Thursday, December 23, 2010

Prognostications: Gearing Up

I've been trying to gear up for my next round of prognostications, seeing that the year 2010 is rapidly drawing to a close and 2011 is now literally just around the corner.  (Well, not literally just around the corner.  Just around the corner it is still 2010, and my neighbor Stanley still hasn't raked up any of his leaves yet this year.  For which I am thankful, since I--or, to be more accurately, various members of my family--have raked up at least SOME of the leaves in our yard so it's only ankle deep in leaves, not knee deep, and compared to Stanley's yard we look downright prim.  Raking leaves, I predict, will NOT be a big trend in 2011, in my household, at least.)

After a couple of years of great cavalierness with the timing of my predictions for the "new" year, this year I've vowed to be on top of things and get them done absolutely no later than Jan 1st or a few days or weeks thereafter.  I've scribbled a few raw notes on the back of cocktail napkins and was really about to get into the swing of things when I heard the latest Dinner Party Download (DPD) podcast from Rico Gagliano and Brendan Francis Newnam, which effectively demolishes the whole practice of predicting food trends.

The segment on trends picks up around 11:45 into the podcast.  If one can predict anything about food trends in 2011, it's that the predictions about such trends are going to be really lame, as evidenced by DPD's summary of the early trends identified by food trend consulting firms (yes, there actually are such outfits, which may mean I have totally missed my calling in life.)    "Action in adult beverages?" "Frugality fatigue?" "Poutine?"  Is this really what we have to look forward to next year?

So now I'm totally deflated in my efforts to at compiling my own prognostications.  Maybe I'll just take a nap this afternoon instead.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

All I Want for Christmas is a Sack of Meat

Last weekend my wife gave me my Christmas present early: an Artisan Meat Share from Craig Deihl of Cypress Restaurant.

We've already broken into the pork pate and the summer sausage, and both are terrific.  The pork pate includes, in addition to the obvious coarse-ground pork and spices, rich ingredients like pork liver, eggs, and cream plus onions and garlic, which result in what one might term one of the best meatloafs ever.

I'm even more enamored with the summer sausage.  It's a fermented, semi-dry sausage made from half beef and half pork, and it's blended with a whole bunch of spices that include black pepper, smoked paprika, mace, garlic, juniper, caraway, mustard, and marjoram.

Summer Sausage w/ a Selection of Cheese and Crackers

The fermentation not only helps preserve the sausage but also gives it a delightful tangy edge.  That and the slow smoking results in something that can only be described a deep and complex flavor.  The taste grows and expands as you hold it in your mouth, with very warm, smoky finish.  We've been eating it as simply as possible: sliced and served alongside cheese and crackers--and a dollop of pimento cheese, for good measure.

Also included in the bag is this line up: guanciale, lonza, saucisson sec, salami spread, country bologona, smoked turkey breast, and--if you can believe it--lamb bacon.  This last one is the most intriguing of them all.  It's cured with salt, brown sugar, and spices for 10 days and, the Meat Share's "User Guide" advises, should be eaten without cooking.

These should keep me busy over the Christmas holidays, and you can believe one or more of them will be turning up on the appetizer plates I'll be making for various holiday gatherings this week.

When in doubt, give the gift of meat.

P.S. Did I mention that my wife is the best Christmas gift buyer in the world?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Old School Biscuits

This week I got a little old school with a batch of biscuits.

Old school how?  For starters, I used an old recipe.  And by old I'm referring not to the age of the formula itself but rather the condition of the paper it's written on.  I transcribed it from my mother's version some twenty years ago when I was first teaching myself to cook and trying to learn some of her stand-by recipes.  This is one recipe that has been put to very good use.

The Recipe
But, age of the paper aside, I've actually gone more old school with this batch than I have in the past, and that's because just a few days ago I received my order from Columbia's Anson Mills and it included their Colonial Style Whole-Grain Wheat Flour.  This is flour the way it used to be made before the era of the iron-roller mills.  It's made from whole grains of Red May wheat, which you can tell right away from not just the coarser texture but also the little dark flecks scattered throughout it, which are the bran.

