Classic Southern

It’s so Sad that Julia Child had to invent good American Cooking all by Herself

From native foods like grits and corn bread, to introduced European specialties such as ice cream and macs and cheese, the South has something of a history with food. The included recipes here are particularly Southern, and there will be NO FRIED CHICKEN (even though I trained as a chicken fryer with the Kentucky Colonel’s business).

Better Know a Southern Staple

Grits or Polenta? Either way, it’s Boiled Ground Corn.

Ingredients here that are specific to the South, though the Grits/Polenta controversy lives on, and probably will, as long as people boil ground corn.

Corn Meal Bread (1824)

Corn Meal breadI only took one small bite. I swear.

This is Mary Livingston’s original recipe from the 1824 classic The Virginia HousewifeHere’s the original recipe:

Corn Meal Bread

Rub a piece of butter the size of an egg, into a pint of corn meal–Make it a batter with two eggs, and some new milk–add a spoonful of yeast, set it by the fire an hour to rise, butter little pans, and bake it.

Using yeast as a leavening agent makes for a slightly finer texture than with baking powder cornbread, as I discovered when I made this. Here’s the recipe I used:

1 cup stone-ground cornmeal

1 tablespoon melted butter

1 egg

1/2 cup milk

Salt (not enough)

1 teaspoon yeast, dissolved in 1 tablespoon of water

Butter the pan, or do what I did, and lube up the pan with lard.

Salt and a little water were my only additions to the original recipe. Keeping it old school, I cooked it over hot coals. Temp was uneven, but cast iron cooks better than almost anything.

FireThe corn meal bread is in the #10 dutch oven, which was a little too large. A chicken and vegetables are in the larger pot. Man cannot live on corn meal bread alone.

The result? Would have been a grand slam with more salt. Still, this is a superior recipe. More people should try cornbread made with yeast. I’ll make it again for Thanksgiving.

Stone-Ground Grits

Don’t waste your time on anything but stone-ground grits, which are superior in every way, from taste to nutrition.

Recipe

This is a basic recipe for a couple of people, to which many things can be added, the most common being grated cheese.

1/2 cup stone-ground grits

2 cups milk

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon butter

Pepper to taste.

Heat the milk and salt, and add grits gradually. Stir regularly for 25-30 minutes, until the grits soften and gain a smooth texture. DO NOT LET THIS BURN, or you may be buying a new pan. Add more liquid as needed. When done, add the butter or other fat (apparently the native Americans of Virginia used bear fat), and pepper if desired. Serve hot.

As a whole grain, stone-ground grits last longer if refrigerated, or even kept in the freezer. Our local brand, McEwen and Sons, is excellent, but just about anyone has access to stone-ground grits these days.

Uses for leftovers are manifold, one of the most common being “Grit Cakes.” If you really get addicted, buy the book Glorious Gritswhich was written by Susan McEwen McIntosh.

Grits–Better Know a Southern Staple

I grits

Instant grits? Really?

My alcoholic writing Professor at the University of Alabama would often repeat the following: “College is like a grit factory. You all come in looking different, and then you all leave looking exactly the same: bland and lily white.” There is some truth to that, as my Alma Mater has now devolved into a country club with a football team. But that’s a subject for a different kind of blog.

The Prof had one thing right: grits back then were pretty horrible. Multiple James Beard award winning chef Frank Stitt says, “the life had been processed out of them.” There were none worse than those served at UA cafeterias. Mine would be so hard that they needed to be cut with a knife, and were topped with a pat of margarine, that would bleed across the top like a yellow oil slick. If the settlers at Jamestown had been given those, they would have jumped back on the boat, and headed back to England.

But that is where grits came from. It is a certifiable, documentable, dish that came directly from the Native Americans of Virginia. The English in 1607 couldn’t handle the native name “rockahominie,” so the dish became “hominy grits,” a term which a real old school type will still use. Now they are just grits, and we are living in something of a grits renaissance.

Before I get to that, let’s have a quick rundown of modern grits.

Instant Grits

These jokers come in a little paper bag for the culinarily impaired. I risk it all with this comment: there is hardly a better backpacking/camping food. It’s inexpensive, goes with anything, conserves fuel and weight, and can be eaten with any meal. Also packs some serious carbs. Also does not have the sodium punch that something like ramen noodles have. With that said, I will not eat these at home.

Quick Grits

More flavor than the instant ones, but still highly processed. Cooks in around five minutes.

Grits

High speed ground corn that takes a while to cook. Buy a bag of these, throw the grits into the compost, and use the bag for something else.

Stone Ground Grits

Here’s the ticket. There are both national and local brands available now, and the quality varies from excellent to superb. I go with the organic ones to make sure there are no weird genes in my grits, as in GMO. Our local brand, McEwen & Sons, is served at everything from breakfast joints to some of the best fine dining restaurants in the country, including the James Beard most Outstanding Restaurant in the US in 2018, Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham.

GritsWhite, but not bland.

Recipe

This is a basic recipe for a couple of people, to which many things can be added, the most common being grated cheese.

1/2 cup stone-ground grits

2 cups milk

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon butter

Pepper to taste.

Heat the milk and salt, and add grits gradually. Stir regularly for 25-30 minutes, until the grits soften and gain a smooth texture. DO NOT LET THIS BURN, or you may be buying a new pan. Add more liquid as needed. When done, add the butter or other fat (apparently the natives of Virginia used bear fat), and pepper if desired. Serve hot.

