Monday, April 09, 2012

The Local-Global Pendulum Meets Southern Cuisine

A couple weeks ago, my whole family got together at my parents' house to celebrate my dad's birthday. We were talking about food (because what else do you talk about?) when the conversation descended into a  "Who's on first?" style mess. My sister-in-law asked me if I'd ever been to Charleston, commenting that after reading the recent Washington Post article about Woodberry Kitchen, she got the impression that WK is a lot like Husk.

I haven't been to Husk, or to Charleston, but I had read the article and, based on what I've heard about Husk, I told Cail I thought she was right. Then my mom chimed in with a confusing comment about a neighbor who doesn't really care for Charleston because she thinks the food is "too rich" and my brother expressed surprise that I'd never been to Charleston - but I was sure he knew I hadn't been there.

As it turns out, he did know I'd never visited Charleston - the city. Cail and I were talking about the Holy City, while my mom and brother were talking about Cindy Wolf's famously fancy and, yes, rich, restaurant here in Baltimore. (Though I haven't actually been there, either.)

All that talk about Charleston and Husk and low country flavors in Baltimore - topped off by a late-night viewing of Shag - got me thinking. These days, Southern cooking is on quite a pedestal. And Southern flavors are steeped in so much history that it's easy to forget that not so long ago, regional cooking - in the South or anyplace else - wasn't exactly front-page news.

Back in the early days of M&G, I wrote a handful of posts lamenting the demise of regional cuisine (most notably here and here). The first post I wrote was triggered by my sister's college graduation dinner at the Southern Inn in Lexington, Virginia...which, despite its name, was not very southern at all. The dinner was OK, but I was disappointed that it lacked any regional distinction. I could've eaten the same dinner in California, New York, or the Midwest.

I wasn't the only person concerned back then, either. A year after my post,  an essay by Salma Abdelnour called, "The Insidious Rise of Cosmo-Cuisine," appeared in the May 2007 issue of Food & Wine. Abdelnour observed that the best chefs of the day lacked a culinary connection to their hometowns, with menus borrowing from cities all over the world, but not necessarily from their own backyards. That essay got a lot of attention; it also appeared in Best Food Writing 2007.

At that time, eating locally was a hot topic - "locavore" was the OED word of the year for 2007 - but that was more about where to buy ingredients vs. flavor profiles. In those days, the most celebrated food in the world was coming out of Spain (specifically, out of Ferran Adria's head), but it wasn't lauded for its Spanishness so much as its edginess. Technique was king. Top Chef viewers were talking about Hung's knife skills and Blais' wild ideas and careful execution, but not nearly as much about how their backgrounds might have influenced their cooking choices. Local food was on the rise, from a logistical standpoint, but from a creative perspective, we were all thinking global.

And then something shifted.

Today, El Bulli is no more and the Top Chef judges have seen waves of regionally-focused cheftestants. The Southern Inn, which inspired my first post on the subject, touts fried chicken and country ham all over its menu. And Charleston's Husk, described on its own website as "a celebration of Southern ingredients," is widely considered the country's best restaurant.

What happened? Something natural and cyclical, I think - though I don't know that we're experiencing a resurgence of American regionalism so much as a burst of interest in Southern flavors in particular. Here on M&G, the first mention of Charleston - which seems to be at the heart of this Southern food revival - was in April of 2009, when I wrote about Elle Decor's profile of the city.

In July of that year, the Baltimore episode of No Reservations aired and one of the show's (few) bright spots was Bourdain's smart identification of Baltimore's southern culinary roots, on display via lake trout and pit beef.

In November 2009, I considered pimento cheese super trendy and the following month, I sang praises for Kevin Gillespie's mission to cook food that "has a sense of place" (that place being, of course, the South). A rise in Southern flavor profiles was one of my predictions for 2010. By May 2011, when Garden & Gun (which launched in April 2007) won the National Magazine Award, the Southern revival was so firmly in place on a national level, the magazine could launch a semi-regular blog all about finding the South in New York City.

A few days after my father's birthday dinner, Alicia gave me a magazine her parents picked up on a recent trip to Charleston (Alicia's dad, Big G, is a Citadel alum). The magazine, called The Local Palate, bills itself as covering "food culture of the South," though it's mostly about food in Charleston vs. the region as a whole. Either way, its mere existence goes to show that regionalism is alive and well, at least in certain pockets of the country. The cover refers to "The Second Coming of Southern Cuisine" and on the inside, one of the most intriguing pieces, "Southern Revival" by architectural historian W. Barksdale Maynard, carries the lofty subtitle, "Living in the Golden Age of Southern Cuisine."

I can't find the article anywhere online (the rest of the issue is here) and that's really a shame because Maynard does an excellent job tracking the peaks and valleys of popularity experienced by Southern cuisine. His conclusion is that, "the long decline is over: traditional Dixie cuisine is back," and he quotes revered Southern food historian/champion John T. Edge, poo-pooing those who fret that the South has grown less "Southern" thanks to homogenization and Northern migration. Edge insists, "That concern is cyclical and maybe even permanent, this notion that Southern food is in peril." In other words, every generation worries, but the world keeps on spinning.

I suppose I should take those words to heart, too. After all, it was only five or six years ago that I was dramatically mourning regional cooking. And look where we are now: regional cooking, in the South at least, has risen again.

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