The cross-country-appeal of southern cooking
Words by Alli Patton
Home is hot grease popping off a crispy, golden skin. Home is Crisco-white grits thick and bubbling. Home is where mac-and-cheese is a vegetable and where traditions are as durable as cast iron.
Food is a big part of Southern culture and a definitive aspect of the place we call home. From fried chicken to chicken-fried, the cuisine is diverse and flavor-filled, punctuated by delectable meats, hearty greens, and heavenly carbs. Staples like these have been served up across the South for generations.
But Southern food is no longer solely corralled by the Mason-Dixon Line. With soul food kitchens, meat and threes, and other Southern eateries dotting the map, Southern fare can be found miles away from its origins. Chefs across the country are dishing up the food that has become synonymous with comfort, connection, and togetherness. Now, no matter where you are, it’s easier to find a taste of home.
“Succotash is mainly the classics, the favorites,” said James Beard Award-winning chef Edward Lee of his Washington D.C. restaurant. “Things that I think are classics with a twist,” he added.
Fried chicken, fried green tomatoes, and pimento cheese are only a few of these classics that grace the menu at Succotash, an establishment where Southern cuisine gets a progressive take. “When it feels right we add some Asian influences to it,” Lee continued. Drawing from his Korean roots, Lee’s collard greens and country ham are accompanied by kimchi. Succotash’s menus also boast Gochujang-spiced honey for the fried chicken and butter for the steak ’n’ eggs.
Washington D.C. is a global city with a touch of the South, both in terms of geography and in terms of its transplants. “There is no shortage of Southerners living in D.C.; however, there is not a lot in the way of Southern food,” Lee explained. “You get a lot of people who are like ‘Oh, I’m so homesick for this food. This hits the spot!’ ” he said. While for other patrons, Succotash is able to introduce a cuisine that is relatively new to them. “They don’t know much about it, so it’s very nice to be able to serve them collards and benedictine and pimento cheese,” the chef added.
The food is as diverse as the South itself and equally as shrouded in tradition. It all adheres to certain rules and customs—a lot like a religion, especially when that religion is barbecue.
“In Texas, it’s all about the brisket,” explained Sam Mouzon, chef and owner of Dinner Bell Barbecue, a Portland-based food cart. “They almost never do any kind of sauce. The seasoning is usually very simple, with mainly like a salt and pepper—they call it the Dalmatian rub,” he continued. “Versus when you get to the Carolinas, it’s all about the pork butt and the mustard and vinegar sauces.”
A Southerner by birth, Mouzon grew up seeing all barbecue as equal. He created Dinner Bell Barbecue by bringing together essential styles from different barbecue destinations. “We still want to present some of that same delicious flavor, but we don’t really have to adhere to those strict rules,” he said. In a fusion of Southern styles—a combination of elements from St. Louis-style barbecue with some of the vinegar or mustard components of the Carolinas—he was able to break the rules and still make something that was authentically Southern.
“Being here in Portland, there is a huge demand for Southern food,” he said. “There’s a lot of people here who just love it.” Using food as a tool to transport others to a certain time and place, Dinner Bell Barbecue takes foodies on a journey through the South with every pulled pork sandwich and bowl of grits and greens.
The roots of Southern food run deep, with a history as rich as sawmill gravy. Born in the infancy of the nation from the blending of Native American, African, and European cultures, Southern food has a story to tell.
“The history of Southern food is the history of resilience, adaptability, and achievement,” explained Craig Samuel, co-founder of the Brooklyn-based Peaches brand restaurants.
“As an African-American cook and chef, I look back to generations of culinarians name- lost to history. People who shaped not just the food that we eat in this country, but the way that we eat,” Samuel continued when asked what endears Southern food to him.
The Peaches restaurants include Peaches Kitchen & Bar, two Peaches HotHouse locations, and Peaches Shrimp & Crab. They are all centered around one common theme: Southern fare.
Samuel described his approach to Southern cooking as a traditional one. “We’ve settled into a more straightforward expression of a contemporary Southern restaurant at Peaches over the years, offering carefully handmade Southern dishes with a focus on technique and honesty rather than pyrotechnics.” His many establishments offer patrons a taste of the Lowcountry with shrimp and grits or a traditional boil, a sample of Louisiana with gumbo and po’ boys, and a bite of Tennessee with Peaches’ Nashville-style hot chicken.
“I felt that the techniques practiced in Southern cooking were under-respected by my peers and underrepresented in sit down restaurants,” he said of his desire to bring this food to Brooklyn. “I wanted to shine a light on how well developed the cuisine was and imagine what could be.”
Peaches knows the heart and soul of the food. For them, it goes further than just nourishment. “It is about history and memory and the connection that people have with food and cuisine and heritage. It is about sharing and family and friends and fellowship,” Samuel explained. “As a restaurateur, I ‘feel’ my guest’s relationship to the restaurant and to each other while they dine,” he added.
Another restaurant that understands Southern food is about more than just what you put in your belly is Chicago’s Heaven on Seven. “What [Southern food] means to me is just comfort,” said chef Jimmy Bannos, detailing his first trip to New Orleans as life changing. “It’s my love.”
“I just love the whole South and how they treat people,” said the owner of the Louisiana-style eatery. In making kindness and everyday niceties the backbone of his service, Southern charm adds to the authenticity of Heaven on Seven. “I always try to do that and teach my employees how to do that,” he explained.
The establishment is more than strictly Cajun and Creole delights. The rotating menu offers a Louisiana-wide array of eats, from gumbos and jambalayas, to étouffées and red beans and rice, to a variety of po’ boys and grits galore. “I truly feel that I have the best grits anywhere in the United States,” Bannos claimed as he described the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese grits among the entire grit section on his menu. “They’re so damn good.”
That seems to sum it up among the chefs offering Southern eats nationwide: Southern food is good food. And the desire for good food is universal. To crave comfort and to hunger for home is universal. Now, with Southern food making its way cross-country, it’s that much easier to find a taste of home.