In New Orleans and in Birmingham, from Asheville to Nashville, the family table and the food on it is as sacred as the white-steepled church.
Southern cuisine has deep roots, and true Southern cooks are famously obstinate about bucking tradition. This is true of aged grandmothers who list well-seasoned cast iron skillets in their wills. It’s true of world-class chefs of five-star restaurants.
That’s why Southern fine dining is likely to feature the same recipes that have served just fine, thank you, for hundreds of years. Don’t let the white tablecloth, elegant flowers or fine crystal fool you: The food will be what it’s always been, a homey hodgepodge that’s heavy on the vegetables.
That caviar of the South, pimiento cheese, is likely to garnish something on the table. Order fish, ham, fried chicken or shrimp and it will probably be served atop grits of other-worldly creaminess. Bacon-spiked collard greens are as common as Caesar salad.
The farm-to-table concept in fine dining is nothing new to Southerners, who’ve always held deep respect for the animals and crops that wind up on their plates. Meats are smoked and aged lovingly. Okra, Vidalia onions and mint for the juleps are watched more closely than children and plucked from the earth at just the right time. Many chef owners grow their own produce out back or cultivate gardens at home.
There’s also great interest in where the food comes from. It’s not unusual for menus in Atlanta, say, to inform you that your crispy-skinned trout, perfectly sautéed, hails from North Carolina. You’ll learn that your fried green tomatoes were grown at so-and-so’s farm down the road.
Southern chefs are also reluctant to mess with natural flavors, and deviations from the norm are likely to be subtle. For example, they believe venison is best served with berries and nuts because the deer feasted on a diet of them.
Mac and cheese might be gussied up with chunks of crawfish and Cajun-spiced cream. Caramelized, roasted tomatoes may take the place of red-eye gravy on the grits. A new dessert may result from the old tradition of dropping peanuts into a cold bottle of Coke. All those foods, however, will remain true to their original flavors.
In recent years, the integrity and common sense of Southern cuisine has attracted a lot of attention north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Yankee chefs are opening soul food restaurants in Manhattan. Chicago’s deep-dish pie is being nudged aside in favor of pecan pie. Prestigious magazines like Saveur and Food and Wine regularly highlight Charleston, Atlanta and New Orleans as destinations for fine dining.
Those grandmothers with the cast iron skillets were really on to something.