Southern Food & a Story
The applicable Twitter conversation of the week was on Southern food. A comment was made about my numerous opinions on the topic. Part of my concern was a few of the opinions of a chef from Canada. And I'm not talking about Canada, North Carolina. No way, eh. I'm talking about take off you hoser, Canada. Fleshy mutants, Elsinore and hockey pucks. Great. White. North.
If I'm fair, the gentleman did have some good points about Southern food. He spoke of fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables and the types of food that would be eaten by people who grew everything they ate. He pointed out that all Southern food wasn't fried meat.
But here is where I think he may be missing the point of Southern food. You can't learn Southern food in a New York City cooking school. Sure, you can learn techniques and pairings and all of the science of Southern food. But I wonder if he's had the experience to really understand Southern food.
Does he know how to locate a wild blackberry bush? Has he ever stood on the side of a dirt road and eaten them straight off the plant, picking the briers out of various body parts from reaching and leaning to snag another handful? Does he know when a crabapple is ripe because he's had more than one belly ache from eating too many green ones? Has he sat on a front porch snapping beans while watching a storm approach across the field? Did his great aunt have oranges on trees in her back yard?
Let me share this story. My Uncle Bill taught me and my younger brother to fish. He and my Uncle Bobby taught us to clean fish. We were expected to help clean what we caught. Before we ever hooked up the boat, Paw-paw had already called uncles, aunts, cousins, friends from church, customers, employees, and maybe even a random stranger or four and invited them to a fish fry on the appointed night. At this point we were in possession of zero (0) fish.
So my brother and I would head down the two sand ruts that made up Paw-paw's driveway. Uncle Billy's place was about halfway down to the paved road under a live oak tree. We'd play with our cousin until bedtime and then sleep until we each heard "Wake up buddy, let's go fishin!" and it was off to one of the multitude of freshwater lakes in north central Florida. Live bait, cane poles and some age-appropriate cold beverages (and most of the time, Uncle Bobby) were added to the boat and off we went to sit in the lake for a solid hour without a single bite. Every time, no exceptions. After the mandatory hour, the fish seemed to realize we were there. And then we would catch fish,- bluegill, warmouth, speckled perch (because there's nothing crappie about a speck) - until we had enough to feed all the people that Paw-paw had promised fish. My brother even caught a bass once. At the cleaning shed Uncle Bobby declared it too small to bother with and fed it to a blue heron.
And then we cleaned all those fish. No scales, no heads, no guts, rinsed with the hose and packed in ice. And then it was back to the farm.
Slowly folks began to arrive. We got to visit with people we hadn't seen in months, or maybe even years. My grandmother would cook grits inside and the ladies would visit. The men were outside, gathered around Uncle Bobby's fryer waiting on all those fish to float to the top. He also made the hush puppies. But mostly the men talked. The Florida family would talk about how bad the Gators would beat the Dawgs the next year. We'd laugh because they hadn't hired Spurrier yet and we knew they couldn't beat UGA.
But I loved those conversations. It was like a rite of passage to sit around the fryer with an age appropriate beverage and talk trash while the fish I caught were prepared and presented to my immediate and extended family as the entree. We'd top it all off with homemade peach ice cream before games of tag or catching lightning bugs with my cousins.
Can you learn that in a New York culinary school? Can you even learn it from a book or a TV show? This is where the line is drawn between typical Southern and actual Southern. It's the vast difference between the science and the art.
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Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire