The South’s culinary legacy extends far beyond its borders.
By Bret Love
While each area of the country is known for its own distinctive flavors, recently, the Southern culinary culture has become increasingly prevalent in areas far beyond the Mason-Dixon line.
Waffle House, the iconic diner chain founded in Atlanta more than 60 years ago, has expanded to over 1,500 locations across the country, including states ranging from Pennsylvania to Illinois in the north and from Oklahoma to Arizona out west. Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, which started in Lebanon, Tenn., in 1969, now has 630-plus restaurants in 42 states.
Along with the explosive success of these popular chains, Dixieland-style dining is making its way into upscale restaurants from coast to coast. Critically acclaimed chefs such as Edward Lee of Succotash in National Harbor, Md., Jean-Paul Bourgeois of Blue Smoke in New York City and Tanya Holland of Brown Sugar Kitchen and B-Side BBQ in Oakland, Calif., have emerged as trailblazers, taking what was once a regional culinary style and introducing it to new audiences.
The cuisine’s unique history provides one explanation for why people from the Northeast, Midwest and West Coast are now taking an active interest in this style of cooking. Southern food encompasses an array of cultural influences as diverse as the people who inhabit the region. For example, the popularity of corn, squash, tomatoes and the pit-barbecue cooking style originated with local Native American tribes. In Louisiana, Cajun cuisine is deeply rooted in culinary traditions from rural France and the Southern love of a full breakfast can be traced back to the traditional English “fry-up.”
“The South is very much regionalized, much like Provence, Paris, Lyon and Normandy, which all have different variations and interpretations of French food,” says Louisiana native Bourgeois, who took over as executive chef at Blue Smoke in 2014. “People are now discovering that there’s a whole world of cuisine that has been evolving for over a century within their own country that they may not have been aware of. My hope is that people are seeing that the South is so much more than just fried chicken, barbecue and biscuits and gravy.”
As people raised in the South migrate across the country, they take their culinary traditions with them, often passing recipes down from generation to generation. Holland, the Bay Area chef and entrepreneur known for her inventive take on modern soul food, was born in Connecticut and raised in New York. But her early interest in cooking came from her Southern-born parents, who founded a gourmet cooking club for couples from different ethnic and professional backgrounds when she was a child.
“They were wonderful home cooks, and genuinely enjoyed bringing people together for entertaining,” she says. “Having both grown up in the South—my father in Virginia and my mother in Louisiana—each brought with them influences from other countries and regions that inspired me to learn and cook as much as possible.”
The region’s epicurean culture often makes an impact on travelers. They may take the culinary influences they discovered and incorporate them when they return home, or become so captivated that they extend their stay, bringing their own style to the local epicurean scene.
Lee, a Korean-American Brooklyn native who competed on Bravo’s “Top Chef,” falls into the latter category. He knew very little about Southern cuisine before visiting the Kentucky Derby in 2003. After falling in love with the area and moving to Louisville shortly after, he immersed himself in the regional flavors, joined the Southern Foodways Alliance (an organization that studies and documents the local food culture) and launched successful Southern-influenced restaurants in Kentucky and the Washington, D.C., area.
“I started to see a shift in attitudes toward Southern food about a decade ago,” he says. “Since then, an entire generation of forward-thinking chefs in every corner of the South have redefined Southern food in ways that force us to look at it as an amalgamation of regional cuisines versus one homogenous culture. The history of Southern food is the history of America.”
This change in perception coincided with the rise of the locavore and farm-to-table movements. Both highlight dishes that utilize fresh, seasonal, sustainably produced and locally sourced ingredients. According to Bourgeois, the South’s rich agricultural history perfectly positioned it for a resurgence of culinary traditions
dating back well over a century.
“The rural South has had a farm-to-table approach since their ancestors learned to grow crops,” he explains. “I think the word ‘revival’ is great to use when speaking of the work of companies such as Anson Mills [an artisan mill based in South Carolina]. There are farmers like Charles Poirier of Youngsville, La., who makes small-batch sugar cane syrup. There are sea salt harvesters in Virginia who are reviving that portion of Southern food history. It’s a collection of many individuals who make up the revival of Southern cuisine.”
