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Contemporary Food Studies of the American South: A Guide to the Literature (July 2019): Cookbooks of the Contemporary South

by Skye Hardesty

Cookbooks of the Contemporary South

Cookbooks are a rich source for food studies scholarship, in addition to their popularity among those who just want to cook new recipes. Part of the purpose of southern food studies is to challenge the stereotypes of southern cuisine, to recover and rediscover traditional ingredients, and to show the diversity of today’s southern food. The following cookbooks exemplify these qualities and could be read as companion pieces to the works discussed in the previous sections of this essay. Not to mention that the recipes in these books make for very good eating.

The friendship of renowned chefs Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock resulted in a cookbook that reveals the subtleties and nuances of southern cooking culled from their personal and professional life experiences in The Gift of Southern Cooking: Recipes and Revelations from Two Great American Cooks. Lewis, a famous African American chef born in 1916 in a Virginia town founded by freed slaves, and Peacock, a successful Caucasian chef from Alabama born in 1963, collaborated on this celebration of traditional southern foods, including shrimp paste, caveach (pickled fish), angel biscuits, and Lane cake. Southern Foodways Alliance’s The Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook is an ode to the community cookbook tradition, but with a focus on covering the breadth of southern food that reflects the SFA membership. As in traditional community cookbooks, each recipe is attributed to the individual cook that devised it, but there are recipes here that defy traditional ideas of southern food, such as Mississippi Madras Okra Gravy and Refried Black-Eyed Peas. Southern Foodways Alliance also produced a “contemporary drink manifesto from the South,” The Southern Foodways Alliance Guide to Cocktails, by Sara Camp Milam and Jerry Slater, which uncovers the history and recipes of cocktails born and made in the South.

Virginia native Sean Brock’s influential book Heritage reflects his “mission to reinvent southern cooking as one of the great cuisines of the world” (p. 19). In his Husk restaurants in Charleston and Nashville, Brock both revives traditional southern recipes and uses them as inspiration for more contemporary interpretations. His book is about his personal mission, but it is also a love letter to the traditional foods of the South and the people who work tirelessly to preserve them. Recipes include the hyperlocal springtime treat Panfried Shad Roe with Creamed Rice, Collard Green Sauerkraut and Bacon Jam, composed plate of Tennessee Foie Gras with Country Ham, Strawberry-Meyer Lemon Jam, and Heirloom Johnnycakes, as well as family recipes such as My Grandmother’s Hillbilly Black Walnut Fudge. Brock wrote the forward to a cookbook by another chef who is reinventing and challenging misconceptions about a certain type of southern food. Chef Todd Richards’s Soul: A Chef’s Culinary Journey in 150 Recipes is Richards’s “homage to the cuisine of my family and ancestors. These are the ingredients of my people. This is my sermon about my Soul food” (p.13). Richards starts each ingredients-based chapter with a traditional African American dish and then moves through his reworking and exploration of that dish with new recipes. His chapter on collards is especially evocative, beginning with the classic Collard Greens with Smoked Ham Hocks to Collard Green Ramen and ending with Collard Waffles with Brined Trout and Maple Hot Sauce. Richards’s personal reminiscences and his ideas on the meaning of soul food are threaded throughout the book.

Richards’s Soul is an excellent contribution to the rich history of African American cuisine. Toni Tipton-Martin’s The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks is an extensive annotated bibliography of African American cookbooks from the nineteenth century to 2011, with attractive photographs of each cookbook. The Jemima Code is a powerful testament to the rich history of African American  cookbooks, from the famous 1881 What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking, by Abby Fisher, to self-published works and fund-raising cookbooks; it is a treasure trove of African American  culinary history. Edna Lewis’ classic The Taste of Country Cooking set the bar not only for bringing a different narrative of African American food culture to the world, but also for southern cookbooks generally, with her tender family history of growing up in Freetown, Virginia, a town founded by freed slaves, and of the food and celebrations that marked the cultural life of that community. Lewis’ book is organized seasonally and around menus of agricultural events or simple family meals. Menus such as the “wheat-harvesting midday dinner” feature dozens of dishes including casserole of sage-flavored pork tenderloin, spicy baked tomatoes, pearl muffins, and jelly layer cake. Jessica B. Harris’s nearly comprehensive The Welcome Table: African American Heritage Cooking covers the history of African American food and recipes. For a contemporary African American southern cook’s recipes and reminiscences, there is Dora Charles’s A Real Southern Cook: In Her Savannah Kitchen. Dora Charles was the cook at Paula Deen’s Savannah restaurant Lady & Sons and she has some eye-opening stories to tell, but ultimately this is a book about Charles’s recipes from her family and for classic southern country food. Classics like oven-baked Savannah red rice, smothered pork chops, boiled peanuts, and mayonnaise biscuits are featured.

