Recently, I was invited by Dr. Jessie Voigts to become Southern Food Editor for an outstanding website called Wandering Educators, a “global community of educators sharing travel experiences.”
I am very appreciative of the honor, coming as it does from such an interesting, informative, and wide-ranging site. However, I felt a need to ‘fess up’ about my roots (lest I be thought a covert carpetbagger!)
Here is my inaugural ‘true confessions’ piece from the Wandering Educators website. I encourage you to visit this excellent and frequently-updated resource.
“In the interest of full disclosure, my first official act as Southern Foods Editor of Wandering Educators will be to share a (possibly) stunning revelation:
I’m not from the South. Not even close. Not even South Philly.
Instead, I grew up in the gritty, take-no-prisoners, New York Metro area, but I am (as I like to think of it) a Recovering Yankee.
The South is my home now, specifically the coastal Lowcountry of South Carolina, and it’s home to me in ways that no place else has ever been.
I feel genuinely welcome and appreciated here, and no one could be more surprised about that than I am. My preconceptions of faux Southern “hospitality” as a disguise for suspicion and disdain were flat wrong.
Unlike the cities I grew up in, folks here start by giving a person the benefit of the doubt. In other words, you’re assumed to be a good and worthy person unless you prove yourself otherwise. You start with a clean slate; what you do with it is your own doing.
Manners here are not affectations, but rather a currency used daily in varying denominations to exchange respect. Even in the sensitive area of race, where much work remains to be done, the same holds true: a friend from New York, who like many believe that open hostility prevails in the South, was surprised when I told him it didn’t.
“Why is that?” he asked.
I had to think a moment before I put my finger on it. “Because,” I said, “it would be rude.”
This is not to imply that the South is tightly corseted by intransigent rules of behavior. Beyond courtesies, things are actually much more relaxed. The pace is slower; not much needs to get done in a hurry, and absolutely no one ever demands that something be done ‘yesterday if not sooner’. No one, that is, except for folks from ‘away’ who want to remake the places they go into replicas of where they’re from.
Nothing comes closer to making a Southerner ‘lose their religion’ than an impatient and demanding Northerner. After all, they reason, if where these folks came from was so darn great and they did everything so much better there, why the heck didn’t they just stay put?
Why not, indeed?
Living in the South has also given me a tangible sense of connection. In the brief years I’ve lived here, I’ve accrued a ‘family’ of friends who don’t wait to be asked for help but give it freely, and for whom I do the same.
I help a friend with his computer problems, he fixes my brakes, and we both help another friend whose roof has sprung a leak. No money exchanged, no mental balance sheet kept; it’s just what you do.
And there’s so much more: the weather, with the exception of a couple of inhumanly hot months, is more than kind. The wild, profligate beauty of the fields and marshes, the ancient curl of moss-draped live oaks, the arabesques of creeks and the tidal roll of rivers all inspire, refresh, and nourish the soul.
As well as a home, I have found in the South a different skin altogether, one in which I can feel calm, enveloped, and safe.
Though cooking has been a lifelong interest, my love for Southern cooking was a more recent acquisition. It was in Ithaca, NY that I was privileged to meet and befriend a former Charlestonian and Cornell professor whose last days changed my future. Dr. James Gulledge was an extraordinary man who deeply missed the Carolina Lowcountry,
but due to his illness wasn’t strong enough to pay a final visit.
In consolation, I took up Jim’s copy of Charleston Receipts and tried to cook for him some of the foods of his childhood. The results were mixed at first, but he was unfailingly kind and encouraging.
Best of all, those meals stirred Jim’s recollections, and his lyrical stories of the verdant Lowcountry and its people planted in me the seeds of what was to come.
A couple of years after Jim passed away, I began to feel the need to write about that time and the meals we had shared. Ultimately, my wife and I decided to come to the Lowcountry to get a sense of it firsthand, to breathe its air and see those places that Jim described. We planned to stay for a month or two; that was almost four years ago.
Significantly, the very first thing I ate in South Carolina was boiled peanuts, and I was instantly hooked. Soon, the vast panoply of Southern foodstuffs was spread before me, and I was like a kid in a candy store.
I ate pork jowl bacon, crowder peas, stone-ground heirloom corn grits, ‘pluff mud’ pudding, anything new and ‘real’ that I could find. I began to gain a sense of the possibilities and started experimenting with new ideas and ingredients.
The first real benediction came when I won the Grand Prize at the 2007 Taste of the South Recipe Competition. I was astonished that Matt and Ted Lee, whose Lee Brothers Southern Cookbook won the James Beard Award that year, had sat at the judging table, eaten my food, and declared me the winner — knowing full well that I was the only non-Southerner in the room! But they did. And I believe Jim would have been proud.
Since then, I’ve baked, boiled, and smoked my way through many Southern classics. I’ve made rich, cocoa-infused Red Velvet cakes (after getting over the initial shock of their otherworldly color) and have come to especially love the creamy, antique charm of historic Coconut Cake.
On my doorstep, I’ve found baskets of dew-kissed okra and sun-sweetened tomatoes from my neighbor and turned them into an okra stew that filled the house with a fragrance that spoke of summer fields and the sharing of abundance. I’ve slung cast nets into the night-blackened waters of September and hauled in dozens of feisty shrimp that became the flavorful pink stars of that iconic Lowcountry dish, Shrimp & Grits.
And I’ve sat for hours on cool November days, bathed in hickory smoke, tending the slow succulent transition of pork shoulders into the ethereal manna known as South Carolina barbeque.
I’ve learned a lot about Southern cooking, and there is so much yet to be explored, but the most valuable lesson I’ve learned came to me on the day I realized that the most important ingredient in Southern cooking isn’t something you can buy in the store, entice from the water, or dig out of the ground.
Not the long-suffering, ‘Lord-give-me-patience’ variety, but rather the type of patience that it takes to see things through; to quietly attend outcomes rather than force them; to wait — and enjoy the waiting. (In Hesse’s novel, Siddhartha says “I can think, I can fast, and I can wait.” Now, fasting is, admittedly, a virtually unknown concept in the South; waiting and thinking, however have a history of association in activities such as Pondering, Chewing Over, and Settin’ a Spell & Cogitating.)
When it comes to Southern cooking, many are initially surprised (and confused) to find that even though there is no single “right” way (as in recipe or method), it is vitally important that something be done “right” (meaning ‘properly’.) It can be a difficult notion to grasp without that key ingredient of patience.
Want to make a ‘proper’ pulled pork? You can concoct your own dry or wet rub, use whatever combination of smoking woods you want, etc., but expect to spend sixteen hours or more at the task. Boiled peanuts? Put whatever flavorings you like into the pot, but plan on three hours or more.
Ditto the various dried beans and peas. Good grits require at least an hour (more is better.) Ribs, collards, even sweet tea all take time and attention. Good things often do.
But there’s an opportunity to be gained in the ‘low & slow’ style of cooking: it gives one time to reflect, to plan, to savor the anticipation. It gives one the time to watch the Spanish moss moving silently in the breeze. To notice the briny scent of the marsh on the rising tide. To appreciate one’s friends, count one’s blessings, and enjoy the feeling that only comes from investing something with care. From infusing it with quiet, abiding affection.
Something done ‘right’.
Please join us tomorrow to find out more about February’s Free Cookbook of the Month selection: Quiches and Savory Tarts.
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