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Wednesday, 02 May 2007 00:00

Southern Comfort

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Cornbread Nation 2 by Lolis Eric Elie. The University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

In the last 50 years, home cooking has given way to frozen meals, microwaves, and fast foods. Restaurants in many cities are jammed, even on weekdays, and busy families often find it simpler to toss supper into the microwave than to make time for real cooking.

Some of these changes have clearly led to more standardized tastes; a Stouffer’s lasagna will taste the same in Detroit as in Yazoo City, and a Big Mac in Baltimore will taste much like a Big Mac in Toronto. And yet even today, a city, a region or a native land might still be defined as much by its cookery as by its topography or its culture.

The French, for example, still live for vichyssoise, truffles, and escargots. During Oktoberfest Bavarians continue to jam their Munich beer halls roaring for vats of suds, sausages, and schnitzel. Sophisticated Italians want their pasta just like their mamas made, and the English remain famed worldwide for their teas and scones.

Closer to home, Mexicans still pepper their beans and stews, and Texans cook a chili that could lay a strong man in his grave. Louisiana’s Cajuns serve up shrimp gumbo; New Yorkers enjoy corned beef on rye with chips and a pickle. Milwaukee continues to eat brats and drink beer; the Amish serve up shoofly pie; Kansas City kicks out big steaks and ribs.

Which brings us to barbecue.

In a nation in which so many of its citizens want to live longer (though few can say why they wish to do so), barbecue is doubtless on the healthy person’s hit list along with cigarettes, alcohol (except for semi-expensive wines, of course), fast foods, deep-fried foods, beef, sugar, chocolate, ice cream, peanut butter, and anything else that’s friendly to the palate.

At this point in my review, all of us, whether omnivores or herbivores, must take sides. Aficionados of carrots, celery, and other raw vegetables will probably want to quit reading here, particularly if you are in the middle of grazing through your lunch. Those who like eating slow-cooked pork (or for those barbarians who prefer beef) along with coleslaw, white bread, and baked beans, please continue as we turn now to a book by a connoisseur of the barbeque pit, Lolis Eric Elie, and his latest tome, Cornbread Nation 2 (ISBN O-8078-5556-1)

Cornbread Nation 2 has little to do with cornbread and much to do with Southern cooking, particularly barbecue. It is not a book of recipes but instead is a collection — a second collection by the same editor — of writings and meditations on the art of Southern cooking. The focus of this particular work is barbecue and its importance in the South.

John Shelton Reed, a professor at Chapel Hill who is also a great connoisseur of all things Southern, wrote: “Southern barbecue is the closest thing we have in the U.S. to Europe’s wines or cheeses; drive a hundred miles and the barbecue changes.”

Elie gives other authors the opportunity to write about such Southern foods as brisket, boiled peanuts, Cajun boudin, scuppernongs, and ice cream.

In “George Washington and Barbecue,” Mary Thompson paints a fine portrait of Washington at play, participating in barbecues with other wealthy members of the planter class, where he played various games — he particularly liked lawn bowling and “ball,” which may have been similar to cricket. Rufus Jarman, author of “Dixie’s Most Disputed Dish,” writes that “It is generally agreed down South that barbecue will not hurt anybody when properly cooked, and that the secret of proper barbecuing is patience and more patience. Good barbecue cannot be hurried; it should be allowed to cook and drip for twelve hours over an outdoor fire of hardwood coals...every true barbecue chef — and every Georgia community has at least one locally celebrated amateur — agrees that no flame should be tolerated in the pit.”

As previously stated, however, Elie provides a showroom for other developments in Southern cooking. Molly O’Neill gives us a fine article on “The Viking Invasion,” in which she goes to Greenwood, Miss., and interviews Fred Carl, the inventor and manufacturer of the Viking Stove. This industrial-sized stove, which is adapted for household usage, has become a hit among celebrities, professional athletes, and movie stars, yet the funniest story regarding the Viking Stove has to do with Carl’s first sale to a New Yorker, Patricia King. When she paid her hundred-dollar deposit, King had no idea that Carl had yet to build his first stove. The stove arrived and was such a disaster — the burners didn’t work properly, the gas leaked into the kitchen — that for the next year Carl had to talk various local repairmen through the work on the stove. Eventually, when her range was working well, King received a basket of gourmet food with a card reading “To the director of the Viking Range Corporation New York Test Kitchen.” Carl has gone on to sell thousands of his stoves.

Some of the other articles in this rich compendium include Eddie Dean’s “Ice Cream Dreams,” in which the author writes of his days driving an ice cream truck in the Blue Ridge Mountains; “For the Love of Mullet” by Diane Roberts, which traces the development of Florida mullet as a subsistence food, like possum or squirrel, to its popularity today; John Martin Taylor’s “Boiled Peanuts,” an article about that humble food in which Taylor makes the interesting observation that “the South is more emotion than nation — that describing the boundaries of the region is all but impossible.” Amy Weldon tells us how and when to eat a scuppernong, Calvin Trillin sings the praises of boudin, and Julia Reed lovingly describes famous Southern cakes.

Cornbread Nation 2 is, in short, a collection of Southern food writing that will make your mouth water for a plate of Lexington barbecue, cole slaw, beans and sweet tea.

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