Sunday, May 31, 2015

Cane Pole Memories

When I was a child, perhaps nothing excited me more than fishing.  Even when the Atlanta Braves were having their miraculous winning years in the 1990's, the spectacle of Maddux, Glavin and Smoltz's artistry on the mound could barely pull me away from sultry evenings by the pond.  I did not have a dad around or any older male figure to instruct me on the finer arts of fishing.  I was in my late teens before I truly learned to use a spinning rod and lures.  My angling equipment of choice was the humble cane pole.  A length of cane between seven and ten feet, some light monofilament line of about the same length, a small hook and a cork or plastic bobber were all I needed for tackle.  A five-gallon bucket on which to sit and in which to bring home my catch, was my only accessory for bank fishing - I never had a boat.  A few worms dug in the morning dew, or caught crawling along after a rain was my only bait.  With that in tow, this skinny, southern kid whose skin would burn easily and seemed to attract mosquitoes like flies to honey on sultry evenings, was ready to fish!

My fishing waters were small farm ponds, swamps and occasionally, the great Cape Fear and Lumber Rivers and their smaller branches.   The land on which these bodies of water rested or flowed was family land - great grandparents, grandparents, great uncles and aunts, cousins and distant cousins all had farms, woods or pastures which held waters in which fish lurked beneath thick lily pads, in cattails and under algae... all weedy, mysterious and dark.  Fish generally bite best in morning, evening and night but, I was so enthusiastic as to leave as early as possible, stay out all day with nary a bite and come home well after dark.... sunburned, bug bitten and exhausted.  I would stare at a bobber for hours, snacking occasionally on a ham sandwich, perhaps a couple of my grandmother's biscuits and some cold, fried fatback, tepid water and a few cookies.  I loathed abandoning the water's edge even to answer the call of nature.  I spent far more hours fishing than I ever did catching fish.  

From those solitary vigils, I learned far more appreciation for a pond and the wildlife that visits it than any academic reader of Thoreau could ever imagine.  I learned to read the clouds and how the life below the waters would react to barometric changes that were far beyond my youthful education.  I saw every kind of light reflect and the ripples of every breeze.  I saw meteor showers and eclipses undisturbed by electric light.  I learned to identify hawks and blue herons and learn how each sets its table.  I saw the turtles emerge from their winter rest and the tadpoles turn into frogs.  I saw the doe with twin fawns coming silently in for a drink and the dragon fly light on a cattail with the sun casting rainbows through the prisms of its wings.  I learned the companionship of silence and the comfort of the sounds of nature.

Beyond all contemplative appreciation though, I learned to fish!  I learned to let my bait light on the water and drift slowly down, into and along with any current from a creek or spring.  I learned to estimate the depths of the water and suspend my worm just at the top of the under waterweeds.  I learned where the pan fish hide, where the bass hunt and how the catfish swim in long patrols of the bank just below the drop off.  I also learned the pride of being self sufficient - going into the wilds with little more than wits and patience and returning with food enough to feed a family.  Those lessons with a cane pole made me a fisherman, an outdoorsman, a writer and very much the man I am.  

What I caught, mainly, were pan fish - bluegill, crappie, bream and pumpkinseed - with the occasional large mouth bass or catfish.  These mild tasting, lean (with the exception of catfish) little fighters remain a delight on my table.  

The first, and most often overlooked aspect of their edibility comes at the gutting - a lesson I learned in more recent years.  If you are lucky enough to catch a few pregnant females, the roe is spectacular!  Even a small blue gill has a few spoonfuls of delicate eggs that should never be wasted.  At pond side, simply tossing them in a medium hot frying pan with some bacon fat yields a rich and satisfying light meal (especially served over grits).  If you take them home, cover them in water salted to about the taste of seawater.  After 48 hours, drain and eat it either cooked or like caviar.  Beyond the roe, all fish contain livers that are mild tasting and delicate - fried or poached.  The liver, especially, has very little fishy taste at all.  