Anson Mills' Colonial-Style Red May Wheat Flour
I figured such old-school flour needed something a little better than plain old supermarket buttermilk, so I splurged for a bottle of buttermilk from Homestead Creamy.  Their milk comes from just two farms--their own in Wirtz, Virgnia, and a neighbor's.  It's bottled in real, old school glass bottles, and if you live in Roanoke, they'll deliver it to an insulated milk box on your doorstep via their old-fashioned milk delivery service.  (Being a bit outside their delivery area, I picked up my bottle at Earthfare.)

Good buttermilk
It's remarkable stuff: very, very thick and creamy.  In fact, it's much more like good yogurt in texture and flavor than the regular buttermilk you get at the supermarket.  (As a side note, it is still cultured buttermilk, meaning that it is regular milk with bacteria added to create the lactic acid that gives buttermilk it's distinctive sour edge--much the way yogurt is made.  True old-school buttermilk is the thin stuff left over after butter is churned.  I am hot on the heels of acquiring myself a bottle of that, but that's another story altogether.)

Here's the recipe.


2 cups flour
1 T baking powder
1/2 t salt
1/4 t baking soda
1/3 cup of cold butter
3/4 cup of buttermilk

First, combine the flour, baking powder, salt, and baking soda in a large bowl and mix together.  Next, cut in the butter.  There are several ways you can do this.  You could use a pastry blender (like this one), which is a handy little device with five or six parallel metal blades  that chop up the butter and mix it in with the flour.  By all accounts they work well, but I've never tried it: I just cut the butter in by hand.  To do so, I take the cold butter and chop it into small cubes, then toss them in the bowl with the flour.  I cover the butter lumps with flour and squeeze them between my fingers to break them down into smaller bits and rub the butter into them.  You just squeeze and rub, squeeze and rub until all the butter is blended in and your left with a bowl of what looks like bread crumbs.

Important: You want to make sure the butter is cold; otherwise, it will just mix in with the flour.   You want those little lumps: those are what make the biscuits flaky in the end.

Finally, stir in the buttermilk and mix up the dough until the liquid is all absorbed by the flour.  With your hands, knead and shape the dough until all the flour is worked in and the dough is of a single consistency.  It should be still be slightly sticky to the touch, but not so sticky that it clings tou your hands and the side of the bowl.  Now you're ready to roll out the biscuits.

Dough rolled out and ready for cutting

Sprinkle a little flour across a cutting board (or you could do this right on the kitchen counter), turn the dough out on it, and knead it up and down on the board, sprinkling on a little more flour if it seems too sticky.  Roll out the dough on the board with a rolling pin (I rub mine down with a little flour to keep the dough from sticking) until it's between a half-inch and an inch thick.  How thick you like your biscuits is a personal preference.  I tend to make my a little thinner--probably a half inch thick when rolled out.

To cut the biscuits, you could use a biscuit cutter if you have one.  Or, just do what I do and use a plastic cup of the desired diameter.   This again is a matter of personal preference.  Lately, I've been making them several inches in diameter, which is perfect for slathering with jelly and having for breakfast.  If you're going to use them for other purposes, though (like topping them with ham and pimento cheese for a tasty appetizers) you could make them even smaller.

Ready for the oven

Place the biscuits on a greased or non-stick baking pan and bake in a 450 degree oven till brown and crispy around the edges.  My old handwritten recipes says to start checking the biscuits at 8 minutes and every two minutes after that.  For this batch, it took me a full twelve minutes to get them fully done; smaller cut biscuits will likely take closer to eight minutes.

Remove from the oven and let cool on a wire rack, though in practice you can eat one as soon as it's cool enough to hold, and half of this pan disappeared within five minutes of its being out of the oven.

This recipe would work just fine with regular old all purpose flour and cultured buttermilk,  But, the Anson Mills flour makes an remarkable difference.  The biscuits turned out a light brown color reminiscent of good whole wheat bread.  And, the flavor of the old-fashioned flour is stunning.  The biscuits are notably crispier than ones made with regular all-purpose flour, and there's a good, solid body to them.  Little flecks of bran remain in the biscuit, too, giving it a touch of a grittiness to some of the bits that is unusual but not at all unpleasant--a lot like stoneground grits, in fact.  The bottoms of the biscuit get a nice dark brown and crispy, too.

