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.”