One of the great joys of living in Seattle is living among educated eaters. I've shared tables with opinionated eaters in New York, ravenous eaters in Texas, and industrious eaters in North Carolina who picked, canned, and cooked their own creasy beans. When I lived in Mississippi, I met my share of gleeful eaters, who gorged themselves on catfish and took hush puppies to bed. But I never encountered so many knowledgeable eaters until I arrived in the Pacific Northwest.
Diners here can distinguish between ramen and udon noodles, parse the seasoning differences between northern and southern Thai cuisine, and identify the sustainable seafood in a fishmonger's display case. As a food writer here, I don't have to gum up my reviews with ancillary explanations of tempeh, Alice Waters, or mole. I feel very lucky to belong to a community that's serious and sophisticated about food.
Yet I've noticed a gap in Seattle's collective food knowledge. The same eaters who have such a firm grasp on--and respect for--Asian, European, and African cookery often seem to know very little about the food of the American South. I've bumped up against a startling amount of ignorance about what folks in the sweet-tea belt eat.
To be fair, the South is very, very far away from Washington state. There's no reason eaters here should know any more about edible traditions in Alabama's hill country than, say, Panamanian ceviche. What surprises me is that the uninformed eaters I've encountered seem unembarrassed to admit how little they know.
I once heard an educator express her frustration with the common expression, "Oh, I'm no good at math." Nobody, she insisted, would dare say, "Oh, I can't read a word." Southern food seems to be the math of the global pantry. While it's not socially acceptable--at least in certain circles--to admit a disinterest in pho or injera, it's apparently OK to denigrate banana pudding and grits.
That's a shame, because Southern food is delicious and intellectually compelling. It's not better than foods of other regions--as a champion of local cuisines, I'd be heartbroken if I found more country ham than smoked salmon in Seattle--but it's surely worth exploring and understanding.
There's no shortage of wonderful writing about Southern food. (If you're seeking a primer, the works of John Egerton, Jessica Harris, John T. Edge, Matt and Ted Lee, Sheri Castle, and Marcie Cohen Ferris should get you started.) I don't aim to explain the whole of Southern eating here. But I do want to clear up a few overriding misconceptions about the cuisine.
1. Southern food is not a monolith.
Even if your definition of the South excludes Texas and south Florida, you're still left with a pretty impressive land mass. It measures about the same size as France, Germany, and Italy combined, a region in which people eat bouillabaisse and salami and schnitzel. Southern food is similarly diverse. In South Carolina alone, there are four distinct barbecue styles.
Cornbread with sorghum syrup is Southern food, but so is the impossibly elegant oysters bienville served at Arnaud's in New Orleans. Fried mullet, tomato pie, barbecue hash, and scuppernong wine all count as Southern food.
Just like everywhere else, the South forged its culinary identity in response to what the land provided and the heritage of the people who settled it. North Carolina's been overrun with hogs since Europeans arrived, but it took German immigrants schooled in butchery and sausage-making to establish the state as a barbecue capital. Enslaved Africans fashioned Hoppin' John from the low country's rice and black-eyed peas.
It's probably foolhardy to attempt a complete taxonomy of Southern food, but there are unique cuisines associated with Louisiana (Cajun and Creole), the Mississippi Delta, the Appalachians, the Gulf Coast, the Eastern Shore, and the Low Country. (Soul food, a political term linked with the Black Power movement, has more to do with class than place. It typically refers to the rural poverty foods that were historic staples of black and white Southern diets, such as possum, pigs' feet, and greens.)
2. Southern food is not unhealthy.
Yes, Southerners eat fried chicken. And fried catfish and fried okra, too. But very little of the traditional Southern diet is defined by frying. Southerners have been practitioners of farm-to-table cooking since long before the term got made up, worn out, and used up.
One of my favorite restaurants anywhere is The Dillard House in the mountains of north Georgia, just down the road from where Rabun County teenagers collected stories of butter churning and bootlegging for the Foxfire anthology. The Dillard House is not an insiders' secret: The driveway is built to accommodate tour buses. Burt Reynolds, who stayed there while filming Deliverance, reportedly loves the place.
But The Dillard House's history goes way back beyond Burt. The boardinghouse opened in 1917, and has been serving massive smorgasbords of freshly picked and plucked mountain classics ever since. The menu changes each day, but typically guests' tables are set with green beans, Harvard beets, apple butter, mustard greens, squash souffle, chow chow, lima beans, creamed cabbage, stewed tomatoes, and melon. And for guests who are still hungry, there's fried chicken.
3. Southern food is not a solo pursuit.
Barbecue has become a very big deal in recent years, and is the first food most non-Southerners would probably cite as representative of the region. Thanks to a spree of television shows devoted to smoked meat, Americans now understand that when they put chicken on the backyard grill, they aren't cooking barbecue.
But the celebrated pit masters responsible for the barbecue that's become so popular are aberrations in Southern culinary culture. Throughout the South, the preparation and partaking of meals is a social event. In certain corners of the rural south, families still string beans together. And in urban areas, it's not uncommon for elderly gentlemen to insist that their dinner guests sit "boy-girl-boy-girl" to enhance the evening's conviviality.
Speaking of conviviality, outside of Baptist churches, what Southerners drink matters as much as what they eat. When Heath Putnam--who raises Mangalitsa pigs near Seattle--returned from a field trip to the Memphis in May barbecue competition, he asked me, "Do you know how much they drink?" and "Did you know beer isn't drinking to them?" Putnam got the gist of it: Southerners have a thing for corn liquor.
4. Southern food is not hidebound.
Southern food is constantly evolving, and not just at the hands of the talented young chefs who've been the darlings of the James Beard awards committee over the past decade. Southern food has always been shaped by the contributions of new immigrants, a rhythm the region's maintained.
While the South has an outspoken conservative contingent, many, many Southerners have warmly welcomed their new neighbors from Vietnam, Mexico, Honduras, Korea, New York, and Minnesota. The cosmopolitan South has birthed the barbecue nachos that are served alongside pulled-pork sandwiches and barbecue spaghetti at most Memphis barbecue joints, and Viet-Cajun crawfish. Southerners today are pickling kaffir lime leaves and making turnip-green tamales.
5. Pimento cheese is delicious.
After weeks of reaching for the pimento cheese on buffet and potluck tables around Seattle and discovering I'd swiped my chip in sundried-tomato hummus instead, I've pretty much given up on finding true pimento cheese here. (Yes, there's a fancy version on the pretzel menu at Brave Horse Tavern, but I'm a stickler for very mayonnaise-y, orange-hued pimento cheese.)
I've had to explain pimento cheese to friends, readers, and a copy editor since arriving in Seattle. Recipes for the spread are hotly contested, but should include grated cheese, mayonnaise, pimentos, salt, and pepper. (I'm not wading into the cheddar-vs.-Velveeta or Duke's-vs.-Hellmann's debates.) It's terrific on burgers.
Eaters who dismiss Southern food miss out on pimento cheese, of course, along with liver mush, boiled peanuts, fried peach pies, and pilau. There's much to love about Southern food; perhaps the single greatest misconception about the cuisine is believing otherwise.