To serve, I simply sliced them in half and spread on a little butter and some good strawberry preserves.  A perfect breakfast.

Monday, December 13, 2010

BBQ & Books: Nosh Mob Event This Thursday

This Thursday I'm part of the City Paper's next Nosh Mob event: a barbecue tasting & book signing at Blue Bicycle Books.

Where: Blue Bicycle Books, 420 King St.
When: Thursday, Dec. 16 from 5:30-7:30
What:  Samples from Home Team BBQ (and there's rumors about beer, too.)

I've apparently signed myself up for a little presentation where I "deconstruct the standard barbecue menu and talk about how brisket, sauces, slaws, and more fit into the larger history of 'cue."  We'll see what I come up with, but drop on by if you have a chance.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Cornbread with a Side of Controvery

Cornbread is a long-standing and genuine Southern staple.  Unlike pimento cheese or fried green tomatoes, which were never served in the South Carolina home of my boyhood, cornbread is something that we ate on a regular basis and thus is for me a nostalgic, homey comfort food.  It's also really, really good.

This recipe is my paternal grandmother's, which she wrote down and gave to my mother not long after she and my father got married, and my mother, in turn, wrote down for me at my request when I got really interested in cooking in my early 20s.

For the bread to turn out properly, you really have to cook it in a cast iron skillet.  I have an 8-inch one that's just the right size--a Lodge pan that I bought at Hiller's Hardware in downtown Columbia and seasoned myself back when I was in graduate school.  I suppose you could make this same recipe in a regular old baking pan, but you would miss out on the very best feature of cornbread: that crisp, firm quarter-inch of dark brown crust that's created from the heat of the iron pan.

Grandmother Moss's Cornbread (With a few Small Enhancements)

1 cup cornmeal
1/2 t baking soda
1 t baking powder
1/2 t salt
1 cup buttermilk
1 egg
3 T vegetable oil (to go in the batter)
1 T of butter (for greasing the skillet)

Optional enhancements:
1/4 cup finely chopped onion
about 12 pickled jalapeno rings, chopped

To begin, you have to preheat both the oven and the skillet.  I can't emphasize this step enough because if you start with the batter in a cold pan you won't get the same crust and it will stick to the pan instead of popping right out when it's finished (and leave you with an ugly, ripped up top to your cornbread).  So, turn the oven to 400 degrees and put the empty cast iron skillet inside so that it preheats along with the oven while you are mixing the ingredients.

Next, make the batter.  Not much to it: put all the dry ingredients (the first four) in a mixing bowl and stir them together.  Put the buttermilk,  the egg, and the vegetable oil in a separate container (I use my glass measuring cup) and mix them with a fork until the egg yolk is broken up and mixed in.  Then, pour all of the liquid into the mixing bowl with the dry ingredients and stir until it is all mixed in and of a smooth consistency, but don't over mix it.  Finally, add whatever optional enhancements that you like (such as the onions and pickled jalapenos that I usually add).

Once the oven is heated and the iron pan is good and smoking hot, remove it from the oven to the stovetop (you'll need a good thick oven-mitt or kitchen towel since that cast iron will be HOT).  Toss a pat of butter in the pan and stir it around with a spoon till it's totally melted and coating the pan--this will both flavor the cornbread crust and help it crisp up and not stick to the pan.  Pour the batter into the skillet, return it to the oven, and bake for 25 minutes until the top is golden brown.

Now, some folks find getting the finished cornbread out of the skillet to be tricky, but it shouldn't be.  The key is to not let it cool in the pan. Here's what I do: put a plain old dinner plate on the counter, remove the skillet from the oven (again using a thick oven-mitt), and invert it over the plate.  Most of the time the cornbread will drop right out onto the plate and you're done.  If you turn the skillet upside down and the cornbread doesn't move, simply put the pan down on the stove top, get a butter knife, and run it around the inside of the pan to loosen the crust from sides of the pan.  Then invert it over the pan again and it should pop right out.  Once it's on the dinner plate, let it cool at least 10 minutes before serving.

