I don’t want my iron skillet to become an artifact. Relegated to the back of the cabinet with a seldom used Bundt pan, a forgotten Jello mold, and my avocado green fondue pot.
Times change and the notions of what is essential in the kitchen do too. And, there they sit, in the dark, waiting for their moment to roll around again or more likely to get carted off to the thrift store.
Every time I hear the phrase “traditional Southern cooking” I begin to worry about that iron skillet.
Most speakers say that phrase with love or reverence. But that’s not what I hear. I hear nostalgia for foodways that are long gone. And, disrespect for the Southern food of this moment. Not to mention, the unspoken rebuke that a skillet that isn’t turning out sawmill gravy or slices of country ham, ought to be forgotten or given away.
Even though fried chicken the way my grandmothers and great grandmothers knew how to make is long gone from my repertoire, the skillet I inherited from them is still in daily use, all thanks to recipes like Ashley Christensen’s Oyster Mushrooms and Asparagus with Sherry and Cream, Shuai Wang’s recipe for Brown Butter Radishes and Greens, Skillet Fried Turnip Green Pizza from Vivian Howard, and Vishwesh Bhatt’s Okra and Potato Hash.
Some 40 Southern food and beverage folk are at the center of Charleston Wine and Food’s closing celebration, Southern Renaissance. Not many of them turn out “traditional Southern cooking.” Rather, like Nina Compton, they interpret St. Lucia by way of New Orleans, like Frank Stitt, they apply French technique to the agricultural bounty of Cullman, Alabama, or like Eddie Hernandez they fold the spices of Monterrey, Mexico into Southern turnip greens.
To be sure, Southern Renaissance might be dismissed as clever marketing. Or it could be that Charleston Wine and Food is on to something – a very real awakening of Southern creativity.
Music, art, fashion, literature, and food – the cultural output of this place — do seem to be having a moment. I’ve listened to both The Alabama Shakes and St Paul and the Broken Bones as I wr0te this piece. On my walls hang work from Blair Hobbs, Amy Evans, and Adrienne Brown David. I have a Holly Aiken purse and closet full of Natalie Chanin scarves and wraps. My bedside table holds the novels of Jesmyn Ward, a memoir by Kiese Laymon, and Ronni Lundy’s Victuals.
The men and women cooking and mixing and pouring on Sunday night showcase a constantly evolving South, one that accommodates new immigrants and adopts new traditions. All claim the South as their own and together they are crafting the 21st century version of traditional Southern food. Won’t you join us?