Reclaiming the soul of Southern food
November 10th, 2010
10:00 AM ET
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On Wednesday, November 10th, Eatocracy hosted its inaugural Secret Supper in Atlanta, Georgia, centered around the topic of how chefs' increasingly close collaboration with farmers figures into the preservation and evolution of Southern cooking. You can still take your place at the (virtual) table, by joining in the conversation and cooking along at home.

Sean Brock wants to serve you the Southern meal of your dreams. He just needs to go have a little chat with the earth first.

His new restaurant Husk opened this week in Charleston, South Carolina, stocked with a pantry of over 4000 lovingly put-up cans of preserved meat and produce (Brock jokes, “We bought up every empty mason jar in the South.”) – and little else. The chef-imposed mandate for the restaurant is: if it doesn’t come from the South, it’s not coming through the door.

While that might seem like a brand of culinary handcuffing, the disallowance of Italian olive oil, Napa Valley wines and Middle Eastern spices, and the added necessity of daily – possibly hourly – conversations with local purveyors of fresh meat and heirloom produce and artisanal goods is what enables Husk to serve the purest expression of Southern food that he possibly can. It’s the kind of food he says he “took for granted” growing up in Virginia, the kind he claims hasn’t been properly, widely, truly available since factory farming and genetically modified produce became the norm, even in the heart of farmland.

The need for such ascetic rebellion was sparked, in part, by the desire to reclaim the soul of Southern food. Brock, along with a growing number of chefs like Atlanta’s Linton Hopkins and Steven Satterfield and Roanoke’s Josh Smith, is on a mission to change the image of his region’s cuisine from overcooked vegetables and deep-fried, cream gravy-slathered everything, to a celebration of its idiosyncratic produce, rich culinary history and the people behind it.

So what is Southern food, exactly?

Food writers as far back as Craig Claiborne – the seminal New York Times food editor and restaurant critic born in 1920 in Sunflower, Mississippi – addressed the difficulty of this culinary definition. As he explained in his 1987 cookbook, ‘Craig Claiborne's Southern Cooking,’ “It is not a question of chauvinism, but I have always averred that Southern cooking is by far the vastest and most varied of all traditional regional cooking of the nation. … Complete volumes could and have been written about each of these elements of Southern cooking – Creole, Cajun, Tex-Mex, soul food and barbecues. An encyclopedic, exhaustive study of all Southern dishes would, of necessity, demand a number of books sufficient to fill a library shelf, and more.”

Yes, but who wants to eat their books? Luckily for scholars of the lard-based arts, the Southern Foodways Alliance, helmed by the ebullient Georgia-born, Mississippi-based John T. Edge, holds a yearly symposium on the issues, influences, trends, personalities and cultures surrounding Southern food – and there’s as much chow as there is chatter. Chefs, writers, farmers, academics and food enthusiasts in attendance this year’s event discussed the notion of the “global South” – the contributions of labor, ingredients and technique by Cuban, Vietnamese, West African, Mexican and other immigrant groups to the Southern cooking lexicon.

Plenty of smart words were bandied about, but turnip green tamales from Atlanta’s Taqueria de Sol, banana tres leches tian from Miami’s Michelle Bernstein and a Western Chinese catfish fry with chilis, szechuan peppercorns, cumin seeds, garlic, salt, and fresh cilantro from New York’s Eddie Huang got the message across. Southern food isn’t just one thing or one way – fried chicken, side of black eyed peas and cornbread, wham, bam, culture defined – it’s a plurality and it’s constantly in flux. This doesn’t always sit easily with diners accustomed to having things the “right” way – i.e. the way they ate it growing up.

This Southern chauvinism, as we've seen, is hardly a new development – or even necessarily native to the South – but some fear that wide unwillingness to embrace and celebrate change will render their cuisine a museum piece.

As Matt Lee and Ted Lee wrote in the introduction to their James Beard Award-winning ‘The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook,’ “[W]e so often find in southern food lore and literature the language of the exclusive, the ‘this, not that’ of folks trying to define the most traditional recipe. … We firmly believe that the diversity of Southern cuisine should always be call for celebration, never a call to choose sides. When you tip a sacred cow like gumbo, it fall reverberates not just in New Orleans and Charleston but in Philadelphia and Senegal, and that fact should be a clarion call to cook – to study and learn about different techniques, to borrow, to experiment, and above all create something delicious.”

