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Jambalaya, crawfish pie and file gumbo in Cornbread Nation 4 

Food essayists emphasize the true varieties of Southern cuisine

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Cornbread Nation 4: The Best of Southern Food Writing
Edited by Dale Volberg Reed and John Shelton Reed
General editor: John T. Edge

University of Georgia Press, 308 pp.


Not long ago, I learned that the Central Coffee Shop in Manning, S.C., a backwater greasy spoon where my parents and I spent many sweltering Carolina afternoons stuffing ourselves with hot roast beef sandwiches and coconut cream pie, had closed after almost a century's worth of business, and in its place now stands the new office for the town's newspaper.

I found that I didn't mourn the loss of the place so much as I did the mosaic of characters who gathered there, and I didn't miss the food as much as I missed the people who cooked it. Perhaps nothing stirs up those-were-the-days nostalgia like the food of one's youth, but what we eat—particularly in the South—is unquestionably seasoned in our memories with the care and personalities of those who made it for us.

In Cornbread Nation 4: The Best of Southern Food Writing, editors Dale Volberg Reed, John Shelton Reed and John T. Edge have compiled a hefty collection of essays, profiles, lectures, poems and photographs that celebrate the imprecise and unpretentious high art of Southern gastronomy, even in its lowest incarnations. Unlike the second and third installments of the Southern Foodways Alliance's Cornbread Nation series, which focused on barbecue and the food of Appalachia, respectively, the fourth volume offers odes to everything from po' boys to pork rinds, ribs to roux, muscadines and moonshine to—yes—MoonPies. The book is divided into eight sections that examine different aspects of Southern eating, such as Lowcountry cooking, sugar and the South, "folk" foodways (how could a book about Southern food not talk about Waffle House and RC Cola?) and what "downhome" really means when it comes to the kitchen. Also new to this edition are recipes, because good food writing makes you want to cook as much as it makes you want to eat.

click to enlarge Cast-net fisherman Pap Bailey in Apalachicola, Fla. - PHOTO BY AMY EVANS

The strongest of these 53 selections drop the reader into the lives of unforgettable people, drawing important connections between cooking and character. The sections on Gulf Coast cuisine before and after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, for example, explain how crucial the efforts of local chefs were to the reconstruction of New Orleans directly after the flood. Lolis Eric Elie writes of Paul Prudhomme and his staff making creole for 30,000 relief workers from a makeshift tent-kitchen outside his spice factory, and of Restaurant August's John Besh serving up red beans and rice for workers in Slidell. "Our food," writes Elie, "which has long served as both our emblem and our sustenance, is one of the bedrocks on which we are building our recovery." Like Rick Bragg in his essay "This Isn't the Last Dance," the chefs and cooks of New Orleans "cannot stand the idea that it is broken, unfixable." And with their help, it hasn't been.

For many of the book's writers, food is merely a jumping-off point for much larger human issues. Shaun Chavis, in "Is There a Difference Between Southern and Soul?" probes the surprisingly similar culinary philosophies of Ben Barker (owner of Durham's Magnolia Grill) and Mildred Council (owner of Mama Dip's in Chapel Hill) to explore how race has influenced Southern cooking. "This food is born of our history," writes Jack Hitt in "Lowcountry Lowdown," "so much of it tragic and difficult to discuss outright. ... The kitchen is where race relations have always been at their best, a place where many of the good things that can be reaped from our past come together like fine flavors." And in "Let Us Now Praise Fabulous Cooks," John T. Edge honors the largely unacknowledged social contributions of Ernest Mickler, the author of White Trash Cooking, by likening him to James Agee and Walker Evans.

But not all of Cornbread Nation 4 is so profound; some of it is just a lot of fun. "The South's Love Affair with Soft Drinks" by Tom Hanchett goes well beyond the typical Coke-Pepsi-Cheerwine treatment and reads like a Homeric catalogue of Southern soda, the brand names of which—Cool Moon, White Light-nin', Dr. Enuf and Kickapoo Joy Juice—are their own peculiar poetry. ("Mountain dew," incidentally, is a slang term for moonshine.) After giving into the semi-Satanic seductions of the World Invitational Rib Championship, the Independent's frequent contributor Hal Crowther realizes "even moderation should be practiced in moderation," a motto that could very well extend to the entire book.

click to enlarge Fred's Best Seafood in Eastpoint, Fla. - PHOTO BY AMY EVANS

One thing that shouldn't be practiced in moderation in a collection about food is rich description, which, unfortunately, a few of its selections lack. Scattered throughout Cornbread Nation 4's pages are pieces that slide into dangerously academic tones, only giving the reader a historical analysis of molasses, or watercress, or Tabasco rather than evoking an experience of the thing itself. While informative, these essays don't live up to the literary standards set by Bragg, Hitt, Edge and Pat Conroy, making them appear to be, well, filler. (That said, I am sorry to have missed 1894's Burlesque Opera of Tabasco.)

What this volume does impart, though, is a new appreciation for how varied the food of the South actually is. One wonders if Escoffier himself, "the king of chefs and the chef of kings," might have marveled at the vastness and depth of Southern cuisine. How would he even have described it? Far better, I think, to leave its praise and explanation to the people who have dedicated their lives to it. In the words of Willie Mae Seaton, New Orleans' grande dame of country cooking: "Baby, it isn't just going to be chicken."

At 7 p.m. Monday, May 12, editors Dale Volberg Reed and John Shelton Reed lead readings from Cornbread Nation 4 at Regulator Bookshop. Local contributors Michael McFee, Marcie Cohen Ferris and Hal Crowther will also participate. For more information, visit www.regbook.com.

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