Many of the great cuisines of the world were created by people who were just plain poor. They took what they had at hand, what they could grow, forage, or hunt and did the best they could with it. French country cooking, many rustic Italian dishes, and closer to home, traditional Southern cooking are good examples of what innovative poor folks can come up with.
Although many cultures influenced the Southern food tradition, the heart of this cuisine is what has become known as soul food or just country cooking. 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 just outside of Tutwiler. Hardscrabble as life was, good food, and in some quantity, was essential, but not always available. When times were hard, my dad and his family lived on cornbread and sorghum molasses. Can you imagine how monotonous that diet could become?
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 a while back and talked to the 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. Please make sure to use local ingredients whenever you can.
Cornbread and Collard Greens
I can’t think of a more delicious combination than this, and it is healthy and delicious.
If your diet allows, use bacon drippings instead of oil for this recipe. Make sure to use a cast-iron skillet. If you just aren’t up to making cornbread from scratch, buy a mix and do the best you can.
- 6 tablespoons butter (Country Girls Creamery)
- 1 cup cornmeal (use Original Grit Girl cornmeal, from the OS Saturday fresh market)
- 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 (farmers market)
- 1 1/2 cups buttermilk (Country Girls Creamery)
- Oil or bacon drippings
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Combine all the ingredients, starting with the dry, then the wet (exclude the oil). Add oil, preferably bacon drippings, 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 stimmed and rinsed collard greens
- 2-3 chopped smoked pork chops
- Black pepper and red pepper flakes
- 2-3 cups chicken stock Homemade, I hope)
- Olive oil
Chop the pork chops into good size chunks (including the bones), 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, till tender.
Butter the cornbread, then top with the greens and plenty of pot liquor. Garnish with tomato chutney if you like.