The pandemic has disrupted nearly every aspect of food in America, from the restaurant industry to farming to our food supply to the food security and cooking habits of citizens. Given that, we’ve decided to bring to you a series that explores many different facets of food in America. From a look at the chefs working hard to provide food during the pandemic, to the rich story of Southern food, to a deep dive on what it means to be a “foodie”, we’re looking at food and cooking as it relates to and affects community, comfort, joy, healing and sometimes lack thereof. And we’re topping it all off with some simple and delicious recipe ideas for summer, including cocktails made from kombucha and agua fresca. Because it’s five o’clock somewhere, right?
Breezy coastal plains, lush subtropical areas and rugged mountains are just a few of the landscapes that make up the American South, one of the largest regions in the country. The cuisine of the South is as varied as its panoramas, built on the backs of Native Americans and enslaved Africans who used their vast knowledge to deftly care for and harvest from the land and sea. These foods are still revered by today’s Southern chefs, who continue to honor the ancestors with their favorite Southern meals.
For Atlanta-based Todd Richards, an award-winning chef and author of SOUL: A Chef's Culinary Evolution in 150 Recipes, his favorite dish employs a beloved technique: savory, smoked onions with sea salt, pepper, and vinegar for a hint of bright acidity. For Richards, it’s not just the flavor of smoked wood that he loves; it’s the connection to the Earth and the ancestors that draw him in the most. “Smoking food (including vegetables) is not only satisfying because of the taste of the food; but equally because of the ritual of preparation,” Richards says.
His ritual often starts early in the morning when the air is still and slightly damp, before the noise of the day emerges. “It’s very calming to be in the silence, especially when the fire starts to crack the wood. The popping sound confirms the presence of sacrifice of the Earth to prepare a delicious meal,” Richards says. “It confirms what all chefs know: it’s never about us. We’re fortunate to have a bounty to cook from.”
On Food: A Shondaland Series
While Richards is drawn to the allure of smoking food, it’s not a coincidence. Michael Twitty, culinary historian and author of The Cooking Gene, explains that smoking food goes back to Native Americans and enslaved Africans, who were no strangers to preservation. The blend of Native American, African, and European cultures is unique to the South, which is evident in the foods of the region. “The more that all three cultures shared something, the more likely it was to be preserved, touted, and endemic,” Twitty says.
“Native Americans preserved meats like deer and wild turkey, and made jerky, which comes from the Native Americans,” Twitty explains. “Africans used smoking to preserve foods from the tropical climate, and also from pests.” What we know as modern smoking is largely by design, a blend of Native and African techniques that European colonizers appropriated, adding their own techniques. However, Native American and African ways of smoking took time, a sparse resource in slavery. “The British and German culture of smoking was more convenient [for the master],” Twitty explains. “They [enslaved Africans] didn’t have a lot of time on their hands.”
While smoking techniques have changed, the deep, umami flavor that smokiness imparts is still prized in the South and West Africa, where smoked fish and meats are a part of the diet. “That particular umami flavor is an important asset in West African meals and is still a part of our tradition here,” says Twitty.
For Nina Compton, the James Beard award-winning chef of Compère Lapin in New Orleans, her favorite dish is a Southern classic — but not at first. “[As a child] a long time ago, I went to Iowa with my parents, and I had my first bowl of grits and I didn’t like them,” she says. “But over time I grew to love them.” Her love runs deep: at the 2018 Charleston Food and Wine Festival, she cooked with grits from Anson Mills. While she had cooked grits plenty of times, this was her first time using the coarsely-ground variety, which mirrors what was eaten historically. “Someone showed me how to rinse the grits and skim off the outer layer, then I cooked it in milk,” Compton says. “For me, it was not about throwing grits in a pan and boiling it away. There's actually a method to it.”
Compton sources her grits from Bellegarde Bakery, who mills them fresh locally. And for those wondering where she stands on the sweet versus savory debate, she keeps her grits simple — and savory. “We let it stand in cold water for 30 minutes and let the outer shell of the corn come up and skim that off the water. Then I cook that in boiling salted milk until it's nice and tender, and it takes a while. We add cream and butter, and sometimes cheese. It’s pretty rich, but it’s good.” The beauty of grits for Compton is their versatility, which she uses in her menu at her restaurant. “Grits is something that you can have for breakfast with eggs, for lunch as shrimp and grits, or as a side dish,” Compton notes.
Similar to smoking foods, grits came to symbolize a mosaic of three different cultures living in the South who were familiar with the concept of porridges. “The groups that were in the Americas or came to the American South were porridge eaters,” Twitty says. “That was the basic, go-to breakfast.” Native Americans created the process of corn nixtamalization, increasing the nutritional value and digestibility of hominy, which was ground for grits.
Colonizers then learned the process of making grits, as corn could be grown at a large scale for profit. “With corn, you could get one to two crops a year, and it was suitable for the environment in the South,” Twitty says. Africans were also adept at maximizing the nutritional value of grains. Corn was ground then fermented for days, which increased the nutritional value for foods such as kenkey, a dish made from fermented white corn. “No other culture really does this. It’s a probiotic-based tradition,” Twitty explains.
So how did grits become a mainstay as opposed to kenkey? Time, Twitty says. “Some of these traditions didn’t translate because slavery didn’t play. You did not have time. [The fermentation process] is not quick. Foods that took up time were treated as an anathema among slaveholders because that time was their money.” Another reason for the widespread adoption of grits was the familiarity that enslaved Africans already had with corn. “It wasn’t hard from someone that came from Ghana, Senegal or Mozambique, or someone familiar with eating corn and millet dishes to make hominy for grits,” says Twitty. “We have to consider the knowledge base that Africans brought with them. They were far more prepared for the new world they were exiled to than Europeans were.”
While many of these foods and techniques exist today, centuries of subjugation, migration, and socioeconomic factors have shaped Southern cuisine and individual tastes. While grits may be widely popular, other foods — like chitlins and okra — can be polarizing. “Part of it is the perception of poverty and want. The South had a social hierarchy with rich white people at the top, and the enslaved, Native Americans and poor white people at the bottom. Foods also moved up and down that hierarchy,” Twitty explains. “At one point eating yellow corn was considered unacceptable because it was used as animal feed. In South Carolina, there are festivals celebrating okra and chitlins. In France, chitlins are considered a delicacy, but when you come to the South, it’s associated with poor Black people who were enslaved by white people.”
While perceptions of Southern food continue to be shaped by historical hierarchies, one thing is certain: the joy of eating great food. ”Part of the Southern culture is eating well, without shame,” Twitty says. “The pleasure of eating food is a part of our heritage.”
Vonnie Williams is a first-gen Ghanaian-American and food writer. She’s written for Food & Wine, Eater, TASTE Cooking, and other publications. She loves to make the easiest dishes from her cookbooks and eats more ice cream than she’s willing to admit to any human. Follow her on Twitter @sincerelyvonnie.
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