My two standard enhancements to my grandmother's recipe are the chopped onions and jalapeno.  You can leave them out if you like, but I think they add extra moistness and flavor to the bread, and lest you're worried about the heat factor, as long as you use the pickled variety from a jar and chop them finely, the jalapenos don't make things too spicy (using chopped fresh jalapenos is a different story).

A Side Dish of Controversy: Sugar and Flour in Cornbread

Note that while I'm pretty open minded about optional enhancements--you could toss in bacon, cracklins, herbs, hot sauce, whole kernels of corn, you name it--there are two ingredients that do not and will not appear in my cornbread.  They're the kind of things that I would consider not "optional enhancements" but "flat out adulterations".  Those ingredients are wheat flour and sugar.

There's been much silly debate over whether corn bread should or should not have sugar in it.  Silly, I say, because it is so plainly self evident that corn bread could not possibly have any sugar in it for as soon as you add any you immediately transform it into cornmeal cake.  The real deal is rich, hearty, and possibly even savory, but it certainly is NOT sweet.  

The same prohibition goes for wheat flour, which only heightens the cake-like quality of adulterated corn bread.  It's also completely at odds with cornbread's history, though that's a long enough subject for a whole separate post.

I am well aware that this is just an opinion and, to judge by a cursory Internet search, one that puts me in the cranky minority.  So, I threw together a little poll and put it up in the sidebar.  Weigh in and let me know what you think.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Does Authenticity Matter? The Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern

The Lee Brothers Simple Fresh Southern (Clarkson Potter, 2009) 

Right out of the gate I had an immediate visceral reaction when I read the dust jacket for the latest cookbook from brothers (and fellow Charleston residents) Matt and Ted Lee.  The blurb starts off strong: "Matt and Ted Lee grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, immersed in the flavorful traditions--long-simmered gumbos, fish-fry marathons, whole-hog barbecues--that have made southern food the most beloved of American cuisines."  That had me hooked.

Unfortunately, the very next word that follows is "but," and the copy proceeds to explain how busy life is today in this era of two working parents and how the recipes therein are meant to update traditional recipes with lighter cooking methods and new, more modern ingredients.  In fact, not just the dust jacket but the rest of the marketing material for the book sticks to the key themes of "easy", "fast", and "healthy," selling these as "simple" recipes aimed at "the busy home cook."  The Publisher's Weekly review did little to advance the cause, either, noting that the book is an exercise in "applying the principles of the current fashion for simplicity and speed in the kitchen to the revered down-home flavors of the South" and "bringing Southern cooking into the 21st century."

"Fast", "light", and "easy" just isn't my style (and, as my wife will quickly point out, neither is "neat", "elegant," nor "one-pot meal").   In my working drafts folder I have a half-finished piece entitled "In Defense of Slow-Cooked Vegetables" in which I argue passionately for the virtues of simmering vegetables in a dutch oven with a big chunk of smoked meat until they cry "Uncle".  As far back as the early 1990s I was toying with writing a cookbook entitled "Cooking with Lard",  but I never got around to it and two guys named Mike beat me to the punch with a jokey version and then Jennifer McLagen, a Beard Award-winning cookbook writer,  came out with a serious and authoritative tome on the subject.

It would be easy for one to write off the Lee's latest effort by saying "that's not real Southern cooking," meaning, of course, that it's not authentic.

But, if you actually read the recipes in Simple Fresh Southern and not just the dust jacket copy, you'll find that, while the dishes may be light and quick and possibly even healthy, they are really just plain good eating.  In fact, it makes you wonder whether whoever wrote the marketing materials actually read the book or whether they simply plugged a few words into a template designed for today's average cookbook buyers.

