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Can you cook Italian or French? Then you can cook Southern. Good cooks around the world share a passion for great ingredients and for simple food prepared well, and that’s no different here in the American South. Here are six ways to snag some Southern street cred:
1. Treasure your recipes. Southern recipes are cultural currency: Every good one tells a story and elicits powerful memories. Keep the physical recipes in a proper recipe box and update your digital recipe box often for easier sharing. Above all else, share them. Every small town has a neighbor down the street who happens to be a crackerjack cook, but she guards her recipes, purposefully omitting key ingredients when she does choose to share. I’m looking at you, Mrs. Smoot.
2. Tang is the thing. Buttermilk is a kitchen workhorse. It makes cornbread cornbread, pancakes pleasantly sour, and dressings sing. Trust me, a jug of Cruze Farm Buttermilk out of Tennessee will change your life a hell of a lot quicker than a bottle of 12-year Pappy Van Winkle bourbon. Keep an arsenal of vinegars in your pantry for vinaigrettes, pan sauces, and adding snap to long-simmered greens. Infuse your own by adding apple cores and peels to a mixture of hot white balsamic and apple cider vinegars; or, go old-school Southern and stuff sprigs of the tarragon that’s about to bolt in your garden into jars of white wine vinegar.
Hot sauce ain’t just for heat. Don’t douse every dish with it to mask flavors; instead, use regional styles like Tabasco, Texas Pete, or any of the newfangled artisanal ones to add subtle notes of heat and tang any dish. Here’s a great new recipe for a fermented Chunky Hot Sauce to use all summer long and give as gifts.
3. A cast iron skillet is the most important Southern kitchen tool. Start with a 12-inch cast iron one from Lodge or one of the new carbon steel ones. Use it often. Care for it. Then pass it down to future generations.
4. Mayonnaise is the South’s culinary ball bearings, binding everything classic from pimento cheese and deviled eggs to chicken salad and tomato pie. Make your own for special occasions. For everyday cooking, use Duke’s, a Southern brand so iconic that mayo acolytes paint portraits of jars. I grew up in a Hellman’s household. My wife grew up in a Duke’s household. After two years of a house divided, I finally saw the light.
5. Take it outside. During spring, summer, and fall, we use our grills as stoves and ovens, and eat outdoors as often as possible. Understand one thing, though: Grilling is not barbecuing. When we talk about barbecue as a verb, we’re talking about smoking a hunk of meat over slow and low heat.
Earn bonus points by growing pots of herbs on the deck or patio within easy reach of the kitchen, and keep simple container gardens of tomatoes, such as Mortgage Lifters, Better Boys, and Cherokee Purples.
6. More is not less. A properly set Southern table should not look anything like a table in Denmark or anything photographed in glossy food journals of the moment. Whether you’re setting one for supper club, Sunday supper, or a holiday feast, go big. That means more flowers, more linens, more china, and more silver than you think. Pile it on. When in doubt, always go for more cow bell.
Photos by James Ransom