IN THE AGE OF HIPSTER FOOD PORN, NERDY MOLECULAR GASTRONOMY, VEGAN THIS, GLUTEN-FREE THAT AND FOODIE BLOGGING, SOUTHERN CUISINE’S ONGOING SPREAD AS ONE OF AMERICA’S HOTTEST FOOD CATEGORIES IS AS UNLIKELY AS IT IS OBVIOUS.
On the one hand, it represents such a rejection of the things we might associate with trendy eating: pretense, status, novelty and urbanism, for example. On the other, Southern cooking is inextricably tied to other ideas that city slicker food snobs hold so dear: technique, indulgence and farm-to-table freshness (to name a few).
Still, there’s a lot that diners don’t know about what southern food is and isn’t. It’s a deeper, richer, more diverse and nimble idea than you might realize. And while that might mean the South is misunderstood, it also means that it’s got plenty of cards left up its sleeve. I spoke to chefs, writers and restaurateurs to learn more about America’s most comforting food and find out what’s next for the increasingly popular cuisine.
WHAT MAKES SOUTHERN FOOD SOUTHERN
“I’ll tell you about sitting at a Southern table,” said barbecue legend Myron Mixon. “It’s about family. It’s about friends, about neighbors, and most of all — and I think a lot of this country has forgotten about that — it’s about manners. You gotta have manners. You gotta have respect for your elders. And all that happened around the dinner tables. The elders always got the first piece of chicken, you said the grace, you didn’t stand at the table, you didn’t whistle at the table, you didn’t talk ‘til you were spoken to. It was a time for fellowship to talk about the good things that happened during the day, and that’s what a southern table is all about.”
As much as Myron loves the Southern table and the family tradition it stands for — his father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all pitmasters, he says — he’s made his reputation as “the winningest man in BBQ” away from that table. Myron only got into competitive barbecue to promote the sauce that his parents, Jack and Gaye, were making. He caught the bug, though, started a BBQ company (calling it Jack’s Old South) and went on to become the most deco-rated pitmaster around, winning more than 200 grand championships, 40 state championships, and an absolutely obscene number of barbecue trophies. He’s done all that with the classic style of barbecue from Georgia and the Carolinas, which involves using oak and hickory charcoal and those vinegary sauces the region is known for. He’s parlayed his competitive barbecue success into a line of high-end smokers bearing his name. I can’t say that I’ve had Myron’s cook-ing, but with a resume like that, you don’t need to to trust he knows his way around a pig.
“It’s all about starting with great ingredients,” said John Kunkel, the Atlanta-raised founder and owner of 50 Eggs. The Miami-based company owns some of the hottest restaurants in South Florida, including the Southern poultry sensation Yardbird in Miami Beach (which recently opened a second location in Las Vegas and is known for dishes like roasted chicken, fried chicken and biscuits and fried okra) and the pork-centric Swine in Coral Gables, where the best bar snack might be the fried bacon and waffles. John says plans for Swine prompted less doubt since South Florida’s Cuban com-munity practically guarantees you can sell good pork in Miami.
“I like to think that Southern food was one of the originators of farm-to-table. That was not a catch phrase. That was and still is how people eat in the South in many farm communities. In so much of the South, it’s not a trend; it’s how people eat,” he said. “Everybody’s got a garden in their backyard. People have cows and chick-ens and pigs on their land and that is how they eat. It’s become a hipster thing to talk about in the culinary world — particularly in major cities like Miami, New York and L.A. — but these are things that have existed in the rural South.”
John wasn’t raised on a farm himself, but At-lantans certainly aren’t insulated from the farm culture of the surrounding areas. And he spent a lot of time with his grandparents, who still have a large farm of their own. It wasn’t until he was in his 20s, he said, that he grasped that the rest of the country didn’t have the same rela-tionship to food as families like his did — grow-ing vegetables, butchering hogs, sharing some with the neighbors.
Anybody with a Southern food background is quick to bring up family. And it makes sense, doesn’t it? After all, it’s tough to farm for just one person.
“From a very, very early age — as early as I can remember — I’ve been cooking,” said Dameione Cameron as he recalled his childhood in South Carolina’s Lowcountry (whose distinct coastal cuisine has more in common with New Orleans’ Cajun cooking than any other Southern fare). He and his partner Troy Rumpf own the Morris House Bistro in Cheyenne, Wyoming. “I remember when I was a kid coming home from elementary school and surprising my parents and my grandparents with dinner on Friday afternoons. Being able to clean game, fish ... They all taught me that.”
Dameione wasn’t just cooking at home. He was cooking homegrown ingredients. His grandparents’ half-acre farm provided much of the produce that he and his family worked into their meals. Every person I spoke to about Southern cuisine for this piece pointed to that as a cornerstone of the region’s food culture.
The more you talk to Southerners about Southern cooking, the more you realize that the food culture is really more about lifestyles and attitudes than it is about any particular set of ingredients. I turned to a Northerner for a little perspective.