The Main Ingredient in 19 Southern Foods

Southern food

Cornbread

Saying you know the South through its food is a clich√©, but if the speaker grew up in Dixie, moved away and returns occasionally for a visit home, there’s a pinch of truth in the phrase.

While I continued writing during my recent five-week stay in Chattanooga, Tennessee, many hours unexpectedly were filled with my mother talking about food, comparing recipes, going to markets, washing dishes while the oven heated up and asking if we should do something different next time as we finally sat down to eat.

I watched, and sometimes helped, my mother cook and serve many foods associated with the South.

Southern food

Green tomatoes

I counted at least 19:

  1. Tennessee Pride sausage patties
  2. cathead and pan buttermilk biscuits (also made by my sister)
  3. biscuits and gravy with eggs and bacon
  4. sausage biscuits with sliced tomato and mustard
  5. pancakes
  6. BBQ ribs with sides of baked beans, cole slaw and potato salad
  7. sliced red tomatoes
  8. fried green tomatoes
  9. end-of-summer peaches
  10. fried okra
  11. turnip greens
  12. white beans
  13. spoon bread pudding
  14. cornbread baked in a cast-iron skillet
  15. banana pudding made with Nilla wafers
  16. buttermilk pie
  17. chocolate pie
  18. coconut cake
  19. chocolate cake
Southern food

Coleslaw, BBQ pork, baked beans & potato salad (clockwise)

I grew up with these foods, but they were not appreciated in the 1970s and 1980s as regional cuisines. Instead, working parents, like my mom and dad, shopped for the fastest foods to feed my sister and me.

Only on Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, family reunions and funerals (a type of family reunion) was the Southern table crowded with pats of butter, green onions, fried catfish and 3-layer cakes.¬†To a kid who thought Shoney’s chilled salad bar was the best place to get the nicest meals, the aluminum-foil-covered bowls of fried okra and potato salad passed around were unappealing.

And until recently, I was fine appreciating through memory Southern foods: Fried. Sugar. Buttery. Over-cooked. Sugar. Not healthy. I renewed my Southern cooking card every Thanksgiving by baking Reba Sharpe’s Pecan Pie. And living in the Pacific Northwest for the almost twenty years had conditioned me to scoff at any local attempts to add fancy cheese to grits.

Southern food

Cathead biscuits

Now, I am compelled to learn bread sliced okra and bake pan biscuits.

That is partly due to living in the Pacific Northwest for almost twenty years and still, the pull of the South is strong; years, miles, borders and a ring cannot break the thread between me and Chattanooga.

But mostly, this interest, urgent and respectful, in appreciating¬† Southern food – how to cook them, which great aunt made the best applesauce cake, what are their histories, and when is the best month for watermelon –¬† comes from acknowledging that the main ingredient in all of the dishes is my mom.

Southern Food

Banana pudding

I can find 100s of recipes for biscuits, read about the influence of the Great Depression on buttermilk pie, and simmer collard greens and black-eyed peas every New Years Day, but all will miss a particular flavor and comforting texture.

I still have time to watch my mom’s kitchen choreography and pick up some tricks, especially since she responds, when asked about measurements or oven temperatures, “I don’t use a recipe, I just do it.”

An Alternative Route

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Tao of Travel, Paul Theroux

Author Paul Theroux identified ten items in his list, The Essential Tao of Travel, beginning with 1. Leave home and ending with 10. Make a friend.

I am following number eight because this trip needs an alternative route, a string to a balloon or a cloud or a seagull that lifts me, even if only my feet drag.
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Where the Rain is Born

Theroux suggested to “8. Read a novel that has no relation to the place you’re in,” and so, as I start a month-long visit to Chattanooga, I start reading¬†Where the Rain is Born, a collection of essays, fiction, poetry and images about Kerala, a region in southern India.
I bought the book in Kerala while staying a few nights in Varkala, a town above the Arabian Sea, and seven years later, I am reading it during my first visit to my hometown in three years.
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Varkala, cliff walk above Arabian Sea

A narrow mud path cliffside links the images of Varkala, Kerala that I remember: Waves crashing below the horizon, the sound one of many languages. Shiny vines over roads. Tasting the coarsely-ground spices in fish curry. Mosques, temples and shrines.  Large families standing and sitting along the shore at sunset. Sleeping in a small room in a white building between the jungle and sea. Women in turquoise saris slicing through feisty and crowded bushes, kids at a pep rally. Brown. Blue. Green.
I am reading to learn more about a place I want to revisit.
I am reading to be inspired by good travel writing.
I am also reading to be reminded of memories other than the ones everywhere now.
Driving to the grocery inevitably involves a resurrection of a high school night or a cousin or a conversation that had been tightly folded and packed away.
I am reading to bring back and ward off spirits of a place.