I don't think Matt and Ted Lee are on a mission to save us from the the busy bustle of daily life nor the "burden" of homecooking so much as they are trying to rescue Southern cooking from the depredations of the mid-20th Century (and, if you judge by the women's magazines and newspaper food pages, everyone was far too busy to cook from scratch back then, too.)

You don't really find within the Lee brothers' book too many updated versions of the fatback-and-greens, lard-based biscuits, and fried sidemeat dishes that were stereotypical of Southern cooking in, say, 1890.  Instead, you get a lot of updates on the kind of recipe that your great-aunt may have found in one of those spiral-bound community cookbooks and took to her church family night supper in 1962, recipes that usually began with, "Open a can of . . ."

There is, for example, green goddess potato salad, which the Lees note was "dreamed up in a fancy hotel kitchen far from the South"--that is, at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco in 1920.  But, it appears so frequently in mid 20th century Southern cookbooks, they argue, that it might as well be considered Southern.  Matt and Ted use the mayo-and-sour cream dressing (made green with chopped scallions, parsley, and tarragon and spiced with anchovies) to dress red potatoes into a warm potato salad.  It's a definite upgrade from the versions you find in newspaper columns in the 1960s and '70s, which called for things like "2 teaspoons French's Herb Seasoning, 1 teaspoon French's Minced Onions, and 2 teaspoons French's Worcestershire sauce" and was used to dress iceberg lettuce

In New Fairyland Cooking Magic (1964) from the  Fairyland School PTA from Lookout Mountain, GA,
the Lees  found a recipe for "shrimp and deviled egg casserole", an insidious-sounding concoction of deviled eggs layered into a casserole pan, covered with a thick, cheesy cream sauce with shrimp, ketchup, Worchestershire, and sherry, and finally topped with buttered bread crumbs, baked, and served--in a final indignity--over canned Chinese noodles.  What made them think they could rescue such a mutt is beyond me, but rescue it they did, homing in on the potential in the marriage of shrimp and deviled eggs.  The result is an egg salad made with farm fresh eggs, store-bought mayo, dijon mustard and tabasco into which is folded chopped local shrimp with a  squeeze of lemon and smoky bacon and scallions.  The mixture is tucked inside toploading hot dog bun to create a Southern version of a New England lobster roll.  And it looks delicious.

Now, be honest, would you rather have the authentic original or the updated one?

The Lees banish marshmallows and canned mandarin oranges from ambrosia and replace them with fresh grapefruit and oranges and toasted coconut flakes.  Heck, they even take a flyer at reforming Purple Jesus, that iconic college party punch traditionally made with Everclear, citrus juices, and grape Kool-Ade in big plastic trash cans.  Matt and Ted offer up a variant with vodka and soda flavored with cherries, blackberries, and citrus that's more suited for a classy summer front porch party than the kind of affair that leaves you sprawled prone in the bushes.

The book is less about Southern recipes and more about Southern ingredients and preparation techniques.  Watermelon makes its way into margaritas, gets tossed with squid and basil, and is brined into watermelon and onion pickles.  Bourbon is poured with a liberal hand to marinate flank steak, flavor ice cream, and to spike up a fig compote.   There are "shopping notes" on how to find everything from fresh shrimp and oysters to salt and olive oil, and instructional sidebars on techniques like stove-top smoking and quick pickling that seemed aimed a returning some of the old flavors of traditional preservation techniques to the modern-day kitchen, flavors that were lost in the era of canning and freezing.

In this sense, it's a cookbook that's very much in line with the efforts of Linton Hopkins and Sean Brock and all those other chefs who are "reclaiming the soul of Southern food".  Is it "authentic?"  You be the judge.  But, it's definitely good Southern eating.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

"Authentic" Pimento Cheese

People get passionate about pimento cheese.  It's been called the "Pâté of the South" and "Carolina Caviar."  It's the kind of thing that Southerners get all misty eyed remembering from their youths and Yankees get all wondrous and rapturous about when they discover it.

