“Southerners know you can’t be considered a serious Southern cook if you don’t know how to make peach cobbler.”— Trisha Yearwood
Eating southern cooking makes me happy. Down-home cooking. Soul food. Southern cooking. Comfort food. Southern cuisine. I use these terms interchangeably. Delicious. Comforting. Hits the spot. Soulful. These words and phrases readily coming to mind when I think of the food I grew up eating in Alabama. Counting calorie counting is frowned upon if not proactively stifled. Daily allowances of sugar, butter, and salt are not heeded. Reduced fat products receive the harshest of eye rolls. Measuring utensils remain in the cupboard on most occasions.
There was never a shortage of good southern cooking in my childhood. My parents, sister and I lived exactly one mile southwest of my maternal grandmother. My mother cooked regularly. When she did not, eating at my grandmother’s house filled the void. The best cook I know, my grandmother continues to make our family’s major holiday meals mostly from scratch. Such food remains one of few unshakably reliable reasons I enjoy visiting my native Yellowhammer State. Eating with my relatives as we catch up on current affairs and each other’s’ lives – especially those who are not Aunts, Uncles, and Bullies; Oh My! – while eating my grandmother’s cooking is something I very much enjoy as well.
Network of Suppliers
My grandmother and her network of friends made good use of a bartering system. When I was younger, I remember a local farmer – whose name I remember as KB – regularly visited my grandmother’s home with vegetables he grew and harvested from his own land in tow. KB’s visits started with him and my grandmother exchanging quick pleasantries before she assessed the containers of collard greens, black eyed peas, sweet potatoes, and turnip greens among other veggies he delivered. How the transaction ended varied. At times, my grandmother gave him money to settle her debt. In some instances, an IOU did the trick. Most prevalent were gentleman agreements built on non-monetary payments. Afterwards, KB would climb into his vintage Silverado and drive away.
Tangential Note: By non-monetary payments I am referencing debt settlements manifesting as my grandmother cleaning her church during downtime, preparing a meal for the church’s pastor and his wife, managing the church’s kitchen workflows following a major service, or chauffeuring an ailing community member to medical appointments. Maybe KB had a surplus of produce and knew my grandmother would appreciate taking off his hands. Instead of using it as compost he delivered it to her for free – a neighborly gesture that was all too common. My point, United States currency was not always exchanged.
My First Exposure to Organic Foods
Unbeknownst to me at the time, the produce KB brought to my grandmother was truly organic. Not expensive Whole Foods organic, yet quintessential farm-to-table organic. When a certain veggie was out of season, we simply did not eat it. Much of KB’s produce was covered in soil when it arrived at my grandmother’s house. I distinctly remember the sweet potatoes were rich in flavor – not the watered down, pale-colored, football-sized foodstuffs passing for sweet potatoes at insert grocery store chain.
KB was not the only farm-to-table supplier. Sammy brought my grandmother watermelons and cantaloupes. Someone else offered muscadines and scuppernongs. Occasionally, one of my grandmother’s close friends dropped off apples she picked from an upstate New York orchard. One of my aunts had plum trees in her backyard that bared a plenitude of plums on which my cousins and I gorged ourselves. Earlier in the 1990s, my grandmother had blackberry bushes in her backyard my cousins and I would raid during the humid summertime. I honestly think Michael Pollan would approve.
I seriously doubt KB and the other farmers worked under the thumb of Monsanto or any other Agribusiness conglomerate. Admittedly I have no way of knowing this for sure – given the reach of Big Agribusiness is wide and deep. They may or may not have been aware of the benefits offered by that era’s Farm Bill. I am unsure if cross pollination was criminalized during the 1990s. Even if The Real Farmers of Bullock County knew of it, they took to such a threat the same way bootleggers responded to alcohol prohibition. Once my grandmother added her special ingredients – none of which she wrote down or measured – the fabulous taste of what we all love about organic foods was even more satisfying.
