Fried chicken. Barbecue. Hush puppies. Peach cobbler. Many iconic American dishes come to mind when you think about Southern food. But beyond the clichés is a world of nuanced flavor that combines centuries-old influences from West Africa with quintessentially American ingredients like corn and bourbon.
Barry Maiden (of Hungry Mother) joined us in the kitchen last Thursday for a quick discussion on the cuisine of his native Virginia and the surrounding southern states. He passed around a dish of different grains that looked like a textural paint palette. There were toasty benne seeds (similar to sesame), reddish field peas, ground blue corn, hominy, white grits, and yellow grits—all of which get put to use in the Hungry Mother kitchen. The grains were from heirloom producer Anson Mills. "I honestly don't know what I would do without them," said Maiden who goes through about 60 pounds of their Antebellum coarse grits every week.
We got to cook and taste some of this superior ground corn when we made grits with smoked cheese and Tasso ham for family meal (a snack for us students before things got too hectic). As the afternoon ticked away, we became quite busy preparing the dishes that would be served at the public event that evening. Sixty ticket-holding Hungry Mother fans were coming to hear Barry speak about Southern food and to taste a sampling of his dishes.
The night started with pimento cheese gougeres with Surryano ham (a Southern riff on Serrano ham, but smoked) and red pepper jelly. The savory puffs were simultaneously rich and delicate. Next was a serving of deviled crab that was dusted with bourbon-smoked paprika and topped with a perfect, seedless lemon wedge (my teammate and I meticulously cut and inspected each one). Then it was on to old-fashioned chicken and dumplings. Chef Maiden created an elevated version of this classic by having us make coin-sized biscuits that were par-baked before being poached in the stew. Each mini bowl received 5 dumplings along with a ladle-full of thickened chicken stock, shredded meat, carrots, and celery. I didn't see an unhappy face the entire night.
Hearing Barry talk about food in his slight Southern drawl made me realize how meaningful it is to cook with a sense of "self terroir". I'm not talking about the soil or environment that produced the ingredients (though that's important too), but rather the environment that produced the chef. Barry strongly identifies with the foods he was raised on and they have become a part of him. By cooking what he knows best, he is able to give his customers an intimate, heart-felt dining experience. They may come looking for fried chicken but they leave with a new understanding of Southern cuisine.