The meat of pan fish, as the name suggests, is most suited to the pan.  You can cook them in other ways - grilled, poached, smoked or baked - but these mild tasting, very fresh fish seem to take to frying so well that few people cook them otherwise.  Either a flour or cornmeal batter will do, or a combination of both. You can coat them in either a dry or wet batter.  Most often, my fish were simply cleaned and scaled, dredged/dusted in a light coating of cornmeal mixed with a good bit of salt and a dash of black pepper and fried. Frying can be done in a pan with a bit of pork fat, which is magic in the outdoors, or in a deep fryer.  The resulting fish is light and crispy, satisfying and as addictive as potato chips.

Truly, there has been only one time when I could not eat my approximate weight in fried pan fish.... and, that is a story I should likely not tell...  

Years ago, when I worked as a youth minister in a small church un rural Georgia, a parishioner had a get together at his lake house.  He had spent days catching dozens of pan fish.  They were to be deep fried and served with coleslaw out of doors.  Although attendance was somewhat compulsory, I was excited to go.  Those invited included the preacher and his wife, their five sons, a few elders of the church and those of us in the periphery of the hierarchy.  We did a little fishing before dinner was to be served, but it seemed our host had fished the waters out for the time being.  The preacher and his wife were remarkably over weight, as were his five sons, and I recall wondering if I should get more than a tail fin on which to chew, when an event that scarred me for life began to unfold.  The preacher's wife had been in the lakeside cabin, assisting with he frying and slaw making.  I saw her beckon to the preacher and observed them to have a very serious conversation. After which, they disappeared into the house.  During the ensuing period, several of us were turned away from the singular bathroom facilities, as the preacher's wife had thoroughly clogged the toilet with her enormous waste and no plunger was on hand.  After much debate and consternation, the preacher returned the toilet to working order by use of his hands alone.  Soon after, the preacher and his wife served the fish.... I claimed heat exhaustion and left early.... I never shook his hand again.  My employment ended soon after.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Southern Fried Bread

I've heard fried bread refer to to anything from Native American fry bread to pain de mie, to Yorkshire fried bread... even hush puppies. My family, being a rather volatile mix of Irish, French, English, Scottish and Cheraw Indian likely made all of the above and many of which i am unaware. My grandmother generally cooked two types, not including french toast. One was just called "flour bread". It was a simple biscuit dough made with self rising flour, milk and lard, cooked at a low temp on the stove top, in a seasoned or very lightly greased cast iron pan. You simply spoon it in like a big, thick pancake and turn it over to brown on each side. Once it is a medium brown with little black spots (much like pan fried chicken), it will be done on the inside. She would make this on mornings when she didn't have time to bake biscuits. The other, which was served at every dinner, was pan fried cornbread. This is just a medium/thin slurry of stone ground cornmeal, salt and water, (no sugar) spooned into a heavily greased cast iron pan and fried at medium temp. It forms small patties that are dense in the center, with lacy, crispy edges. There is absolutely nothing better with a big plate of collard greens topped with hot, pickled peppers! The Lumbee Indians Eat a sandwich of these cornbread patties, with collards and fried fatback in between.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Virginia Housewife

My favorite old cookbook - a timeless classic... the first cookbook published in America.  This book contains, among other wonderful things, the first southern fried chicken recipe ever published.  Here is the .pdf version for free from

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Real Grits Basics

Here are my basics: 1) Buy only stone ground real grits. Never, ever purchase instant grits, quick grits or any grits that are the consistency of cream of wheat. As the late and brilliant Lewis Grizzard said (paraphrased), "Southerners only serve lumpy, unsalted, instant grits, without butter to yankees as revenge for burning Atlanta." 2) Salt the cooking liquid generously. 3) Use only real butter as your fat. The cooking ratio is 1 parts grits to 4 parts liquid. The liquid can be plain water, broth or stock. I always use plan water for breakfast grits, shrimp stock for shrimp and grits, chicken broth for cheese grits, etc. For a breakfast for two or three people, bring 1 cup of water to the boil and salt it to taste. Add 1/4th cup grits. Reduce to a simmer and stir occasionally to prevent lumps (stone ground grits rarely lump). Simmer until the grits have absorbed about 90% of the water (so they don't dry out on the plate). Serve with butter and black pepper. I grew up on the NC/SC line, in the eastern part of the state. The local tradition in that area is to chop fresh, home grown tomatoes and cucumbers onto your plate, with soft scrambled eggs and spicy country sausage. You mix all of that into the grits and eat everything with a big spoon in one hand and a home made biscuit or fry bread in the other, which aids in pushing everything onto the spoon. Then, you eat the biscuit or bread with honey or grape hull preserves. A breakfast like that will certainly carry you to lunch!