They continue, “Southern food can’t really afford to be wistful or obsessed with its past. Otherwise it risks becoming a curiosity.”

But what happens when a chef’s reinterpretation of a time-tested, much-beloved dish reaches a restaurant patron and it looks nothing like the food of their youth, from which they were hoping to sop up some comfort and nostalgia? Although he strives to present his ingredients as simply as possible, as he says “not all fussy,” Chef Josh Smith runs up against this periodically at his Local Roots restaurant in Roanoke, Virginia. Often it’s an older diner who confronts him, “This sure doesn’t look like any chicken and waffles I’ve seen!”

And then they taste it. What Smith has up his sleeve is slavish devotion to his relationship to the farmers who grow the food he cooks, the knowledge of nearby artisans, and the local clientele he depends on for his livelihood. Says he, “Southern food is born off of farms. It’s being embraced by a younger generation, which allows for forward thinking with farmers. Chefs are taking direction from farmers, and farmers are listening to chefs. It’s a conversation.”

The resultant produce has also earned him easy entrée to community cornerstones like the Glade Hill Cannery. Says Smith, “It’s like stepping back in time. You walk in and there are giant steam kettles and high pressure canning facilities – and no one is under 40. It’s multi-generational, all different types of people, many of them canning for survival.” He continues, “You meet Roland, the guy who knows it all – and suddenly you’re swapping recipes.”

Recipes aren’t all he’s swapped. The beet crop around Glade Hill had failed, but because of Local Roots’ relationship with the farmers, Smith came into the cannery with hundreds of pounds of beets – 150 pounds of which he shared with a grateful crowd. “We made connections with our beautiful produce.”

So yes, the food might not look like it came from Paula Deen’s kitchen or a timeworn meat ‘n’ three, and that does, he admits “cause some stress to a few old-timers,” but his dedication to craft and the farmers shines through. “You would taste it if the farmers weren’t working with the chefs.” He’ll also take the time to talk them through it. “Southern food hits on every level, and for us, this is about community and building trust.”

Smith, like many others, is deeply interested in Sean Brock’s new venture. Says Smith, “Husk is a testament to anyone who ever said he [Brock] was [messing] with Southern food. He has the dedication to honor the simplicity of it – it’s harvest to table, no manipulation.”

Husk is a departure for Brock; the previous “messing with” manifesting itself the bacon cotton candy, butternut squash methylcellulose spheres and foie gras caramels that won him a Best Chef Southeast James Beard Award at his restaurant McCrady’s, also in Charleston. Here, the message is simple. He says, "We're shining a light on the indigenous ingredients and people responsible for them. This is about the chef stepping aside."

He continued, "Southern food is about cooking what's around you. Growing up in Virginia, I took it for granted. We ate from the garden, jars, and what we'd stored in the basement." The problem came, he says, when large producers and manufacturers began getting between farmers and cooks.

His example – Hoppin’ John, a traditional Southern dish of rice and field peas, seasoned with bacon and traditionally served on New Year’s Day to bring luck to the next twelve months. Made with canned or bagged genetically modified peas and boxed commercial rice, the dish is…well, he didn’t so much say as make a noise of disgust. But with South Carolina-grown Carolina Gold rice and heirloom peas (Brock’s dedication to heirloom vegetables runs deep – he’s got an ever-evolving array of them tattooed on his left arm), the dish becomes a link to the past – and the future of Southern food.

The menu at Husk will change every day, leaning heavily into that jar-jammed pantry, and thoroughly dependent on what his farmers have available for him to use that day. That may be an exhausting pursuit, but Brock is up for the challenge. As he says, “I want you to taste the South.”

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Filed under: Cuisines • Favorites • Feature • Sean Brock • Secret Suppers • Southern • Think

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soundoff (79 Responses)
  1. laurien

    Amazingly annoying.

    December 4, 2010 at 11:27 pm |
  2. AmyN

    Blackened catfish, seasoned blackeyed peas, okra and carrots for dinner at my southern home tonight. Tomorrow, I pick up my Christmas tamales. I'm almost glad to hear some people trashing southern food. Leaves more for me! And no, I'm not overweight, according to my doctor, who is also picking up his Christmas tamales this weekend.