Uses for leftovers are manifold, one of the most common being “Grit Cakes.” If you really get addicted, buy the book Glorious Gritswhich was written by Susan McEwen McIntosh.

 

Cornbread and Cornbread Dressing

Recipes

A cornbread and a cornbread dressing recipe here.

Bama Cornbread

1 cup fine McEwen cornmeal (or other finely ground cornmeal)

3/4 cup milk

1 egg

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

Mix this up with dry ingredients first, and then the milk and egg. Pour it into a roasting hot, oiled cast iron skillet, into a 425 degree oven. The quality of the cornmeal is the key here. Double the recipe for a family meal.

Bama Cornbread Dressing

One double recipe of Bama Cornbread, crumbled (see above)

2 cups croutons

2 cups onions and celery, cooked

Handful of rehydrated dried Porcini mushrooms, cooked in butter, chopped

1/2 stick of melted butter

2 eggs

Chicken stock (at least one cup)

Salt and Pepper to taste

Sage, sage, and more sage

Cook at 350 degrees. This is a seat of the pants recipe. I like lots and lots of sage and mushrooms. Recycle into turkey or chicken and dressing after the first meal. That’s a layer of leftover meat, topped with a layer of dressing. Add extra stock to the dressing when making the recycled dish.

Great Southern Cookbooks, Part One–The Virginia Housewife, by Mary Randolph (1824)

Virginia Housewife Facsimile

We began with the best food book, so why not go next to the first cookbook? Buy the Dover Publications print facsimile from Amazon, or your local bookstore, or download a text only version from Project Gutenberg.

Praised by writers as diverse as James Beard and chef Jose Andres, Mary Randolph wrote the first Southern cookbook, and what is arguably the first completely American cookbook. What makes this book so special? It is a fascinating historical and culinary fusion document. Many of the recipes are familiar and accessible, especially to Southern cooks, and others are exotic and challenging. Chef Andres says he still serves her gazpacho at one of his restaurants. Which begs the question–what is a Virginia housewife doing serving gazpacho in 1824?

Mary Randolph was no typical Virginia housewife. She was an entrepreneur, an executive chef, and a chef de cuisine, all at the same time. Her husband David Randolph was fired from his cushy government job by his second cousin, President Thomas Jefferson, for being a worthless crooked Federalist party lowlife. (Strangely enough, Mary Randolph’s father was raised in the household of Peter Jefferson, who just happened to be the father of Thomas Jefferson.)

Mary, who counted among her ancestors a woman named Pocahontas, in order to support the family, became a business woman. (Can stories get any better than this?) She opened a boarding house in Richmond, Virginia, in 1807, for “Ladies and Gentlemen.” The main attraction of this establishment was the magnificent food, which I will address shortly. Mary, notably, WAS NOT A COOK. Here’s how much time she spent in the kitchen, according to the Introduction to the book:

When the kitchen breakfast is over, and the cook has put all things in their proper places, the mistress should go in to give her orders. Let all the articles intended for the dinner,  pass in review before her: have the butter, sugar, flour, meal. lard, given out in proper quantities; the catsup, spice, wine, whatever may be wanted for each dish, measured to the cook. The mistress must tax her own memory with all this: we have no right to expect slaves or hired servants to be more attentive to our interest than we ourselves are: they will never recollect these little articles until they are going to use them; the mistress must then be called out, and thus have the horrible drudgery of keeping house all day, when one hour devoted to it in the morning, would release her from trouble until the next day.

Anyone who has worked in a commercial kitchen, such as myself, will recognize the brigade de cuisine. The boss tells you what to do, and you do it. Also notice the mise en place: everything is in order, and in it’s place. Notice that the slaves and hired servants are put on the same level. Arguably, Mary Livingston was the first American celebrity chef, as the book went through nineteen printings in less than forty years. If current celebrity chefs were as honest as her, we would have a more realistic picture of the restaurant business.

The Food

Man, did those people eat well! As Joel Salatin, the world’s most famous farmer, who also lives in Virginia, loves to point out, our diet is much less diverse now than it was a hundred years ago. What about two hundred years ago? Turtle, rabbit, eight or nine species of fish, goose, duck, woodcocks, brains, and eyes were all on the menu, as well as about thirty different varieties of vegetables. From the recipe, “Mock Turtle Soup of Calf’s Head,” “The eyes are a great delicacy.”

Here’s where the fusion part really kicks in. Recipes in the book encompass cuisines from the native American, American, African, and European, as well as some Caribbean regions. French and Spanish recipes are well represented. African vegetables such as okra and field peas are mentioned, right alongside potatoes and English peas. My only editorial comment will be to assure Northern writers that African “yams” are not grown in the South, but that the word is a synonym for sweet potatoes, which came from Central or South America. (I have even read that slaves brought tomatoes to the South!)

I will cook a few of these recipes in the next few weeks, and reveal the results in a new Recipe section. The first will be “Corn Meal Bread,” which is not cornbread, but a yeast leavened bread made with corn meal.

Undoubtedly a good deal of this book can be said to be influenced by the great chef James Hemings, but the extent of that influence is impossible to determine. Two of his signature dishes, ice cream and Macs and cheese, make their first American appearance here.