How to follow the blog

Some of the "gadgets" on my blog don't seem to be working.  The only sure way to follow the blog is to click “Join this site” at the top right hand corner.   Thanks for your patience as I get things worked out.  I should soon be able to finish with the technical stuff and get back to the food!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Please follow my blog

In the 24 hours or so since I have relaunched this blog, I have received a good deal of much appreciated praise. Some of y'all seem to really like it and that is tremendously gratifying.  However, no one has officially "followed" the blog as of yet.  500+ folks have read it... but none have committed to receiving the very occasionally update by email.  If you like my blog, please follow it.  I promise not to fill your inbox with anything but the very occasional new post.  Once I get a few followers, google will do a bit to promote the blog so others can find it.  So, this is somewhat necessary for success. If you wish, you can also"like" the Facebook page for my blog:  Either way, I'd truly appreciate it!  As I stated before, if 100 people follow my blog I will keep going and if 1,000 people follow it I will write a cookbook.

Supper At My Grandmother's Table - butter beans and field peas

I do not recall a time when butter beans and field peas (heirloom speckled butter beans and dixie lee peas) were not a part of supper at my grandmother's table.  The dinner meal usually included two meats, three or four seasonal vegetables (greens, okra, squash, etc) in addition to beans and peas, rice or potatoes, fried corn bread or fried flour bread, tossed salad or a platter of fresh, raw seasonal vegetables including sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, banana or bell peppers and celery, two or three desserts which may include home made cakes, pies, puddings, cookies (usually tea cakes) or ice cream, jams, jellies, preserves or honey (from my great-grandfather's hives, which were by the swamp and produced honey as dark as molasses) to be spread biscuits still hot from the oven, a variety of pickled vegetables, chow chows or relishes, usually some sausage or country ham on a dish on the stove, left over from breakfast and some fried fatback, left over from seasoning vegetables.  Each person who entered her door (or even her yard) was invited to supper - friend, family or stranger.  Upon entering the house, she would begin her litany, describing the day's menu and at the end of the list of a dozen or so foods available for dinner, she would say "and there are beans and peas on the stove for whoever wants them."

All of my childhood friends who had the chance to eat supper with us were amazed.  They always said something along the lines of, "I can't believe y'all eat like this every day!" My grandmother would leave the pots and pans on the stove, with serving spoons in them and the overflow of dishes would cover the counter.  Everyone helped themselves, filling their plates with whatever they liked and going back for seconds and thirds.  Most of my friends did not reach for the beans and peas, but I would always encourage them to try a spoonful.  In each case, their response was of astonishment when they realized just how good the beans and peas tasted.  These were not the flavorless canned beans and frozen peas from the grocery store!  These were rich, savory, meaty and creamy - as good as the steak and fried chicken.  Even a friend who was so shy that he would not order for himself in a restaurant in his early teens, served himself extra helpings and learned to push them onto his spoon with a piece of fried cornbread and to sop it in the pot likker - something he had never done before.  The next day, I taught him to shoot a rifle and damn near made a good ole boy out of him!

When the beans and peas were in season, nearly every evening was spent shelling them.  We ate what we could fresh.  At least 100 pounds of each were blanched and frozen for use throughout the rest of the year.  My grandmother cooked three or four large pots of beans and peas each week.  They were always there.  Then, one day my grandmother was gone... and soon after, so were the beans and peas.