Like other foods that stir diners' passions--barbecue, for instance--pimento cheese can also stir up a lot of disagreement.  It's the kind of thing that people quickly harden into a "my way or the highway" kind of mentality about.  In fact, every single ingredient can be debated.
Grating the Cheddar (Finely, in this case)

The base of just about every pimento cheese recipe you see today is three-part: cheese, mayonnaise, and pimentos.  But, do you use cheddar, white cheddar, Swiss, Monterrey Jack, Parmesan, cream cheese, or Velveeta (or a combination of several of these)?  Do you grate the cheese finely or leave it in  big ole chunky shreds?

The Basic Foundation: Cheese, Mayo, Pimento
You would think the pimento part would be fairly straightforward, but as I discussed a few days ago, it's not clear whether fresh or canned peppers would actually be more authentic.

And what about the mayonnaise?  Nan Davis of Oxford, Mississippi, who won the Southern Foodways Alliance's Pimento Cheese Invitational in 2003 with a recipe she learned from her Aunt Lella.  As Davis recalls that when Lella taught her the recipe, "She started with 'Well, first you make the mayonnaise'. I interrupted her and said that I was not going to make homemade mayonnaise, just to give me the proportions on the cheese, pimentos, and spices. There was a long pause and then she said 'Well, you might as well not bother'".  Davis has used homemade mayonnaise ever since.

One of my favorite pimento cheese versions of all times is that of Sarah O'Kelley of the Glass Onion here in Charleston.  The Glass Onion is a die-hard farm-to-table, fresh local ingredients kind of place, but O'Kelley is insistent on using store bought mayo for her pimento cheese.  "You must use Duke’s brand,”O'Kelley told Garden & Gun magazine.  "Duke’s has no added sugar and more egg yolks."

Ready for Sampling
I'm partial to Duke's Mayonnaise myself, perhaps in part because I grew up in Greenville, South Carolina, where Eugenia Duke first began making her no-sugar mayonnaise in 1917, and the yellow-labeled jars were omnipresent.

Once you get the first three ingredients in the mixing bowl, the concoction becomes a palette for your culinary creativity, and what each cook adds from there is what makes their "special" pimento cheese recipe so special.  Black pepper, cayenne, jalapeños, lemon juice, onion, bacon, pecans, hot sauce, garlic powder, mustard, cider vinegar, and celery seeds are just a few of the things you might see adding a little zip or kick or twist.

Or, You Could Gussy it Up a Little
When next summer rolls around I plan on going all lardcore and making my pimento cheese with fresh, fire-roasted pimentos, handcrafted hoop cheese, and homemade mayonnaise from Southern-sourced oil (maybe I'll even press it myself from locally-grown soybeans.)  Until then, here's the standby recipe I'm going with for holiday parties and other family gatherings.

Pimento Cheese

8 Oz. sharp yellow cheddar (or 4 oz. sharp cheddar and 4 oz. aged white cheddar)
1/2 cp. Duke's mayonnaise
1/2 cp. pimentos from a jar, drained and chopped into 1/4-inch bits
black pepper
pinch of salt
1/4 cp. diced green onion
1 t. dried mustard
1 t. freshly-squeeze lemon juice
1/4 tsp. cayenne

Grate the cheddar.  Lately I've been using the fine holes on my grater, but (yes, Janet) you could use the larger ones if you prefer big shreds instead.  Put the grated cheese in a large mixing bowl and stir together all the ingredients.  Start with a little less than a half cup of mayo and add a little more once you have everything else mixed in to make sure you get the right consistency--I like mine to be thick but still loose enough to spread easily, and the 1/2 cup of mayo will usually do it.   

I like to make my pimento cheese the day before I serve it so it has a good night in the fridge to let everything merge and meld together.  You can serve it immediately, though, in a pinch.

Lately, I've gone for mustard and black pepper for a little zip, cayenne to add a subtle bit of heat, and lemon juice to brighten it all up.  But, there are a hundred different things you could use instead and come up with a similarly satisfying spread, so here's your chance to get creative.

How to serve pimento cheese once it's made is a topic for several more posts, but you can get all fancy and spread it on little toast points (see glamor shot above), or just serve it in a bowl with some crackers around it, or--as usually ends up happening to me--simply leave it in a plastic container in the fridge and scoop out a couple of spoonfuls here and there until it's gone before you get a chance to serve it at any sort of gathering.

