The Sense and Sensibilities of Southern Cooking

Amy Myrdal Miller - Produce on the Menu

Amy Myrdal Miller - Produce on the MenuIn 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 Follow her insights on food and flavor issues on Twitter @AmyMyrdalMiller.