The Main Ingredient in 19 Southern Foods

Southern food


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.

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.”

The Wildfire Four Mountains Away

While two helicopters descended behind the hill that normally protects Princeton, a town of 2,828 in British Columbia, we walked down the closed-off street where refurbished antique cars lined up at angles for the annual Princeton Main Street Show & Sign sponsored by the local A & W.

We moved from car to car, pointing out the bug-eyed instruments on the dashboard, guessing if this car was like the car driven by my grandparents, wondering how long the restoration took.

The furry costumed A & W mascot walked through the crowd, one hand waving towards no one in particular, the other holding the arm of a young girl leading the orange creature. A four-person band under a tent in the town square played 1950’s songs, and a donation gave you a grilled hamburger on a paper plate.

It was hot in the middle of the street in the middle of the afternoon, and many people like us eventually walked on the sidewalks shaded by the brick, single-story buildings.

Rising from behind the hill, each helicopter reappeared with a box hanging by a cord attached to the belly of the helicopter; the blades spun into a blur, and the box scraped against the clouds until the helicopters traveled out of sight.

It only was after I learned, reading the flashing message on the LED screen in front of Princeton Municipal Hall, that evacuees should register at the Riverside Community Centre, did I realize that the clouds were smoke and that the two helicopters from behind the hill were transporting water to douse a wildfire that could reach, assuming current conditions continue, and the wind blows in the right direction, and the four mountains and four streams do not hold back the fire, our family’s house in four days. In other words, there’s a good chance that family will be reporting to the Riverside Community Centre by the end of this week.

We were visiting my husband’s cousin and her husband who live about twenty kilometers from Princeton on Old Hedley Highway. The Similkameen River is just over the hill behind their house, and coyotes yip under the pines outside their front door. It was a weekend of aging dogs, eggs from the hen house, everyone in the pool, and dinner stories about families (the mystery of my husband’s nickname solved).

This is the first time being close to the devastation of a wildfire, its odds measured by its percentage of containment (now 0% contained and officially labeled “out of control”.) This is the first time stopping whatever I am doing and tilting my head closer to the television to listen for any familiar streets now closed by the RCMP. This is the first time reading a map to estimate the kilometers separating family from fire. This is the first time preparing for the possibility to help family pack and leave before the road melts.

Back in Vancouver, we worry and wonder. We scroll the online newspapers in the morning, watch the television news programs in the evening, and, in between, click on the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen Valley map with Princeton outlined in green (evacuation alert) or red (evacuation order).

From our quiet living room, we watch the televised orange mass of fire erasing forests and blackening cars and burning horses. The photograph shows a woman in shorts walking alone on houses turned to debris. The news reporter supplies the required story about human resilience and connection and gratitude in the face of uncontrollable nature: “family, friends, and even strangers” helped a man corral his cattle and transport them to a safer space, “only losing four cows” last night. The radio announcer is an auctioneer reading the names of evacuated towns.

Yet this information cannot fully describe or convey what residents in the area of the wildfire are experiencing; instead, the information fulfills a neat storyline composed of manmade natural disasters, hold-outs from the evacuation, loss of homes, rebuilding or moving on, and the anniversary of the fire next year.

And that story is inadequate when the characters are people you know.

Moments like this show the hard distance between the necessity and the choice to pay attention, between reality and the story, between finding the first ember on your front porch and imagining what that must be like.

It only was later when I stood in our kitchen in Vancouver, quartering an apricot bought at Sarana’s fruit stand in Osoyoos, did I realize that I walked through the auto-show, as two helicopters carried water, without fear, because of my assumption that the wildfire would never reach me or people I know, that a defense high in the sky would prevent a tragedy close to home, and that the smoke we smelled came from the hamburger grills, not the 2,700 hectares of wildfire four mountains away.


My Aunt Is A Kiwi

Blog Title1 (1)

My aunt Linda arrives in New Zealand today for a two-week trip with a high-school friend.

Linda has always been a role model. She received a Ph.D. in political science from a major research and had a successful 38-year career as a professor at another university. During her tenure, my aunt established the university’s women’s study program; served as department chairman and associate provost; and educated more than 5,000 students.

Linda’s willingness to travel is one of the many things I admire about her. Growing up, I loved hearing about the foods ate and towns visited while in Germany, England, and France. She and her son/my cousin spent a summer vacation driving around Nova Scotia. She was present at the end of East Germany and the reunification of Germany. Linda has gone on an African safari, cruised the Egyptian Nile, and ate paella in Spain.

The photo below is of a mural in the town square of San Jose del Cabo in Mexico where  she and I spent a week together last year.


According to Linda, she has visited 24 countries and yet never seems to take them for granted. The numerous trips have given her a respectful perspective towards the places visited, applying  her academic research skills to understand the cultures, peoples, and politics of the new places.

I think I understand that. Growing up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, though decades apart, we were motivated to cross borders to experience something new.

When international travel was impossible for me, I was happy to see the United States, feeling more secure in my cross-country adventures knowing Linda had just spent a month across the Atlantic. In college, I chose internships in Atlanta, Washington, DC, Chicago, and New York City. I endured two years in chilly Boston and then drove across the top of this country to the freshness of Seattle where I lived for 16 years. My career there with a regional nonprofit kept my travel tank full by traveling throughout the Northwest.  Now I am living just three hours north in Vancouver, BC, with plans to use this as the base for international travel with my husband.

Linda travels the world and brings the invaluable gift of inspiration back.  We chat on the phone (or all too infrequently in person) about her trips. Her journeys travel through my eyes and ears, up to my brain, down to my heart, and makes my feet move forward. I can’t wait to hear about this trip.