Saying you know the South through its food is a cliché, 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.
I counted at least 19:
- Tennessee Pride sausage patties
- cathead and pan buttermilk biscuits (also made by my sister)
- biscuits and gravy with eggs and bacon
- sausage biscuits with sliced tomato and mustard
- BBQ ribs with sides of baked beans, cole slaw and potato salad
- sliced red tomatoes
- fried green tomatoes
- end-of-summer peaches
- fried okra
- turnip greens
- white beans
- spoon bread pudding
- cornbread baked in a cast-iron skillet
- banana pudding made with Nilla wafers
- buttermilk pie
- chocolate pie
- coconut cake
- chocolate cake
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.
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.
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.”