Seasons by the Sea: Eating, Drinking, Talking Food

A lot of the cooking, smoking, preserving, pickling, and other techniques of Southern foods were invented by African-Americans
Callie’s country ham biscuits with hot pepper jelly. Laura Donnelly

Southern cooking comes from so many regions, races, cultures, and countries, it is difficult to describe it accurately. There are definitely certain dishes that all Southerners are familiar with. And there are dishes specific to particular regions and states.

A lot of the cooking, smoking, preserving, pickling, and other techniques of Southern foods were invented by African-Americans. The term “soul” is believed to have come about in the 1950s, coined by black jazz musicians to distinguish themselves from white jazz musicians up north. “Soul music,” “soul brother,” and “soul food” were descriptions that followed, according to Adrian Miller, author of “Soul Food.” “People in the same regions ate pretty much the same food, just not together,” he told The New York Times recently.

I am a geographical or regional mutt, born in Northern California, raised up mostly in Virginia, lived for a spell in Texas, Ohio, Massachusetts, and now reside on the South Fork. See? I’m talkin’ Southern to y’all now.

I love Southern food, but a lot of it is not very healthy. There are certainly aspects of it that can be modified and improved health-wise, but sometimes you just want it the way it originated: fried, boiled, pickled, smoked, whatever. Take, for instance, “greasy beans,” an absolutely delicious dish of string beans and porky bits that has had every last little vitamin it may have contained utterly destroyed by overcooking. Squash casserole is another “vegetable” dish that starts with summer squash, perhaps some onions and peppers, and then becomes something else entirely with eggs, cream, cheese, butter, and Ritz crackers.

There is no steaming in Southern cooking, and nothing is al dente. Flavor and often frugality trump all else. Quite often everything on the plate is varying shades of brown: biscuit, macaroni and cheese, cornbread, fried chicken, ribs, and pie for dessert.

A lot of my favorite cookbooks and authors are soul and Southern: Edna Lewis, Lee Bailey, James Villas, and Julia Reed. Edna Lewis grew up in Freetown, Va., Lee Bailey was from Bunkie, La., James Villas from Charlotte, N.C., “born with a cast-iron skillet in his hand,” and Julia Reed is from the Mississippi Delta. Ms. Reed describes her region as “an eating, drinking, talking society,” where Popeye’s fried chicken can be served on silver platters with a pitcher of beer or bottle of good champagne.

 In a lot of places Down South you can carry your gun anywhere, even into church, but heaven forbid you drink alcohol. The writer Willie Morris once said part of the charm and allure of the South was its juxtapositions.

While I was searching in vain recently for black-eyed peas to make Hoppin’ John for New Year’s Day, I whined to friends on Facebook. The responses reflected the kind of hospitality that many associate with the South, but I interpreted as universal and communal. Cheryl Stair offered to drop some off, Peter Garnham and others told me where to find them, Peter Ambrose tortured me with a video of his bubbling away on the stove, and someone I’m not sure I even know invited me to dinner! The icing on the cake was an invitation to attend the Soul Food Fun dinner at the Hampton Library on Feb. 2, to kick off Black History Month. Sadly, I am unable to attend because I will be traveling . . . Down South.

For Christmas dinner last year our meal involved a brined pork product, slow roasted with brown sugar. It was accompanied by pickled things, hot and spicy vinegary sauces, lettuce, and rice. These ingredients would be just as appropriate in Greenville, Miss., but the meal was Korean, bo ssam.

This past rainy Saturday we made a pilgrimage to Herb’s Market in Montauk for the fried chicken. The whole experience could have just as easily taken place at Beasley’s in Raleigh, N.C. Upon arrival, we were told we were too early. No problem, we’d have some sandwiches while we wait. “How’s the cornbread?” I asked. “People buy it,” came the answer. By the time the chicken was ready and the sandwiches were finished, Sharon was telling us about the macaroni and cheese, Kareen offered a small slice of the homemade banana bread, we were trying to get Luis to turn up the radio, and Dan, the fisherman who just came in to get lunch, was invited to pose for pictures with them all behind the counter. A simple takeout order turned into a festive and fun afternoon.

Although I have spent about half of my life in the South, I do not identify as a Southerner. I have always enjoyed frightening and offending racist acquaintances in Texas and Virginia by reminding them that Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman is a great-great- great-uncle. 

Southern cooking can easily be adapted to any region. We’ve already got the farms and seafood. And I have been delighted to see that in recent years okra and unripe green tomatoes can be found at many farm stands. If you can learn how to make a biscuit or pie crust, you are halfway there. Master frying chicken? You’re my hero. Have lard and watermelon pickles in your refrigerator? You are me.

There are a few ways to lessen the fat or salt in this kind of cooking, but why would you? It’s like the person who orders the Diet Coke with a slice of cheesecake. Just use moderation and enjoy the occasional crock of pimento cheese, pitcher of sweet tea, and rack of ribs. We are all an eating, drinking, and talking society!

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At Herb’s Market in Montauk, Sharon Martin, Luis Abreu, and Kareen Kelly posed with their favorite customer, Dan Farnham, while waiting for the fried chicken to be ready. Laura Donnelly