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.

1 comment:

NMissC said...

You are worrying too much about the concept "authentic."

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