Ronni Lundy seeks to rectify the misconceptions about the food and people of the Mountain South in Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, with Recipes. Lundy travels through Appalachia interviewing home cooks and professional chefs while sharing personal stories on the rich history of this unique and underappreciated cuisine. Lundy also details where Appalachian cuisine is headed in the future. Classic recipes for killed lettuce accompany descriptions of unusual and native mountain greens; the local snack cheese nabs is reinvented as Pimento Cheese Nabs. Also included are recipes for chili buns, slaw dogs, and a method for drying green beans called “leather britches,” as well as Sweet Potato Sonker with Milk Dip, a new take on a classic Appalachian dessert. This book will make any reader reconsider what “hillbilly” food is.

 To get a taste of the breadth of immigrant cuisine in the south, Paul Knipple’s The World in a Skillet: A Food Lover’s Tour of the New American South profiles people who have emigrated to the South from all over the world and who have brought their cuisines into the patchwork quilt of southern food. Organized by country, each chapter highlights restaurateurs, chefs, caterers, and home cooks with their stories and traditional recipes.

Some recent cookbooks highlight the merging of an author’s native cuisine with traditional southern cuisine to reflect its adaptation to the region. These cookbooks detail the authors’ personal journeys to the South and how their food is an expression of their story and the changing region. Atlanta-based chef Asha Gomez connects the food of her upbringing in Kerala in southern India to traditional American southern foods in My Two Souths: Blending the Flavors of India into a Southern Kitchen, with such recipes as Kerala Fried Chicken, Low Country Rice Waffles with Spicy Syrup, and Down South Goat Biryani. Eddie Hernandez, who emigrated to the United States from Mexico, is the chef behind the popular Atlanta and Nashville restaurant chain Taqeria del Sol. He and coauthor Susan Puckett discuss his experiences with creating recipes that reflect both his Mexican upbringing and his life in the South in Turnip Greens & Tortillas: A Mexican Chef Spices Up the Southern Kitchen. Recipes such as Fried Green Tomatillos with Peach Habanero Sauce; Memphis Tacos, Hernandez’s take on tacos al pastor; and pulled pork barbecue sit alongside traditional Mexican dishes and some Tex-Mex specialties. Brooklyn-based food writer Von Diaz writes eloquently of the cultural shock she experienced moving from Puerto Rico to Atlanta as a young adult in Coconuts and Collards: Recipes and Stories from Puerto Rico to the Deep South. While most of her highly personal work is about her Puerto Rican family history and its traditional recipes, her chapter “Mofongo Blues” devoted to her Atlanta experiences contains recipes that are Puerto Rican but strongly resemble southern dishes such as funche de coco (coconut grits) and quingombos guisados (stewed okra).

Well-known Korean American chef Edward Lee grew up in New York but relocated to Louisville, Kentucky, to start a restaurant. His first book, Smoke and Pickles: Recipes and Stories from a New Southern Kitchen, is his story on the intersection of cooking, identity, and regionalism and his passion for the food culture of the American South. Lee’s recipes are just as compelling as his story: Rice Bowl with Beef, Onions, Fried Egg and Corn Chili Remoulade is his take on a southern-style version of the Korean classic bulgogi, and he uses other Asian influences with southern foods like Adobo-Fried Chicken and Waffles, Chicken and Country Ham Pho, and Creamed Corn and Mushroom Congee.

Virginia Willis takes a broad approach to represent the complex history and evolving future of southern food in Secrets of the Southern Table: A Food Lover’s Tour of the Global South. In each chapter Willis writes essays on the food producers and chefs of the South and how they are reinventing, rediscovering, and representing the diversity of southern foodways. The first chapter sets the tone as she juxtaposes White Oak Pastures, a “full-circle land stewardship” farm (originally founded by a Confederate veteran and now devoted to the humane raising of meat), with Gilliard Farms, the oldest African American  continuously owned farm in the South, now owned by a couple who use the farm’s produce in their café to support their rural community. Willis profiles Vietnamese shrimpers in Texas, the Mexican American or “Appalachino” community in Kentucky, and artisanal cheesemakers in Georgia, among others. Her recipes include Latin-Fried Chicken Chopped Salad, southern Stir-Fry with Turnips and Greens, and Cathead Biscuits.

Works Cited