Reconstructing Southern Cooking

Living in California, most of us have some familiarity with the foods of Asia--Chinese, Japanese, Thai. We know Mexican cooking fairly well and we know the trendy cuisines of the West and Northwest. Many of us have even taken a second look at the foods of our childhood--mashed potatoes, hashes, the stews of the Midwest. But there is a whole area of American cooking that is often overlooked: Southern home cooking.

Edna Lewis, famous as a chef and author of many cookbooks, says people think of Southern food as being heavy and greasy, forgetting that every region in America has far too many examples of greasy, heavy food made by uncaring cooks. Her mission is to correct this image.

Last year Lewis and a talented young Southern chef named Scott Peacock held the first symposium dedicated to preserving old Southern recipes, in Charleston, S.C. She and Peacock have stimulated a great deal of interest in their cause; they have ambitious plans that involve teaching, writing and traveling. Peacock also plans to open a restaurant in Atlanta that serves only Southern classics.

Most of the classic Southern dishes came from the creativity of American slaves. Their inventiveness has given us many timeless recipes. At the second Southern symposium, held last month, we spent two days discussing and eating food that would convince any doubter that old Southern recipes must be saved.


During the symposium Lewis and Peacock prepared a dazzling hunt breakfast. Long white-cloth-covered tables held tiered stands with benne (sesame seed) biscuits and buttered biscuits. Jellies and condiments surrounded the main dishes: water-ground grits with shrimp paste; poached eggs on country ham; sausage and fried apples; oyster stew; catfish stew; pan-fried quail with grapes; yams with lemon; Southern greens; baked tomatoes; fruit fritters; lacy batter cakes and ambrosia. Every dish was exemplary, cooked with flavor and finesse.

I sat next to two Southern gentlemen who spent the meal arguing over the correct way to cook yams and sweet potatoes. One insisted that slow baking in the skin was the only way, as it developed concentrated sugar. The other argued that faster baking was better; to his mind slicing the yams and serving them with honey, butter and a splash of Jack Daniels bourbon was perfection. They both agreed that everything Lewis cooked was quite perfect; they called it “St. Edna’s food.”

Whipped Cornmeal With Okra is a fine example of simplicity without sacrifice to flavor.

WHIPPED CORNMEAL WITH OKRA 2 cups water 6 pods fresh okra 1 cup white cornmeal 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 cup butter, cut into pieces Salt, pepper


Combine water and okra in 3-quart saucepan, bring water to gentle boil and cook 10 minutes. Remove okra with slotted spoon and set aside. Raise heat until water comes to brisk boil and add cornmeal in thin, steady stream, stirring constantly to prevent lumping.

Add salt and okra and cook about 10 minutes more. Remove from heat and add butter 1 piece at time, stirring after each addition until all butter is incorporated. Keep stirring until okra has practically disappeared and cornmeal is light. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve hot. Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about: 336 calories; 605 mg sodium; 62 mg cholesterol; 24 grams fat; 28 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 0.38 grams fiber.

Edna Lewis says of this Tyler Pie: “The women of Freetown each praised the perfection of their Tyler pies. It was served throughout the year along with seasonal pies. This recipe has been around for a hundred years, and I suspect it is pretty close to the original.”

TYLER PIE 4 eggs 2 cups sugar 1 teaspoon flour 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 cup butter, softened 1 teaspoon vanilla 1 teaspoon lemon extract 2 cups milk 2 (8-inch) unbaked pie shells

In bowl beat eggs well. Mix sugar with flour and salt and add to eggs. Add butter, vanilla and lemon extract to egg mixture. Stir well, then pour in milk and combine. Pour mixture into pie shells. Bake at 350 degrees about 30 to 35 minutes, until set and golden. Makes 16 servings.

Each serving contains about: 366 calories; 296 mg sodium; 86 mg cholesterol; 22 grams fat; 39 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 0.05 grams fiber.