Savoring Southern

Sweet sorghum syrup and spoonbread, southern wonders
Sweet sorghum syrup and spoonbread, southern wonders

It's good to have kids. I didn't figure that out by myself. It took a family-focused guy and nature's push to open my eyes and bring the first precious son into my life 33 years ago.

That big event, in the way of things, led to other events, most notably a wedding. Precious son brought a spectacular woman into our lives, our tallest and most lawyerly daughter-in-law. Tallest Daughter-In-Law's original equipment included a brilliant and delightful family from exotic places like Chicago, Cleveland, and Canada. In other words, her folks came from outside Sorghum Nation.

We had the pleasure of introducing Tallest Daughter-In-Law's mother to sweet sorghum syrup a couple of years ago. I prefaced the first taste with my usual speech.

Me: "Sorghum is its own sweet self, and not quite like honey, maple syrup or any other sweetener you have tasted. Sometimes I think people who didn't grow up with it have a hard time learning to like it. It's an acquired taste."

[Pause for a quarter of a beat while spoon meets lips.]

She: "I just acquired it."

Which is how, yesterday, I learned about the February, 2012 issue of Bon Appétit, with its focus on southern food, including our current fixation, sorghum. Our daughter-in-law's mother—she who acquired an instant taste for sorghum syrup— sent the word.

It's good to have kids. (Whir of the rotary beater to the sparkling LP).

Even though Kentucky Food and Southern Food are somewhat different cuisines, those cuisines are cousins, at least. I am always eager to see how the non-southern world of big publishing views the South and Kentucky (sometimes separate, sometimes as one.) So I read the latest Bon Appétit issue like a novel while on a plane flight last night, a bit afraid of what each page might reveal.

Not to worry. The underlying plot: a Feisty Character we have dismissed in the past as too poor, too bumpkin, and too trashy lives through an Extreme Makeover—though it's the observers, and not our lead character, who change. Where we used to see flour sack dresses and worn aprons stained with red eye gravy, we now see our Feisty Character decked in the sexiest, earthiest, form-fitting leather and silk, maybe with a denim bustier, and all the latest cuff bracelets and classy piercings. Feisty Character—southern cooking—goes to town, keeps her heart, gets crowned as beyond cool, and stars at every party.

Elisha's Homemade Biscuits
Elisha's Homemade Biscuits

Why? Southern food tastes good. The flavors fill the mouth and warm the heart. The bounty of vegetables, seafood, pork in a gazillion guises, corn, rice, peaches, scuppernongs, mushrooms, blackberries, hickory nuts, black walnuts and pecans please the palate.

How did this happen? I'm saying it began with barbecue, that irresistible smoky wonder that became a necessity in big cities in recent years. Perhaps bacon played a role, too, and surely celebrity chefs' fascination with pork belly evangelized the goodness of all things pork. Those are my first guesses about what changed the mainstream view of southern food. One more unstoppable force is the jubilant Southern Foodways Alliance, about which more in a moment.

Some of the exuberant chefs, writers, and eaters in the Bon Appétit issue credit economic hard times with bringing southern food into sharper focus. One taproot of southern cooking has always been economy, making do with what's in the kitchen, cellar, pantry, and garden, not what one would have to buy at a supermarket. Much of southern food is inexpensive even when not homegrown.

So let the cooking begin.

Through the generosity of Bon Appétit, you can cook your way through all the February 2012 recipes online. We'll be trying the Sorghum-Glazed Baby Carrots at my house tonight, though the carrots will be the ones we have, cut into baby sizes. For this recipe, I'll choose Oberholtzer's Sorghum, for its perfect lightness—and because I have it in the house.

Next on my list: the Braised Brisket with Bourbon-Peach Glaze that star chef Ed Lee of Louisville's 610 Magnolia cooked for a Southern Foodways Alliance fundraiser in Raleigh, North Carolina. Writers Matt Lee and Ted Lee make that fundraiser seem like the best party you missed last year, the only consolation being that you can replicate it—and you may want to, after you read about it.

One more bit about the Southern Foodways Alliance: once you devour this delicious Bon Appétit issue, you are going to want to read more about southern cooking, and cook more southern. Go straight to the comfortingly ring-bound Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook. Every recipe-story makes me want to try the food and meet the person behind it.

Last thing: Bon Appétit devotes its cover to "The Best Fried Chicken Ever." The starring drumstick looks suspiciously close to my mother's skillet-fried version, so I'm inclined to trust the recipe and directions. The aim is deep flavor and an elegant crunch. The instructions promise an end result not overly made-up with heavy batter like a cheap floozy, but still completely, seductively crunchy.

Maybe I should add fried chicken to my reasons southern food has new cachet. The stranger behind me at the airport news stand kind of groaned when he saw the Bon Appétit cover photo and story title as I was waiting to pay for the magazine. He said, "'The Best Fried Chicken Ever?' Oh, man - will you let me know how that turns out?"

Watch the video, try the recipe, cook it up with love. Oh yes, and use a black cast iron skillet, which Bon Appétit deems "the one kitchen tool you can't live without." Not only that: you can bequeath those cast iron skillets to those kids it's so good to have.

PHOTO CREDIT (top): Mick Jeffries. Thank you!