Southern cookbooks inspire heartfelt taste memories among chefs, home cooks and new friends.
by Jill Warren Lucas
The smell of strong coffee and sight of a black skillet on the burner, wisps of smoke curling over its rim as a flame readied it for cooking, is as familiar to many who grew up in the South as the trademark twist in O. Henry’s classic short story “The Gift of the Magi.”
Taste memories often have more to do with the setting — where you were and who you were with or, even more importantly, whose caring hands prepared the meal — than any single bite of food actually consumed.
That notion was celebrated during the recent Savor the South Weekend at the O. Henry Hotel in Greensboro, North Carolina. The event featured great food and memorable stories inspired by the single-topic cookbooks that form the “Savor the South” series from the University of North Carolina Press.
Featured authors included Kelly Alexander (Peaches), Belinda Ellis (Biscuits), April McGreger (Sweet Potatoes), Debbie Moose (Buttermilk and Southern Holidays), Jay Pierce (Shrimp, coming in 2015), Kathleen Purvis (Pecans and Bourbon), Miriam Rubin (Tomatoes), Andrea Weigl (Pickles & Preserves) and Virginia Willis (Okra). Appalachian foodways expert Ronni Lundy joined O. Henry Hotel owners Dennis and Nancy King Quaintance as hosts.
Carefully researched and written to empower home cooks, the matching volumes each start with the premise of what a beloved Southern food means to those who feature it on the family table. April McGreger of Chapel Hill, producer of award-winning Farmer’s Daughter brand jams, pickles and preserves, shared a cherished family tradition and how its evolution filled her with an almost Gothic sense of dread.
“When my parents tore down the old shed where my dad and his friends would boil peanuts every year,” said McGreger, her hand fluttering toward her heart as if overcome at the mere thought, “it was like a death in the family.”
McGreger’s words transported a capacity crowd to a chilly afternoon in small-town Mississippi, where her father and many other farmers in town raised sweet potatoes. Every fall, he’d haul out a huge boiler from the shed to cook the contents of 50-pound sacks of raw peanuts.
“My sister and I, as soon as we could touch them, would reach in there for the squishiest peanuts,” she remembered as some in the room nodded, slipping beside the girls in a combined imagining of an idyllic Southern childhood. “Then,” McGreger added, snapping them out of their reverie, “we’d dip the shells into that dirty, salty water and drink it like the best soup ever. Can you imagine? Why didn’t anyone tell us it was nasty?”
McGreger still adores boiled peanuts — without their muddy potlikker — and her dad can still be counted upon to have a ziptop bag of them defrosting in a coat pocket.
Miriam Rubin’s Tomatoes was the debut volume of “Savor the South.” A longtime member of the Southern Foodways Alliance, she lives 5 miles from the Mason-Dixon line in southwestern Pennsylvania. Rubin recalled a recipe for Sister Sadie’s Honey Cake that she first encountered while assisting Marcie Cohen Ferris with the research and recipe development for Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South. She became emotional when telling about baking one for a seriously ill friend before the Jewish New Year.
“Since she’s gotten sick, she hasn’t talked to anybody,” said Rubin, pausing to hold back tears. “But she called me up to see how I was doing. It was a gift, that call. Food is important. It really matters.”
Food can fuel deep emotions, ranging from the sorrow-lifting comfort of a bereavement meal to the joy of a slice of pie whose seasonal sweetness has bubbled through the crust to create sticky bites of candied goodness. For Kelly Alexander, it inspired a passion that bordered on erotic. When host Nancy Quaintance lustily read an especially purple selection from Peaches, some in the audience blushed.
“Elaine Maisner said I could write whatever I wanted, and I thought, really?” Alexander said of the UNC Press senior executive editor, who conceived the critically-lauded series of cookbooks. “After all, a peach is a very sexy fruit.”
Alexander’s recollections focused on her grandmother, who boldly moved from Brooklyn to Atlanta in 1947. She became verklempt when some of the traditional Jewish foods she’d cooked since she was a girl didn’t taste the same.
“It took her a long time to figure out that her mandel brot [a type of Jewish cookie] came out different because she was using soft Southern wheat flour, White Lily to be exact,” said Alexander, who wrote about the experience and shared the recipe in the Southern Living cookbook, No Place Like Home. “It made my grandmother so proud because she had become a full Southerner.”
Belinda Ellis, who wrote the Biscuits book, is no stranger to the wonders of White Lily. She worked for the company for many years and taught countless home cooks to overcome their fear of making leaden biscuits. “I’ve always said it was a shame my grandmother couldn’t have seen Belinda make biscuits,” quipped host Ronni Lundy, “because she really could learn how to make good ones.”
Ellis said she’s heard every excuse about failed biscuits. More importantly, she’s mentally cataloged “every nuance, every touch of the hand by people who love you,” she said, while demonstrating how to bring together the sticky dough. “That’s what touches your heart.”
Get Belinda Ellis’s recipe for Easy Cream Biscuits here.
Chefs and cookbook writers weren’t alone in sharing their food memories. Jerry Roberts (pictured below), 83, of Mooresville, North Carolina, recalled growing up in a house so deep in the woods that he never saw the sun rise or set. When his family later moved to the edge of the woods, he was stunned one morning to observe the beauty of the dawn while his mother fixed breakfast. “I sat at the edge of the table looking out the window, comparing the sunrise to the fried egg on my plate,” he said, closing his eyes as the boyhood image floated behind his lids. “Still, I think of that every time I eat an egg.”
The heartfelt story told by Mark File, director of marketing for Quaintance-Weaver Restaurants & Hotel (which includes the O. Henry), reduced Virginia Willis and others to tears. He recalled baking his mother’s favorite chocolate pound cake, cutting it into slices, then wrapping each carefully before tucking them into the freezer.
“My mother lives in an Alzheimer’s unit and doesn’t remember many details of her life – until she takes a bit of that cake,” File said. “She brightens and talks about making it for her church friends like it was yesterday. It makes my mother my mother again.”
Photo credits, from top: Savor the South table, okra Bloody Marys, Sweet Potatoes table decoration and Peaches booksigning by Mark File; Jerry Roberts by Jill Warren Lucas.
Jill Warren Lucas is a freelance writer in Raleigh, North Carolina, who blogs at Eating My Words.