During the Spring 2014 semester at Chesapeake College in Maryland, Professor Eleanor Welsh asked her students to reflect on and recall some of their strongest food memories. Then she asked them to take it a bit further with a journal assignment to think about their food heritage and to consider what dishes and spices taste and smell like their respective childhoods.
The students were asked to talk to their families about ethnic origins and family recipes, and to do some research based on what they learn or guess about your their own backgrounds.
The students were also asked to think about the friend in the last section of Omnivore’s Dilemma who tries to recreate the tastes of his Italian childhood in California, Andrew Beahrs’s attempts to find the foods Twain loved a century ago, or Julia Child’s surprise that the French would have wine with lunch.
When thinking about my food heritage, I instantly think Southern soul food. My mother is of English descent and cooking or preparing foods was never really at the top of her agenda. However, my father was from the South, and food was of the utmost importance. His belief was that food fed not just the body, but the mind and soul. He also said cooking the Southern way was how a person showed their love. I have so many fond memories of Southern classics that enriched my life and shaped my thoughts on food and family. Southern cooking and eating goes much deeper than traditions and recipes. It truly is a way of life and mindset.
If you ask a person from the South if they would like some tea? The response is yes, and you better give them a tall glass of iced sweet tea. When I was growing up, sweet tea was all we had. My father would make a simple syrup with white sugar and water. He would brew a strong batch of Lipton tea bags and add the simple syrup. I watched him do this countless times and believed this was the only way to serve and drink tea. Of course he didn’t dirty a pitcher to store the tea in, he would pour it back in the gallon water jug because this was the way people did it in the South. He would always stress the importance of the simple things always being the best in life. Jeffrey Klineman, a freelance writer from Massachusetts, wrote an article called “What Makes Southern Sweet Tea So Special?” His explanations are simple and he states, “offering up a glass of sweet tea on a hot day in the South is as welcoming a gesture as passing the doobie at a Phish show. It’s so ingrained in the Southern DNA…the South reveres its traditions, and sweet tea is one of them” (Klineman, 2007).
Another food from the South that is an integral part of my food heritage are grits. Many people where I live now, Maryland, dislike this dish, but I absolutely love it. My father said the Southern way to eat is hot with butter and syrup. He would make this for me on the weekends and I couldn’t wait. Cooking grits can be daunting for some, because the right consistency is essential. My father would always start with salted water. He said that if the water wasn’t hot enough, the grits wouldn’t hold the salt flavor. He would slowly add the grits (not the instant kind, the real deal) and whisk it non-stop. He said that Southern cooks know that whisking the grits while they cooked is what made them super creamy. He would always add whole milk and top it off with a pat of butter and warmed syrup. I’ve had grits many places throughout my life and I must admit the South is the only place to get them made right. Southern cooks also use leftovers, this is something that was taught to me at a very early age, never waste food. So if we had leftover grits from breakfast, you could bet we would be stirring in some cheese and shrimp for a side dish later that day.
Another Southern food staple that was always present on our dinner table were greens. It didn’t matter if they were spinach, kale or collard greens, some sort of green was served. Of course they weren’t served raw or steamed – that would be offensive. These greens were slowly cooked with butter, onion, garlic, ham bone, and finished with a splash of malt vinegar. My father said a pot of greens without a ham bone was like trying to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich without the jelly. I believe all the nutrition was cooked out of these greens but the taste is one to remember.
I could write for days about all the Southern foods my heritage is filled with. From hushpuppies, to boiled peanuts and pickled watermelon rind, to chicken and waffles and cornbread, to black-eyed peas and barbecue. The list is endless and gives me such a feeling of home, family and traditions. The foods I cook now on an everyday basis are much healthier, but on special occasions and holidays I let my Southern heritage shine. I cook with the intent to feed my family’s body, mind and soul, showing my love, and always remembering my father’s words of wisdom. I may not have been born in the South, but I had the best teacher a girl could have, and he instilled that Southern cook mindset in me that I possess today. I love my heritage and wouldn’t wish to be raised any other way.