It's good stuff.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Does Authenticity Matter? Pimentos

The authentic pimento?

The authentic pimento?
I'm currently somewhat obsessed by pimento cheese, having had so many splendid examples in various restaurants and venues over the past year and spent a considerable time trying to perfect my own home version.

One of the versions that caught my attention was that of Linton Hopkins of Restaurant Eugene and Holeman & Finch in Atlanta.  He makes his with a blend of white cheddar and extra sharp yellow cheddar along with homemade mayonnaise (from local farm eggs), tabasco, and black pepper and--the kicker--real Georgia pimentos that he buys fresh and roasts himself, being sure that a little of the black char from the skin gets into the mix.

"Georgia used to produce a huge amount of true red pimentos for pimento cheese, the classic Southern staple," Hopkins told Creative Loafing Atlanta a while back. "But now it all goes to the canning industry. So you don't see them here anymore. The local farmers don't have them; it's all done by the big agribusiness."  

What Hopkins says is almost all correct, but for perfect accuracy you would have to remove the words "now" and "anymore."  Georgia did indeed produce huge amounts of red pimentos in the past, but from the very beginning they weren't produced by small local farmers but rather by "big agribusiness."

No one in the South had even heard of a pimento pepper until well after the Civil War.  Through most of the 19th century, the word "pimento" meant allspice, the unripe berries of the Eugenia Pimenta evergreen from Jamaica and the West Indies.  The spice was popular throughout the United States, and oil from Jamaican pimento berries was prescribed as a purgative and toothache remedy.

Pimento was not used as a term for red peppers until the 1880s, when sweet peppers from Spain began being imported to the United States, packed in tin cans (which themselves were a relatively new innovation).  Not long after, recipes calling for “sweet Spanish peppers” began appearing in print.  In the 1887 edition of Miss Parloa's Kitchen Companion, Maria Parloa noted that such a pepper, when green, “is much milder than the common bell-pepper, although they look so much alike it is often difficult to distinguish them.”  She recommended that they be stuffed and baked.  Thomas Jefferson Murrey, one of the most popular cookbook authors of the era, was a proponent of the sweet pepper, too, incorporating it into recipes for salmon a la Creole, boiled beef salad, and omelet with Spanish pepper.

By the late 1890s, Americans were calling these imported peppers by their Spanish name, pimiento.  Soon the “i” was dropped from common usage, and by the turn of the century most print accounts of the peppers call them “pimentos”.  Thanks to their bright red color, which helped liven up salads and other dishes, and their mild, sweet flavor, pimentos became one of the darlings of the "domestic science" school of cookery instructors, and their magazine articles and cookbooks advanced the pepper's adoption in home kitchens nationwide.

While the peppers were popular throughout the country, the South--specifically, the state of Georgia--became the center of the American pimento industry.  Imported Spanish pimentos were expensive, and a few enterprising Peach State residents saw an opportunity to get into the game.  Around 1911, farmers affiliated with the Georgia Experiment Station outside of Griffin, Georgia, began trying to cultivate a domestic pimento.  Working with imported Spanish varieties, Samuel D. Riegel identified the plants most suitable for the Georgia soil and from them developed the “Truhart Perfection” pimento, which became the basis of a new local industry.

In 1914, Riegel's son, Mark, invented a roasting machine that made peeling the peppers easier, and the next year he founded the Pomona Products Company to can them commercially.  By the 1920s, a flourishing pimento industry had developed in and around Griffin.  1938 was the peak year, with 25,000 acres under cultivation, and the Pomona Products Company alone was producing 10 million cans per year.  California growers began competing with Georgia around this time, but the Peach State remained the leading producer of the little red peppers until at least the 1960s.

So, from the very beginning, pimento peppers were grown on a large scale with the express intent of being canned and nationally distributed.  The pimentos used by your Southern grandmother in her special pimento cheese recipe were, in all probability, purchased in a tin can or glass jar, even if she lived in Georgia.