I had taken them for granted.  When I came to that realization, I began the search to replace them.  It was far more difficult than I thought.  Most of the farmers in the area had switched to growing crowders,  black eyed peas and other commercial varieties of lima beans instead of the old, heirloom varieties.  Even field peas that I bought directly from farmers, who swore that they were dixie lea peas turned out to be crowders.  Several years passed, before I was able to learn from my last remaining relative of my grandparents' generation, that "dixie lee" was the name of the the variety of field pea.  But, no one knew the name of the butter beans.  I knew that they were speckled butter beans, but they were not like the speckled butter beans in found in grocery stores and farmer's markets.  The butter beans from my childhood were light green when young, but white with deep purple speckles or spots when mature - no two mature beans had the same pattern.  When cooked, they turned a uniform light grey and produced a grey/brown potlikker.  I tried every variety of speckled butter or lima bean I could find.  I ordered from heirloom companies.  I communicated with the Southern Seed Legacy.  None of them were the right color or tasted right when cooked.

I am pleased to announce that I found a source for dixie lee peas a few years ago.  Just last month, I found a source for the speckled butter beans that I have been searching for for so long.  This week, I plan to blog about both.

My convoluted, unproven, Faulknerian theory of Southern Food

Southern Food is known as a regional style of cooking in America.  It is distinct.  It is often classified as ethnic - whether called southern home cookin' or soul food.  Newspaper and magazine articles extolled southern cooking in the early through mid-1900s as a distinct style of cooking.  Barbecue pitmasters, fried chicken cooks, biscuit champions, small country ham producers, the cake and pie recipes of countless southern ladies, a few colorful cajuns with big personalities and a knack for telling humorous stories and even the legendary Colonel in his white suite, became institutions.  In some ways, Southern food is more popular now than ever.

What, however, makes southern cooking unique?  The South is a collection of states that lie between the Mississippi River and south of the Mason Dixon Line, encompassing an area somewhat larger than the New England and Mid-Atlantic states.  The Southern states are at least as old as the northern states.  So, why is southern cooking distinct from American cooking in general?  Although often classified as ethnic cuisine, Southern cooking is distinct form all ethnicities - Southern cooking is not found in England, Ireland, Scotland, Germany, Africa, France or anywhere else our Ancestors came from. It is unique.

When my Pilgrim ancestors came south, after disembarking the Mayflower and briefly occupying the Massachusetts Bay Colony, they were Johnny-come-latlies to the south.  The first English "permanent" settlement in America was Jamestown.  Before that was the "Lost Colony" of Sir Walter Raleigh.  The Spanish were here before and during that time.  Before both was, of course, the Indians - Native Americans in today's parlance.  When my (Dutch) Pilgrim ancestors got here, they met both my English ancestors who had been here for a while and my Native American ancestors who knew no other homeland.  Sometimes, they met a mixture of both... The Lumbee Tribe.

My family has many roots and branches in the Cheraw and Pone Tribes (probably more), amd we have a lot of Lumbee blood.  The Lumbees are widely believed (although it has never been proved) to be a mix of Cheraw (and maybe Tuscarora, Cherokee and Waccamaw) Indians with the descendants of the Lost Colony.  It is very common for Lumbees to have brown or even red hair, green eyes and English surnames.  Therefore, I would consider the my ancestral homeland, in the low country swamps of Virginina, North Carolina and South Carolina, to be America's first true melting pot.

The South was populated by Indians, English, Irish, Scottish, Scots-Irish, French, German, Dutch and some Swiss... predominately.   The English dominated the coast and near-inland areas, where royal land grants gave them huge plantations.  The Irish usually stayed at the coast or went a step further inland to prove to the English that they could own as much land and become just as damn prosperous as the bloody English.  The Scots took to the mountains (for the highlanders) and the lowlands - for the loyalist followers of Scottish Queen Flora MacDonald, who took refuge in eastern North Carolina.  The Scots-Irsih went where the British forced them to go, generally resenting everyone and forming very loyal bonds with each other.  The Germans settled, largely in the piedmont favoring the foothills area and the Dutch, generally between them and the Scots. The Africans, of course, went where they were taken as slaves.  The Indians hunkered down in area where white folks dared not tread.  There were not as many French who settled in the south (outside of Louisiana) but, thank God, those who did settled along the ports and great rivers... making up about half of my ancestry.  Italian and Jewish settlers came later, predominately settling in the larger, already established cities.

