Southern Cuisine, is a phrase I would never have tagged on to Southern food. Foods that were called “just shut up and eat it” and “be thankful you have it” were a favorite of mine. And for Sunday supper it was, “don’t go braggin’”.
Tilly: Well now – you’ll find the same experiences in good old Blighty. ‘You’ll get what you’re given and be grateful’ was a regular theme at mealtimes.
It is hard for this southerner to grasp that red beans and rice are now considered a cuisine, or Hoppin’ John with cornbread cooked in a number eight skillet. Food that raised me proper and safe is now being served in the likes of London, England.
Tilly: For heaven’s sake, why on earth should it not be? London is pretty cosmopolitan these days … just name the food type, you’ll find it.
How on earth did the dishes of the South become a cuisine? Well, it was the big city, school-trained cooks, chefs, I believe. Sit back, and I’ll tell you about a night that horrified me.
Tilly: So many ‘poor man’s dishes’ of my father’s childhood are back in vogue and served in haute cuisine restaurants. Smoked mackerel, fish pie (fish was cheap then); belly pork, kidneys, liver, black pudding (served with scallops and used in stuffing’s), lamb stew made with the cheapest cuts, and many more.
Sunday night: nothing special about that Sunday. Dinner was over, wine poured, I was ready to settle in for a good murder. Poirot, with his little gray cells, Inspector Lewis and his Oxford-educated sidekick, even Midsomer Murders, better yet Foyle’s War, which would be perfect to calm the nerves.
Tilly: Ah – I knew you had class. These are all British productions. I can recommend more.
It just wasn’t meant to happen. Nothing except the wine would calm my nerves. Masterpiece Theatre was replaced that night. PBS was having a fund drive with the same drivel they have every six months. Performances by the same fifties artists, churning out the one hit they are remembered for. Special programs shot a decade ago, with the advertiser extolling us to “support programs like this.” Which only happens when they want a handout.
Tilly: not sure TV here has resorted to that! But endless repeats, with attendant advertising must provide the necessary revenue to those channels not funded by the television license fee.
Scrolling through the channels to see what might be worth viewing, I came across an international cooking channel. Interesting, I thought: Two Fat Ladies. “Hmm,” thinking aloud, “It’s British made, had no problem with British shows before.”
I watched the show, I entertained myself until one of the two fat ladies said that she was going to cook a “traditional Southern dish”. Perking up, I waited to refill my glass of wine so as not to miss anything. What were they going to make?
In her upper-crust Brit accent, Jennifer stated, “A wonderful Southern dish, Hoppin’ John”
I sat back, full of anticipation, to see how the Brits would handle this dish which in its infancy, was a main dish.
First, she fried the bacon. Some of you might think bacon would have been used. Working people might have a bit of salt bacon in the larder—pantry for you Americans. But I noticed the one ingredient that gives this dish its wonderful flavor was missing. A smoked ham hock, yes, you read that right, a smoked ham hock.
Tilly: The bacon was probably a speedy substitute for the ham hock. Maybe if it was thickly sliced and diced, it might not offend you so much? A ham hock is better, I agree, and what I would use for a fuller flavour.
She got one thing right. She soaked the black-eyed peas overnight. It’s really easy. Put the peas in a deep bowl, cover them with water, then place the bowl into the icebox or on a cool shelf.
Tilly: You can cut the preparation time by boiling the black-eyed peas for 10-15 minutes, draining, cooling and rinsing the peas and then carrying on with the process.
The next day, or in this case after the commercial break, she took out the peas and began mixing. First in the pot were the peas, water to cover, and chopped onion, which she had smothered in the bacon grease. So far, she treated the peas well.
Tilly: I trust she rinsed the peas before she mixed in the chopped onion, bacon fat and covered with water. Cooking the onion in the bacon fat will add some of the flavour lost by not using the hock.
