Here Comes True Southern Food

Sorghum Caramels being poured out to cool

Sorghum Caramels being poured out to cool

Savoring Kentucky operates on a premise that Ben Franklin reportedly stated a long time ago: people in cities ought to buy and cook what people in the country grow. I learned from activist Sue Weant and others that being an urban ally could help farms and farmers, which ultimately helps us all stay fed and healthy.

New York city, with its mega media, operates as our national uber-urban ally of farming, farmers, local foods, and appropriate scale agriculture. The New York Times this week continues its habit of printing interesting, well-written, insightful pieces about locally produced food and drink. Ideally, whether or not you subscribe to The Times, these articles should be accessible to you:

Bourbon's All-American Roar describes the sharp rise in consumption of this most Kentucky of drinks. Louisville-based writer Mickey Meece's detailed story led on the front page of the December 25 Sunday Business section (in our regional print edition), and continued for more than a full interior page of interesting information. Meece includes the winning recipe for a new Woodford Reserve-based Manhattan, along with descriptions of the ways flavored Bourbons are attracting new fans and expanding Bourbon's reach.

Sorghum Speaks With a Sweet Drawl thrilled this sorghum fan, and not just because I hope it will lead more people to buy Sweet, Sweet Sorghumalthough I do absolutely hope for that result. I applaud Kim Severson's lead sentence: "If you were at a party with a bunch of Southern sweeteners, sorghum is the guest you would most want to spend time with." I am excited about the potential positive farm impact of sorghum going mainstream, starting with inventive chefs. This beautiful food was "artisanal" at more than 100 years before anyone conceived of that descriptor, and it still is: produced by hand, meticulously, in small batches, by people who know and love what they are doing. Getting big-time coverage will help move pure sorghum (aka "sweet sorghum syrup" and around here, "sorghum molasses") into more meals and onto more tables. (Several whirs of the rotary beater to MW, GR, PM, SS and SVP for sharing the article with me.)

Southern Farmers Vanquish the Clichés pours out a bounty of ways Southern farmers, cooks, and chefs are working together to grow and produce foods with rich, authentic flavor. Reporter Julia Moskin writes,

"Like California in the 1970s — when Alice Waters collaborated with farmers, foragers and cheesemakers on the food at Chez Panisse — the South today has just the right combination of climate, culinary skill, regional chic and receptive audience."

According to Moskin, the changes in the quality of core ingredients available to Southern chefs extend even the components of traditional Southern New Year's Day Hoppin' John:

"These days, in high-end Southern restaurants, the hoppin’ John is most likely to be made with creamy-textured red peas and heirloom rice, flavored with artisanal bacon fat and fresh herbs grown by the chef — past and present, coming together in delicious new ways."

(A rotary thank-you whir to TE for spotting and sending this piece.)

Along similar themes, The New Yorker recently offered True Grits (abstract), a long, intriguing look at Sean Brock, one leading chef/grower/processor/breeder, and his allies, all of whom work to bring real Southern food back into production. Although you can read only the abstract at the link above, it is a generous abstract. The magazine also offers a short video of Brock cooking in one of his restaurants, narrated by Burkhard Bilger, the article's author.

All good, all positive, all promising, don't you think? Yes, right now it's all about high end restaurants (or growers who grow and eat their own superb food, still a profound and widespread tradition throughout the South, and Kentucky too, just in case we aren't really The South). It's both bemusing and amusing to know that chefs are experimenting with wood ash for making their own hominy, when many Kentucky (and Southern) counties still boast a handful of dedicated farm families where hominy-making never ended.

Having elite restaurants feature the stunning flavors of real Southern food matters beyond those restaurants and the growers and processors they support. The restaurants influence home cooks and mainstream markets. With good fortune, the fragile relationships and slender food production presented in these stories contribute to a revitalized, rebuilt, re-flavored local food economy throughout our country.

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