper Station ATL, you will see fascinating approaches to dishes both southern and not.
Spending most of my childhood in and out of Hot Springs Ark., where my Auntie Wanda would grew her own okra, I get very excited when I see heirloom okra in different shapes, sizes and colors. It moves me to make dishes in her honor, however it’s my own way of doing so. If I use duck with it, some may say it’s not “southern”. To the contrary, if southern food is based on ingredient as well what is available at that time, than why can’t it be considered southern? They do fly south for the winter.
I think where the confusion in most restaurant settings comes from is the price for ingredients and the cost of dining in restaurants. The before mentioned chefs search out the best ingredients and they cost. Heirloom okra is 3-5 times higher in cost than the generic brand. It still comes from a local farmer, it still is cooked with humble intent, it is still rooted in tradition; and all traditions have to start somewhere. Who’s to say that Linton has started a new tradition. Certainly you can see his influence in many restaurants in the city…

Sydney

November 18th, 2010
3:03 pm

It’s interesting that so many definitions of Southern food include it being high fat. But the same is true of many traditional foods in a lot of rest of the U.S. too, especially the midwest.

I tend to think of Southern cooking as what is truly unique, at least historically, to the southern part of the U.S. Things that were traditionally grown or used only or mostly in the South – okra, black eye peas, muscadines, greens. Or methods of producing or cooking foods that are uniquely regional – grits from corn, boiling of peanuts, frying of green tomatoes. The way ingredients are combined can also say Southern – brunswick stew, shrimp and grits, pimento cheese.

Georgia Girl

November 18th, 2010
3:41 pm

Everyone is leaving out:

Homemade Caramel Cake, Red Velvet Cake, Tea Cakes, Divinity, “DRESSING” which is leftover biscuits and cornbread with either Chicken or Turkey in it (will be making this next week).

I miss my grandmother and great-grandmother’s cooking now. Sniff sniff….my husband is a “yankee” too, so I don’t really cook this way anymore. Usually twice a year, Thanksgiving and Christmas when my parents come up to “Atlanta”/”The Big City”.

And, I’ve honestly never heard of Shrimp and Grits until I moved to Atlanta. Must be a South Carolina/Coastal thing.

Dunwoody Don

November 18th, 2010
4:12 pm

Jenny – great job! You have all of us chatting about a subject we hold dear. Grits, hush puppies, sweet tea, et al., are dishes associated with the South worldwide, just as clam chowder and lobster are associated with the New England. Unlike lobster and chowder, however, nobody living outside our region, black or white, can make decent southern fare. Case in point – Sylvia’s in Harlem. Proclaimed the “Queen of Soul Food,” Sylvia’s fried chicken, ribs, mac&cheese, candied yams, and collard greens are no better than I got going through my high school cafeteria line.

Jean

November 18th, 2010
5:29 pm

All you need to understand southern food is any cookbook by the late, great Edna Lewis.

TBee

November 18th, 2010
7:29 pm

Photographs from the 1920’s to the 50’s: you never see overweight people. To me Southern food, like most healthy dishes, is straight out of the garden. My grandmother, FROM THE SOUTH, told me her mother prepared 6 and 7 vegetables every night and that meat was no more than 3 ounces. They all lived to be almost 100 years. No such thing as sodas and they never heard of a grocery store.