Two Southern ladies are discussing a mutual acquaintance. “You know? She can’t cook,” says one lady gently.
“Poor thing,” says the other, nodding sadly. “I feel so sorry for the family.”
Alas, all Southerners are not good cooks. Being a good Southern cook can be inherited, but, painfully, this status can skip a generation. It can be learned, especially from a book as encompassing as “Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking,” the latest work by Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart. Ms. Dupree offers a pie crust recipe for beginners.
This authoritative book on Southern fare is a big book, heavier than a picnic ham, but it can be as light as a biscuit to read. What Julia Child and her colleagues accomplished in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” as they brought French food and techniques into the American kitchen, the Dupree-Graubart team has done for the cooking of the American South, still paying homage to French techniques. It was Child, who after briefly meeting Ms. Dupree at Cordon Bleu in London in 1971, advised: “Teach cooking. Open a cooking school. We need good cooking schools in America.” Ms. Dupree listened.
The French “Mastering” and the Southern “Mastering” are monumental labors of love and determination, but they differ in tone. Child did not entertain through the written word, but was amusing, accidentally, on television. Ms. Dupree is also serious, but she writes with a giggle; she can introduce a recipe with the wisdom and naturalness of the South’s tradition of good storytellers. Her writing is spiced with endearing and enduring aphorisms on the nuances of Southern cooking. She seasons her comments as well as her recipes:
“Bacon makes everything taste better.”
A recipe is “simple enough to cook on a hot day ” “Nothing should be wasted in the modern Southern kitchen.” “A fire brings out the lustiness of shrimp.”
“A good pie, including its crust, lingers in the mind long after the last crumb disappears. It should be the thing of dreams and memories, flakes on the tongue cradling the tastiest of ingredients.”
“Hot bread is the hallmark of Southern meals.”
“We drove down to Darien, Georgia, in my 1975 Vega, a hangover from my former marriage.” Then there is “my favorite former husband.”
These are staples for good reading and good eating.
Some ingredients are discussed briefly in boxed asides and at other times require two pages, such as grits, including the question of whether this polenta of the South takes a singular or plural verb. The answer: it depends on who’s talking.
The variety of produce is greater in the modern South and in much of the world than it was a half-century ago, due to improvements in delivery, refrigeration, agriculture and travel. Immigrant groups have brought ingredients and cooking styles from their homelands to contribute to the South’s copious buffet.
The basics of Southern — and American — cooking came to Virginia with the English colonists and blended with what was raised by the Indian tribes. With new arrivals from Africa, Spain, Germany, France, Italy and Greece, the cupboard expanded southward along the Atlantic Coast and west on the Gulf of Mexico. Most important in recent years is the culinary contribution by immigrants from the Caribbean islands, Mexico and Central and South America. Gazpacho may be thought of as a 20th-century gift from Spain, but Ms. Dupree points out that this soup was mentioned as a “gazpacha” salad by Mary Randolph in her 1824 cookbook, “The Virginia House-Wife,” considered the first regional American cookbook.
This region is large, and it has more than its share of fine cooks, delectable dishes and a richness of fine writing. Southern cooking can be as sweet as iced tea made with so much sugar that it makes a spoon stand up; it can be as sugar-free as Ms. Dupree’s cornbread, as ethereal as her Angel Biscuits, as spicy as Hot Pepper Relish and as necessary as Pimento Cheese.
“Southern cooking,” says Ms. Dupree, “is the Mother Cuisine of America.” Like her book, it is also very satisfying.
Richard Slusser is a former food and travel editor of The Washington Times.