I have a pretty broad palate but, like most, I return to my roots for my favorites partly because it's in my blood. The French have soufflé's and sauces, the Italians have pasta and pizza, the Greeks have olives and Baklava, the Asians have rice, the Indians have curry. Every culture has its cuisine and I try to appreciate them because it's an obvious way to get to know a people besides a handshake. The South has fried chicken, biscuits, grits, greens, sweet potatoes, hushpuppies, black eyed peas, Cajun, Creole, AND all things pig - BBQ, bacon and even pig's ear sandwiches. All washed down with sweet tea or perhaps a sip of bourbon. Who couldn't find something to love here.
The history of Southern cuisine owes much of its distinction to the slaves and Native Americans synonymous with its history. Pilgrims and early settlers couldn't have survived without some pointers on corn from the Indians and the slaves brought from west Africa many plants, seed and ancient cooking techniques that formed the southern table. A moderate climate and a coastline teaming with fruits of the sea offer unique elements bound for glory. I'm not sure why Southern food was ever beneath others on the culinary ladder for so long except a hangover from the stigma of Civil War and Civil Rights. This is all enough for the SFA and its scholars to examine throughly and bring us up to date.
Mr. York spotlights the standard bearers of tradition in some of the most out-of-the-way places imaginable. The legendary Alzina Toups' restaurant is a welder's shed converted to kitchen on a hard to find dirt road in the Louisiana bayou. She rides and adult size tricycle to work. There's no sign and it takes years to get a reservation. Tell that to The French Laundry. Her motto is "Simple Life, You Happy". National Geographic called the Skylight Inn of Ayden, North Carolina the barbecue capital of the world in 1984. It's also in the middle of nowhere but has a ridiculous rotunda atop its simple brick building attesting it's fame. These people love their food and do it proud. It's not about money for them, it's pure love.
Some of the characters highlighted a particular food or drink like the energetic, sixtyish man grinning ear to ear who lauds the merits of buttermilk. Why is he so giddy about buttermilk? He declares with total sincerity, buttermilk to be the elixir of youth. "It keeps you young! Why buttermilk could put Viagra out of business. It'll make you embarrass yourself you feel so young." Wink, wink. I'm surprised dairies aren't using his testimonial for marketing. Can you imagine? "Drink our buttermilk to rev up your sex life" or "A glass of our cold buttermilk makes you hot." I doubt the demand for buttermilk could be met if Madison Avenue got wind of this.
The man who spoke to me like a sole mate raises grass fed cattle in Georgia and the scene is set in his pasture. He says he starts every day at dawn and surveys his pastures with a big cup of coffee and ends everyday at sunset in the same spot with "a 720ml glass of wine" (that's a full bottle). It shows him taking a big swig straight from the bottle. "I don't much care what I have to do between those two events, but if I miss either one - it just ticks me off!" He means it, too. I get it. I can't handle a full bottle but a glass is nice. A night of rest and cup of coffee in the morning assures I can face the day. My mind is scattered in the morning like clothes carelessly dropped on the floor. Coffee helps me sort and organize my thoughts and tasks for the day. The clothes get mentally picked up and hung up. At the other end of the day, wine takes the edge off the bumps and bruises. Rituals for the beginning and end of the day are essential and quite human. It may start at Starbucks and end at a pub or it could be in a pasture. It's a hallmark of civilized society in my opinion.
I like the idea of being part of a tradition. My parents set that example as family meals were part of our daily ritual. It didn't matter if I got up at noon, I had to eat breakfast before lunch. You didn't get meals out of order in our house and you didn't have so much as a peanut butter cracker without china and silverware. Christmas Eve was an epic event I've found challenging to reproduce but the gathering of family is still essential. Our Father's Day barbecue sauce competition is more my speed. Food brings people together to survive and thrive.
I'm always looking for the next big thing in food but looking at my own turf is pretty complex and compelling, in this case. Food is central to this region's character. It seems to me contemporary cooking has gotten confused and trendy with an "anything goes" attitude so I appreciate SFA for examining the traditions of a regions foodways that have endured and documenting the ever changing South through the foods we eat. The world is getting small but the table is getting bigger.