SOUTHERN FOOD At Home, on the Road, in History By John Egerton Knopf. 408 pp. $22.95

FOUR DECADES ago, when my family moved from suburban New York to Southside Virginia, the South was terra incognita to most Northerners. My parents spoke in wonder of its alien mysteries: its primitive accents and locutions, its Gothic folkways, its hardscrabble rustics and its unspeakable food. For some time I accepted these stereotypes without question, but gradually I began to make my own way into the South, and gradually I came to understand that the region offered not merely much to admire but much to which I could commit myself with a passion most unlikely in one whose previous days had been spent north of the Mason- Dixon Line.

To be specific, the South offered: pickled okra, red-eye gravy, iced tea and lemonade, buttermilk biscuits, cornbread, barbecue, fried chicken, country ham, burgoo and gumbo, jambalaya, cheese grits, bourbon balls, buttermilk pie, Key lime pie, peach ice cream -- well, you get the gist of it. The South offered, I learned, not the grease-bespattered meats and overcooked vegetables hooted at by condescending Yankees, but a regional cuisine as distinct and preeminent as its regional literature -- which, as it happens, I was discovering at about the same time. With the zeal of the convert, I adopted true grits as my own; over the years they have remained the food that I prefer to all others.

So you can imagine my pleasure at encountering Southern Food, John Egerton's enthusiastic and encyclopedic celebration of the region's cookery. Egerton, an experienced journalist who has devoted much labor to exploring the South's traditions and lamenting its "Americanization," has written in Southern Food what he calls "a resident Southerner's moderately well-informed but decidedly nonexpert view of eating in the South." It is neither history nor cookbook nor guide, but a combination and modification of all three. Its first section, "Pass and Repast," is a brief account of how southern cooking as we know it came to be; its second, "Eating Out," is a highly personal ramble through about 200 restaurants serving "authentic and representative examples of the Southern food heritage"; and its third, "Eating In," offers about 160 recipes "as a broadly representative sample of Southern cookery at its diverse and delicious best."

What Egerton celebrates in this book is what person after person whom he interviewed calls "plain old Southern cooking," or "just good old food, Southern food," as opposed to the hoked-up variations on southern cooking that are now appearing in fashionable restaurants and stylish cookbooks. As mentioned above Egerton is a traditionalist, and in Southern Food it is tradition above all that he honors. As he puts it:

"Southern food at its most appealing is surprisingly simple, relatively inexpensive, and inclusive rather than exclusive. It is suffused with history and continuity. It is integrated food -- black and white, soul and country, Creole and Cajun, mountain and coastal, plain and fancy. More than any other remnant of the region's past, it reflects the reality of good and bad times and the social values of Southerners of all races and classes in every generation. I am convinced that the best Southern food is well worth defending and preserving, not only as one of the few active and continuing examples of the South at its best, but also for the multitude of simple joys and pleasures it still delivers."

FOR ALL its diversity, southern cooking is based on two foods: pork and corn. Pigs were brought to Jamestown by the English in 1607, maize was provided by the Indians who met them, and since then "no other edible substances have meant more to the {southern} populace in nearly four centuries of history than pork and corn." In fat times and lean, for rich and poor alike, these staples have fed the South cheaply and well; it is impossible to imagine southern cooking without them.

Nor is it possible to imagine southern cooking without the blacks who were brought to the region against their will and who, through the long history of slavery and segregation, played the dominant role in shaping southern food. "From the fields in which it was grown to the kitchens in which it was prepared to the dining tables where it was eaten," Egerton writes, "Southern food in the first half of the 20th century revealed a society living blindly and destructively with institutionalized racism," and adds:

"And yet, somehow, in a society of such commonplace discrimination and inequality, the food of the 20th-century South sprouted and flowered like daisies blooming in a rocky field. Segregation may have kept black and white Southerners from eating together, but it could not keep them from eating the same things, and for the most part they did -- pork and chicken, cornbread and biscuits, the whole range of vegetables and fruits, and a multitude of pies and cakes and other desserts straight out of their common heritage. Whether they called it Southern food or soul food, country cooking or home cooking, it all sprang from the same basic traditions established by generations of imaginative Southern cooks, black and white, and enforced segregation was powerless to alter that fact."

To southern blacks and whites alike, "family life often revolved around the kitchen and the dining table": food brings people together in the South, and it is food that embodies and personifies "Southern hospitality," which is neither mythology nor advertising slogan but fact. The food with which a visitor is greeted in a Southern house -- black or white, prosperous or needy, urban or rural -- is the tangible expression of welcome and community, and even in an age of fast food and declining regional identity it can still be found.

It can be found in the restaurants Egerton visited and in the houses where recipes such as those he provides are cooked. It takes the form of barbecue (which itself takes as many forms as there are Southerners to cook it) and shrimp and catfish and cheese grits (surely the finest dish known to man) and all the other foods that Egerton so lovingly celebrates. For an admitted amateur he knows his field well -- though his failure to expatiate on the differences between the hams of Virginia and North Carolina (the real thing) and those of Georgia and Tennessee (the ersatz) is quite inexcusable -- and his enthusiasm is entirely infectious. It is so infectious, in fact, that I defy anyone to read so much as a page of Southern Food without developing a powerful longing for a plate of barbecue, Brunswick stew and hush puppies, preferably from Stamey's in Greensboro. That, sir, is heaven. ::