Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Southern Food is a Sham

We all have this notion that southern cooking is the only cuisine in America that is of any real interest, anthro-historically speaking. There are thousands of soul food and southern cook books taking up valuable space on book store shelves and yet there are only a handful of books dealing with “New England” style or the dreadful “California-Style” cooking. Basically with the exception of maybe Boston Baked Beans and Cream Pie and Yankee pot roast, I’d say 90% of foods considered to be down home American fare are from the south. Well I bite my thumb at such a notion.

I grew up in Georgia, being born in Atlanta and raised in rural south Georgia farm country. I am steeped in all things southern. I have also watched countless times, a person be elevated to celebrity status based on their “soul food” southern cooking, while they are palming little packets of Lipton onion soup mix, and red and white cans of condensed soup.

I heard for years about Mrs. Wilke’s Boarding House Restaurant in Savannah GA and how her food was the read deal. Imagine how cheated I felt when I got an autographed copy of her cookbook from Sema Wilkes herself, only to read in every recipe about Crisco, soup mixes, and self-rising flour.

Now, like I’ve said before, I am not trying to disgrace the memory of Mrs. Wilkes, God rest her precious soul. She was a good Nouvelle-Southern American dump cook. She simply knew no different, and probably wouldn’t have changed a thing if she had been told. And damn it! I respect that.

Southern food has always been based on poverty. Like most great dishes of the world, southern food centers around making great things from meager offerings. The southern magicians of yore turned tough meat full of connective tissue into succulent piles of smoky goodness. They took intestines and organ meat and made them sing on high. They ground sassafras leaves, tamed slimy okra, and took corn and made it into everything from smooth bourbon to velvety grits. They did all this, with little more than fat, salt, sugar and water; and sugar was something special.

Then a strange thing happened. Widespread distribution along with food canning and preservation made it cheaper to buy vegetables and things in cans than straight from the ground. Farms moved towards large Del Monte conglomerates and our corn crop began largely going to feed the high fructose corn syrup monster. The only thing that didn’t change was that southern cooks were still poor as the dirt they farmed. So they began reaching for cans and soup powders that cost pennies and promised authentic results.

Time marches on, but hunger stays the same. After a while conventions shifted to where no one even noticed these products as strange. Children turned into grand-children and within one or two generations, the glory that was southern cooking and all it’s Euro/African influences has become brought to you in part by the Campbell’s Soup Company. Mmm mmm Good.

Well I can’t cure poverty. And I’ll never be able to convince people that Paula Dean is a hype-monger that is dragging the southern name through the red Georgia mud, with her contrived “Ya’ll” and over emphasized, …“frum myy kitchun tuh yurrs!”. People love the idea of the southern dump cook with her charming accent and mint julep under the counter. But let me tell you guys, in the words of Hunter Thompson, The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.

Taps is blowing over the centuries of hardship and innovation. The honeymoon is over on southern cooking. All that's left is congealed salad with Cool-Whip, potato casserole with crushed Ruffles on top, and Broccoli with Cheese Whiz.

Want some mayonnaise with that?


theresa said...


When I got married, one of my great aunts sent me the local woman's club's southern cookbook. I was thrilled--it was obviously published at Kinkos and had to be authentic south Georgia, right?

Ah, no. Can of this, package of that, be sure to squirt something processed into the mix. Disappointing. I understand the whole idea about poverty--and a can of condensed soup can really stretch some rice and a small amount of chicken, I'm sure. But there was nothing about how to fry a chicken or make a tender biscuit, which was what I wanted to learn how to do. And, I've learned, that's the sort of thing that is only perfected through practice. (And gaining 20 pounds--when you get close to that perfect biscuit, it's easy to loose all common sense. :-)

Btw--the rise of Paula Deen seems to have come at the same time the recipes section of Southern Living have also turned into "add 2c. Kraft shredded cheese from your deli section." My mother-in-law insists on renewing a gift subscription for me every year, and while there are old recipes (10-8 years ago) I still use, most of them now are hardly any different than that cookbook my great aunt sent me. It's odd--I have a couple of really nice dessert recipes that always come out well from Southern Living, but none after about 1999. Just an observation.

Michael said...


I know the feeling. I truly do hate to feel like such a food snob. I promise I do not sip tea with my pinkie out or even request a glass when I drink a beer in a bar. I am as down to Earth as they come, but damn it pisses me off that people use condensed soups, seasoning packets, and mayonnaise as the basis for their cuisine, and are considered great down home cooks for it.
I hope these people forget their congealed salad on the roof of their car and drive off to the church social. Cool whip anyone?

Anonymous said...

HollyDolly here.There are I'm sure older women who cook without all the cans and cool whip that one finds in southern cooking.
My great aunts in Hot Springs,Ark. might have used canned vegetables on occassion,but they always had a garden and even made homemade wine,a legacy of their German parents. Their strawberry shortcake was the real old fashioned kind,with real cream,not Cool Whip.
If one searches ebay or used book stores,I'm sure that you can find old southern cookbooks from the 1900s to the 1930s,that donot use all the canned soup and other things one despairs of.
The old ones who do scratch cooking are dying out and unfortunately their wonderful legacy is passing way.What a same.
Maybe Southern Living should be called White Trash Living.I know the White Trash Cookbooks are popular,and they use canned soups and such in the recipes.Maybe it's the rise of the Redneck culture prompting this.Look at how Nascar is so popular,that they even made the comedy,Talledega Nights,with Will Farrel.
Unfortunately that is now how many
people think of the south.
It's not the south of my great aunts who welcomed visitors to their home,and always made you something to eat.Even if you had lunch,they would still offer you dessertand coffee or some sort of snack,cause they were concerned about you and didn't want you to be hungery.
We just have to keep the faith things will improve,but first we have to get rid of Paula Deen and her ilk.

Anonymous said...

As an 11th generation Southerner,I must say that I wish that the rest of the world could know what true Southern culture is...An obnoxious,cackling,suggestive,piggish clown is an extremely poor representation of the wonderful grace that is present in every day life in the South....And,she certainly doesn't compare to the great Southern cooks that I grew up with in Alabama !

Judy Gex said...

Well, I have no love to give the Southern dump cooks as you called them, but my ki9tchen bookshelf is lined with the cookbooks from Brennen's, Galatoire's, Justin Wilson, etc. You'd be hard-pressed to find anything other than basic ingredients in any of them. In other words, don't throw the baby out with the bath water. REAL Southern cooking doesn't use soup in a packet or a can of Campbell's. If you think it does, then you haven't been lucky enough to be exposed to the real deal.

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