By Sam Burnham
This past weekend I encountered an article from this past September that caught my attention. Once again, we have a regionally respected publication that has presented for our reading enjoyment the claims of some chef from New York trying to debunk Southern cooking "myths". Like the others, he has no heritage connecting him to a Southern kitchen. All his knowledge came from trial and error and his education in that fine Southern culinary school - The Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
This all too familiar phenomenon is what I like to call "Cooking With A Carpetbagger".
Unlike most carpetbaggers, this particular chef isn't all wrong. He does make some valid points. I will respond, point by point, to each of his claims beginning with accuracy and progressing on to heresy.
Myth 1 "The best fried chicken starts and ends in a skillet."
This one is acceptable. The official ABG fried chicken recipe involves frying the chicken in a skillet until golden brown and then finishing it in the oven. There is nothing wrong with finishing fried chicken in an oven. It's not like we're talking Shake & Bake here.
Myth 2 "Mixing the ingredients by hand is the only way to make authentically light, flaky biscuits."
We are a biscuit research organization. We are willing to listen to all sorts of methods of cooking a variety of biscuits. Biscuits have many incarnations, none of which are canned. So, outside of busting a cardboard tube on your counter top, we're open to theories.
Myth 3 "If you salt your beans before cooking them, they’ll never get soft."
Yeah, not going to make a big stink here. Salting beans doesn't make much of a difference. Just don't stir them too often, some would say any stirring is too much. Keep in mind that the cooking of beans necessitates the baking of cornbread and plan accordingly.
Myth 4 "Frying fish makes oil fishy."
This is a bit of a stretch. Yes, he is correct that the cooking process causes oil to break down but that includes the oils in animal fats. As fish oil, which is typically stronger in flavor than other oils, mingles with the cooking oil and the oil becomes "fishy".
Myth 5 "Soap destroys the seasoning on cast-iron cookware."
This was my breaking point. This one category is what convinced me to compose this piece. It is mind boggling how wrong this is. I once accused a man of being a Yankee after he placed an iron skillet in the dishwasher. I accused him of espionage and treason and all sorts of other unsavory misdeeds. I'm getting upset thinking about it right now. The chef in the article claims that fats make a protective polymer coating on a well-seasoned skillet. I think he forgot "Dawn cuts grease out of your way". The soap is used by cleanup teams to rescue oil drenched birds after petroleum spills because it breaks down oils and and allows them to be rinsed away. The same technology that removes crude oil from birds will carry your well earned seasoning right off your skillet and straight down the drain. If you need soap to remove food from your skillet, it either isn't seasoned well enough or your aren't using it right.
I'm sure it won't be long until some other non-Southern chef decides to teach us about our food. But keep in mind, Southern food is like our music, our literature, and our architecture - it's not a science, it's an art. If you hear advice on Southern cooking coming from New York City, remember that not even the people at Pace Picante put up with that.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire