Defining Southern food is a tricky proposition. It’s not just one cuisine, but many. It’s not confined to one place, but rather spans the diverse climates of several states. It’s traditional, but also contemporary; it’s historical, and yet continually evolving.
Ironically, the fact that Southern food is a moving target is what truly defines it. Perhaps it’s better to say that, no matter which dish is under debate, Southern cooking is always inviting and honest.
In Smoke and Pickles: Recipes and Stories from a New Southern Kitchen, Edward Lee shows the incredible range of Southern cooking. The chef and owner of 610 Magnolia in Louisville, Kentucky, for the past decade, Lee melds personal influences and professional experiences with local resources.
Lee grew up in a Korean-American household in Brooklyn during the 1970s and 1980s. He watched his grandmother prepare old-school Korean dishes. At his friend Marcus’s apartment, he had Puerto Rican plantains over rice. He hung out with Jewish neighbors, too, when his parents were at work, learning from them as well.
After college, Lee opened a Korean barbecue joint on Mott Street in New York City, “entertaining celebrities and fashionistas and selling lychee martinis by the dozens.” It eventually closed: “Three years of the restaurant had gone by in a blink.”
Somehow he found himself in Kentucky in 2003 on the weekend of the Derby. He has lived there ever since, getting the chance to reinvent himself “through the lens of tobacco and bourbon and sorghum and horse racing and country ham.”
Lee took instantly to the South. The foods around him, he realized, were similar to those he ate as a child with his grandmother. “Soft grits remind me of congee; jerky of cuttlefish; chowchow of kimchi,” he writes. “My Korean forefathers’ love of pickling is rivaled only by Southerners’ love of pickling. BBQ, with its intricate techniques of marinades and rubs, is the backbone of both cuisines.”
In his cookbook, Lee combines familiar ingredients in previously unfamiliar ways. For a beef rice bowl, for example, he marries Asian-style barbecue — think bulgogi — with sautéed collard greens. He tops this re-conceptualization of bibimbap with fried eggs and spoonfuls of corn chile remoulade, giving the dish further flavor, texture, and spice.
For pulled pork, he eschews sweet Southern barbecue sauce for a saltier version made with soy sauce, black-bean paste, and sesame oil. He serves the meat with cornbread and pickles, or tucked into hot-dog buns with spicy Napa-cabbage kimchi. Savory and sour notes contrast well.
In a chapter on bourbon and bar snacks, Lee focuses on the distilled spirit most associated with Kentucky. “I have sipped and I have slugged,” he writes. “I have rollicked in the simple joys of a Rebel Yell and pontificated on the complexities of a Col. E. H. Taylor . . ." In the desserts chapter, he gets creative with buttermilk affogato, chess pie with blackened pineapple salsa, and a whiskey-ginger cake garnished elegantly with pears cut into matchsticks.
In Southern parlance, of course, Lee is a carpetbagger, an outsider who has embraced the region as his own. Another pair of Lees — siblings Matt and Ted, who publish their award-winning cookbooks under the moniker the Lee Bros. — offer the opposite perspective: that of Southern natives, schooled from infancy in the region’s rich culinary heritage.
In The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen, they celebrate all that their South Carolina hometown has to offer. They extol its virtues, showing us “not only what it’s like to grow up here and learn to cook here . . . but also how we are continually inspired by this place.” They describe the cuisine as well as the people — farmers, fishermen, chefs, and bartenders — who help to make their community whole.
As they did in The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook and The Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern, the brothers concentrate on popular traditional items, including shrimp, okra, pecans, and boiled peanuts. (Not coincidentally, they have built a mail-order specialty-food business around these classic foodstuffs.)
More notably, however, the brothers feature several rather obscure local ingredients. Kumquats, for example, grow throughout downtown Charleston. The Lees infuse gin with them for cocktails, highlighting the citrus fruit’s sweet-tart flavor — a mix of orange, grapefruit, and lemon — in a kumquat sparkler with sparkling white wine, a kumquatini, a kumquat margarita, and a kumquat-chile Bloody Mary.
The Lees also talk about loquats, a fruit a tad smaller than golf balls and native to China. The fruits “emerge on trees throughout the Lowcountry in April (March, if it’s been a warm winter), with furry skin enveloping a shallow layer of yellow-orange flesh.” They use them for a vodka infusion to concoct loquat Manhattans.
Championing vegetables they realized not long ago had been harvested in South Carolina since the 18th century, the brothers also introduce things like salsify, a scraggly carrot-like root. They peel, cook, and mash it as we might potatoes to create fried salsify “oysters” reminiscent of hush puppies or falafel. Their creativity is appetizing in its freshness and simplicity.
Every so often, their book pauses for profiles of women and men in the local food industry. The brothers spotlight folks like Celeste Albers, a poultry and dairy farmer on Wadmalaw Island 18 miles south of Charleston, and Sidi Limehouse, “a prominent character, as much for his salty opinions and spicy backstory . . . as his fine produce.”
The brothers know that Southern cooking — all cooking, really — is only as good as its ingredients. And they take great civic pride in both their hometown’s thriving food scene and the hard work required to sustain it.
A third Southern native, Susan Puckett, is also reverential towards the traditions of her region. Born in Jackson, Mississippi, Puckett is the former food editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her volume Eat Drink Delta: A Hungry Traveler’s Journey Through the Soul of the South — equal parts visitor’s guide, handy cookbook, and photo essay — takes a broad look across the Mississippi Delta region.
Puckett begins in Memphis and works her way down toward Vicksburg. She covers cities both big and small, spotlighting a few fancy eateries but focusing mostly on mom-and-pops. These businesses keep it real. “Travelers expecting to indulge in home-style fried chicken and fresh, pond-raised catfish are rarely disappointed,” she writes. “Fine examples of those Delta stalwarts — with their requisite accompaniments of slow-cooked greens and cornbread — turn up in every small town, and even in country cafés in the middle of nowhere.”
Unusual items appear often as well. “From one end of the Delta to the other, old-time tamale makers wrap cornmeal cylinders filled with spicy beef or pork . . . to sell from roadside stands or café lunch counters. Pit masters mix barbecue into spaghetti. Convenience stores sell giant dill pickles marinated in Kool-Aid as snacks to go.”
In search of popular everyday foods, Puckett explores what folks at the Southern Foodways Alliance dubbed the Mississippi Delta Hot Tamale Trail. She tries tamales at Blues City Café in Memphis, for example, and at Doe’s Eat Place in Greenville, Mississippi, and Pea-Soup’s Lott-A-Freeze in Indianola, Mississippi.
Unlike the tamales we get “in Mexican and Southwestern-style restaurants, which can be dry and fairly tasteless,” she contends, the ones found in the Delta are “savory cigar-shaped packages . . . dripping in oily, spicy juices.” They’re made in corn husks or parchment paper. And though they’re sold all over the state, they’re rarely seen outside of it.
Puckett also encounters Kool-Aid pickles — whole dill pickles soaked in powdered drink mix, sugar, and pickle juice — in large plastic jugs. For decades, she tells us, children in poor black neighborhoods had been pouring Kool-Aid packets directly into pickle jars; they liked the tanginess. Grocers “refined the technique a bit, and started selling them along with other pickled soul-food standbys like eggs and pigs’ feet.”
When she can, she shares recipes from residents and restaurants as well, giving us opportunities to mimic flavors or try new dishes in the comfort of our own kitchens. In conjunction with snapshots taken around the region by photographer Langdon Clay, these recipes help reveal a strong sense of community.
For those of us born and raised on the West Coast, areas south of the Mason-Dixon Line can sometimes unfortunately be but a blur. (Areas east of the Rockies aren’t always clear to us either.) The geography we learned in fifth grade fails us. We are simply not as familiar as we should be with that stretch of the country.
Whether bringing multicultural influences to Southern food, offering ideas on handling unique ingredients, or collecting observations traveling from one town to another, these authors each enlighten us further about the South — its land, people, and foods.
Through their stories, images, and recipes, the Lees and Puckett document their love for the place they call home, celebrating its generosity and hospitality.
Christina Eng is a writer in Oakland, California.