I romanticize the South. I know I do it and I also know many others fall prey to thoughts of afternoon mint juleps, big willowy trees, and visions of a slower pace of life. Recently during one of my Craigslist property searches/obsessions, I ran across a little Craftsman house in Durham, North Carolina and fell in love. I called the realtor. I’ve never been to Durham and actually, I've never really been to the South (I hear Austin, TX doesn’t count). The house had sold. My coworkers rejoiced; they'd no longer have to listen to my sudden, out-of-left-field obsession with a town I'd never been to and a house I couldn't really afford. So here we are. Back to reality—and a great book by James Beard Cookbook of the Year winner, Joseph Dabney. The publisher contacted me to see if I'd be interested in checking it out, knowing that I have a fondness for Southern food and food history. After reading a brief description, I was sold. In The Food, Folklore and Art of Lowcountry Cooking, Dabney takes readers on a tour of the various regions of the Southern Lowcountry including Charleston, Beaufort, and Savannah. In this tour, he offers traditional recipes, first-hand history and lore, and stories from long-time residents and high-end chefs alike. This is, I'm guessing, a truly representative swath of a part of the country I can't wait to visit.
The book is organized into thematic chapters detailing the history of various cities and moving on to focus more specifically on infamous foods from the region like Hoppin' John, Goobers and Grits. The first chapter lays out the "big picture" and the mystique of the Lowcountry nicely. Dabney calls it "a different world," and describes coming to Charleston for the first time in the 1950's and experiencing culture shock. Many of the homes were elegant, the gardens lush, and the locals spoke in a much different-sounding dialect than the oft-recognized "twang" up North. Dabney proceeds to discuss the history of the dialect, explores the role of the rice plantations, and sheds light on the West Africa connection.
What I love about the book are the little interviews and profiles of real people discussing their towns, family histories, and connection to the Lowcountry. There is a true sense of pride and a love for place that is becoming rarer and rarer these days--something I certainly envy as a consistently transient, mostly urban dwelling gal with little lasting history in any one place. Much more narrative than traditional cookbook, this is a great read for folks who are interested in Southern culture, history, and language and how all three affect the foodways and traditions of the South. To be honest, I don't know that this is a book I would sit down and read cover to cover, but it is a nice one to pick up every so often and explore bit by bit.
The recipes, while quite varied, are split into logical categories such as Soups, Stews and Gumbos; The Glories of Chicken; and Wild Game in the Lowcountry. There are little tales to accompany each one, so you actually feel as though your great aunt is passing down an old church recipe or you're stumbling across your grandmother's accompanying notes. These traditional recipes have been served at church functions and picnics, and have graced many a casual wedding table. Each inclusion is almost more of a modern-day jewel or legend rather than your average run of the mill recipe. I'm so looking forward to trying the benne seed (sesame seed) biscuits, the different varieties of spoonbread, and their version of Southern banana pudding. But for now, for today, I need a drink.
There are many great cocktail recipes in Dabney's book but most of them appear to be pretty darn sweet to me. With rather large quantities of grenadine, sugar, and peach brandy I can feel a hangover coming on already. But at the same time, there's something extremely likeable about old Southern drinks. You can almost see yourself sitting on a wide open front porch in the afternoon without a care in the world. So after reading through the history and stories behind each of the Southern cocktails in the book, I created my own version of a Southern Rum Punch with just a little less sugar, some bubbly water for a summery kick, and a few sliced limes. Enjoy.
Sort-of Southern Punch
Inspired by: The Food, Folklore, and Art of Lowcountry Cooking
Makes: 4 cocktails
1 cup mango or pineapple juice, chilled
1 cup orange juice
1 1/2 cup dark rum
Juice from 2 limes (almost 1/4 cup)
1/2 cup sparkling water or club soda
1/2 cup brewed black tea
Mix all ingredients together in a pitcher. Stir vigorously a few times to combine the juices, teas and rum. Fill 4 glasses with ice and pour punch to the brim. Serve with lemon or lime wedges as garnish. Preferably on a patio.