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Thursday, January 5, 2012 / 10:36 AM

Get Real--A Reflection on True Southern Food

Let’s straightaway get this straight: 

If Paula Deen isn’t the most obnoxious woman on the planet, it’s sure not from her lack of trying. Yes, she has some tough competition. The entire Kardashian clan, to name just a few worthy contenders. Meryl Streep. Flo, on the Progressive Insurance commercials. Still, from her faux-folksy shtick, to that accent that’s more contrived and artificial than her Star Trek green alien woman hairdo, Paula’s cranked up the Irritation Factor gauges well into red zones that haven’t been reached since just before Chernobyl blew. 

That said, however, and cheerfully acknowledging her cornpone and Crisco approach to cooking isn’t our thing, we find ourselves defending Paula. We do so because the attack on her is symptomatic of a whole trend in food writing that is, if it’s possible—and we find it hard to believe we’re saying this—even more irritating than the cackling cook herself.

The shot at Deen is, typically, considering the source, gratuitous. It’s in the first sentence of a recent New York Times piece celebrating Southern cooking. Or, more aptly, the “right” kind of Southern cooking—as defined by the NYT and a cloistered set of sophisticates for whom food and its refined appreciation is less honest, informed connoisseurship, more an exercise in phony elitism and ersatz class distinctions. 

Just mentioning Paula, the writer of the piece titled “Southern Farmers Vanquish The Clichés,” informs us, is sure to “rile up” Mr. Emile DeFelice. Mr. DeFelice is a pig farmer. He raises pigs, 200 of them, on a South Carolina farm. When someone uses the phrase “high on the hog,” these are the hogs they’re talking about. They’re boutique swine, sold to top-flight restaurants, like Thomas Keller’s French Laundry or the three tres chic Manhattan eateries run by Daniel Boulud. A ham from one of these pigs’ll set you back $150.00. (Go to DeFelice’s website for the company’s self-celebration of how “totally inefficient” it all is, raising pigs this way, and taking up acres of field and woods to do it, as they “use land that would produce millions of pigs in more compromising settings.” Translation: we could feed more people more efficiently and productively and cheaply—but we don't. 

DeFelice corrects any readers who might conclude he’s merely a, you know, farmer-farmer, though. “Just because I’m a farmer doesn’t mean I spend all my time feeding pigs,” he admonishes. To which credulous readers like us respond: Seriously? Wow, thanks for clearing that up, Emile. His point is that he has far loftier goals than mere pork production.

As the writer tells us, DeFelice, “is part of a thriving movement of idealistic Southern food producers who have a grander plan than just farm-to-table cuisine. They want to reclaim the agrarian roots of Southern cooking, restore its lost traditions and dignity, and if all goes according to plan, completely redefine American cuisine for a global audience.” 

Wow. Grits uber alles

Exactly how Southern cooking lost its “traditions and dignity,” isn’t spelled out here. One can venture a guess. The writer mentions a likely culprit in the closing paragraph of the story. It’s those damned “chains like Cracker Barrel.” And of course, the “hayseeds,” who promote a fake image of true traditional Dixie dining. Like Paula. 

Reclaiming those traditions and that dignity, according to the NY Times falls on the shoulders of chefs like Sean Brock, who runs Charleston’s restaurant Husk, which presents only those foods growing south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Stuff like “Georgia olive oil, Tennessee chocolate, and capers made from locally foraged elderberries.” Indeed, the article informs us that Brock has “redefined what it means to cook like a Southerner today.” 

We’re not Southerners. But if we were, we’d probably resent having our cooking arbitrarily “redefined” by a single Charleston chef. Or by or a food writer for the New York Times. And we suspect that there are a lot more Southern cooks this evening who will be making food that’s closer to Paula Deen’s repertoire than to Chef Brock’s. 

Here’s what we also suspect: Paula’s meatloaf, with canned tomatoes and instant oats, is every bit as “real” and indisputably as “Southern” as the okra pancakes with yellow squash served at Atlanta’s Watershed. And maybe even a little more traditional than elderberry capers. 

We wonder: Why is Brock’s fried lamb with smoky Sea Island red peas and tomatoes an “authentic” expression of Southern cuisine, while Paula’s Swiss steak is a tragic food fraud? How many Georgians are having the Swiss steak tonight vs. the fried lamb? Those sitting down to a dinner of chicken divan or baked spaghetti aren’t eating “clichés.” They’re eating the same sort of fare people in the South have been eating for generations. Simple recipes. Familiar flavors. Foods that don’t need to be “vanquished,” even if they don’t meet the standards of “idealistic” cooks and food producers who think their version of Southern cuisine is the only legitimate one. 

