It’s a relief to be wrong sometimes, like that time I predicted the death of Southern food.
It’s right there on the cover of the Wall Street Journal, December 16, 1993. “This food was meant to fuel field work,” I told a reporter. “Desk workers who eat it just up and die at 55.”
The Journal sent a reporter to follow me around while I reviewed restaurants. It was a moment in Nashville when few places served good traditional Southern food. More often, Southern food suffered from shortcuts and substitutions, canned and frozen ingredients, roller-milled cornmeal mix. The result was food without the fresh, authentic flavor of traditional homemade Southern food. It was close enough approximation for a few places to have a decent lunch trade, but not so good that you wanted the recipe.
The really good places took the long way: snapping beans by the bushel, peeling and slicing peaches, braising meats and vegetables, seeking out stone-ground cornmeal. It was a lot of work, and when the owners retired, the restaurants nearly always closed.
Besides, Nashville and other mid-size Southern cities suddenly had far more interesting food to eat. It was the era of the Silver Palate, of regional Italian, French country, and the California-fresh revolution. We could order arugula with raspberry vinaigrette, salade nicoise, and orecchiette fra diavolo. Nashville had its first sushi and Thai places in the 1980s. Maybe the older folks wanted canned green beans simmered with bacon, but we wanted sushi and pad thai.
Digging deeper, there was the American Heart Association’s recommendation against a diet high in fat. The introduction of whole lines of low-fat and fat-free packaged foods in the 1990s codified the recommendation. Since a lot of Southern cooking had subtle flavors from traditional fats like ham, bacon and clabbered milk, the culture’s turn toward low fat cooking and eating was a terrible blow. Lowfat buttermilk doesn’t yield the lush-textured cornbread and biscuits of full-fat buttermilk. Low fat meant no deviled eggs, no ham beans, no collards with fatback, no fried chicken. No baked ham. Lean pork chops, hold the gravy.
By the time I had my little chat with the Wall Street Journal, it was easy to dismiss Southern food. It was moribund anyway, save for home cooks and a few places doing traditional, from-scratch handmade food. In the city, Southern food was a “sometimes” food: only available sometimes, only okay sometimes in a healthy diet.
What I could see moving into its place was noveau Southern—a fried chicken salad with honey-jalapeno dressing I tasted in Charleston. A chilled crowder pea salad as a side dish at a fine restaurant. Black-eyed pea cakes with salsa at the neighborhood potluck. It was all undeniably Southern, but not the traditional “dinner” food.
And that’s what I found when I set out to collect recipes for Southern Cooking for Company. Fortunately, I didn’t kill Southern food, or even correctly predict its demise. A legion of cooks and bloggers (especially, and surprisingly, the millenials) in their home kitchens are reinventing the dishes and preferences of the South using the ingredients and recipes in new and appealing ways.