Food culture these days is vast. As regularly as you find blithering throngs of Cupcake Wars participants and Guy Fieri cookware displays, you'll also find highbrow attempts to define what it means to live and eat in the modern South. Such compendiums that purport to represent a consolidated experience of Southern culinary culture are nothing new. A broad range of perspectives exists, from 18th century historical travelers' reports to more modern chronicles of people and places such as John Edgerton's iconic Southern Food and Joseph Dabney's regional tomes on Appalachia and the Lowcountry.
Southern Living magazine, which every white, middle-class housewife of my childhood seemed to stock as regularly as Gideons' bibles in motel drawers, has a long legacy of published ventures seeking culinary and cultural examination — spanning collections cobbled from community cookbooks to 1001 Ways to Cook Southern. And it is within this template that the latest offering from lifestyle brand Garden & Gun should be considered.
Simply titled The Southerner's Cookbook, it will undoubtedly represent a popular volume this holiday season within its target demographic. But it falls short of any attempt at a serious examination of Southern foodways, nor can the cookbook be construed as representative of the larger cultural context, historical or contemporary.
This is not to dismiss The Southerner's Cookbook as an unworthy tome. The broad survey of recipes — many sourced from those previously published within the magazine, others newly contributed by popular celebuchefs — represents a rather interesting take on the South as a whole. Taken as a cultural survey, the majority of the cooking within can be considered a view of a certain exclusive South, perhaps tantamount to studying American etiquette through the lens of the How to be a Gentleman hardcovers that pop up at Brooks Brother's this time of year. You may get a view of an idealized myth, even one that in some ways you may admire, but you will certainly miss reality.
The book begins with a wide map of the "South" overlaid with cartoon illustrations of characteristic regional ingredients. Bourbon and sheep define Kentucky as oysters and mullet line the west Florida coast. And it is this claim of inclusive, defining coverage that's troubling. If we are to accept this as the Southerner's cookbook, then the totality, from the pantry ingredients down to the recipe for Kil't Greens with Bacon Jam, should provide a comprehensive picture of the region. It should be a cookbook for all Southerners, or those who aspire to understand them. But it isn't.
From the start we get editor-in-chief David DiBenedetto's clear appeal to all-inclusive quality — eight years of magazine coverage compiled into a representative survey, numerous essays from magazine regulars and food media personalities, anecdotes of leisurely walks through his private hunting club to search for chanterelle mushrooms, and the always beautiful photography of Peter Frank Edwards.
Framed within resides a splendid collection of classic recipes paired against a more innovative, modern South. Pimento cheese comes in classic, spicy pickle, and charred onion and pecan varieties. Chef John Currance of Oxford, Miss.'s City Grocery, explains the process of roasting a whole hog (but before you spend the 24 hours he suggests stacking cardboard and painter's tarps, consult with barbecue author Robert Moss on how to produce the Pee Dee-style hog that takes only 12; we learned that one from our friend Rodney Scott). But don't miss the Smith Island Cake, which is divine, nor the Applejack Stack Cake. There are good recipes in this book, and it's a worthy reference for someone unstudied in Southern food.
The Lee brothers bring us stories of their grandmother throwing porch parties South of Broad and Julia Reed's recollection that despite having traveled all the way to the West Coast to sample fried chicken from none other than Thomas Keller, her late family cook Lottie certainly made the best she's ever tasted. "Like biscuits," she says, "great fried chicken has everything to do with the cook's hand, which is why, in the words of Calvin Trillin, 'A fried chicken cook with a deep fryer is a sculptor without mittens.''" The Southerner's Cookbook makes the case, from the Country Captain to the Antebellum Julep, that the Southern cook bears a distinctive hand.
But as I turned the pages through moss-draped oaks and hunting parties on horseback, I found none of those hands pictured to be of color. Through briny oyster banks, bird dogs, and decanters of hooch, the representation of minorities in general and their contributions to Southern culture remained minimal at best. I'm not sure if my suspicion that Ms. Lottie's skillet was held by African hands holds true. We are never told the story of how Lottie Martin learned the chicken trade.
Despite the romantic overtures to the place we love and call home, The Southerner's Cookbook falls short. I have no doubt that the buttermilk biscuits will still rise in the morning and everyone will want second helpings of the rabbit and cornmeal dumplings, just as the marketing power of the self-proclaimed Southern Food Mafia will keep Garden & Gun's effort squarely at the top of the New York Time's bestsellers lists and the awards dockets.
To be fair, there are token and sometimes tangential references to this "other" South. Gullah Chef BJ Dennis is profiled making a sautéed okra and shrimp dish, the red peas of Sapelo Island enter the pot, there is a Cherokee Indian Bean Bread, and the Korean-inspired fried chicken variant, somehow titled Fried Chicken: Extra-Crispy hints at the ethnic diversity that blankets places like Houston or the Buford Highway area of Metro Atlanta. And the Delta tamales of Mississippi just can't be whitewashed in the most rarified of presentations. But in a South that leads the headlines with horrific acts of racial terrorism and debates over the nativist exclusion of foreign refugees, we have to ask how accurate a South is Garden & Gun displaying. How authentic?
I know that many of the contributors do not share an exclusionary view. John T. Edge, who pens a fine personal essay on the diversity of regional condiments, led his Southern Foodways Alliance organization through a year-long exploration of African-American culinary contribution in 2014, asking who's invited to the proverbial "welcome table." Other contributors such as my friends and fellow Charleston Brown Water Society members (who contributed our group's punch recipe by Roderick Weaver) G&G editor Jed Portman and managing editor Dave Mezz certainly don't share an exclusive view. Throughout the book, I recognized the wanderings of Portman, who I follow on Instagram — his adventures eating smoked mullet and journeys sourcing barbecue through a more hardscrapple South. But Lumbee fry bread didn't make the cut. Nor did other Native American and African dishes like leaf lard, hog maw, chittlin's, liver pudding, hot brown, dirty cokes, catfish noodling, or pig's feet.
To talk of the South and its representative table with such general glaring omission seems unconscionable, even if unconsciously performed. No one wants Garden & Gun to approximate Duck Dynasty. Rather, they should avoid that sort of myopic view, even if it challenges the misguided sensibilities of a portion of their readership. That is the difference between journalism and popular entertainment.
If you're going to invite the family over for the holidays, it's important to include everyone, even if you and your well-practiced pretensions considers them some sort of crazy cousins. They probably see you the same way.