We also wonder why the authenticity of food from the South’s blacks is never called into question in articles like this. At Sweetie Pie’s here in St. Louis, Ms. Montgomery turns out cheese macaroni lusciously thick with Velveeta and food writers are in a starchy thrall. Paula uses the same Velveeta, same macaroni in her crockpot recipe and it’s the most painful indignity inflicted on the South since Sherman came a callin’. 

Again, to be clear: we don’t have anything at all against the upscale interpretations of Southern cooking at restaurants like Brock’s. If it comes to a choice between and Paula’s Cheesy Ham and Banana Casserole, and the duck confit with pecans and farro at Husk, yeah, we’ll pass on the casserole. We like creativity in the kitchen. We make money writing about it. And we appreciate good food and try to avoid bad food. Like, for example, that casserole. It’s just that we don’t care for those who pronounce some foods inauthentic just because those preparing it don’t fit stereotypes. It doesn’t seem very logical, or culturally accurate. Or, and again we’re not from there so we can’t say for sure, but it just doesn’t seem very well, you know, Southern. Y’all.

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Jan 5, 2012 01:38 pm
 Posted by  Mmmm, Bacon

I am Southern and I think you have missed the point. You should get a copy of the 10/31/11 New Yorker and read the extensive article about Brock and his cohorts and their goals. While the goal of "redefining American cuisine" may be a bit of a stretch, the overarching goal of re-establishing a connection with the land around you and the variety and quality of food it can and historically has produced is long overdue. There was a rich and celebrated food culture that resulted from the combination of land, climate, and people. Local food reflected this (as it did with other regions of the country) and it did not look like Velveeta cheese, instant oats, or baked spaghetti. The point of the article was not to claim one person/people more Southern than the other. It was to show that the culinary history of the previous 200 years was more diverse and localized than now and that there are some folks that want to help it return to that state.
P.S. "High on the hog" refers to pork loin the tender and more expensive meat along a hog's back (high) vs. Low on the Hog which is the feet and belly, cheaper cuts.

Jan 5, 2012 04:49 pm
 Posted by  Darkstar

I am a New Englander who lives in the mid west but has been going to Charleston for the past 11 years every . We spend a great deal of time planning our 2 week culinary vacation in the low country. One year all we did was go to "meat and 2 sides" places. Many of these were in working class neighborhoods. My husbands favorite thing is greens, so he was in heaven. When I think of southern cooking I do not think of Paula Dean. She does a lot of things that are done the "quick and dirty" way. I love the Mac and cheese at Swetie Pies, but I have eaten her peach cobbler and her sweet potato pie. Crust on the pie and cobbler are frozen products. Crisco aka vegetable shortening was not invented until 1911 and was not widely used for a number of years later. I ate peach cobbler last night at a small cafe that is doing some nice food, but again bad crust which was on the top and bottom. This would have been better had they forgotten the bottom since it was practically raw and again was made with vegetable shortening. Last year we ate at Husk after they had opened in November. It was one of the best meals we have ever eaten. The service was wonderful and we were dining with an 8 year old and his mother who is a vegan. They prepared a vegan meal on the fly that was wonderful. Chef Brock is trying to cook using things that would be found in the kitchens and gardens and farms of the south. He is trying to grow his own olive trees and I am sure it will be a while before He is making a sustainable amount of olive oil. But there is a man out on Folly Island who has been producing olive oil for years, and that is only 10 minutes from his restaurant. We have reservations at Husk tomorrow night and we have been looking forward to this for 12 months. We will try and eat there at least one more time before we leave. I would hope you will be able to enjoy Chef Brock's cooking someday. We have been to Paula Dean's and it most definitely no worth the drive or the wait.

Jan 5, 2012 05:33 pm
 Posted by  David

I have relatives in the south who talk like Paula. She may amp it up a bit for TV, but I've known people in St. Louis with other regional or foreign accents who play up their accents. It's a bit of a personal trademark for anybody who has one.

My authentic Southern meal is vegetables straight out of the garden out back---collard greens, turnip greens, butter beans, green beans, fried potatoes (home-fried style), fried okra and cornbread. (Made from white corn meal with no sugar added.) Some freshly-picked, freshly-sliced tomatoes. A recently-killed chicken, fried on the stove top. A chocolate cake and/or pecan pie and/or fried apple pies for desert. And a huge pitcher of iced tea (sweet). When you get your food from your own garden, the farmer's market or the back of a pickup truck parked on the roadside, that's locally-sourced.

I'm sure Mr. Brock's place in Charleston is excellent and authentic. But so are a number of "meat and three" places in Birmingham, Nashville, Memphis, etc.

As for attacking Paula Deen, you are right, Dave. It was gratuitous and wrong-headed.

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