    December 4, 2010 at 9:03 pm |
  3. EM

    Youngest Son and I were in the Carolina "Smokies" couple years ago in a small town, for a wedding, and they had pulled-pork there that was just melt in your mouth. Have had it several times since then in restaurants up North, but none of them come close to what we had at that wedding.

    December 4, 2010 at 8:38 pm |
  4. EM

    My favorite Southern cooking is Cajun. Red beans-n-rice with sliced 'boudain' - mmm. Sticks to the ribs, and good for ya, too.

    December 4, 2010 at 8:35 pm |
  5. Southern SparkleFarrkel

    wahyt is this whiole article about – what a crock of shit just PR about his new restaurant – who cares? I highley resent this

    December 4, 2010 at 6:53 pm |
  6. jefffbo

    Nothing beats corn, blackeyed peas a porkchop and cornbread with mashed taters... nothing... Yee hah ! never touched it but willing to try.

    December 4, 2010 at 5:30 pm |
  7. suzc

    Southern food? Two cookbooks (two versions of Southern cooking):
    River Roads Recipes by the Baton Rouge Junior League many years ago.
    White Trash Cooking (about po' folks' foods, with pictures)
    MY growing up included a lot of fabulous biscuits, not-so-loved okra (which can't be cooked at elevation), rice and fried chicken.

    December 4, 2010 at 3:50 pm |
  8. Rich, KC

    Oh i miss the good old days. Cant wait till Christmas time, and more of my mom's great southern food.

    December 4, 2010 at 2:08 pm |
  9. Joe, San Diego

    Only bickering little kids change a simple article about southern food into an argument about another subject.
    Tasty southern food mmm mmm my mouth is watering...

    December 4, 2010 at 1:39 pm |

    My in-laws and my ex's maternal grandmother taught me how to cook and can southern foods. They live in the rural, deep South of SC. Covered dish dinners at their church was scrumptious (no fastfood takeouts–none nearby), and I wouldn't take anything my copy of an old church cookbook. The younger generation doesn't cook much. (Only my mother-in-law is still living).

    December 4, 2010 at 1:28 pm |
  11. Lucky-TN

    I've been making biscuits for many years, but just recently began using lard for the shortening. I have to say that lard is the best choice for biscuits. Hee hee. I've been making pickled green tomatoes for about six years. I've tried fermentation in a crock–too salty. Now I make up a white vinegar, water, garlic, dill, and cayenne mix and ferment for only three days. The fermentation keeps the tomatoes from getting mushy. I don't can them though; I keep them in the refrigerator. I love all kinds of food but always go back to the southern way in the end. I grow many heirloom veggies and they are grown organically.

    December 4, 2010 at 10:22 am |
  12. Shee

    Wonderful, wonderful enlightening article! How intriguing to see a new twist on the great food traditions of the South. I'm a dreaded Yankee by birth, but my favorite food is Southern, and yes, I moved down here as fast as I could. Keep up your proud traditions, Southerners, and don't be afraid to embrace the new. Both are delicious and FUN.

    November 11, 2010 at 6:04 am |
  13. DerekL

    Whatever he's cooking – it's not Southern. If it doesn't look and taste like it did to the old timers, then you're doing it wrong. It's insulting to generations of Southern cooks that he acts as if it's *them* who is wrong.

    November 11, 2010 at 3:17 am |
    • Lucky-TN

      You're probably right, but since I've not tasted his food, I'm not going to say much. I'm southern and have found sweating young, tender greens with a little butter and water added at the end are about as good as you can get. Of course, I'd never cook collards that way. LOL. You wouldn't be able to chew them, the cell walls are too thick. Spinach, Swiss chard, kale, mustard are all good sweated.

      December 4, 2010 at 10:26 am |
  14. Patrick Moran

    "If it doesn't come from the South, it's not coming through the door". Love that! Just hope it includes "snowfoul" aka "snowbirds"! LOL

    November 10, 2010 at 6:02 pm |
  15. BB

    Southern food is the BEST food in the world. Thanks to everyone who is true to the tradition of Southern cooking.