Dressing or Stuffing?
Dressing. End of discussion. “When you fix my plate make sure you gimme a-lot-ta dressing and cranberry sauce,” is how that conversation goes. I think I first heard of stuffing while living in Atlanta – the first major American city I called home. And yes, it may have been a white friend or colleague who utter that false synonym to dressing with all the innocence in the world. Make no mistake, plenty of my fellow white southern natives refer to this holiday staple as dressing too. Maybe stuffing is term used more frequently anywhere outside the Deep South – I do not know for sure. Dressing is a southern term as much as it is vernacular readily used by African Americans, in my opinion.
Tangential Note: Stop calling Atlanta Hot-lanta. It adds no cool factor. It also dates you.
No one should be all that surprised I first heard of stuffing in Atlanta. Like Seattle, Austin, Denver, and I would imagine Houston and Phoenix, it is now a place of transplants. Current residents of Atlanta – meaning Fulton, DeKalb, Clayton, Cobb and Gwinnett counties for the sake of this blog – are a threat to call one of the city’s busiest highways “the 400” instead of what natives call “Georgia 400.” Other transplants making an earnest effort in acclimating the South try their vocal cords at yall versus you or you all. While admirable, non-native southerners saying yall is unconvincing and forced at best. We love them no less.
Just to be sure, plenty of southern charm remains in Atlanta. Porches. Magnolia trees. Rocking chairs. Sweet tea. How yo momma-nem doing type of greetings. Every day driving founded on drag racing. The capital of the South remains very much southern even though it looks very different from other parts of the region.
My Maternal Grandmother’s Southern Cooking
The Gold Standard
I love my grandmother’s cooking. Lovingly prepared, flavorful food has the power to pause heated arguments if not spontaneously settle them, maintain and strengthen relationships, tame health ailments, and create lasting memories. Granted, I am biased given my Alabama upbringing in believing southern cooking is the strongest of social binding agents. My maternal grandmother cooks far more than my paternal one. Each side of my family prepares feasts somewhat differently — the maternal side puts all the cooking into my grandmother’s hands whereas my paternal relatives have more of a potluck approach.
With my maternal grandmother never having to grapple with too many cooks in the kitchen, our palates have yet to fully acclimate to any other person’s cooking. My grandmother’s meals, large and small, are the gold standard in comfort food. This is not to say we do not love and appreciate others’ cooking – my spouse Larry has become quite the cook. He too, bases his budding culinary skills and growing fondness of southern cuisine on meals he has eaten prepared by grandmother. Once, my mother complimented the way Larry prepared scrambled eggs for her when she visited us in Northern Virginia. Sure, you may be thinking scrambled eggs are no big deal. Not only did she compliment the eggs, she told my grandmother Larry’s preparation of them tasted better than hers. My grandmother graciously received my mother’s explosive revelation – all made in fun of course – because she is a Southern belle.
Given some of us are married and thus share holidays with our significant others and/or in-laws, live far away from my grandmother’s home as do Larry and I, or periodically wish to have low key holidays in our own homes; we find ourselves eating meals we prepare or those caringly made by our friends. I would like to believe my relatives and I who grew up on my grandmother’s cooking exercise decorum and grace in dining with others. Irrespective of whether the meal is comfort food that remotely compares to our grandmother’s or based on another type of cuisine, I am hopeful gratitude prevails. While I strongly prefer down-home cooking – the goal of dining with other people remains connecting on a human level while providing nourishment to our bodies. Showing up in any other way is, quite frankly, un-Southern.
Some of My Favorites
Here are some of my favorite homemade dishes I consider the essence of southern cooking – not listed in any particular order:
Red Velvet Cake
Baked BBQ Chicken
Black eyed peas
Ribs cooked on the grill
Deep fried turkey
Sour Cream Pound Cake
Fried Pork Chops
Roast and Potatoes
Sweet Potato Pie