Monday, April 25, 2011

The Awesome Awsomosity and Awesomeness of Southern Food

By reading this title, I’m assuming you understand how I feel about Southern food. Yes, I do love me some Southern food! Actually, I like just about all kinds of food, but there’s really something special about living in the South, the history of Southern food, Southern dishes, Southern recipes, and Southern cooking to me. Gee…do you think that’s because I was born and reared in the Deep South? I was, and so was the long line of Southern cooks before me – my mom, my grandmother, my great-grandmother, my great-great-grandmother…

My family hails from the Low Country, and I grew up hearing tales about Charleston and Savannah. Cooking and serving food to family and friends has always been a big deal in my family. I don’t remember much about my great-grandmother, but I remember that my grandmother and my mom always had some homemade treat on hand to serve any unexpected guests who might stop by. In Mom’s case, this was usually a pound cake. My grandmother usually kept a supply of her teacakes on the alert.

I think most traditional Southern ladies of generations past, including my mother, would have been mortified if the minister or someone else stopped by the house and she didn’t have some refreshment to offer. I remember on such occasions, the visitor could barely get in the door before Mom was pressing him with a cup of coffee or a glass of iced tea, along with a slice of pound cake. That’s just the way it was. I think this is a symbolic gesture in the South. Offering and providing food is Southern hospitality, and when it’s done for family members, it’s a form of nurturing.

I firmly believe the importance of food in the South really began in the plantation era. Plantation owners often held huge food events like barbecues, to which they’d invite neighbors and dignitaries. Most plantations were sprawling affairs, and the closest neighbors might have been miles away. When the owners paid a visit to each other, they might spend several days as a guest. Of course, there was always a running friendly competition about which one served the best food and the best libations.

Food was an important form of entertainment, and practically any gathering revolved around it. The plantation owners and their wives even made a spectacle at times of feeding their slaves. The slaves might get only the barest essentials on a day-today basis, perhaps barely enough to survive, but on special occasions many owners would lavish their slaves with large quantities of special foods. This was especially true at Christmas, when most slave owners provided whole smoked hogs as a special treat. The slaves, of course, reveled in this bounty, and the owner and his wife usually sat back and watched the festivities of the blacks while patting themselves on the back for being such kind masters.

The slave culture itself had a huge impact on the way food was thought of, too. As you can imagine, the slaves had very little. Their diets consisted mostly of rice, beans, cornbread, and seasonal vegetables. Some of the slaves had their own garden plots, maybe along with a few chickens and/or a pig. Whenever they could, they supplemented their diets by hunting, fishing, and gathering wild fruits from wooded areas. Whatever they had, they shared with their fellow slaves. Food was extremely important – it meant survival.

After the Civil War, the South was devastated. Many whites and former slaves were hungry, with some near starvation. Food became more important than ever. The act of sharing one’s meager food supplies with another was an act of love and concern, often in a self-sacrificing way.

When you consider the history of the South and of Southern food, it’s easy to see how food is so important to us Southerners. Even though few of us go hungry these days, the memories of our ancestors must be ingrained within us somehow. I think that’s why we celebrate food so much.

And celebrate food we do! Preparing food is almost a ritual with many Southern cooks. We love getting together and cooking as much as we love getting together and eating. Take, for example, when an entire pig is cooked. People enjoy the cooking process as much as they enjoy the finished product. They’ll often stay up all night tending the fire and mopping the meat, and the process becomes somewhat of a party in itself.

I’ve found that most Southerners are generous to a fault when it comes to sharing food. When an older Southern cook, along with some younger Southern cook, prepares a meal for you, it’s done with pride and often with love. We love feeding the body, but even more so, we love nurturing the soul.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Tea Party

When I was a kid living in the South in the sixties, traditional afternoon teas or tea parties were very popular here. My mom, aunts, and grandmother were always hosting or attending a tea for a bride-to-be, a special guest, a retiree, or as a birthday celebration.

The events were usually held in the home of one of the hostesses. They usually took place on a Saturday, at around three or four o'clock in the afternoon. These were formal events, and the ladies all wore their Sunday best. The hostesses also wore corsages, and so did the guest of honor. Men were not allowed at the tea.

If the event was for a bride, the hostesses pooled their money and presented the guest of honor with a fairly expensive gift. Guests didn't bring gifts to the tea. That would have been considered "tacky" - a favorite word of these genteel ladies.

Guests served themselves from the dining room table, using fine china, crystal, and sterling silver. Paper or plastic was avoided like the plague! Why? Because it would have been tacky, of course!

The foods were presented on sterling, china, or crystal plates and platters, often with doilies underneath. Hot foods were kept in silver chafing dishes. Vases of fresh flowers and cuttings of ivy also adorned the table, and of course, underneath everything was a beautiful white linen tablecloth - the hostess's best.

What kinds of party food were served? Finger sandwiches, toasted pecans, fancy little cakes, round cucumber sandwiches with shrimp, pastel ribbon sandwiches, homemade butter mints, divinity, meatballs, cheese straws, tiny tartlets, and other wonderful, dainty party foods. It seemed that the women were always competing to see which one could make the prettiest, tastiest morsels.

Someone was delegated to serve iced tea, hot tea, and punch to guests. Iced tea was served in crystal stemware, hot tea was served in china teacups, and punch was served in crystal punch cups. The hot tea was always poured from a silver or china teapot.

The teas were always a "calling" event. They usually lasted for two hours, and guests could drop in at any time. They mingled, ate, and left after offering their best wishes to the special guest.

I loved these tea parties! I hated attending them, but the leftovers Mom brought home after these soirees were always eagerly anticipated by my dad, my brother, and me!

People still host afternoon teas, but they're not nearly as prevalent today. I guess this Southern tradition is just too much trouble for most working women. What a shame...