Katrina and Collard Greens: ‘Cornbread Nation 6’

Cornbread Nation 6: The Best of Southern Food Writing is a sprawling collection afflicted with a problem peculiar to “best of” collections: uneven writing. Published by The University of Georgia Press, the book has entries ranging from academic contributors and their dense wordiness to fine essays, poetry, and even a couple pieces of stray fiction that got lost and wandered in.

The book can be a slog at times, brightened by edifying entries that bring something new to this overloaded table. And Southern food suffers.

It suffers from being written about in such exhaustive detail that even previously unpublished essays felt repetitive. One could make an excellent argument that the food writing glut makes repetition a pervasive danger. Ezra Pound’s exhortation “make it new” is especially important when writing of matters gustatory.

Consider writing about barbecue. This byway of Southern cookery is so contentious that nobody can even agree on a spelling. Barbecue? BBQ? Barbeque? There are reams of barbecue writing out there—enough to fill its own anthology. Cornbread Nation 6 offers three essays about barbecuing as competitive sport; they could be stitched together with no evident seams. This is not to insult the writers; rather, it’s an observation about the topic. Enough of silly hats, marinade and rub concoctions reading like a random collection of pantry ingredients, and the manly, alcohol-suffused work of tending large, pork-filled fires while normal people sleep, all in the name of winning a contest.

Enough, too, of the “Southern Characters”. Can you imagine “Midwestern Characters”? “Eastern Characters”? “Western Characters” connote Clint Eastwood (in spaghetti Westerns, naturally), not Alice Waters or Thomas Keller. The Southern character stereotype—the lone man in a pickup truck with too many stories, the hardworking mother of ten baking at the woodstove–is one we’d do well to shatter. Reducing individuals to characters reduces those qualities that make them unique.

Yes, people living in the American South share some characteristics born of geography, just as Midwesterners or Northern Californians may share broad traits. This is not to say that biographical pieces on Southern chefs are unwelcome—Ben Westhoff’s essay on Ms. Peachez, the rapping drag queen, is thought provoking on numerous levels. Edward Behr contribues a lovely piece about Miss Eula Mae Doré, a Cajun home cook. But we are well-advised to remember that America is an enormous country inhabited by a wealth of nationalities, not an antiquated collection of personalities.

Any honest book about the American South must include the history of slavery and the racism that continues to blight American society. Cornbread Nation 6 rises to the occasion here, including numerous essays by African American writers and African American contributions to southern cooking. Jessica B. Harris’s “In Sorrow’s Kitchen” describes the ways slaves were fed—or, more often, starved—in harrowing detail. She also traces the foodways of enslaved Africans, who brought us rice cultivation, okra, greens, and the use of benne (sesame) seeds, whose oils helped compensate for a meatless diet.

We see the small plots slaves tended for themselves after their long workdays, their skills foraging, hunting, and fishing to augment an impoverished, cornmeal-based diet. Harris describes the mistresses in “Big Houses” who watched over kitchen slaves to ensure nothing was stolen. One Mrs. Flint waited until her family was served, then the ruined leftovers by spitting into all the pots and pans.

John Kessler’s “Where Are All the Black Chefs?” is a saddening examination of current day racism in the kitchen. African-American chef Darryl Evans recalls his first day in Atlanta’s Occidental Grand Hotel, a high-end establishment. Several of the kitchen staff quit on the spot. Evans was undeterred. He wanted to open his own restaurant, but encountered difficulty finding backers. Unfortunately, his career was derailed by illness, but he did mentor many African-American chefs. Notably, all the chefs discussed were men; everyone has forgotten the talented Gillian Clark, who put herself through culinary school in her 30s and opened her own Washington, D.C. restaurant, Colorado Kitchen, while single-handedly raising two daughters. (See Out of the Frying Pan: A Chef’s Memoir of Hot Kitchens, Single Motherhood, and the Family Meal).

Jack Hitt’s “Putting Food On the Family,” (this grammatically impaired title comes from former President George W. Bush, who uttered this fragment during an election speech) is a moving look at who’s doing the cooking. During Hitt’s South Carolina childhood, it was commonplace to hire a black female cook. Now Hitt winces at the casual racism in his childhood community, where the 1950 edition of the Charleston Receipts cookbook featured a black “mammy” at the top corner of each page. He calls it cringe-inducing. It is. Mercifully, times have changed enough that Hitt now cooks, as do his wife and two daughters. And it sounds like the food is excellent.

Several essays are paeans to specific foods. Alison Cook’s essay on Chile con Queso, with its resolutely low rent ingredients—Velveeta cheese, pickled jalapeno peppers, onions, sometimes tomatoes—describes what for some is the perfect dish. According to Cook, one dips tortilla chips into this concoction and promptly ascends to food heaven. Naturally, artisanal versions of Chile con Queso are to be had, complete with raw milk cheeses and brisket, but Cook is adamantly dismissive of attempts to fancy up this pedestrian food. Fans of this Tex-Mex dish agree with her. Only Velveeta cheese, with its melting capacity and orangey hue, will do.

