Farmer Jeff and I have been home for almost a week now from our annual pilgrimage to Oxford, Mississippi and the Southern Foodways Symposium. For us this is something akin to the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano. We just HAVE to go to the south in the Fall! A lot of the folks at this conference border on the incredulous when they find out that, not only are we NOT Southerners, neither were our parents! Why are we so interested in Southern Food?
I frankly believe one would have to be crazy or dead not to love Southern food and its rich and varied history. I will admit to having intense "Southern Envy". My favorite books as a young teenager were To Kill a Mockingbird, Uncle Tom's Cabin and Gone with the Wind. I can't remember where I first heard about it, but I distinctly remember reading that a girl having trouble sleeping was given a warm glass of milk with molasses stirred into it. My poor mother had no idea why I was suddenly fixated on this beverage, but I began drinking it! To this day my favorite salt water taffy flavor is molasses.
The other great Southern influence on my life was my best friend's parents. Our friendship began around the time I was reading these influential books. We would alternate weekends at each other's homes and became a part of each other's family. I watched with wonder at the exotic use of Steen's Cane syrup over pancakes, but was more enchanted by the reaction of the family. I didn't realize that one could not simply sashay down to the corner store and buy Steen's. It only appeared in the house after a visit to the holy land, either New Orleans or Pass Christian. These names became mythical to me. The family would sparingly drizzle it over the pancakes, close their eyes and just absorb the rich flavor of they syrup on their tongues, much like absorbing a communion wafer. I saw this and thought: I need to learn to appreciate this rare commodity.
One Saturday, the father, Jack, came home with 2 pounds of fresh okra. My Swiss-German mother used to fix okra, frozen okra, with bacon, onions and tomatoes, finished with a generous grind of black pepper. It was delicious. When Jack cooked it, he just boiled the okra. Over this he melted butter and squeezed a little lemon, then sprinkled with salt and pepper. He asked if any of us wanted any. His kids turned up their nose at it. I went and got a bowl. He did share with me, alternately happy that he was introducing someone to this treat, and a little disappointed that he WAS sharing! I don't think I can remember him at a happier moment. Once again, I thought, I had better learn to appreciate this because look how much Jack loves it.
When I met my honey, Farmer Jeff, I realized I had found my soul mate and food mate. We are both trained chefs, have worked with the same chef known for upscale regional American food, Brad Ogden, and both were in love with Southern Food. When we took our very first vacation together we selected where to go because of the question, where can we get the most interesting and incredible food? Louisiana! We spent a week traveling around Lafayette, Breaux Bridge, New Iberia, Avery Island, Bayou Teche, and, of course, New Orleans.
So, I ask you, what is not to love? What other cuisine has such range, depth of flavor, diverse influences, and incredible ingredients? Add to that, what other cuisine has such passion?
Do yourself a favor today. Eat something southern. I guarantee it will make you smile!
(This shrimp is white gulf shrimp. Ask your fish purveyor to please carry this product and help to save a valuable industry in our gulf.