After cooking the rice separately, which many families do? She made a few errors along the way, but not bad for someone, not Southern-born. But as soon as I turned my back, she struck. It was a knife in my heart, and she hit me hard.
Tilly: what a waste of time and effort. Add the rice 15-20 minutes before the cooking time is up, depending on the type of rice.
Mixing the ingredients, she grabbed a bunch of cilantro, chopped it up, then mixed it in the Hoppin’ John.
Tilly: Yum. Love the stuff – fabulous chelating agent, too. Probably added for colour.
Catching my breath and taking a swig, and still able to hear her while she presented the dish: “This, ladies and gentlemen, is HOPPIN’ JOHN, a traditional dish from the South.”
With me standing in my family room, shouting “NO.”
Tilly: Hah! Should’ve said it was her take on the dish!
Followed by, “TRADITIONAL SOUTHERN DISH MY ASS, BITCH”. Coriander is not and will never be a fixin’ in the traditional dishes of the South.”
Tilly: You don’t know what you are missing … and have missed. And they did ride a splendid motorbike!
But did she listen? Hell no! She just kept ramblin’. I needed more than another glass of wine. Some sippin’ whiskey would calm the nerves but I had let my cupboard go bare of the “good stuff”, so another glass of wine it was.
Tilly: I’m assured that wine is a gift from God – and I firmly adhere to the maxim that a day without wine is like a day without sunshine. With so many days without sunshine here, it is vital to make the most of the gracious gift …
I had an epiphany: I knew what my destiny was in life. Teaching people the world over about Southern foods. Not a cuisine, but genuine Southern foods. The history, the tales, and of course, the right way of fixin’ them.
With no better time to start than right then, my pen hit the pad/keyboard. Below are the beginnings of my journal, a diary of sorts. Recipes and their history mixed with the ways of the Southern cook and her kitchen.
Tilly: Roll on the history and family stories about the food!
The first is Hoppin’ John as it should be. Measure the black-eyed peas, about 2 cups, no exact science required. If you have a few more, just throw them in with the others. Sort through the peas for tiny pebbles or a bit of dirt, rinse the peas carefully, and cover with water and soak overnight.
The next day, once the peas have soaked up a bit of the water receiving a good night’s sleep, place the peas in a large pot, a smoked ham hock, onion and bring to a boil. On the first boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 1 ½ maybe 2 hours. Remove the ham shank and cut into bite size pieces. Stir in 2 cups of rice, return the ham and cook for another 20 to 25 minutes. Now that it’s done, season with some more salt and pepper if necessary.
Tilly: Oh, so you don’t rinse the peas after soaking, either … I usually find it is not necessary to cut the ham off the bone – by the time the slow cooking has done its job, the ham will fall off, ready to be forked into bite-sized pieces.
Now mind you, there are some modern-day Southern ways of making this wonderful dish. Cooking the rice separately is one, then upping the taste with red pepper flakes will add a little heat for that chilly night. Why if company shows up, you could cut green onions, spring onions I believe some call them, and sprinkle on top? Just to make it look like you’ve worked hard in the kitchen. And for the love of everything right “LEAVE THE DAMN CILANTRO OUT OF IT.”
Tilly: Would you have the vapours if fresh parsley was snipped on top for colour? And flavour …
Now, for the next bit of irritation with the British, and their cooking shows, please stop insulting the baked beans. Baked beans were a gift from America. Enjoy the entire body of these beautiful, slowly cooked legumes, and for Pete’s sake, stop putting them on toast. They are a side dish, not the main dish.
Tilly: the blasted baked beans you refer to are the devil’s invention – by a well-known American company. They exported the vile things in cans, packed with sugar (in place of molasses, which is highly nutritious. As for the toast lark, I share this with you: “Heinz claims that an executive invented the dish as a marketing ploy in 1927, but it’s likely the dish is still around today because it was so common as a cheap protein during World War II, for breakfast, dinner, or both.”
Oh, I do have my work cut out for me.
Tilly: To quote you: don’t go braggin’.