All of the above ethnicities and nationalities had their influence on Southern food.  Why then, is Southern food considered ethnic?  We do not have (for the most part) China-towns, Little Italys or Jewish neighborhoods like other regions.  We do not have large, identifiable German, Polish and Chech neighborhoods like the midwest.  We do not have major Mexican influences like Tex-Mex cuisine.  Outside of Louisiana's Creole influence, we do not have any major, formal European influences on our cooking.

BTW: For the sake of this blog, I will not consider Cajun food as ethnic.  Mainly, this is because Cajun food is so very similar to my family's own home cooking - the French, English, Irish and Native American influences lined up in much the same way.  In fact, some of the Fench in my family may have come via Acadia.  When the British drove the French from the area around Nova Scotia, they were sent to many areas outside of Louisiana... some even mutinied against their British captors and landed in various areas of the Southern coast, drifting inland to escape the British Colonial government.    Interestingly, about the time the British expelled the French from those northern Canadian islands, new French surnames began to appear in the Huguenot community on the Cape Fear River that my family called home.  So, while Cajun cooking is a distinct tradition, for the sake of this blog, I will call it Southern.... one could hardly call it anything else.  Hell, the Quebecois sure don't cook southern!

So, there is not a single distinct major ethnic or national influence on Southern Cooking that would somehow differentiate it from American cooking.  Perhaps then, the Southern states were founded later in American history like the west coast, Alaska or Hawaii... that would make them new and different than the food traditions that "grew up with the country."  But, no, the South was settled before the New England states.  Jamestown, VA was founded in 1607 and settled in 1616. Charleston and Georgetown, SC, Savannah, GA, Saint Augustine, FL, New Orleans, LA, etc  were utilized before then, but the Spanish must have tired of shrimp and grits and moved on... the Europeans fought it out amongst themselves and we ended up fighting the British.  I suppose that if the French had won, I'd start with the first French settlement, but they didn't, so I won't.

Anyway, the first English settlements and colonies in America were in the South.  Not surprisingly, the first American Revolutionaries were southern.  The first Americans to declare independence from England, muster into a fighting force and whip their pasty, arrogant, inbred asses were southern.  Near modern day Elizabethton, TN, a group of (mostly) Scottish and Scotts-Irsh mountain men had a settlement.  They were fiercely independent.  They worked together, in the Jeffersonian model, each man providing for his family, tending his own land and banding together with his neighbors for the common defense and good.  They called themselves the Watauga Settlement.  They were mostly minding their own business when the British Colonial Government sent tax collectors and political officers up to enforce their loyalty and tax payment.  They told them to go to hell... or back to England.  The Brits came back and told them to swear allegiance to the crown or die.  The Over Mountain Men (as they called themselves) met and decided to teach the Brits what a bunch of southern woodsmen could do.  They marched, over the mountains and through the woods, for hundreds of miles to meet the British forces at Kings Mountain, NC.  There, they so badly defeated General Ferguson and his well trained and armed British forces that they were eradicated.  Most of them then marched to Cowpens, SC and defeated the British a second time.  These were America's first major victories and General Washington would soon credit the Over Mountain Men with not only showing the colonists that the mighty British army could be defeated, but how.

The southerner, George Washington would go on to have many victories and to become our first president.  In fact all of our early presidents were Southerners - Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe.  These were the men who fought the Revolution, wrote the Declaration of Independence, The Constitution and The Federalist Papers.  Southerners founded and defined America.  Sure, yankees helped, but they followed the lead of the South.  They dumped tea in the Boston Harbor.  We made corn whiskey, refused to pay taxes on it, drank a lot of it and defeated the British.... twice (including the War of 1812).

