Thursday, July 23, 2009

Southern Cuisine Explained, Part 1

Last night, at our church's "Seekers" dinner/fellowship group, the theme was New Orleans/Cajun cooking. It ended up being a bit more generally Southern. A lot of questions came up about Southern cooking such as grits, Frogmore Stew, etc. I'm not from the South (unless you count Hawaii as the southernmost state in the Union), but I have spent a fair amount of time there and I have many friends there. Most influential is the Styers family of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I spent a week with them during my seminary years and gained 10 pounds in six days eating unbelievably delicious Southern cooking. It was there that I first learned to love chicken and dumplings, fried okra, real fried chicken, and coconut cream pie. So I'm not an authority, but I do love Southern cooking a lot, and here's a little primer on some basics:

1. What are grits? Grits is a corn based side dish that is often served at breakfast, but is also served anytime. The most traditional version is hominy grits, corn that has been soaked in a lye (or other alkaline) solution that removes the hulls, and is stone ground. It is then simmered to reach a porridge-like consistency. Cream of Wheat is a consumer product that looks the most like grits (but isn't the same). As I said, you often hear of grits served at breakfast (remember My Cousin Vinny, where grits were an important part of the defense strategy), but one of the most delicious dishes imaginable is Shrimp and Grits, which I first tasted at the famous Crook's Corner restaurant in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Bobby Flay also lost a Shrimp and Grits Throwdown in a recent episode.

Here in Hawaii, you can get grits at Denny's in the Windward City Shopping Center.

2. Sweet Potato Pie versus Pumpkin Pie. At the dinner last night, many people mistook a sweet potato pie for pumpkin. Definite differences! I suspect that for Southerners, pumpkin pie is Yankee food, and sweet potato pie is superior. I happen to like both, and it's kind of like comparing apples with pears. They are kind of similar, but definitely different, and usually you are going to prefer one over the other. Or maybe it's just regional/seasonal. With Southern food, I couldn't imagine anything other than a sweet potato pie; but for Thanksgiving, pumpkin.

3. Frogmore Stew. This was served last night as well. No, it doesn't have any frogs in it. I learned that the name comes from the place it originated in South Carolina. It is technically a boil, a soup-like broth with crab boil, Old Bay Seasoning, new potatoes, corn on the cob, shrimp, and smoked sausage. It's terrific - I especially found the combination of the Old Bay based broth with the sweetness of the corn to be wonderful.

4. Louisiana Hotlinks. For many years, I thought Louisiana hotlinks were from Louisiana. Nobody from Louisiana that I've ever met understood what I was talking about. I have received the exact same reaction: confused silence, then the question, "Do you mean Boudin (a brand name) sausage?" No, I replied, I meant something called Louisiana hotlinks. Each person from Louisiana would shake their heads and said there was no such thing. But everyone I knew in Los Angeles knew exactly what I was talking about. Well, a couple of years ago, I saw some at Costco. I looked carefully at the package and learned that it was called Louisiana (Brand) Hotlinks...made in California. Okay, so they aren't authentically Louisiana, but these plump, spicy sausages are my pick over a hot dog or even a Polish dog any day.

5. Country Ham versus City Ham. Okay, we didn't have ham last night, but when I think of the South, especially Virginia, I always think of country ham. It is a salty, flavorful bit of heaven, and served on a biscuit with a slice of bursting ripe tomato, it is one of the world's great delicacies. Smithfield hams must be made from one of the four approved manufacturers around Smithfield. Originally required to be made from peanut fed hogs (as compared to the also superb Italian ham called prosciutto di Parma, which is traditionally made from chestnut fed hogs), country hams are prepared painstakingly and for a period of several months.

City hams, which are what we get most often here in Hawaii, are produced by a far quicker process (days instead of months). The flavor is milder, is usually prepared to be much sweeter, but for me, is generally an inferior product.

The knock on country ham is that it is too salty (this shouldn't be a problem for people from Hawaii, should it?), but my good friend from Virginia says that if you soak the ham in water a couple of times for several hours, up to a couple of days, it will lower the salt content to a palatble level without losing the great flavor. Real country ham is just fabulous. Smithfield hams are the best, but for a milder, less salty ham, consider Williamsburg country ham, originally from another town in Virgina.

As long as we're talking about's a good one from the internet: if you get an email warning you not to eat tinned pork because of swine flu threats, ignore it. It is....



I welcome your comments.

Grace and aloha,


P. S. As long as we're talking about the South: former president Jimmy Carter of Georgia has reiterated his break with the Southern Baptist Convention after nearly a lifetime of membership. His dissatisfaction with the Southern Baptist leadership's denial of women to be ordained and the insistence that wives be submissive to their husbands and what Carter believed to be major (and unbiblical) changes to Southern Baptist policies led to the break. Take a look at these links: (this is a breakdown of his initial dissatisfaction in 2005), and (his most recent statement). I applaud Mr. Carter for being an alternative (and correct) voice to speak out against using the Good News of Jesus Christ to exercise control and subjugation of people. The Gospel I know is about the grace (unconditional love) and servanthood model of Jesus Christ.


Anonymous said...

Pastor Tom,
Thank you for sharing your knowledge. Our family really enjoyed reading this blog tonight! Grits, ham, sweet potato pie - you covered some truly delicious things. And you are right: As native-born Southerners, we all agree sweet potato pie IS superior to pumpkin any day! Yankee food indeed! :)
Cris Tolbert

Pastor Tom Choi said...

Thanks, Cris...we'll have to have another Southern dinner...and I want to sample your famous fried chicken.

Anonymous said...

Pastor Tom, thanks for the insight to Southern Cooking. While looking up Cajun recipes, I came across many interesting insights to a culture with which I've had little or no contact. How fun it is to eat our way through the many regions and cultures of our great country!
When I told Cris I'd never had sweet potato pie, she gave me such a dumbfounded look, one would have thought I'd said something truly shocking. (Now I realize it was just Yankee talk.) Cris, your pie was delicious!
I'd enjoy another Southern night, featuring dumplings, fried okra, greens, beans, and other tasty samples of the region. We have such a wealth of first-hand know-how. What a blessing to spend time with wonderful people, eating yummy food. Is this a great church or what??
Linda Holt