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2000s Archive

What Is Southern?

Originally Published January 2008
One day we received a remarkable phone call: Two friends had just discovered an unpublished essay by the late Edna Lewis—one of America's most resonant and evocative food writers—that she had sent to a colleague years ago. We are delighted to be able to share it with you.

How did southern food come into being? The early cooking of southern food was primarily done by blacks, men and women. In the home, in hotels, in boardinghouses, on boats, on trains, and at the White House. Cooking is hard and demanding. It was then, and it still is now. What began as hard work became creative work. There is something about the South that stimulates creativity in people, be they black or white writers, artists, cooks, builders, or primitives that pass away without knowing they were talented. It is also interesting to note that the South developed the only cuisine in this country. Living in a rural setting is inspiring: Birds, the quiet, flowers, trees, gardens, fields, music, love, sunshine, rain, and the smells of the earth all play a part in the world of creativity. It has nothing to do with reading or writing. Many of those cooks could not read or write.

I grew up among people who worked together, traded seed, borrowed setting hens1 if their own were late setting. Early hatched chickens were like a prize. Neighbors would compete to see who would serve the first spring chickens pan-sautéed.The first spring greens, lettuce, scallions in a vinegar dressing with salt, pepper, and sugar—no oil. They shared favors of all kinds, joined in when it came to planting or harvesting a crop, wheat threshing, hog butchering, and cutting ice on the ponds to store for the summer in the community icehouse.

I grew up noticing the food feasts, picnics, church revival din­ners with long white tablecloths. Families put out warm fried chicken, braised leg of mutton, thin slices of boiled Virginia ham. Green beans cooked in pork stock, beets in a vinaigrette sauce. English peas in cream. Baked tomatoes with crusty squares of bread on top. Fragrant corn pudding. Potato salad with a boiled dressing. Watermelon and cantaloupe pickles and relishes, preserves and jellies, and iced tea.

Southern is an early spring morning shrouded in a thick mist. The warmth of a bright sunrise reveals shimmering jewellike dewdrops upon thicket and fence. A large spiderweb glistens, a spider trying desperately to wind its prey into the web. My father set out to prepare for planting corn. The first day, I walked behind him while he was plowing and singing one of his favorite hymns. For me, it was a great moment. Walking along, pressing my bare feet against the warm plowed earth. All of the chickens were behind me, picking up the earthworms and bugs. He turned up roots of sassafras bushes2, which we took to the house for the next morning.

Southern is a spring breakfast of herring with its roe. It is the most delicious of the first-caught of spring. Shad is more advertised. They both are spring fish, then they disappear until the next spring. Herring roe is of a finer quality than the shad and wonderful sautéed in garlic, lemon juice, butter, and herbs.

Southern is a meal of early spring wild greens—poke sallet3 before it is fully uncurled, wild mustard, dandelion, lamb’s-quarter, purslane, and wild watercress. These are greens that are looked for as the first taste of spring, boiled in pork stock and served with cornmeal dumplings. The next delightful green vegetable is wild asparagus, delicious and tender, found around fence posts where birds drop the seed. They are picked at the right time, steamed and served on toast, with a rich cream sauce spooned over. Southern is a midday dinner of potted squab, tossed until done in a covered iron pot. Served with those first wild greens, a casserole of white potatoes4 baked in chicken stock, and a delicious strawberry shortcake of biscuit dough.

Southern is an evening of turtle soup. We would find the turtle, having been washed out of the stream in a thunderstorm, crawling toward the house, so we would pick it up, keep it for a few days, then clean and cut it up. There would be great excitement if it contained eggs, which we would add to the stew. After cooking the turtle slowly for hours, we would strain the broth, season it well, add good Sherry5, chop up some of the meat, and make dumplings to add to the soup with the eggs.

Southern is Truman Capote. When dining at Café Nicholson, he would request that I make him some biscuits. Southern is a guinea hen, a bird of African origin. They live in trees around the house and make a big noise if strangers come around. Like any game bird, they have to be aged before cooking. They have a delicious flavor and are best when cooked in a clay pot with butter, herbs, onions, and mushrooms.

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