ASHLEY HYMEL (this review was first published on August 6, 2012)
Southern Sides is available from UNC Press.
In Southern Sides: 250 Dishes That Really Make the Plate, Fred Thompson remarks that he is “here to celebrate, glorify, and teach you the beauty of [Southern] recipes as they have been telegraphed through my life, my cooking experience, and my joy of eating.” Indeed, Thompson’s cookbook is much more than a simple manual that tells hungry automatons how to combine ingredients in an edible manner. Thompson is able to reproduce the true spirit of southern cooking, not only in his recipe selection, but also in his content and authorial style. Thompson notes that his “southern side dishes and vegetables are more than one-dimensional. They illustrate region, style, and heritage.” The same could be said of his cookbook; it explores many dimensions of its recipes, including historical importance, cultural significance, aesthetic preferences, and practical preparation. The exploration of these dimensions shows that southern cooking is a hodgepodge of culinary styles and difficult to classify using any kind of set formula. Southern Sides successfully duplicates this multidimensionality of southern culture because Thompson’s style also unapologetically refuses to adhere to maxims. He is not afraid to pair fresh, locally produced ingredients with Miracle Whip or Jell-O. Sometimes he prefers certain products for sentimental reasons, and other times he is purely practical. Such contradictions highlight fact that meals are extensions of the people that cook them; as such, meals have the ability to both interact with and intimately connect those that partake in them.
Thompson’s laid-back attitude is immediately apparent in the table of contents, which lists chapters with names like “A Little Something to Get the Hospitality Started” and “Glorious Grains – The Way a Yankee Becomes a Southerner.” The chapters are sometimes grouped according to dish type (appetizer, cold sides, sauces) and sometimes grouped by the vegetable type (nightshades, root vegetables, beans). Though these groupings are not entirely standardized, the categorization is intuitive, and a listing of recipes included in each chapter follows its heading. In keeping with Thompson’s unique style, some of the recipe titles are whimsical, but none so much so that they obscure the dish they describe. For instance, “Fred’s Opinion on Pimento Cheese” is not more difficult to understand than “Stuffed Peppers” or “Flaky Butter Biscuits.” The book neither has an index nor needs one; the table of contents is so well organized that it can stand on its own.
After the table of contents, Thompson includes a brief introduction that is both an entertaining read and a crucial tool. As he describes his motivations and goals for this cookbook, his thoughts are passionate, personal, and knowledgeable. These three threads will continue even through the recipe sections. They transform the recipes from instructions into experiences. Also in the introduction, Thompson gives his recommendations on important ingredients and tools. He explains where substitutions are allowed, where they are encouraged, and where they are forbidden. He derives his reasons from several sources: what looks good, what feels good, what is good for the local community, what is good for one’s health, and what tastes good.
The next part of the book is the recipes. Each section begins with about a page of Thompson discussing the personal significance and practical matters for the following group of recipes. Each individual recipe also begins head notes along these same lines. This commentary ranges from serious tips to personal anecdotes, so it mirrors the casual, easygoing attitude of the South. The recipes are formatted in a concise manner, with in-margin ingredient lists and numbered steps. The instructions are easy to follow and specific enough to avoid any confusion. Additionally, Thompson provides advice on which brands or ingredients can be store-bought to save time. Such simplicity and practical considerations make this book perfect for inexperienced or busy people. Yet, Thompson’s advice usually leaves room for veterans to customize the recipes according to personal tastes, preferences, or health considerations. Speaking of health considerations, Southern Sides contains a nice range of healthy and less healthy options. Not everything is deep-fried or overloaded with butter, and though many recipes are vegetable-heavy, they do not necessarily shy away from fats.
The first recipe that I tried was “Jean’s Potato Salad.” The title of this recipe both intimidated and soothed me – my cooking skills are such that the only time that my name has ever prefaced a type of food is when it was showing possession of leftovers from a restaurant. Yet, I took a strange and irrational comfort in the fact that if I messed this up, I could always just blame this “Jean” character. As it turns out, no such scapegoating was necessary because the recipe is very simple and straightforward. I simply boiled the potatoes and mixed together four ingredients to make a dressing (which can be adjusted to taste). The result tasted amazing, and the salad has a sweetness that I have never experienced in potato salad before. This sweetness is at least partially because of Miracle Whip, which Thompson warns not to substitute with mayonnaise. The recipe also contains a brief anecdote about its background, which really sets the stage for a meal as homey as potato salad.
Buoyed up by my potato salad success, I chose a more complex recipe to try out next. I was immediately drawn to the “Good Fried Green Tomatoes” recipe because it has always been a personal favorite of mine. From Thompson’s commentary I learned that these tomatoes taste even better with pimento cheese or breakfast foods, and that they taste better towards the end of the season. These are definitely the best fried green tomatoes I have ever had, and I am not just saying this because I created them and have a mother’s bias. I believe Thompson is correct when he says that bacon fat makes a huge difference in this recipe. I also like that the recipe’s bacon grease and cornmeal compliment the flavor of the tomato rather than overshadowing it.
In conclusion, Southern Sides is a worthwhile cookbook that brings so much more to the table than recipe listings. Readers can learn new things about a broad range of topics. I now know that okra came to the South from Africa and how to blanche vegetables. I believe that southerners will get a nice dose of nostalgia and comfort from these recipes, and non-southerners will get a great glimpse into a culture that cannot be explained, only experienced. All readers will also continue the rich traditions of these meals by creating new memories through them. Southern Sides is due out in September, 2012.