If the peoples who settled the South were not distinctly dissimilar than those in the north, how then did such a sharp distinction in food traditions come about?  According to Chef Walter Staib (Chef at Pennsylvania's City Tavern and star of television's A Taste of History), the most popular cookbook (or most indicative of cooking styles) in colonial times Hannah Glasse's The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Simple.  Glasse's cookbook showed strong British and German influences.  Most (I haven't tried all) of the recipes are superb and many still find homes in Southern kitchens, where her name and book are likely unknown.  The great, heavy meat dishes often using organ meats certainly deserve a popular comeback!  The first regional cookbook and, if I am not mistaken, the first  cookbook published in America, was The Virginia Housewife by Mary Randolph.  Mrs. Randolph was a relative of both Thomas Jefferson and Robert E. Lee (Arlington was Lee family land).  She was the first person to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.  Mrs. Randolph's book is spectacular!  Although many of her recipes would fit well in The Art of Cookery, her book also included Fried Chicken, Cornbread, Okra, biscuits and many other Southern specialties.  Thomas Jefferson also wrote a cookbook and Martha Washington left a collection of recipes - each of these included high class English and European recipes along with southern food like sweet potato muffins and macaroni and cheese.  (Surprise! Mac and Cheese is Southern - Thomas Jefferson invented the dish!)  Following Mary Randolph, came cookbooks along the same theme by other prominent women, including the Carolina Housewife and the Kentucky Housewife.

By the early days of our nation, a Southern cooking style had been established, but was not entirely dissimilar to cooking in the northern states, as Fannie Farmer's book shows, but including regional dishes.  So, the ingredients then, must be distinctly different in the South.  Well, not really.  Sure - there are some vegetables that grow better in the warm climate of the South.  These foods mainly include those native to this continent.   When the early explorers landed, they found the Indians eating foods unknown to Europe - turkeys, tomatoes, potatoes, corn, squash, pumpkins, chili peppers, egg-plant, peanuts, etc.  The explorers took those foods back to Europe and by the time America was settled, most of these foods were common in European countries.  The British were, of course, the hold outs always hesitant to embrace "foreign" influences.  Even when tomatoes were so popular that they were thought to be native plants to Italy, Spain and France by most Europeans, the British still believed them to be poisonous.  It was Thomas Jefferson who finally convinced the the Americans of English descent to eat them.  The northern colonists then, were likely as aware of most native American foods as Southerners - but, as peppers, tomatoes, squash and such grow better in the South, Southerners would obviously use them more.  Also, hard wheat grows better in cooler climates so northerners could more easily bake European style breads.  Southerners had to make do with soft wheat biscuits and corn bread.  Beyond that, Southerners had more ready access to cane sugar than maple sugar, blue crabs than lobster and corn whiskey than home brewed beer.  Southerners also had access to a few vegetables of African origin thanks to slavery - most notably okra and cowpeas.

So, save the differences in a handful of foods, southern ingredients, cooking styles and heritage were largely similar to those of the north.  How then, to explain the differences that would develop over the next hundred years or so?

My convoluted and unproven theory is based mainly on two factors - poverty and immigration.  In the early years of our nation, most of the wealth was in the South.  Longer growing seasons meant increased agricultural output with which the north simply could not compete.  Ports from Maryland to the mouth of the great Mississippi River teamed with trade in rice, indigo, cotton, tobacco, molasses, tar, whiskey and much more.  Moreover, the South was rich with gold - major deposits especially in North Carolina and Georgia.  Much of the land in the South was owned by large farmers and opportunities for new immigrants did not come as easily as they did in the north with its smaller farms and larger cities.  Immigrants poured into the north especially into Philadelphia, New York and Boston.   These European immigrants certainly brought stronger Italian, German, Irish, etc influences  to the communities in which they thickly populated.  This is not intended to be a criticism of northern food - I'll eat my weight in pizza or perogies any day!  I'm just pointing out the differences.

