Saturday, November 15, 2008


It’s a Southern thing, I suppose, of my generation, that we just naturally learned how to plant, harvest, cook and serve almost anything that went onto our tables, and our cuisine is of the homey sort, mostly---pots set to simmer early in the day, to avoid the heat of those sun-blasted afternoons. Baking was done early or late---way late, in the furtive hours when the house was silent and the air conditioning pouring out cold air to combat the oven’s Vulcanic glow.

We’ve also branched out, a bit, from the little church cookbooks and the Campbell’s casseroles, delightedly devouring plates of kibbeh and dolmas and mole at the various little family restaurants which sprang up in our small towns. We eagerly awaited the Tamale Man’s bell, as he strode the streets and favored certain corners with his fragrant cart. He dispensed who-knows-what in those rustly shucks of masa and mysterious tomato-tinted middles, and we scarfed them up as eagerly as kids and candy.

And there was more than one of him, with the Saturday route delineated and adhered to like the Blue Line---ours was a big, bustly guy, past middle age, whose as-white-as-Clorox-could-make-it-between-spills chef’s jacket and glistening ebony cheeks were a welcome sight as he hauled tins and boxes and coffee cans and trays out of the depths of that white steamer. We embraced the exotic and the spicy and the new, adopting the latugie and ravioli of our Italian neighbors, and The Good Church Ladies vying with each other to follow Mrs. Kowalski’s recipe perfectly and set down the most beautiful golden varnishes onto the table at Second Saturday Church Suppers.

But of our own recipes, aside from fried chicken and perhaps the shrimp-and-grits flurry of several years ago, there's still a whole big world out there, uneducated and unenlightened to the sumptuous dishes of the Southern Table. There are palates which never tasted hushpuppies straight from the big black fishcamp pot, eyes which never beheld a Red Velvet cake or a golden-meringue-topped ‘nanner puddin straight from the oven in its oblong Pyrex, vanilla wafers standing proudly like soldiers against the sides. There is somewhere, I'm sure, a dear soul deprived of the tongue-curling scent of REAL barbecue, the smoke rising from the crusty rungs of that pit like praise to Heaven.

Whole nations go through life without biscuits and molasses, or a glimpse of that crusty-topped baked corn coming steaming out of the oven in its own black skillet, the same skillet which every day turns out fried chicken and okra and catfish to make an emperor swoon. Lives are lived, inventions patented, work done, educations sought and achieved, music composed and books written, all by people whose own lives would be changed and enhanced by mere introduction to the wonderful, rich heritage which is the Southern Kitchen.

Our Southern roots are ingrained, but we are more and more every day being inundated and saturated with all the wonderful cuisines from all around the world, the sushi and the greens and wok-cooking and tagine-cooking and so many luscious amalgams and mixtures and spices and grains---it seems selfish not to share and keep sharing the glorious table spread by Southern cooks, no matter what their locale.

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