So Southern, So Summer
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
Time to put away the fondue pots, tapas crockery and sushi mats. There's a brand-new entertaining theme taking over in cities from coast to coast: farmers market dinner parties. The idea is to prepare meals using locally produced, seasonal foods.
Can it really be true that what was a normal way of life during my Southern childhood has been repackaged as a novelty? The absurdity of such modern notions struck me as I swept up the shattered remains of tomato plants that had dangled upside-down over the back deck for months, only to crash-land.
It is time to get back to our roots. Right-side up, that is.
So I had friends over for something akin to a Sunday night, Alabama dinner in August. I invited them early in the evening to allow enough time to enjoy one another's company and still be home at a decent hour on a work night.
"It'll smell like a Southern house when you get here," I promised one of the guests, a New Orleans native.
Before the meal, I offered fried okra, a.k.a. Southern popcorn, as a cocktail nibble instead of relegating those delectable pods to side-dish status. For a first course, I arranged baby lettuce hearts on individual salad plates and topped them with feta cheese and a mixture of crushed Purple Cherokee tomatoes and balsamic vinegar. Basil-marinated chicken breasts and salmon fillets were the main-course proteins. But there were so many vegetables, the meal would have been ample enough without them.
In fact, the menu reflected summer's produce highlights: heirloom tomatoes sliced and slathered with Boursin cheese and creme fraiche; a succotash of snap beans, corn, kale and beet greens (never throw those out); fried corn; and a beet, cucumber and yellow sun-drop tomato salad. Nectarines from Reid's or Toigo Orchards, both in Pennsylvania, took the place of the Chilton County peaches I might have used in Alabama to fashion the dessert, a take on creme brulee.
In deference to a vegetarian guest, I left the chunk of salt pork out of a green bean dish, but I couldn't bear to omit bacon from the fried corn. (By the way, it's called fried, but it's really sauteed and slow-cooked).
Corn and tomatoes were mainstays at almost every meal in the summers of my youth. Menus fell into place depending on what came off a truck or got dropped off by neighbors who, Lord knew, had more tomatoes than they knew what to do with.
Even my grandfather and father, who ordinarily didn't participate in things culinary, made exceptions where corn was concerned. They would regularly return to their respective homes with paper sacks full of Hickory King, the beloved variety of corn back then. My grandfather would get up at dawn to buy it at the curb market, which was nothing more than a few random farmers selling crops out of their pickup trucks on a downtown street.
My version of a curb market takes place in Lamont Park on Saturday mornings (the Mount Pleasant Farmers Market). There are maybe 10 vendors at this producer-only market, but they are all choice. On a recent outing, it was easy to satisfy the Southern angle of my menu.
To a Southerner living up north, few sights are more welcome or less likely than a farmers market table filled with fresh okra, so I owe a debt of gratitude to Richfield Farm of Manchester, Md.