There are bound to be debates and disagreements anytime tradition encounters innovation. But many chefs agree that finding a balance between the two allowed them to create their own personal twists on classic dishes—with delicious results.
Bourgeois, who studied in Lyon, France, and worked in California and St. Thomas before moving to New York in 2009, holds some of the strongest opinions about honoring Southern customs.
“I believe cornbread should be baked to order and never with flour,” he says. “I believe that gumbo roux should always be made with oil, and if you’re using a roux then it should never have okra in it. Yet one of my favorite soups is chicken, collard green and egg drop soup, which isn’t traditionally Southern, but is reflective of my approach to cooking. Every single one of the places I’ve worked has influenced the way I cook. My approach at Blue Smoke is very Southern, but very much my own.”
On the other side of the country, Holland, who describes herself as a “flavor enthusiast,” says that her main focus is simply to source the freshest, most sustainable ingredients. “I exercise many of my practices and influences from training abroad in France, yet I believe that the old school approach is worth preserving because of how well it works,” she says. “The combinations of traditional Southern dishes marry so well together, which is a big part of the
Lee acknowledges the importance of preserving Southern heritage at Succotash by serving classic dishes such as fried green tomatoes with buttermilk dressing and shrimp and grits with red-eye gravy. But, in boldly fusing his disparate cultural influences to create a new style of Southern-Asian fusion (see: “dirty” fried chicken glazed with sweet-spicy Korean gochujang sauce, and a side option of collards and kimchee), he’s clearly not interested in merely re-creating the food of the past.
“I want to contribute something that is personal, unique and forward-thinking,” he says. “I see America as an ongoing evolution, and I see the South embracing the global influences that make its cuisine more layered. Southern cuisine has always embraced the influences of the Far East—from spices like curry, to exotic fruits like coconuts and pineapples, to techniques like frying chicken. We’re seeing the next generation of this influence happening right now, and it is fascinating.”
Southern Grown Food, Drink and Music Festival at Sea Island
Deemed a “celebration of all things Southern,” this festival at Sea Island returns June 9-12. Over the course of the weekend, attendees will enjoy family-style dinners, a lively concert, culinary competitions and informative demonstrations. Leading up to the festivities, two participating chefs weigh in on what they’re most lookingforward to this year, and share their favorite Southern dish.
Kevin Gillespie: An Atlanta native, Gillespie is the culinary mastermind behind the restaurants Gunshow and Revival in Georgia. At the upcoming festival, Gillespie and Joey Ward, executive chef at Gunshow, will be preparing some of their favorite plates during the Meat & Three dinner on June 10. “I’m looking forward to experiencing this event for the first time,” Gillespie says. “I want to see what it’s all about.”
Those familiar with Gillespie’s dishes may be hopeful that he brings his great-grandmother’s cornbread. “It’s a family favorite and has a lot of nostalgia associated with it,” he explains of the signature menu item. “As for the preparation, that’s
Linton Hopkins: For chef Hopkins of Restaurant Eugene in Atlanta, he’s most excited for spending time with other chefs he normally doesn’t get to see, as well as taking in the location. “I have a personal affinity for the Sea Island community: the people, beautiful resort grounds and genuine Southern hospitality that earn its luxurious yet tranquil distinction,” says Hopkins, who will be a guest chef for the Saturday evening Dinner on the Lawn event.
When it comes to his personal favorite Southern dish, Hopkins says it’s the restaurant’s vegetable plate. “A signature menu item whose structure hasn’t changed since opening, the dish is representative of why I love to cook and what it means to be a Southern chef, continually inspired by preparing that particular plate and its layered cookery,” he explains. “… At its core, the vegetable plate represents how to teach and inspire young cooks to engage in the creativity and honesty of thoughtful cooking.”
(Top photo courtesy of Succotash)