But, does that make pimento cheese made with fresh pimentos somehow "inauthentic?"

Linton Hopkins has developed strong relationships with local organic farmers near Atlanta who are interested in heirloom varieties, including Nicolas Donck of Crystal Organic Farms, who began supplying him with fresh, locally-grown pimentos.  I was thrilled when I found this out, because--while you can apparently get them during the summer in various farmers markets--I don't recall ever seeing a fresh pimento pepper myself.  I'm dying to try making pimento cheese from fresh peppers as soon as summer rolls back around and I can maybe track down some pimentos at a roadside market.

What could be tastier?  And if, strictly speaking, using the fresh peppers is not really authentic to the way the iconic cheese spread was made in the past, I don't why we shouldn't try to make these old recipes even better by using fresh ingredients.  And, at the same time, I see no reason to feel guilty about using diced pimentos from a jar.
Now, all of this might have you wondering how we started mixing those canned pimento peppers into a cheese spread in the first place.  As it turns out, pimento cheese itself has a long and curious history, and one, in fact, of highly questionable authenticity.  But that's a topic for a later time.

I'm off to the store for a jar of pimentos to whip up some pimento cheese.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Southern Cooking: Does Authenticity Matter?

CNN's Eatocracy blog has stirred up something of a hornet's nest over its coverage of their first CNN Secret Supper at Linton Hopkins' Restaurant Eugene in Atlanta and their celebration of modern Southern chefs like Hopkins, Steven Satterfield,  and Sean Brock, whose passionate, intensive use of fresh, traditional ingredients constitute "a love letter to the cooks, farmers and soul of the South" and "reclaiming the soul of Southern food."

This drew the ire of many commenters who claimed that such food is "no more Southern than braised kangaroo". Why?  Because it's just "some New York Yankee's idea of Southern cooking", and "I've never seen anything like this served on any down home southern table," and--more than anything--it's "not what my grandmother made."   Eatocracy sums it up nicely: "You can't out-cook a ghost."

The editors' invitation to readers to "share your thoughts on the state of Southern cooking" has sparked a full-on flame war with over three hundred comments in two days, and the content suggests it's virtually impossible for us to have a discussion about Southern cooking without everyone starting to talk about where they were born and raised and sooner or later somebody telling the Yankees to go home.

For me, though, it re-raises a question that has been nagging at me for some time, and one that my research into the history of Southern food has done little to resolve: how much does authenticity even matter?

One problem with using authenticity as a measure is that our own conceptions of Southern food history are so slippery.   Take this list of Southern staples: sweet iced tea, pimento cheese, barbecue, hushpuppies, shrimp and grits, fried green tomatoes, RC Cola and moon pies.  Are these things traditional Southern foods? 

It all depends upon  how you define "traditional."  Did it have to be served in the region in antebellum days ("before da wah?")?  Before World War II?  Before Jimmy Carter made the South cool?  Before the turn of the 21st century?  Does it have to be something your grandmother cooked or your grandfather loved to eat? 

And then there's geography: does anything originating in Florida or Texas count? What about foods that were popular not just in the South but in other parts of the country, too?  What about something made by your grandmother who was born in the North but lived in the South her entire adult life?

It's hardly news that Southerners have a unusually strong interest in the past, but too often we seem less concerned with the past itself as we are in employing it as a cudgel in some contemporary argument.   Hate agribusiness and want everyone to start eating fresh, local, organic, heirloom vegetables?  Intimidated or annoyed by expensive restaurants and ingredients you don't recognize and wish people would just serve you a cheap fried pork chop?  Either way you can turn to the some point in the past and find evidence to buttress your position.

I'm launching a series of posts that dig more into this question of authenticity.  The idea is to look at some of the things we're eating and making such a fuss about these days,  how we are talking about them, and the history--both factual and mythologized--behind these "traditional" Southern food.  Does authenticity matter?  Should we concern ourselves with how people cooked and what they cooked in the old days?  Or, should we just shut up and eat?

Gotta go . . . Just made myself hungry thinking about fried pork chops. 

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