Sara Roahen, an oral historian and author, writes of boudin, which is not French sausage made from pork blood, but an Acadian specialty of Southern Louisiana, most often sold at gas stations. Boudin varies, but is generally made from pork and rice. Roahen describes buying some at a gas station with a side of cracklins (fried pork skins) and a root beer. She gives a wonderful history of the Acadian people, who migrated from Nova Scotia to Louisiana, resulting a unique cooking style and a dying dialect. We learn that boudin is the ultimate locavore food, available only in remote Acadian parish.

In “Real Cajun”, Donald Link, Louisiana chef, author, and native Acadian, describes a vanished way of life. Growing up in Acadia Parish, Link was surrounded by grandparents, aunts and uncles, and countless cousins. The family farmed rice and crawfish, and ate well: gumbos, roasts, duck stews, creamed fresh vegetables, and rice, always rice. Of all the contributors, Link, who is executive chef at Louisiana restaurants Herbsaint and Cochon, has a solid grasp of Cajun versus Creole Cooking. Such distinctions are the stuff of Ph.D. theses and fistfights, but this Acadian native easily settles the dispute:

“Real Cajun food translates to the best ingredients of the area, simply prepared. The flavors are focused and the food is highly seasoned, though not necessarily spicy… By contrast, Creole cuisine is a melting pot of European influences and African and West Indian ingredients. It’s considered fancier fare: you don’t see Cajun food on white tablecloths.”

Besha Rodell’s “An Open Letter to Kim Severson” sets the New York Times writer straight on a few points. Severson left the paper’s food section to become Atlanta bureau chief. She tweeted so many 140 word smackdowns about her new home that Rodell, who also moved from New York City to Atlanta, was impelled to pen a gentle corrective. Atlanta is not a backwater, but a thriving community of artists and foodies whose only lack is big city snobbery.

Cookbook writer Andrea Nguyen’s “Bags, Butter, Surfboards, and Spice: Viet-Cajun in Cali” is a standout essay, meshing Vietnamese culture with the Bayou fisherman. Only in America could Vietnamese fisherman flee to Louisiana bayous, fall in love with crawfish, and incorporate it into nhau, the custom of sitting for hours chatting while munching fish cooked to order. Entrepreneurial Vietnamese saw a good thing: the nhau slightly Americanized into restaurant form, where people can purchase plastic bags of shellfish coated in margarine and chiles, and work their way happily through these bags while sitting, drinking, and talking. Nguyen calls these Viet-Cajun restaurants. Their popularity is spreading from the South; I was delighted to learn the cuisine has spread to California, even if the wait at San Jose’s Boiling Crab restaurant is 90 minutes.

It’s impossible to write about food without politics intruding, particularly where Louisiana is concerned. David Grunfeld, staff photographer at the Times-Picayune, contributes a heartbreaking photo essay of the Collins Family, who farmed oysters in Bayou Lafourche for five generations. The British Petroleum Deepwater oil spill put them out of business. Inhabitants of the remote Bayou Terre aux Boeufs spoke Spanish and saw no reason to leave home for New Orleans, only 30 miles away. Henry Martinez, a lifelong resident, describes an idyll lost first to Hurricane Betsy, in 1965, then finished by Katrina, 30 years later:

“We had meat, fish, vegetables… we had a community where every kid had three hundred parents. You could play in the woods, swim in the bayou, hunt, and fish. We had the best life anyone could think of.”

There are the contributions from Paul Greenberg and Barry Estabrook, who steadily exposes the bad guys in American food production. And no food anthology feels worthy these days without a contribution from Michael Pollan, writing here about farmer/poet Wendell Berry.

Collections like these are bound to have essays that fall short or leave the reader shaking her head. I wasn’t sure how an individual choosing both a sex change operation and to embark on winemaking venture fit; while both are courageous choices, the writing style seemed fictional and not at all southern. Bill Smith’s essay on visiting Mexican cooks he’d befriended while cooking was Anthony Bourdain with less swagger. Lolis Eric Elie tries to tackle “The Origin Myth of New Orleans Cuisine” from the Creole angle, only to wade in too deeply; see Donald Link, above. Martha Foose’s “Family Pieces” is lifted from a novel but doesn’t successfully stand alone.

Is this volume worth your time? Yes, but cherry pick it. The stronger entries make Cornbread Nation 6: The Best of Southern Food Writing worthwhile. Stick to the good stuff, and you’ll learn what makes the American South unique, a country within a country, struggling with the legacies of slavery, Hurricane Katrina (which also walloped oft-overlooked Mississippi), the British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and the consequent irreparable losses. Yet there is hope in a generation of younger chefs like Scott Peacock and Sean Brock, both passionately committed to classic Southern foodways, and in the home cooks who, when hell and high water came, kept right on cooking.

RATING 7 / 10