It’s really hard to find a good vegan cookbook – or even a good vegetarian cookbook – celebrating the food of the American South.
Part of the problem, I think, is that the South (like the rest of America) has become more and more accustomed to eating fast food, frozen food, and chain restaurant meals. We forget about all the glorious Southern foods our mothers, our grandmothers, and great aunts used to cook – the big country breakfasts, the bounty of fresh vegetables, the daily melt-in-your-mouth greens, the jars of homemade jams and pickles.
Real Southern food bears little resemblance to “Cracker Barrels.” (Where even the corn muffins are seasoned with meat. Yes. Seriously.)
Real Southern food also bears faint resemblance to “Paul Deen” cookery. As my aunties would say, “white trash” might eat that sort of food, but “people of quality” didn’t. (Incidentally, being a “person of quality” in the South had more to do with your upbringing, your manners, and your grammar than your income, social standing, or skin color).
Here are the biggest misconceptions I have found about Southern cooking:
Southern Food Is Unhealthy. Would it surprise you to learn than much of Southern cooking is vegetable-based? Growing up, everyone I knew either had a garden or knew someone with a garden. The South is hot and has a loooong growing season, so there was always an abundance of fresh tomatoes, corn, squash, okra, cabbages, green beans, cucumbers, radishes, and sweet peas. Summertime featured many meatless meals, and the “vegetable plate” – consisting of three or four vegetables – was a staple in many diners and lunchtime hotspots. In the winter we’d have fresh collards (or chard or turnip greens), in addition to winter squashes and sugar pumpkins. And beans (especially pintos and black eyed peas) showed up on the menu at least twice as often as fried chicken or country-style steak. This vegan hoppin’ john is a prime example.
Everything is seasoned with pork, bacon, fatback, or “drippin’s”. Only if you’re eating at Paula Deen’s house. Personally, I was never invited. And my family never seasoned their food with pork or bacon grease. In fact, my family rarely ever ate pork, period – except for those gloriously nasty fast-food sausage gravy biscuits. Now, some families did use pork for seasoning – but not EVERY family did, and the ones that did, didn’t use pork in EVERYTHING.
Southern Food is Bland and Boring. Southern Food has heavy African and Creole (French) influences, and to a lesser extent Mexican as well. That makes for an interesting cuisine! Also, most of us down here like it hot. Jalapeno Peppers are a popular backyard crop. And, visit any small Southern diner along the highway. On every table you will see a bottle of Tobasco hot sauce and another of Texas Pete. We use those two little bottles to season everything from grits to greens.
Southern Food is All About Sweet Tea and Sweet Cornbread. Bless your heart, sugar! We drink lots of things besides sweet tea – such as moonshine and Cheerwine! (Just joking with you – these days it’s craft beer and Cherry Coke). But. Cornbread. Is. Never. Sweet. (Although, it frequently has jalapenos – as does this cornbread with turnip greens and hot peppers baked right in.)
So! Now that I’ve dispelled a few myths, I want to celebrate these glorious vegetable and fruit-filled days of summer by sharing with you some of my family’s recipes and the few great Southern cookbooks I’ve found.
I’m lucky enough that, when I took over cooking from my disabled mom, I had access to all of her handwritten recipe cards, her recipe pullouts from various magazines, some typewritten recipes from my great aunts, and several of my mom’s cookbooks (ranging from Betty Crocker’s New Good And Easy … yes, the same cookbook I love to make read for laughs… to Five Ingredients or Less to In The Kitchen With Rosie).
This summer, I’ll be going through my mama’s and my great aunts’ recipes. I’ll be paging through the cookbooks my mama once used, re-discovering the recipes she put multiple check marks by, interpreting the notes in the margins. And hopefully being able to interpret most of the recipes into really yummy vegan versions.
If you haven’t already … Now is a good time to ask your mother (or your father, as the case might be) for access to their recipe files. See what family favorites you can revisit and veganize.
No files? Then ask to borrow their cookbooks, and if for some reason that’s not an option … well, if you can remember what cookbook your parents used while you were growing up … order one of those! (That means, if they used the red checkered Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook … do not order the 2014 version … order the 1974, or 1984 version. Check used sellers on Amazon and of course Ebay).
Please feel free to share some of your re-discovered favorites, as I share my re-discovered favorites!
I remember us having ham with eggs and occasionally country ham and red eye gravy I remember cooking acorn squash whole with brown sugar and butter> I think we ate pretty well and we did not use much grease I like your blog and enjoy reading it. The stuff you posts looks really good. Love Daddy
I don’t remember ever having ham with eggs or country ham with red eye gravy! Maybe that was before I was born or maybe I ate a bowl of Froot Loops instead since I wouldn’t eat eggs! I do remember you reading “Green Eggs and Ham” to me!
Very interesting and good to clear the stereotypical beliefs x
One of my favorite vegan places in Detroit serves soul food— and has totally turned me on to style of cooking I’ve avoided. Their smokey collard greens and creamy mac and cheese are just wonderful. http://detroitvegansoul.com/
Wow, I just checked out their website and the food looks yummy! The Soul Platter is very typical of many meals I had growing up – black eyed peas, yams, collards, homemade mac and cheese (no Kraft), and cornbread. My mouth was watering looking at the photo.
Thanks for telling it like it was for we southerners of a certain generation. Even though I do raised bed vegetable gardens these days, I really miss the the gardens from my youth. Bigger and lots more veggies.
We did have pork on occasion, mainly bacon for breakfast, country ham on occasion for dinner. But after my mother was diagnosed with high blood pressure, we stopped eating it.
The two traditions that stick out in my mind the most was summer wasn’t summer until my mother made me a batch of fried green tomatoes for breakfast and you always knew Sunday meant fried chicken.
Weren’t those big gardens amazing? And everyone was so happy to share – “Take some squash and tomaters with you when ya’ll leave; we’ve got waaaay too much.”
Yummmm … fried green tomatoes. Haven’t had them in ages; mostly because it’s so hard to buy a green tomato. You have to grow your own, I guess. Dang those were good. I’m curious – how did your mother make them? Just fried, or with a cream gravy? Served alone, or on toast?
I think fried chicken is a lost art. Before I went veg I really didn’t like anyone’s fried chicken except my family’s. People think fried chicken should be so greasy but if it is you don’t have the oil hot enough. Price’s Chicken Coop was the only “bought” fried chicken I could eat.
Thanks for sharing your memories with me!
Oh, and my dad claims we did eat country ham for breakfast! I’ve no memory of that, though – perhaps I was eating Froot Loops instead!
Mom just fried the green tomatoes. No gravy. Oh and you brought back memories with Price’s Chicken Coop. During my first go round in Charlotte, back during the 80s, I loved Price’s. I still do green tomatoes.0 Before I started back doing my own garden, I would have friends give me some out of theirs. Imagine moving out of state for awhile (to the western slope of Colorado) and trying to explain Fried Green Tomatoes, pot liquor, etc. Of course I still find myself explaining those except now it’s to people that are here but aren’t from here.