    November 10, 2010 at 5:58 pm |
  16. webaggression

    I can not wait to go to HUSK. Chef Brock and MCrady's have been favorites for years. Husk will undoubtedly be an amazing experience.

    November 10, 2010 at 4:30 pm |
  17. conradshull

    There's no point acknowledging, let along arguing with the Southern food detractors. Most have never tasted much of it, have never spent any time in the South and talk the way they do simply because of their smug, provincial east/west coast faux superiority. Discussing the fine food talked about here with them is as pointless as getting into a discussion on the merits of wet vs: dry pork ribs with Osama bin Laden.

    November 10, 2010 at 4:06 pm |
    • PolksaladAnnie hit the nail on the head....

      November 12, 2010 at 11:57 am |
  18. Neel

    Check out my review of Empire State South, a true "southern" restaurant that just opened in Atlanta:

    November 10, 2010 at 4:03 pm |
  19. BioHzrd

    If you want some soul food, you MUST have Mama Dip's in Chapel Hill NC. I would kill for her fried okra!

    November 10, 2010 at 3:26 pm |
  20. Jason Gross

    Great article. Definitely makes your mouth water. The local Chambers of Commerce should definitely push the food angle more for tourism.

    November 10, 2010 at 1:39 pm |
  21. Penny

    Our refusal to "change" will not turn us into "dinosaurs." People have eaten, and will continue to eat, and love, Southern food the way it is. We don't need Yankees telling us how to cook, that's for sure!

    November 10, 2010 at 1:11 pm |
  22. Evil Grin

    Southern food is an interesting mix of familiar favorites for most anyone (fried chicken, ham and green beans, biscuits and gravy) to ingredients or combinations of ingredients that you just don't see everywhere (pickled anything, grits, greens rendered in fat and vinegar). It's intriguing to me, and I've lived in the south most of my life. Even now I find things that people use regularly that are surprising to me.

    I think it's because southern food isn't all the same. Each region has a little something different to offer. While it all remains southern style, there's a great deal of variety. And some of it actually is healthy. =)

    November 10, 2010 at 12:51 pm |
    • justpeachy


      November 10, 2010 at 1:07 pm |
  23. CharlestonEats

    I've been to McCrady's half a dozen times and Brock can do no wrong in my book. And for those of you who call Southerners fat:

    November 10, 2010 at 12:51 pm |
  24. smedrob

    Thanks Kat
    I am living in Atlanta temporarily and have passed Taqueria Del Sol several times but am afraid to stop. I have eaten at several different types of mexican restaurants and have been very disappointed. After reading this article and seeing turnip green tamales I am intrigued! I am going there this weekend!!

    November 10, 2010 at 12:50 pm |
    • Kat Kinsman

      Get in your car and GO THERE! If the lunch they served at SFA is any indication of what they do on a regular basis, you are so lucky to live nearby.

      November 10, 2010 at 1:04 pm |
  25. southerngirl10

    Those are pickled green tomatoes and are fine, fine, fine with some fresh lady finger peas and lil new potatoes from the garden!! A side of orkra and tomatoes and there ya are.............

    November 10, 2010 at 12:20 pm |
    • r

      What is that in the picture on the headline story on the other page for this article?

      November 10, 2010 at 9:51 pm |
  26. Sybil

    I am a newcomer to canning and find it fun as well as tasting so much better than canned. I also have been making jelly/jam with blueberrys, muscadine, quince, apples, figs and peaches (makes great Christmas presents). We also pick up pecans and grow our own vegetables. This saves a lot of money and less trips to the grocery. You just need to invest mostly in jars and a canner (the jars are reuseable).

    November 10, 2010 at 11:58 am |
  27. Evangeline

    I am always happy to see an article that takes us back to our culinary roots. Food snobs would have us all believing that "good food" must be expensive or exotic.
    I think the greens in the jars are tomatillos.

    November 10, 2010 at 11:45 am |
  28. Southern Girl

    Southern cookin'.... it's the best. That's how I grew up. Greens, black eyed peas, fried okra with fried green tomatoes, Pinto beans with welted lettuce, pecan pie, chocolate cream pie, fried salt pork with homemade chow chow. (didn't need any meat) I could go on and on. Great article. I went back in time and it's wonderful to know that there are people that want to keep it fresh and simple and alive. ( I live in So Cal now it's just not the same.... can't beat the weather here and most people have never heard of some of these dishes).

