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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