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'A Gracious Plenty' offers up simmering stew of Southern cuisine
'A Gracious Plenty: Recipes and Recollections from the American South'
In this story:
'Too much is always enough'
Celebrating Southern food
A diverse region
Tried and true, and something new
RELATED STORIES, SITES
ATLANTA (CNN) -- There is a lot in "A Gracious Plenty" -- one of the cookbooks nominated this year for a James Beard award -- that reminds me of growing up in the South.
At least twice a year, the country churches in the region would have what was called a "revival meeting," and a minister would be invited in for a week of services.
It was up to the ladies of the church to provide the meals for this ritual, and these were no small efforts, either.
The ladies took very seriously a cardinal rule of Southern culture -- you might not have much in the way of riches, but you did not let any guest come to your home without serving a meal that was both plentiful and satisfying.
A typical feast would include, at minimum, two to three fried chickens and a platter of steak smothered in cream gravy. The vegetables would number eight or ten -- creamed corn, pickled beets, squash casserole, blackeyed peas as well as crowder peas, butter beans, and zipper peas along with turnip greens and fried okra.
There would be two kinds of congealed salad and three kinds of bread -- cornbread, light-as-air biscuits, and flaky, pungent yeast rolls. All of this would be washed down with copious amounts of sugary sweet tea laced with lemon.
But you didn't dare fill up completely, because dessert was still to come -- a five-layer red velvet cake with sour cream icing studded with chopped pecans.
My grandmother boiled it down for me like this: "Honey, too much is always enough."
Southerners believed then and now that one of the finest things you can do is share a meal with someone.
In order to preserve this philosophy, the Center for Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi has created the "Southern Foodways Alliance," an organization whose aim is to celebrate food, promote the American South and collect its culinary customs.
John T. Edge, the Alliance's director, has set about chronicling Southern foodways in "A Gracious Plenty" by surveying dozens of regional and community cookbooks.
Interspersed among the more than 400 recipes are gastronomic remembrances from all sorts of southerners ranging from Ed Scott, the first African American catfish farmer in the Mississippi Delta, to Marie Rudisill, the aunt of author Truman Capote.
Edge notes that community cookbooks -- many of them spiral bound, dog eared and gravy-stained -- have been a Southern staple since the Civil War when, having little else, communities would put together cookbooks to raise funds for the war wounded.
What he found in his survey was that Southern food culture is not monolithic. Sure, this tome has three pages of fried chicken recipes and discusses how to make tea at some length, but there are many surprises, too.
New Orleans has long been famous for blending Creole, Spanish, French and British cultures to produce some of the nation's finest cuisine. It seems much of the South has a similar mish-mash.
How did tamales end up being such a staple in the kitchens of Belzoni, Mississippi, or at that famous Delta restaurant, "Doe's Eat Place" in Greenville, Mississippi? The answer: migrant farmer workers.
A recipe for Kibbee, a Lebanese meat dish, comes from "The Share-Cropper," a cookbook published by the PTA in Inverness, Mississippi. Contributor Bubba Mohamed says the recipe was passed down by his father, a Lebanese man who ran a mercantile store in the Mississippi Delta.
In another little gem, Eli Evans describes his Jewish mother's technique for getting "marvelous, succulent, gravy-laden" brisket. The secret: soak the meat overnight in Coca-Cola.
The standards of Southern cuisine that you would expect are all here -- fried chicken, squash casserole, bread-and-butter pickles, fried catfish. But there are many lesser-known delicacies as well.
One of the best is Country Captain Chicken, believed to have been brought to Georgia by British sea captains who had been to India.
In this recipe, chicken is browned then stewed in a sauce of tomatoes, onion, garlic and curry power. At the end, golden raisins are added and the chicken, smothered in sauce, is served over rice sprinkled with toasted almonds.
Another underappreciated delicacy is Southern Catfish Stew or, as they used to call it in south Georgia, the bouillabaisse of the Ogeechee River swamp.
In this concoction, bacon is rendered and then vegetables -- onions, tomatoes, and bell pepper -- are softened in the fat. Water is added along with thyme, pepper, and other spices. Then catfish chunks are slipped into the simmering broth to cook. The bubbling stew is served in big soup bowls alongside hunks of buttered, steaming cornbread.
Classics like She Crab Soup from the "Charleston Receipts Cookbook" and Pompano en Papillote from Antoine's Restaurant in New Orleans have a place in this cookbook.
In addition, there are four pages of gumbo recipes and three recipes for fruitcake -- including one from Mississippi writer Eudora Welty for white fruit cake.
There are recipes for lemon pound cake, Coca-Cola cake, Lady Baltimore cake, and the previously mentioned red velvet cake.
"A Gracious Plenty" is a wonderful compendium of recipes from diverse peoples who came to that ill-defined region called the South and shared good meals and good fun.
Treat your friends to a dish from this book and you can honestly say -- as they used to do in the society pages of the old Jackson Clarion Ledger -- "a good time was had by all."
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