    November 10, 2010 at 11:39 am |
    • D Lewis

      Salt pork gravy and homemade biscuits...YUM!! I am hungry!!

      November 10, 2010 at 1:22 pm |
  29. ohsnap!

    Ya know, there are always the 'powers that be' that take a simple concept, give it a fancy new French name like 'nouvelle cuisine', sell it for inflated prices and leave the inventors and REAL cooks out in the cold. The gentrification of Southern, soul it comes.

    November 10, 2010 at 11:36 am |
  30. Dave Mast

    Living in Connecticut for many, many years, I can't wait to get back to Virginia each year for the food I grew up on. Now, due to your article, I'll have to schedule a trip much earlier than anticipated. I'm hungary!

    November 10, 2010 at 11:16 am |
  31. Southern Belle

    The wonderful thing about any kind of food is it's diversity. Absolutely nothing wrong with a geographical region being known for a particular type of food. Here in the south, I love and cook my southern comfort food. However, when I want a good bagel, a good slice of pizza or mouth watering pasta, I don't get it here, I go to New York! When I want authenic mexican, I find that out west! Some foods just aren't the same when prepared out of their "region"!

    November 10, 2010 at 11:08 am |
    • justpeachy

      So can say you're making southern food new or fresh but when you change it it's no longer southern cooking. I don't think anyone, who is interested in a good authentic italian meal, would want spaghetti and meatballs cooked with cilantro or curry instead of basil and garlic becuase it makes it new and fresh! Southern cooking will not become a curiosity, and we're not wistful or obsessed, we just like southern food the way it was created originally.

      November 10, 2010 at 12:59 pm |
  32. phoenix

    too much cholesterol and fat in that red neck food. like pickingoff the apple tree. i ll stick to new england cuisine

    November 10, 2010 at 11:02 am |
    • Trav

      Because all that butter on your seafood and cream based sauces isn't full of fat. Seriously, get over yourself.

      November 10, 2010 at 12:08 pm |
    • Anne

      There's a reason most of the country's obese people live in the South.

      November 10, 2010 at 12:31 pm |
      • D Lewis

        Well, not necessarily. My family lives in the North and South Carolina and not one of them are overweight. On the other hand, come on out to CA, land of yogurt and sunshine, and you will find plenty of very obese people. I'll take down-home Southern cooking over CA "cuisine" any day.

        November 10, 2010 at 12:49 pm |
    • tubcat

      Southerners aren't fat because of traditional southern food. Southerners are fat for the same reason other regional folks are fat; poverty. Wholesome food are often not available or too expensive for many families to afford. It's a whole lot easier/cheaper to get junkfood than it is to buy ingredients and cook your own meals when you're working way too many hours for too little pay.

      Additionally, Southern eating habits and traditions have not changed since our food sources became saturated in junk food choices. It used to be that you ate every scrap that was cooked for most meals. My father compulsively cleans his plate and and anyone else's if they leave a scrap. Nowadays we should be leaving a little on the plate, but the more the better and clean it up mentality is still there. For working folk from my hometown, it's eat what you can when you can and that's not good for the waistline.

      Better food choices and education would go a long long long way to improving the health of southerners. Paula Deen may showcase some stupendous Southern cooking, but not every southern dish has lard and a stick of butter per serving. Real southern food of my childhood focused just as much on the vegetables as anything (1 evening meal = 1 meat, 1 carb, 1-2 veggies). Pretty balanced diet and noone used to have a gut till produce was harder to come by.

      November 10, 2010 at 1:25 pm |
    • Misc

      You're an idiot.

      November 10, 2010 at 1:25 pm |
    • Kevin

      I've lived in new england. Not sure what you're talking about, but whatever their diet, it isn't keeping them thin, at least not any more than regional diets anywhere else.

      November 10, 2010 at 1:41 pm |
    • Matt

      What exactly is "New England Cuisine"? – Starch, lobster, butter, cream-based soups and sauces, Fenway Franks?... tubcat is correct, obesity and poverty go hand in hand. If you find a trailer park in Massachusetts, I'm willing to bet theres a few fat people around as well.

