The Optimistic Answer An Italian/ French/ Japanese Future for Southern Dining

by John Kessler

In 2013, Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart got up on stage in a New York ballroom to accept a James Beard award for Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking. At the time, the cookbook industry was enjoying a little love affair with the Southern table, which Dupree noted in her memorable acceptance speech. “The South is the new Italy,” she beamed to the assembled food media, hoping to push the industry toward more books featuring Lowcountry boil and Hummingbird cakes and fewer with pizzas and panzanella.

I was in the crowd, into my fifth glass of cheap wine. I thought over the implications of her remarks as others got up to accept awards. Southern food had finally stopped being the butt of jokes about huge portions and fried everything; instead it had started to signify honesty, quality, respectful traditionalism and flat-out deliciousness. The South was becoming a land of destination-worthy restaurants to rival California.

I had often wondered if the South’s bad food rap was, in fact, a referendum on its past, its poverty, and its locus as a center of white racist intransigence. The food itself was viewed as ignorant and wrongheaded. But that had changed. Like Italy, it had become a place where fine dining and home cooking felt of a piece.

2013 was nice. 2020, not so much.

Photo by L. Kasimu Harris.

When I think about this new generation of Southern restaurants and what will happen in the coming months and years as the world both fights and acquiesces to the Covid-19 pandemic, I see the bigger question: what happens to this Southern culinary legitimacy that we’ve all worked so hard to establish? What is the legacy of this moment? And to add another layer to it, could Southern restaurants, with their nuance and recognition of the past, offer healing as people throughout the country come to a recognition of the systemic racism that defines American life.

As the world fights and acquiesces to the Covid-19 pandemic, what happens to this Southern culinary legitimacy that we’ve all worked so hard to establish?

The optimistic answer is that some things will return to normal in a year or two thanks to a vaccine. The depressing one is that the ecosystem of crowded dining rooms has been broken beyond immediate repair, and that it will take a generation for anything like we had to come back. Between those two poles I see a more realistic answer that also affords some hope. The South’s days as the new Italy are over, but there might be a way forward as the new France.

From my perspective, formed by dinners shared with friends in both countries, there’s a key difference. When I remember meals at the homes of Italians, I think about homemade gnocchi and pastas, vegetables wilted on the grill and dressed with local olive oil, and simple, sturdy cakes for dessert.

When I think about meals chez French friends, I recall ooh-inciting main courses — a choucroute garnie, a blanquette de veau, or a roast chicken — and then a lot of appreciation for where the host buys their cheeses, their breads, their charcuterie, their wines. They outsource desserts to their favorite bakeries, and they present glistening cakes and tarts on cardboard bases printed with the patisserie’s logo. Entertaining in France is more about good shopping. Even in the age of the supermarché, there are endless food specialty shops.

One of the most intriguing is the traiteur, which doesn’t exactly translate, though “deli” and “caterer” kind of work. “Gourmet-to-go” may be best. I think of them as the places where beautiful and sometimes ridiculously expensive small savories line display cases. Perfect vegetable tartelettes, pâtés en croûte, and hard-boiled eggs topped with wisps of asparagus and peas en gelée, looking for all the world like congealed salad dioramas. Even appetizers get farmed out for fancy French dinner parties.

The South’s days as the new Italy are over, but there might be a way forward as the new France.

Sub Rosa Bakery in Richmond, Virginia. Photo by Kate Medley.

Traiteurs have been around longer than restaurants, which didn’t appear until the latter decades of the 17th Century and the end of the French Revolution. These shops would set up a table or two in the back — the table d’hôte — and let customers reserve them for a meal away from home. It is not unlike the strategies adopted by restaurants cautiously reopening today: prepared food and a few tables.

Now let’s look at Southern food artisans, which enjoy a distinctive kind of intersectionality unlike anywhere else in the country. They get to be both old fashioned and of the moment. Think of the bakeries that prepare baguettes and laminated croissants but also prove their mettle with biscuits and cornbread. And the delis and gourmet shops that offer boudin and secret-recipe pimento cheese alongside sliced tenderloin with bearnaise.

One more thing: let’s add post-Covid restaurants to the mix. To keep supply chains going, many have begun selling provisions along with meals to-go. Locally milled flours and butchered meat as well as vegetables from their favorite farmers. If they can’t cook for us as they once did, they now help us become better cooks.

Iverstine Farms Butcher in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Photo by Denny Culbert.

If you look to the future and imagine an enterprising Southern cook finding the sweet spot in the space between dining and shopping, it looks awfully like France. Let’s imagine this person opens a shop in Asheville. The deli case holds handmade provisions with a strong local flavor: wild game pâté, ramp kimchi, butterbean hummus, dried greasy beans, a.k.a. leather britches, to cook at home. North Carolina wines and cheeses are for sale, as well as full meals to go. If you want to eat there, you snag one of the few sidewalk tables. Or make reservations for Friday and Saturday night, when the chef sets up an eight-top and hosts a tasting menu. Really what this shop does best is provide you with prepared or semi-prepared dishes to augment home entertaining.

Southern food artisans enjoy a distinctive kind of intersectionality unlike anywhere else in the country. They get to be both old fashioned and of the moment.

I have one more vision for the post-Covid South: in addition to being the new France, it is also the new Japan. Few countries have done such a thorough job of mapping out villages, cities, and regions by local food specialties. Even train stations vend bento boxes you won’t find anywhere else. The Japanese are great tourists within their country, and no trip is complete with collecting notch-on-the-belt food souvenirs.

In the coming years, more Americans will take road trips instead of flights, and many folks will head south. Many will be looking for fried chicken, but I can see a world where, say, bakeries throughout Appalachia sell stack cakes, and no trip to Cajun country is complete without a cochon de lait. Will fish camps with gourmet ambitions rise in the bayous? Or South Carolina oyster roasts break beyond their reliable enclaves like Bowen’s Island and become vital to any trip through the region?

Through their work, will these new food pioneers teach us that many of the best character traits of the American table come from the land we call the South, and from its people, whether they migrated through the Cumberland Gap or arrived shacked in the ships of slavers? Some of these voices remain; others were silenced. But their cooking survives in the varied traditions, and in the maps these smart cooks continue to draw on the land.

John Kessler is a dining columnist for Chicago Magazine. He was a food writer at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for eighteen years. This essay is part of the Future Tense series, underwritten by Cathead Distillery.

Cover photo by Kate Medley