Many of the great cuisines of the world were created by people who had few means. They took what they had at hand, what they could grow, forage, or hunt and did the best they could with it. The foods of the Gulf Coast and the Deep South are good examples of this phenomenon.
Although many cultures influenced the Southern food tradition, the heart of this cuisine is what has become known as Soul Food. Black-eyed peas, cornbread, collard greens, and sweet potatoes were the foods of poor folks who worked the farms of the wealthy or were tenant farmers. Their lot was about as low as could be had, and it is the way my father grew up in the Mississippi Delta. Hardscrabble as life was, good food was essential.
Most often, Soul Food is found in the home kitchen, but there are a few exceptions. Perhaps the best local example is Nana J’s in Ocean Springs. I visited Nana J’s recently and talked to owner Karen Newkirk. I asked her to define Soul Food and she said, “Soul Food isn’t anything other than good country cooking.” I couldn’t agree more. It’s good country cooking that is made by someone with a passion for cooking and feeding family and friends.
Here are a few simple recipes that just might get you started.
Cornbread and Collard Greens
I can’t think of a more delicious combination than this, and it is healthy and delicious.
6 tablespoons butter
1 cup cornmeal
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
Oil or bacon drippings
Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Combine all the ingredients, starting with the dry, then the wet (exclude the oil). Add oil, or preferably bacon drippings if your diet allows, to a cast iron skillet and heat to the smoking point. Carefully pour in the batter and remove from the heat. This forms a dark brown crust that is delicious. Place in the oven and bake for 20-25 minutes.
1-2 bunches stemmed and rinsed collard greens
2-3 chopped smoked pork chops
Black pepper and red pepper flakes
2-3 cups chicken stock
Chop the pork chops into good size chunks, season with the pepper, and sear in hot oil. Add the chicken stock and simmer for 20 minutes. Taste and re-season as necessary. Add the greens a handful at a time and simmer, lid on, until tender. Butter the cornbread, then top with the greens and plenty of pot liquor. Garnish with tomato chutney if you like.
Mac and Cheese
Mac and cheese is not of Southern origins, but we have made it our own. I can hardly imagine a Southern table loaded for Sunday supper without it being served.
4 cups cooked and drained elbow macaroni (consider using a different pasta shape)
4 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon sour cream
2 cups grated yellow cheddar cheese
1/3 cup cream cheese
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground pepper
1/4 cup milk
Make sure the pasta is still hot! Combine the ingredients, use a double boiler if you like, mix well over medium-low heat until creamy and hot. Season to taste.
Please use the best quality catfish you can find, certainly Mississippi-raised. Simmons from the Mississippi Delta is much preferred.
1-2 catfish filets per person
2 cups milk
1 cup yellow cornmeal
¼ cup flour
2-3 pinches salt and an equal amount of black pepper
Oil for frying
Place the catfish in the milk and allow it to stand while you get everything else together. Fill a thick bottom pot only halfway with oil. Heat to 360 degrees Fahrenheit. Combine the dry ingredients and seasonings. Toss the catfish in the dry mix, shake off excess, and deep fry until golden brown. Make sure to fry in small batches. Serve with coleslaw and French fries.