With a new administration coming to town and Washington hostesses in a tizzy searching for the definition of a grit (two or more of which is grits . . . are grits?), the need exists for a culinary course to indoctrinate cooks into the realm of traditional Southern cooking.
Those who want to play Southern chef should be able to:
1. Tell the difference between collard greens, mustard greens and turnip greens.
2. Cook with fatback, sowbelly, bacon and ham.
3. Prepare red-eye gravy and chicken gravy.
4. Distinguish between and know how to prepare black-eye peas, crowder peas, field peas and calico butter-beans.
Actually, Washington is in rather good shape for the first real Southern invasion since Jubal Early's Confederate army arrived late in the Civil War. Most grocery stores stock grits and a wide variety of other Southern foods. Buy the quick grits that take 5 minutes to cook, otherwise it takes half an hour. Grits, which are made of hominy (not as in "Hominy of these do you want?" or a "song in two-part hominy"), are eaten with red-eye gravy (made from what's left after frying a ham steak). Some folks like them with just a little butter, and more than a few Yankees have developed a closet affection for them by adding a bit of sugar to the butter, thereby creating something with the consistency of cream of wheat - which as a Southerner I have never had and don't want to try.
Next to grits, one thing a Southerner holds dear is cornbread. If you want to insult a Southerner try putting sugar in the cornbread . . . you could lose a friend for life. Never do it!
The best cornbread is made with white cornmeal, buttermilk and no wheat flour, with some baking powder and salt thrown in for good measure. Make the cornbread in a heavy iron skillet and before pouring in the batter, heat the skillet in the oven with a few tablespoons of oil.
Cooking cornbread is only half the battle; you have to know how to eat it. It goes best with sorghum plant crushed in a small mill turned by a donkey. Second choice for best use for cornbread is to sop up "potlikker." After cooking your black-eye peas or greens with whatever pork product you like best, the juice left in the pot after all the peas or greens are gone is the potlikker. Some folks pour this into a cup, break up pieces of cornbread to put into it and then eat the whole thing.
Southerners look down on people who defile cornbread by eating it with honey or other effete toppings.
The skillet you cook the cornbread in can be your "frying pan" and under no circumstances should you use this skillet for anything other than cornbread or deep-frying. The secret of good deep-frying is to get the grease hot enough to half fry something before it hits the bottom, so it won't stick, but not so hot it smokes.
Some things that Southerners are known to have fried in their heavy iron skillets include sliced green tomatoes, dill pickle slices, eggplant, squash, cornbread (more on this later) and catfish.
You know a catfish, right? They come out of rivers and sluggish streams and can get as large as 50 or 75 pounds. The meat is amazingly sweet, almost like trout, and is always eaten after being fried in a cornmeal-and-egg batter. In fact, just about everything that is fried is fried in a cornmeal-and-egg batter except chicken and chicken-fried steak, on which more later.
After you finish battering all the catfish, there's all this stuff left over. Not being wasteful folks, resourceful Southerners chop a bit of onion into the batter, and thicken it with some more cornmeal. The result dough is molded into little balls and fried along with the fish, thereby creating a hush puppy.
Though the hush puppy is one form of fried cornbread (I promised we'd get back to this) there is another called by various names, but which I know as "Three Finger Bread." (All the other names are wrong! )
Three Finger Bread is best made of white cornmeal. Take the cornmeal, add one teaspoon of salt to each cup of meal and mix it with boiling water until you form a thick batter bordering on being dough. After mixing thoroughly, cover with a dish towel and allow it to sit until it is cool enough to touch without discomfort. This cooks the cornmeal somewhat. Then, take the dough and mold an oval-shaped patty about a half-inch thick and the size of your three middle fingers (thus the name) and fry it (the bread, not the fingers).
While we're on frying, let's talk about chicken-fried steak. We'll forget fried chicken since the Colonel has de-Southernized it as a folk dish. To make this delicacy, take finger-size strips of round or chuck steak (thumb-size are best) and shake them in a paper bag with salt, pepper and wheat flour. Fry the resulting item and eat with huge, thick french fries (4 to 6 fries per potato) and wash it down with Jax beer. Actually Dixie or Blue Ribbon beer is just as Southern.
Beer is the perfect accompaniment to most Southern foods. It solves the problem of what kind of wine to serve with black-eye peas and rice.
Since beer goes best with anything Southern, it goes best with crawfish, also known as crayfish and crawdad. Southern crawfish, which live in abundance on the banks of large sluggish rivers and in swamps, are like a cross between a shrimp and a lobster and taste about the same. When the river floods, you can pick them up by the shovelful as they start migrating across the roads.
One thing to remember is that usually when you are in crawfish country, you're in frogleg country. Bullfrogs are taken with a gig that looks like a miniature Neptune's trident, or grabbed by hand. Frog-grabbing's okay if you get your jollies wading around in a pitch-black swamp at night trying to grab things in the weeds not knowing what you're going to find.
It's very important to know the difference between the feel of a water moccasin and the feel of a frog. Also, practice your skill at lettin' loose, as in "Let loose that water moccasin!"
Frog legs are (you guessed it) fried and taste like a cross between chicken and trout. But let's move along to a more traditional dish, BBQ.
There's an entire folklore built around good barbecue, and there's damn few that can make it good outside of Leonard's in Memphis and a few others who equal its excellence when they try hard. I'm not talking about the gunk you buy around here that looks like a sloppy joe that flunked its physical and is a poor waste of a clean plate.
To be done properly, an entire hog has to be slowly roasted for hours over a bed of live coals. You haven't eaten in a genuine barbecue joint until you get your choice of dark (meat from the outside) and light. It goes best with cole slaw.
Barbecued spare ribs are another creature altogether, and suffice it to say that you can't eat ribs proper without getting sauce all over you and whoever is sitting next to you.
When Southerners aren't drinking Dixie beer, we're drinking Coca-Cola by the gallon. Everything is known as "a Coke": 7-Up, Orange Crush, Pepsi, everything."Coke" is the Southerner's generic term for soft drink, so when you offer somebody a Coke, don't be surprised if they ask you, "What do you have?" Everything is known as "a Coke," that is, except Dr. Pepper, which is a separate story in itself.
One more note about drinking. Outside of beer it can be summed up in one word: bourbon. If you feel you just can't tolerate it, try it in eggnog next Christmas.
Bone up with books like "The Southern Living Cookbook" or one published by the Friends of the Atlanta Symphony called "Atlanta Cooks for Company." So when a Good Ole Boy calls, don't be embarrassed. And bon appetit! (Pronounced "bon" as in bonfire and "appetite" as in appa-tight.)