For people who are tired of hearing waiters say “locally sourced” – for people who rejoiced when a pot-roast recipe from Tippah County won grudging and incredulous approval from editors at the “New York Times” – this fine, no-nonsense book on Southern cooking will be a godsend.
Cassandra Harrell knows whereof she speaks, and she speaks with a veteran’s authority. She was reared in Halls, Tennessee, south of Dyersburg and not far from the Mississippi River, where she learned to cook in her grandmother’s kitchen. Her mother made custard pies. Her father fried cob corn for his wife when she came home from her shift at the Tupperware plant. She herself learned to pick up pecans from under the tree in the side yard. She loyally hails her husband Earl as the greatest barbecue chef in the galaxy. With Earl, she ran a restaurant and catering business in Milwaukee, with coleslaw and spareribs favored by the Milwaukee Bucks and pinto-bean soup (served with hot-water cornbread) that drew customers from across town.
“All soul food is southern food, but not all other southern food is soul food,” Ms. Harrell writes.
“The main difference between soul food and southern food is basically that soul food was prepared by African American cooks during the days of slavery . . . . Just remember that soul food’s beginnings were on plantations, and that these dishes were created by folks who didn’t have many ingredients to work with.” With unusual honesty, she acknowledges what Southern poverty meant to Southern cooking:
“For years after the Civil War, many rural southern cooks had to make do with whatever they found around the kitchen. And much too often that included inexpensive, chewy cuts of meat and foods that were almost spoiled. This lack of quality ingredients, coupled with the backbreaking work of running a home without modern appliances, made one-pot meals again a necessity.”
Mrs. Harrell leads with a strong chapter on one-pot meals, and begins with okra dishes: stewed okra and tomatoes with smoked sausage, black-eyed peas and okra. Other stews follow, collard greens with smoked turkey and seasoned cabbage with white potatoes and bacon – throughout this book, recipes draw equally on the garden and the smokehouse. Her spaghetti recipe, following the Memphis style of spaghetti, is a one-pot blend of ground beef, pasta, tomato sauce, and cheddar cheese (“this old family favorite is, to us, best served with catfish, coleslaw, and skillet corn bread”).
Ms. Harrell offers recipes for seven different types of cornbread. She does not shy away from the fierce debate that divides those who cook with cornmeal, but weighs in diplomatically: “I disagree with cooks who think sugar has no business in corn bread. I do feel sugar helps develop corn bread’s flavors, and it makes the texture moister.”
She features the great standard dishes of Southern cooking: country smothered ham, chicken-fried steak, fried chicken, catfish, pork chops, and Sunday pot roast (no pepperoncini here – the roast is spiced with onions, black pepper, chopped green peppers, seasoned salt, garlic, thyme, and parsley).
Her vegetable recipes include her father’s fried cob corn and other dishes redolent of hot summers: baked yellow squash and buttered skillet squash. She has recipes for both parts of the turnip (turnip greens with smoked meat and mashed turnips with potatoes). Sometimes she fries sweet potato slices, for a taste that recalls sweet-potato pie, or makes twice-baked sweet potatoes. Lighter fare includes spaghetti and cucumber salad, broccoli and raisin salad, and (slightly more familiar) spinach and strawberry salad.
The book shows some eccentricities. Classic pecan pie is not included – pecan bars and chocolate pecan pie are featured instead. The cobbler recipe that Ms. Harrell gives uses strawberries, not peaches (she uses peaches in pies and in ice cream) and she prefers that red onions, not yellow onions, be used in onion rings.
Ms. Harrell honors the genealogical tradition of Southern cooking, taking pains to trace the origins of a favorite dessert, sweet milk and jelly cake: her good family friend Elnora Bell brought the recipe from her hometown of Charleston. She has thought through the Southern fondness for stove-top frying, and points out that the heat of a skillet may be more easily kept constant than the heat of an oven, an important consideration for bakers.
This cookbook is the second title issued by the Southern Table Series, an imprint of the Louisiana State University Press, meant to “chronicle the histories, recipes, traditions, and production practices of the food of the American South.” The first title in the series was “Lift Your Spirits: A Celebratory History of Cocktail Culture in New Orleans.” That book spoke to high times; this book speaks to good times and home times. Might the churches of Halls, the aldermen, and the Lauderdale County Chamber of Commerce be persuaded to host an annual festival at which every dish in the book would be served? That festival would be worth attending.
Allen Boyer, Book Editor for HottyToddy.com, is a native of Oxford. He lives and writes on Staten Island. His book “Rocky Boyer’s War,” a WWII history drawing on his father’s diary, will be published next month by the Naval Institute Press.
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