In late May, I spent two days with the James Beard Award-winning southern chef and cookbook author Scott Peacock. I was taking a two-week “Food Writing from the Farm” course at Sterling College in upstate Vermont where Peacock was one of eight guest faculty members.
Chef Peacock was supposed to be focusing his lessons for us on how to make food writing a full-time profession, but instead his obsessive-compulsive personality led him to make five batches of buttermilk biscuits for us over two days.
“I’ve never made two batches that are the same,” he lamented as he used his hands to work leaf lard into yet another bowl of flour. “You have more control using your hands,” he told us. “A pastry fork creates particles that are too homogenous. You want some larger pieces of fat in your biscuit dough, so the biscuits come out flaky and light.”
While I was fascinated by his desire to show us “perfect” buttermilk biscuits, I was also irritated that our valuable classroom time was spent focusing on a single recipe. And oh, did I mention he had a recipe? That he followed to a tee every single time. Yet two batches never turn out the same, I mused.
His obsession with perfection may be one of the reasons he won a James Beard Award for Best Chef in America in 2007, the same year his Atlanta restaurant Watershed also won the Best Restaurant — Southeast award. He wants to give his guests the very best food experience. He not only insisted on making us “perfect” biscuits, but he also wanted the freshest butter and freshly made strawberry preserves to enjoy with our biscuits, which by the way, were so amazing. Tender, flaky perfection with the salty and sweet complements of butter and strawberry preserves … if only I had one to enjoy right now.
Chef Peacock has now moved on from restaurant life. He lives on a farm in his native Alabama where he’s growing heirloom wheat, tending to various animals, and doing video interviews with local citizens, mostly in their 80s and 90s, about the food culture of Alabama. Chef Peacock’s work is adding to our knowledge of how regional food cultures develop and endure.
Southern folks must laugh at those of us in California who are obsessed with fresh, local, seasonal cuisine. Fresh, local, seasonal is at the heart of Southern cooking. But this is true of much of the U.S. Before refrigeration and our vast rail and highway systems, everyone in the U.S. relied on local, seasonal food, some of it fresh and some of it preserved.
What if more Americans appreciated the fact that abundant use of fruits and vegetables cooked thoughtfully, can enhance health as well as enjoyment of our food?
I wish more restaurants in the United States would focus on the sensibilities of Southern cooking. While many people think of foods, like ribs or fried chicken, Southerners were the originators of “make half your plate fruits and vegetables.” Animal protein played a small supporting role in a meal compared to the produce. Today, restaurants that focus on Southern cuisine tend to pile your plate with meat, and use produce as a garnish.
A review of Chef Peacock’s The Gift of Southern Cooking, a classic cookbook he co-authored with the late Edna Lewis, shows every menu contains abundant amounts of seasonal produce. Their “Rich Harvest Dinner” menu features Silken Turnip Soup, Baked Pork Chops with Cranberries, Braised Cabbage, Cardamom-Scented Whipped Sweet Potatoes, a Simple Leaf Salad of Fall Greens, and Pineapple Upside Down Cake. Note that every menu item featured produce. (And note that I may have found my Thanksgiving menu!)
So what if more restaurants and catering companies put more produce on the menu and more effort into the flavor and appeal of all produce-centric menu items? What if more chefs and diners took Southern cuisine more seriously as a model for healthy eating? What if more Americans appreciated the fact that abundant use of fruits and vegetables, cooked thoughtfully, can enhance health as well as enjoyment of our food?
So, thinking back to my experience with Chef Peacock, while I was irritated that I didn’t get what was promised, I got much more than anticipated. I received an appreciation for how striving for perfection with food can lead to incredible outcomes, things like national awards, best-selling cookbooks, and biscuits that make people swoon.
Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN, FAND is a farmer’s daughter from North
Dakota, award-winning dietitian, culinary nutrition expert, and founder and president of Farmer’s Daughter Consulting, Inc. Learn more about her business at www.farmersdaughterconsulting.com. Follow her insights on food and flavor issues on Twitter @AmyMyrdalMiller.