Even before great immigration differences though, the Revolutionary War took a great toll on the South.  Having barely recovered from the Revolution, the War of 1812 began.  To put it in perspective, my 8th (if my math is right) great-grandfather, who fought in the Revolution had barely settled down to raise a family when he was again called to fight in the War of 1812 at the age of about 50.  Barely two generations later, his grandson would fight for the South in the  Civil War.  The Civil War devastated the South.  In the Civil War (or War of Yankee Aggression as I insist on calling it), 700,000 to 1,000,000 Americans were killed in battle.  Southerners were out numbered and approximately 3 Southerners were killed for every northerner.  Additionally, nearly all of the battles took place in the South and civilian Southern casualties were massive.  To put it in perspective, consider the impact of the Vietnam War in American society.  No Vietnam battles were fought on American soil and approximately 58,000 Americans were killed in battle or as POWs.  Moreover, the war criminals Sherman, Grant and their ilk burned Altlanta, GA, Columbia, SC and other Southern Cities to the ground, killing civilian men, women and children.  They traveled the rivers burning large homes.  They burned crops, slaughtered livestock, killed every boy old enough to hold gun, raped the women and left men, women and children, white, black and Indian to starve.  To put that in perspective, just remember how rightfully outraged we all were when terrorists killed over 3,000 people in the World Trade Towers, Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania - four jets, 3 building and 3,000 people senselessly killed by evil men, as opposed to hundreds of thousands and entire cities burned.

In no way do I mean to minimize the Vietnam War or 9/11, or to justify slavery (there were many causes to the Civil War, among which one was slavery - many who did not own slaves or support slavery fought for the South mainly on the principle that having just fought the Revolution for the right to voluntarily form a government, they retained the right to leave that union).  My point is that the South was decimated.  In my own family, only one man was left who bore our family name.  Had my ancestor not fathered a son before he left for Fort Fisher, the entire line would have been wiped out.  He was captured by the Yankees, became sick due to inhumane conditions on the ship in route to prison in NY, was thrown overboard and drowned alive.  Families were decimated, homes destroyed, generations of wealth lost, disease ran rampant and society was shattered.

Following the Civil War came Reconstruction - a years long process in which the north purposely sought to punish and weaken the South for rebellion and the assassination of President Lincoln.  They suspended Southerners rights to vote, appointing local, state and federal political figures who would do the bidding of the north.  They drained the South of its wealth.  This led to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in response and furthered divisions between races and religious denominations that shattered much of the unity left in Southern Society.  Old Southern Families, like my own, include Catholics whose roots run just as deep and who have shed just as much blood for the South as any protestant (most of the state of Louisiana, for instance).  They suffered immensely as the Klan took particular revenge on Catholics, blaming them for supporting the abolition of slavery.  My Native American ancestors, who had shared churches and inter-married somewhat freely with whites before the War was now faced segregation and   Jim Crow laws.  They had to build their own churches and schools and even fought actual armed battles with the Klan.  Things were certainly flawed in the old South, but in many ways, or at least for many people if not for others, they were even worse following the War.

Barely had the South recovered from the Civil War, when World War I began.  Then came The Great Depression.  Then, World War II.  It was really not until the 1950s that the South would begin to catch up with the rest of the nation in terms of industrialization and prosperity.  Then, of course, came the social upheaval of the 1960's, then the decline of farming and manufacturing in the 1980's and 90's... and in many ways those last few blows destroyed the remaining fabric of the traditions that defined the South.

But, I'm getting ahead of myself...

If the food traditions of north and South were largely similar in early America, my theory is that the differences truly developed after the succession of wars and upheavals that the South experienced and was affected by so much more dramatically than the north.  The north industrialized, modernized, attracted immigrants, grew and prospered, while the South did so at a much slower rate.  This is not only the reason that northerners consider Southerners backward, but also the difference in our food.  Traditional Southern cooking remained largely as it was in the beginning.  Southerners continued farming out of necessity.  Southerners continued hunting and fishing out of necessity.  Southerners remained close to their elders due to the agricultural nature of the South.  Families had to pull together during hard times.  With survival came pride in survival and Southern traditions.  Southerners took pride in our food... not to mention our music - country, blues, jazz, bluegrass, rock n' roll, soul, r&b, gospel, etc - our friendliness, manners, small towns and other traditions that stood in contrast to the north.

