You can't out-cook a ghost.
Goodness knows I have tried. I've spent hours, days, weeks, months in pursuit of the perfect biscuits, hauling ingredients from my husband's native North Carolina to our Brooklyn apartment, putting my lard-smeared hands on every text I could find and cornering octogenarian in-laws at holiday dinners. Moreover, I have rolled, beaten, patted and whispered to endless dough batches, made my own butter and buttermilk (the mention of that effort earned me a high-pitched "Sh*t, girl!” from none other than Paula Deen, and I will never get tired of telling people that), gone ice-less so as to accommodate more flour varieties in the freezer and I swear unto the heavens, I never, ever twist the biscuit cutter.
Still, I come giddily bearing the star of each batch, butter-slathered and piping hot, and study my husband's face as he takes the first bite. He's appreciative and unfailingly complimentary - a Southern gentleman, after all - but deep down, I know it's never going to measure up to the ones his long-departed Memama and her housekeeper Nettie rolled out on a linen pillowcase and served to him as a child. I've learned to be okay with that.
Grandmothers are canonized in Southern cooking, and while it's taken as read that your own cooking, with rare exception, will pale in comparison, willful deviation...doesn't go over so well.
Eatocracy recently hosted its inaugural Secret Supper in Atlanta at Chef Linton Hopkins' Restaurant Eugene. Hopkins is a James Beard Award-nominated, fourth-generation Atlanta resident and newly sworn-in president of the Southern Foodways Alliance, a group founded to "document, study, and celebrate the diverse food cultures of the changing American South." Chef Hopkins and his wife Gina not only work closely with the farmers from whom they source the restaurant's food - they are founding partners of the Peachtree Road Farmers Market. Gina sits on the board of Georgia Organics, their hospitality director Judith Winfrey is the co-operator of Love Is Love Farm, and Chef Hopkins has been instrumental in getting Georgia farmers, like Crystal Organic Farms, to reclaim true heritage crops like pimentos, the growth and production of which had been taken by large agricultural companies.
This reverence for the terroir and culture of the region's cooking was evidenced in every aspect of the menu - from artfully crafted and sourced country ham, green tomatoes pickled just in time to snatch them back from an early frost, playful riffs on Southern standards like pimento cheese, pickled shrimp and soulful creamy heirloom grits to lovingly slow-cooked ribs, quick-cured trout plucked from a nearby river mere hours before, carrots just forty minutes out of the ground, borne to the dinner by a farmer in attendance at the dinner, and a sweet send-off with cake made from sorghum - a Southern crop Hopkins is doing his best to evangelize and revive. It was, by the accounts of all in attendance, a love letter to the cooks, farmers and soul of the South.
Attendee, Atlanta food writer Christiane Lauterbach found resonance in the menu’s message on the identity of Southern food. “What we want is beautifully sourced ingredients – not stuff that you just get from the grocery store. Stuff that – you know the farmer, you know the cow, you know the pig. That evolution is very meaningful.”
Atlanta Journal-Constitution food writer and chief dining critic John Kessler agreed. “Bacon is our calling card. Everybody likes bacon, but there’s so much more to Southern food than that. What do they say in Italian? Cucina povere – poor people’s cooking. What Southern food is, is that. It is food that is very close to the agrarian tradition. It’s close to the earth.”
Commenters on the live blog of the event took grave offense to the notion that this would be presented as Southern food. It is at odds with their notion of what the cuisine has always meant to them and their family, and respondents to our accompanying stories Reclaiming the soul of Southern food and How well do you know Southern food? accuse chefs like Hopkins, Charleston's Sean Brock and Roanoake's Josh Smith of cultural and culinary treason for their reverence of ingredients over dishes and their seeming disloyalty to the specter of the Southern grandmother.
That's why we are hosting the Secret Suppers. While we cannot (yet) physically feed everyone, we believe passionately and firmly that the best discussion takes place around a dinner table. Food fuels ideas, feeds minds and well as stomachs and is a catalyst for passionate dialogue about culture, economics, race, gender and, yes, the dishes themselves. As attendee, chef and author Virginia Willis says food, “will allow us to connect what we’re putting in our mouths with what is happening around the world.”
We want to hear from you - pull up a chair, take your place at the table and share your thoughts on the state of Southern cooking in the comments below and we'll share some of the most thoughtful and provocative responses in an upcoming post.
Type with your mouth full - maybe even have a biscuit.