      November 10, 2010 at 1:44 pm |
      • Anne

        You know that border fence everyone keeps talking about to keep the Mexican illegals out? I say; let's erect that fence roughly where the Mason/Dixon line is and call it a day. Deep fried red-state red-neck blech...

        November 10, 2010 at 5:04 pm |
      • Matt

        Anne – Thats a pretty ignorant response to a reasonable comment. Whats the deal?

        November 11, 2010 at 12:49 pm |
  33. Bunnie

    I checked out the Atlanta restaurants and their offerings, and if the soul of Southern cooking was indeed found, it's being sold off at ridiculous prices. I'm sorry, but count me in the Atlanta crowd that liked Feedmill, Old Hickory House and the old Colonnade (not the newsy artsy expensive crap they're shilling now). Southern food, at it's core, is unpretentious, but this new crowd has turned it into nouvelle cuisine for folks who have been eating at Maggiano's too often.

    November 10, 2010 at 10:59 am |
    • Kristie

      Hey Bunnie, try the new Main Street Grill in Alanta. My little brother is one of the chef's. They put a delightful amount of Southern selections on their menu...including chicken and waffles. Tell him his big sister says Hey!

      November 10, 2010 at 1:28 pm |
  34. 4U Mister

    My grandmother, now passed, made the most delicious pecan pies, and chicken with dumplings–from scratch, without a cookbook, and they won ribbons every time she brought them for judging at the county fair. Now THAT's a good cook!

    November 10, 2010 at 10:40 am |
  35. Spencer Humphrey

    Kate would love to have you attend one of our Secret Suppers the next time you're in Atlanta.

    November 10, 2010 at 10:32 am |
  36. Sally bertlesman

    What are you canning in the photo? Would you share the recipe? It looks like an apple,onion combo of some sort.
    Thank you.

    November 10, 2010 at 10:22 am |
    • Kat Kinsman

      I'll ask the chef tonight, but in the meantime – here's the bread & butter pickles and sunchoke pickles recipes they gave us:

      November 10, 2010 at 10:24 am |
      • Amy

        Looks like they are putting up green tomatoes! Will be interested to see if that is the case.

        November 10, 2010 at 10:57 am |
    • slsan

      It looks more like green tomatoes...

      November 10, 2010 at 11:01 am |
      • EM

        Yep, was thinking same: green tomatoes.

        December 4, 2010 at 8:31 pm |
    • Dave-0

      Having grown up in the South, those pictures look like pickled green tomatoes....awesome with pork, chicken or a biscuit...

      November 10, 2010 at 3:05 pm |
    • Patricia

      Looks like pickled green tomatoes and they are great!

      November 11, 2010 at 6:51 am |
    • Kat Kinsman

      It seems that Atlanta had a frost last weekend so they had to do something with the green tomatoes. Chef Hopkins graciously offered to share the recipe - lucky us!

      November 12, 2010 at 9:43 am |
  37. RichardHead@Kat

    Great article Kat-Wish I could be there but would have to skip the beets.

    November 10, 2010 at 10:20 am |
    • Kat Kinsman

      Not a beet fan? I'm not either, but I can occasionally be swayed.

      November 10, 2010 at 10:21 am |
      • RichardHead@Kat

        Has to do with a Julia Childs book and my mother learning to cook. Beets and FISH-but that's another story. Glad to see Lard is making a comeback,tho in moderation.

        November 10, 2010 at 10:34 am |
    • Steve-O

      My mom ued to make beets with a little vinegar and jalepeno juice, gives them a better flavor!

      November 10, 2010 at 1:13 pm |
    • McCradysEmplyee

      Every person whom I've ever met that said they didn't like beets (including myself) changed their minds after having some of Chef Brock's "loved up" red and golden beets. Their firm-ish texture and simple sweetness make them the perfect accompaniment to many, many a different protein. Point being: Good beets + butter = Yum Yum!

      December 4, 2010 at 12:31 pm |
    • v.coleman

      is it so difficult to give credit where credit is due, if not for the african slaves there would be no soul food, or southern food for that matter. that is not at all racist but a mere fact.

      December 5, 2010 at 9:32 am |
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