So you wanna be…a Southern Chef?Posted: September 30, 2011
This is the part of my weekly blog where I get to make excuses for why I self-published so late, even though A) this isn’t for school, B) is not something I’m getting paid for, and C) not really a big deal to be late (except to my friend Jaci, a loyal re-poster who hates when I’m late). But I get to tell you some of the things I did each week that pushed my blog back. This week I took my niece to the zoo for her birthday, caught a cold, and also caught the baseball pennant race in person. So, I didn’t get to cartoon until Thursday, but I think you’ll like some of the ones I came up with.
This week’s topic is yet another “horizon expander” as I take on a topic I normally don’t write about. I will be discussing and satirizing the wonderful world of television chefs from a Southern perspective. During the past decade TV Cooking went from an obscure public access style exercise into a big cable TV ratings bonanza thanks in no small part to several Southern cooking personalities. So it’s definitely topical, “Dixiefied” enough, and thus ripe for The South Will Blog Again treatment.
Thing is the only Food Network show I like to watch is Italian themed, and well I’m not much of a cook (I’m sure you can figure out which show I’m loyal to). In any case, although I’m not a “Foodie”, I do in fact enjoy devouring Southern cuisine, and I think I’ve noticed the thing about our food and culture which makes our people do so well on Food TV. It’s kind of like my post about Southern writing only far more delicious. So without further rambling ado I bring you…So You want to be a Southern TV Chef?
- Southern Blogger
If You Have to Die of Something, it Might as Well be Jambalaya
According to doctors and nutricians it’s pretty dang dangerous to grow up in the South. We are rated as the most obese region of the country and all the delicious things we like to eat contain copious amounts of “bad stuff” like salt, grease, sugar, and butter. I think those are the four Southern Food Groups. Also, when it comes to our food, if it can be tried it’s been fried. Our national (yeah I said national) dish is Barbecue, and we like to wash it down with generous amounts of that “Champagne of Dixie” Sweet (and oh so sugary) Tea.
So is this blog post going to be a treatise on health food and the dangers of an obese America?
No…ha ha, that’s not what we do here. In fact, if you MUST die of something it might as well be Southern food…fried chicken, BBQ, pork ribs, brisket, hush puppies, mac and cheese, fried catfish….and on and on and on.
We have excellent cuisine down here and it didn’t take the TV execs long to figure that out. But the key to Southern cuisine and Southern anything is authenticity. I may sound like a broken Hank Williams record, but I’m going to say that every week if I have to. There is what the rest of America THINKS the South is and what the South REALLY is. As always I’m here to lampoon both. But it any case, real Southern cuisine is as good as it is because it comes down to us from the ages.
The Gospel According to Justin
Sounds biblical don’t it? Like our music, Southern food reflects a society that is far more racially and ethnically diverse than the rest of America realizes. Our cooking reflects West African, French, Native American, British, and Mexican styles. It is the same blend of cultures, classes, and regions which produced blues, Gospel, country, jazz, and rock music we discussed two weeks ago, and the literature we talked about last week.
If you are lucky enough to be invited over to a Southerner’s house for dinner, and I’m talking about one who can really cook, pay close attention. When a Southerner is cooking, they aren’t just cooking, but showing and telling their family and regional history. You can learn why something is cooking a certain way, or eaten on a certain day, or the religious or cultural customs behind a dish.
Pay close attention to any cookbooks. A real Southern cookbook won’t be fancy. It won’t be purchased at Barnes and Noble and especially not Cracker Barrel. In fact, the word “Southern” won’t appear on the cover since it shouldn’t have been purchased at all (much like Johnny Cash never had to sing about how Southern he was). What a real Southern cookbook will look a lot like is a five generations old family Bible. And the analogy isn’t too far off. You’ll see various hand written recipes and notes from relations long since passed away. The pages will be browned and torn. The binding will be held together by threads and “West Virginia chrome” (Duct Tape).
Point being, any authentic Southern TV chef got to be where he or she was because of the people who came before them. You can be sure that their food, if truly Southern, was bequeathed to them by others who could never imagine that their folkways and foodways would one day make millions. If the TV chef is any good, they’ll keep true to that.
The first and greatest of all Southern TV chefs represented this best. His name was Justin Wilson. If anyone deserved to live forever it would be him, but sadly he passed away a few years ago. You might remember he had a cooking show years ago on PBS. He always wore his red suspenders, jeans, and some sort of Western style tie. If you could invent a person who looked like the embodiment of Louisiana it would be him.
What made Justin Wilson cool wasn’t just his fantastic cooking, or his trademark look, or Cajun accent. It was his love for his people. When you watched Wilson’s show you didn’t just get a cooking lesson, but the stories behind Cajun cuisine and a little about the dialect, legends, and culture that they contributed to America. Wilson loved cooking not just because he wanted to share his food, but because he wanted to keep his family culture alive. It was his duty to do so “I guarantee it”.
Did you know one of (also listed on the blog roll) bounced on Justin Wilson’s knee as a baby? It’s true as her mother was his ophthalmologist. That’s the second coolest family story of hers next to having a great-great grandfather smoke a poltroon in a duel.
The Secret Ingredient is Love
Wilson showed America just how much Southern cooking is a labor of love. To me nobody better shows that Southern love for cooking today than the Neelys. I’ve watched “Down Home with the Neelys” a few times. I immediately caught two things: First, I don’t think there’s a married couple on TV real or fictional more in love with each other than these two. Maybe the key to their bliss is the family who bakes together stays together. The second thing I’ve noticed is they are the kind of people I’d like to be invited to church by because you know you’d find some salvation when they invited you home afterward for supper. It should also be pointed out that like other great Southern cooks you have to have a fine pedigree. When your father (and father-in-law) is the proud founder and owner of Jim’s Interstate Barbecue in Memphis, you are bound to be a dang good cook.
While the Neelys have great personality when one thinks Southern TV chef and personality one thinks of Miss Paula Deen. Paula Deen is her own institution now, well on her way to Southern Mogul status like Oprah Winfrey. Yet she created her empire from the bottom, making lunches and starting a family restaurant as a young divorcee at a time when being young, divorced, and a Southern female left one few options.
I think behind the “y’alls” and the “mmmms” and the paeans to butter is the story of a survivor. Through sheer personality and force of will this Southern lady has risen from obscurity to mega stardom. When I first saw her on TV she reminded me of several friends’ aunts. In fact all of us have two or three aquaintances much like Paula Deen. But that was her secret, to get on TV, be herself, and remind everyone of their Southern aunt. That takes a lot more business savvy than meets the eye.
Paula Deen’s cooking, and indeed the cuisine of our entire region has come under attack recently. But what else is new? Just about everything Southern tends to get attacked by those who don’t understand it. The thing to remember about our buttery, sugary, fried region of the country is moderation. Much like a glass of fine Southern bourbon won’t make you howl at the moon, Southern food eaten in moderation won’t kill you neither. In fact, it’s a lot better for you than eating potato chips, fast food, and TV dinners. It is in short, comfort food, and it is indeed comfort for me. Any time I’ve spent a significant amount of time away from the South (anything more than three days is significant) the first thing I do when I get back home is get me some Southern cooking. After the first bite of corn bread and first sip of sweet tea, I’m back…and everything is right with the world again!
I’m glad to have brought you this three part series. Next week we shift gears again and return to my “How To” guides with…HOW TO SURVIVE DRIVING THROUGH SOUTH GEORGIA. I won’t be late too this time, I promise.