Southern food favorites (and some not-so favorites)

 The south has some very distinct foods. Fried chicken is probably the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of traditional southern fare. There are many dishes from our region here below the Mason-Dixon line, however, that give our northern neighbors pause.

Growing up on the cusp of the Mason-Dixon line in West Virginia, my future mother-in-law Marcia gave me the idea to share stories of northerner’s reactions to southern food. A few southern foods that baffled her when she first moved here were Nabs, hamburger steak and stewed taters.

“When I first moved down to North Carolina I would pack my lunch to take with me to work. Around lunch time people would start asking each other ‘whatcha havin’ for lunch?’ I would usually tell them whatever leftovers from the night before I had brought. I got some strange looks for sure.

They would tell me ‘I’ll just grab a pack of Nabs and a coke-cola.’ I couldn’t figure out what Nabs were and didn’t wish to appear stupid so I would just watch to see what they were eating. I was puzzled when I saw that they were getting a pack of cheese sandwich crackers out of the machine,” Marcia explained.

“Then there was the time a woman from work invited me and the boys to her house for supper. She said she was fixing hamburger steak and what did I like with it. Again what was hamburger steak? I knew it had to be some type of beef and I told her ‘Oh, whatever you feel like fixing.’ She suggested creamed potatoes. I let her know that I loved creamed potatoes especially with peas. Well we got a fried hamburger, mashed potatoes and a side of peas. And this was the first time that I found out that southerners consider mac and cheese a suitable side with mashed potatoes and on some menus it is actually listed under the vegetable sides. And then there was stewed taters. Huh? From the best I can figure out it was boiled potatoes in their water with butter and salt and pepper. I kept saying ‘so you ate boiled potatoes’ and she kept saying ‘no stewed taters.’”

Though now living back above the Mason-Dixon line, Marcia said she still has a fondness for the South.

“Many things I have learned to love about the South and especially the people. Grits, greens, BBQ, and the best biscuits. The people are warm, generous, giving, friendly, and best of all they share their food.”

Other friends from near and far also shared some of their stories with me about southern foods they love or hate.

Topping the list of southern delicacies that some of our northern comrades quickly rejected was boiled peanuts. I myself am quite fond of those salty delicious morsels, but that wasn’t always the case. I remember as a child going to South Carolina every summer for vacation. We always stopped for boiled peanuts along the way. My Mamma would shell the peanuts and feed them to my dad as he was driving. All the while, Mamma was muttering her disgust over the “mushy, slimy” peanuts. When asked if I wanted to one, I declined after hearing them pronounced mushy and disgusting. I was a college student before I ever tried them. While at the open air market in Charleston, a man on the street was selling boiled peanuts. He sang a song for us so we felt inclined to buy his wares and I discovered that I actually liked them!

Carrie and Shelly, my soon-to-be cousins-in-law, were raised in Pennsylvania and they call boiled peanuts gross.

Grits are another southern tradition that bring frowns of disgust to some northern faces.
“Taste, texture, everything about them, makes me gag,” said Shelly.

Not to brag, (Ok, I’m bragging!) but my fiancé makes the absolute best grits ever. I’m convinced even non-grit eaters would like them if they tried it. He makes deliciously creamy garlic Parmesan grits which are a perfect compliment to roast or other hearty beef recipes. As a southerner I confess to getting in the rut of always serving creamed potatoes as a starch, but this is a great alternative.

During this discussion of southern versus northern food, my sorority sister Derrika pointed out that being raised in the south also doesn’t mean you grew up eating traditional southern foods. Her husband was raised in Goldsboro, but his mother was from New York and his father from England. She said to this day, her husband still won’t eat grits. Derrika said she has gotten some funny reactions over the years from her in-laws when they learned of the foods her southern family from Wilson was fond of eating.

“My husband’s grandma (from New York) once put her finger pretty much on my collards, turned up her nose, and asked ‘what’s that,’” Derrika said. “My aunt owns a restaurant so there were definitely faces when we mentioned pig feet and chitterlings (or chitlins). I once was so happy to get a ham hock and my husband just looked at me with horror. None of them fully understand what an oxtail is. Whenever I mention any non-conventional pig parts that my super country grandparents have eaten, there are wide eyes all around. Examples include pig tails and ears.”

Though not necessarily common dishes here in Yadkin County, Cajun cuisine made the list of southern foods that folks up north have taken a liking to.

Shelly said boiled crawfish and crawfish etouffee were some of her favorites. Phyllis, another of my sorority sisters, from Cincinnati, Ohio, said she loves Cajun food. She visited New Orleans in 2004 where she had the opportunity to try gator meat.

“That was really different,” Phyllis said. “I’m willing to try almost anything once.”

One of my personal favorite Cajun recipes is jambalaya. My good friend Judy often brings this dish to pot lucks. She was gracious enough to pass along her recipe which came from one of her dearest friends Pam.

I received many, many more comments from folks about southern foods that are beloved or detested, but I will save those for another story and leave you today with Morgan’s Parmesan cheese grits recipe and Pam’s jambalaya recipe.

