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SOUTHERN COOKING is a plentitude of cuisines, and cookbooks on the subject are also in a wide variety. Here are tidbits on three of my favorites. One is a traditional cookbook. The second is a warm memoir as much as a collection of recipes. And the third is a cookbook as hep (if I may use this classic term) as its author. Maybe you have a favorite Southern cookbook too?
A Mississippi-born New Yorker. Craig Claiborne, 1920–2000, was a long-time food editor and restaurant critic for The New York Times. After serving in World War II and Korea, he used his G.I. Bill benefits to attend the Swiss École hôtelière de Lausanne. His specialities, though, became Asian and Mexican cuisines and the cooking of his native South.
Claiborne prefaces only some of his book’s 347 pages of recipes with anecdotes or personal recollections. The recipes are concise, the ingredients listed in their order of use, the steps of preparation numbered.
My copy opens readily to a favorite recipe for Seafood Gumbo with Okra. I confess I’ve simplified Claiborne’s version: Wife Dottie likes oysters; I don’t. I like hot red peppers; she doesn’t.
Fond Memories of Freetown, Virginia. Edna Lewis, 1916–2006, had been the culinary heart of New York City’s Café Nicholson, renowned for its Southern cooking and frequented by the likes of William Faulkner, Truman Capote, and Tennessee Williams, not to say Eleanor Roosevelt and Marlene Dietrich.
But Edna Lewis’s heart was in Freetown, Orange County, Virginia. “The name was adopted,” Lewis writes in The Taste of Country Cooking, “because the first residents had all been freed from chattel slavery and they wanted to be known as a town of Free People.” Her grandfather’s was one of the town’s founding families.
Craig Claiborne said of its 1976 edition, this “may well be the most entertaining regional cookbook in America.” Times change; we eat less foods that are creamed, larded, or begin “a stick of butter and two slices of bacon.” On the other hand, I cheat just a bit.
And I enjoy the warm memoirs of Lewis growing up in Freetown. “Turkeys,” she recalls, “were raised for the city holiday market as a late cash crop. At the end of the winter, the turkey hens began to lay and it was our job to watch them and find their nests, which were either along the fence row or in the edge of the woods under a pile of brush.”
“When we found the nest,” Lewis says, “Mother would take a china egg and put it there in place of the turkey eggs…”
“ … when the turkey poults hatched, there was another chore. The one I remember most was days when a thunderstorm was approaching and we were supposed to bring them to the coop from the field. But the mother hen would just sit down to keep us from finding her, with the storm fast approaching…. Life on the farm had its hectic moments; heaven help us if the baby turkeys had drowned.”
From CPA to Modeling to The Chew. Carla Hall, Nashville-born in 1964, had been a Certified Public Account; she lasted two years. After several years as a model in Paris, Milan, and London, she decided on a culinary career.
Hall has been one of five cohosts on ABC’s The Chew since its 2011 debut. Her cookbooks (at latest count, this one, plus Carla’s Comfort Foods and Cooking with Love) are characterized by an elan for cuisine: “If you’re not in a good mood,” she says, “the only thing you should make is a reservation.”
Hall’s cookbook celebrates Southern cuisine as well as today’s healthy eating. One of my favorite Hall recipes has no butter, cream, bacon, nor lard; it uses a grand total of two tablespoons of olive oil.
“I’ve kept out dairy,” Hall says, “which isn’t big in Gullah-Geechee cooking. You don’t need it!”
Southern authenticity—and healthy cuisine. What a hep combination! ds
Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2019