Cornbread Nation 4
Dale Volberg Reed, John Shelton Reed, John T. Edge (Editors)
The Best of Southern Food Writing
(University of Georgia Press)
Welcome to a place of moonshine masters, morel mushroom hunters, and people who speak of a time when “we bought our meat from Boo Ledoux”. You’ll find proud practitioners of whole-hog barbeque and neighbors who come together—and cook together—in the wake of natural disaster.
Drop your pretensions at the border. Here, pork rinds are the subject of poems, the wine is muscadine, and even a well-known chef can say of a frosted, marshmallow-filled cookie sandwich: “I love a Moon Pie. I’d eat one now if I had it”. On the menu is fried river herring, molasses sopped up with cornbread, cornmeal dumplings, greens cooked in bacon grease, chitlins, she-crab soup, and potato chip sandwiches, all washed down with a glass of RC Cola.
Welcome to the South. Cornbread Nation 4: The Best of Southern Food Writing will be your guide.
This collection of 49 essays, three poems and one photo essay (of the oystering industry of Apalachicola Bay, Florida) is the fourth book in an occasional series published in association with the Ole Miss-based Southern Foodways Alliance. The editors—Dale Volberg Reed and John Shelton Reed (co-authors of 1001 Things Everyone Should Know about the South)—have culled these works from Alliance symposiums, as well as newspapers, magazines, journals, and books. Cornbread Nation 4 is a vivid, heart-felt, often lyrical look at some of the most iconic food of the South—from the commercial to the home-cooked to the most seasonal of delicacies, gathered in the wild.
In their introduction, the Reeds say, “We’ve closed the book with a benediction. By a preacher. Very Southern, to be sure. Maybe it should have come at the beginning, and we could have called it grace”. They shouldn’t fret. The opening extract from Taste of Country Cooking by Edna Lewis is a form of grace itself, bursting with exuberance and love for the wonders of the spring season—baby calves, pigs and lambs; a family breakfast of shad, skillet potatoes, and batter bread; salads made from the freshest tender lettuces and wild greens; the simple dessert of wild strawberries and fresh cream. Springtime or not, Lewis’ essay makes you want to close your eyes, turn your face to the sun, and breathe in from the bottom of your soul.
After “Spring”, Cornbread Nation 4 is divided into eight thematic sections, although the most meaningful groupings are the first two: “Louisiana and the Gulf Coast: Before” and “Louisiana and the Gulf Coast: After”. The demarcating event is, of course, Hurricane Katrina.
“Before” starts off with an essay on the history of Tabasco—invented in Louisiana after the Civil War, and still produced in the state today. Next, Mary Tutwiler details her sausage-seeking travels through the Cajun prairie. Cajuns have a special place in their heart for smoking corn-fed pigs—and then eating every part of them. Tutwiler takes us from family store to family butchery, where she tastes regional specialties like chaudin (stuffed pig’s stomach), tasso (a lean cut of pork shoulder, smoked all day), and boudin (sausage made of pork, rice and gravy); the boudin accompanied by coffee “black as Louisiana sweet crude oil”.
After Terri Pischoff Wuerthner explores the deceptively-simple foundation of Cajun cooking (a miraculous mixture of flour and fat called roux), Brett Anderson chronicles the rise of celebrity chef Paul Prudhommie through insightful interviews with Paul’s friends, family and co-workers, and the man himself. Prudhommie became a household name in the 1980s for making regional American cuisine—in this case, Cajun cuisine—restaurant-respectable.
Locally-sourced food may be all the rage today, but it was a priority for Prudhommie more than two decades ago. With imagination and flair, he prepared recipes he had learned to cook at his mother’s side, while also inventing a show-stopping new dish that took the country by storm—blackened fish. In the “After” section we learn that, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Prudhommie’s improvised kitchen fed nearly 30,000 relief workers.
Prudhommie was one of the many restaurateurs on the forefront of providing relief and spurring revival. Others needed more help than they could give. Jim Auchmutey introduces Willie Mae Seaton of Willie Mae’s Scotch House, a hole-in-the-wall restaurant flooded during the storm. Famous for her phenomenal fried chicken (she uses wet batter and a deep-fryer, and keeps the other details secret), Seaton is cooking again thanks to volunteer labor and some dedicated fundraisers, including the Southern Foodways Alliance.
Post-Katrina, other New Orleans residents struggled to replace a different part of their culinary history—recipes. Rick Brooks tells of people seeking out old family recipes lost in the floodwaters, recipes for regional classics like bread pudding, sweet-potato casserole, jambalaya, and doberge cake, an eight-layer yellow cake, filled with dark-chocolate frosting and encased in chocolate ganache.
It is the personal stories and colorful characters that make Cornbread Nation so compelling. Moving over to South Carolina, Jack Hitt writes of a day spent cooking with the Colleton family. The Colleton’s are of Gullah heritage, and they end up with a meal for 40 of red rice, she-crab soup, butter beans, chicken purloo (a baked rice dish), fried blue crab, garlic crab, oysters and grits. At one point, Hitt asks Buckshot Colleton about the yellow gunk inside crab—something he’s wondered about since he was a child. Buckshot tells him it’s the fat of the crab. Hitt asks what the proper term is in the Gullah language. “Buckshot’s trademark smile curls onto his face. ‘We call that the fat of the crab’”.
Yes, some of the best parts of the book are the quotes, which capture the language of the people in a way prose can’t. In “Something Special”, Carroll Leggett identifies an old man who shares her eastern North Carolina roots based on his description of cornmeal dumplings: “My grandma made’m when the thrashers came. She would pat’m out and lay’m in the pot and when she took’m out and put’m on your plate they had her fingerprints on top”.
The only disappointing chapters in Cornbread Nation 4 are the ones in “Compare and Contrast”. This section lacks flow and pace, and the characters lay flat on the page. It is a lackluster ending. You’d be better off re-reading Candice Dyer’s entertaining ode to Waffle House, Wendell Brock’s paean to peanuts, or Tom Hanchett’s tale of the South’s “love affair” with soft drinks (which, of course, residents themselves universally call “coke”).
Or, try reciting “By the Silvery Shine of the Moon” aloud to better hear the lilt and sway of Jim Evans’ writing. The story of his inaugural moonshine purchase is hilarious, his introductions to moonshine-making legends memorable. You’ll wish you could go stop by and meet these legends—along with many of the authors and characters in Cornbread Nation 4—for yer’self.