To sum up my theory, in many ways, when northerners re-discovered southern cooking in the 1900s they were drawn to it because it reminded them of their own grandmothers' cooking.  It was a rediscovery of tradition in the face of a quickly modernizing and changing world.  Now, they are still drawn to it (as is everyone else), often calling it comfort food.  Unfortunately, in recent decades, the South has become infected with the same fast food and broken family culture as the rest of the nation and we are quickly losing those traditions.  I invite you to join me in Reclaiming Southern Food.

Simple Bread

Simple Bread

My loaf in the picture is a traditional kneaded bread - it is only southern in that it is my original recipe and I am southern. 

It is just 6 cups all purpose, unbleached flour, 1 and 3/4 tablespoons salt, 1 and a half cups water, dough starter and one packet of instant dry yeast... the only real trick is the the dough starter. 

Each time I make a loaf of bread, I pinch off a handful after it rises. I put the raw pinch of dough into a 12 ounce jar, fill it with cold water and put it int he fridge. It will keep for a couple of weeks. So, the water in the recipe is actually the contents of that jar (I count the dough starter as part of the water). 

I just tossed all of that together in my stand mixer an kneaded for 10 - 11 minutes. It can be done by hand, but the kneading time would be more like 16 minutes. It is a very firm, fairly dry, barely sticky dough - like pizza dough. Form it into a ball and dust it with flour. Let it rise in a bowl at around 80-85 degrees for two hours (cover the bowl with plastic so the dough doesn't for a a skin). Punch down the dough and let rise again for one hour.  Punch down the dough lightly and roll by hand into a smooth log. 

Then, you have to let it rise for one more hour in a mold. I made my mold out of cardboard and duct tape and wrapped it in tinfoil. It is basically just an open topped box, 16 inches long, 4 inches wide and 6 inches tall. Heavily dust a tea towel and lay it in the mold, put the dough on the towel and down into the mold, cover it with the loose ends of the towel and let rise - it will fill the mold and rise above the edges. 

Place a baking stone in a cold oven, then pre-heat to 425 - 450. Put a pie pan or can in the oven, where you can easily reach it from the front without burning yourself. Once the oven is heated and the dough is risen, turn it out of the towel onto a peel or baking sheet dusted with flour or cornmeal (if you don't have a pizza stone, you can use an upside down baking sheet - just turn the dough onto it and stick the whole thing into the oven). If you've done everything right, the dough should be dry enough not to stick to the towel. Just before putting it in the oven, make a few shallow slashes across the top, in whatever pattern you like, with a sharp knife or razor blade. Pour water into the pan or can int he oven to fill the oven with steam. Slide your loaf into the oven and bake for 30-40 minutes. 

It should be light/medium brown and sound hollow when you thump it once it is done. There are several steps to the recipe, and it does take practice (especially because each oven is different, as is the humidity in each house and each brand of flour is different). Some folks may need to use a bit more water. Each time you make it though, it will get better because the dough starter will develop stronger, richer flavors with each batch. I saw a baker on tv the other day, whose starter was over 35 years old and smelled like gorgonzola cheese!

Oops, I forgot to mention blooming the yeast. Take the dough starter from the fridge several hours before you plan to start your bread and shake it up, loosen the cap to let out any gas, and either sit it in a sink of hot water, by a stove or in a barely warm oven and let the temp come up to about body temp. Once warm, stir in a half teaspoon of sugar and the packet of dry active yeast. In 10 minutes or so, it will all be brown and foamy - that i when you ad it to the dry ingredients. Also, when you first make the dough starter, it will give off a lot of gas for the first few days, so don't fill the jar completely with water and leave the lid on loosely, push the dough under water once a day until it settles to the bottom.