Morgan’s Parmesan garlic grits (guaranteed to convert grit-haters!)
• 2 cups whole milk
• 2 cups heavy cream
• 1 cup coarse stone-ground grits
• 1 tsp. kosher salt
• 2 to 3 garlic cloves minced
• 4 oz. Parmesan cheese (Highly recommend to use an actual block of Parmesan cheese, definitely avoid the kind in the green can.)
Directions:
In a saucepan combine milk, cream, minced, garlic and salt and heat. Do not boil! Once mixture is hot, add grits and stir constantly until thickened. When the grits have thickened, slowly add in the freshly grated cheese. Keep stirring. Grits should be a thick, creamy consistency. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Morgan says the amount of cheese can be increased to taste if preferred, but he normally uses around 4 oz. This makes four servings.

Pam’s Easy Chicken and Sausage Jambalaya
• 1 lb. smoked sausage, cut in chunks
• ½ lb. boneless skinless chicken, cut in pieces
• 2 cans French Onion soup
• 1 can chicken broth
• 1 lb. (one box) Uncle Ben’s converted rice
• ½ package Seasoning Blend (frozen veggie section, has onion, green pepper, red pepper, etc. — or just chop up what you need (1 onion, ½ green pepper, ½ red pepper)
• 1 stick butter
• Creole seasoning to taste (Tony Cachere’s, Zatarain’s, etc.)
Directions:
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Chop all meat into bite-sized pieces. In a 13 x 9 pan, mix everything except butter. Stir to blend. DO NOT PRECOOK ANYTHING. Dot with butter. Cover and cook for one hour. Take a nap. Tell your family to leave you alone because you are fixing supper. Uncover and stir. Serve with a green salad, hot French bread, and you’ve got a fabulous meal!

An Easter banquet

“Life’s a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!” ~ Auntie Mame

As we all know, there are certainly some bad things in life. There are many who really do struggle to have enough to eat for their families. Countries are at war with one another and many of you may have sons, daughters or loved ones who are serving in those war-torn places. There is cancer and other illnesses, not to mention robberies and shootings going on, sometimes in our very own backyards. Yet, despite the many difficult things we face, life overall is still pretty grand. The point Auntie Mame was trying to make with her statement about life being a banquet, I think, is that we have to wake up every morning and choose to see the good things in life. (Note: If you haven’t seen the movie Auntie Mame, the 1956 Rosalind Russell version, stop reading this and just go watch it!)

Speaking of banquets, I am still practically full from the tremendous spread we enjoyed at my home a few weeks ago on Easter Sunday. Eating great food is something I love to do, but it’s even more special when you get to share it with loved ones. I was blessed to have a houseful on Easter Sunday. My dad, fiancé and I were joined by my great-uncle, a very dear friend of mine from Durham and my beloved next door neighbors.

We got up early and started to work putting together a terrific meal which included some of the
traditional side dishes like deviled eggs, mashed potatoes and green beans and corn and we tried out a few new recipes as well. My house guest, Keitcha, and fiancé Morgan helped to prepare the meal along with me. A coconut cake was first to go in the oven, followed by the ham which Morgan glazed with a combination of brown sugar, Dijon mustard and some of my homemade peach preserves.

While Morgan worked on the cake, Keitcha and I put together a lovely green pea layered salad. It’s an old standby recipe, but it’s one of my favorites and so easy to do. Start with shredded lettuce in the bottom of your dish. A lovely glass punch bowl makes a great display. I do admit I sometimes cheat and buy the pre-shredded lettuce, but luckily Keitcha’s knife skills were much better than my own. On top of your lettuce layer, sprinkle a little salt and cracked black pepper then add a mixture of one cup of mayonnaise and one cup of sour cream. Next layer your green peas, shredded cheddar cheese, diced green onions and top with crumbled bacon. Let it chill in the fridge for a good hour or more before serving. I also sometimes like to add a layer of fresh spinach in there.

After the salad was ready, we put together an orange fluff fruit salad with orange jello, pineapple tidbits, mandarin oranges, cool whip, cottage cheese and miniature marshmallows. I am sad to report I could not find the pastel colored marshmallows the recipe called for, but the plain ones were just as good. Uncle Ken was really a fan of this dish.

My personal favorite dish of the day is a recipe that is aptly called “Homicidal Maniac (Mac) and Cheese.” This recipe comes from one of my very favorite books “The Sweet Potato Queen’s Big Ass Cookbook and Financial Planner.” If you have not read any of Jill Connor Browne’s books about the Sweet Potato Queens, just stop what you are doing right now and go get a copy. They are hysterical and she has some terrific recipes which I use frequently.

The mac and cheese recipe from the Sweet Potato Queen’s book is fantastic because with just a little prep work, the entire dish can be done in the Crock Pot. I love my Crock Pot. In addition to three different kinds of cheese, the recipe also calls for bacon and anything with bacon in it, goes right to the top of my “to eat” list.

We also tried a new asparagus dish at Easter, although I think with the myriad of other deliciousness, it nearly got overlooked. This is another simple recipe that just takes a little patience to put together. Roll out a thawed sheet of puff pastry, spread with cream cheese and cut into narrow strips. Wrap the cream cheese-coated pastry around a piece (or two if they are small) of fresh asparagus. Next, beat one egg and use a basting brush to coat each cozily wrapped asparagus in the egg wash. Sprinkle each pastry rolled asparagus with fresh grated Parmesan cheese. Bake at 400 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes. I’ve also seen a variation of this which includes prosciutto, yum!

We all ate until we were stuffed. We had to wait several hours before we could even find room for coconut cake! Everything we ate was delicious, but best of all was the time shared with dear friends and family.