Friday, June 12, 2015

Heritage Food and Food Heritage

By Jeff Burns

Southern cuisine’s popularity continues in the foodie world, and southern cooking has been called the quintessential American cuisine.  Americans also seem more and more interested in traditional crafts and nostalgia. Three recently published books examine southern food traditions and efforts to revive them.

The most recent is Southern Provisions:  The Creation and Revival of a Cuisine by David S. Shields.  For more than ten years, Shields has researched early American agricultural and cooking practices, and he has produced what chef Sean Brock has called “the most important book written about southern food.”  He writes about both “cuisine” and “cooking”, which might seem synonymous, but there are differences in connotation.  “Cuisine” is often used in a more elevated, formal way to refer to a style of cooking of a region or people; “cooking” refers to informal, basic home food.  Part one of Provisions is about cuisine, the uniquely southern dishes that found their way onto fancy menus prepared by top chefs  in hotels and restaurants across the antebellum South and drew lots of attention and praise from travelers. Part two is about southern foods in the marketplace of the 19th century, and part three is about the crops and agriculture.  Shields’ points out that we’ve developed cultural amnesia and have forgotten many of the crops that were once staples across the South like sorghum and benne (a West African form of sesame).    Along the way, the reader meets colorful historical characters like Sally Seymour, a free black pastry chef in Charleston who was herself a slave owner and founded a thriving business, and Colonel Francis Dancy, a citrus pioneer who developed the tangerine.

The aforementioned chef Sean Brock is an expert on southern cuisine himself. He’s a renowned chef in Charleston, South Carolina whose book Heritage is a winner of both the  James Beard Foundation Award for Best Book of the Year in American Cooking and the Julia Child First Book Award.  Heritage is an all-in-one volume based on Brock’s personal southern food experiences from his Appalachian childhood to his life in the South Carolina Low Country.  It is a cookbook full of delicious recipes running the gamut from home comfort food to high-end restaurant food, but it also contains Brock’s essays on the history and culture of the region through the food prism.  Finally,  the beautiful photos taken by Peter Frank Edwards make it an art book that you will want to display.

Marcie Cohen Ferris’ book The Edible South:The Power of Food and the Making of an American Region is not a cookbook and is not about specific foods.  Instead, it’s a history of the South told through food, starting from the first interactions of African, European, and Native American cultures and progressing all the way through the civil rights movement.  It is the story of southern identity and the importance of food in shaping it. Ferris also explores the connection between food and power, economic and political. The book is a fascinating read for anyone interested in southern history and culture.  ( Also, check out Ferris’ book Matzoh Ball Gumbo:  Culinary Tales of the Jewish South)

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