Thursday, February 27, 2014

Triangle chefs, restaurateur vie for James Beard Awards

This post first ran in Indy Week.

Giorgios Bakatsias was caught off-guard when a longtime employee called to congratulate him for being a James Beard award nominee.

"It's a great honor and I didn't expect it at all," says Bakatsias, who learned from Vin Rouge General Manager Michael Maller that the James Beard Foundation had nominated him in a national category as Outstanding Restaurateur. "I take the moment to be truly overjoyed and grateful," Bakatsias adds. "At the same time, the credit goes to the people around me. We have a great team."

Giorgios Hospitality Group owns several popular and critically lauded restaurants in the Triangle. The group includes Bin 54, City Kitchen, Kipos and Village Burgers in Chapel Hill; Café at the Nasher Museum of Art, Local 22, Parizäde and Vin Rouge in Durham; Georges Brasserie in Charlotte; and Gatehouse Tavern and Girasole Trattoria in Wake Forest.

Bakatsias hints that more may be in the works. "I don't sleep early so I'm always working on something," he says with a laugh. "Maybe in a couple of weeks there might be something to talk about."

Like Bakatsias, Phoebe Lawless was nominated in a national category, Best Pastry Chef, for Scratch Baking in Durham. It is her second consecutive nomination.

In an omission that recalls past Academy Award conundrums, The Fearrington House Restaurant in Pittsboro was nominated in the national category of Outstanding Restaurant, but Chef Colin Bedford is not listed among the nation's Outstanding Chefs. He is, however, among the semi-finalists named to the Best Chef Southeast category.

Last year's Best Chef Southeast finalist list included just one name from North Carolina, Ashley Christensen of Raleigh's Poole's Diner. She is a semi-finalist again this year, along with Bedford and six colleagues:

  • Scott Crawford, Herons at the Umstead Hotel, Cary
  • Vivian Howard, Chef & the Farmer, Kinston
  • Scott Howell, Nana's, Durham
  • Meherwan Irani, Chai Pani, Asheville
  • Matt Kelly, Mateo's, Durham
  • Aaron Vandemark, Panciuto, Hillsborough

While North Carolina was shut out of several major categories, including Best New Restaurant and Outstanding Wine, Spirits or Beer Professional, Katie Button of Cúrate in Asheville is one of 25 people nominated as Rising Star Chef of the Year.

Finalists in the restaurant and chef categories—as well as nominations for book, journalism, broadcast and restaurant design awards—will be announced March 19. The 2014 James Beard Awards will be presented in New York City on May 2 and 5.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Strawberry balsamic meringues are a welcome taste of summer

Raleigh’s harsh winter, combined with early signs of spring in our garden, has sent my taste buds in search of the reassuring flavors of summer. Since I preserve fruits in jams and jellies at peak season, this allows me a chance to bring some sunshine into my kitchen on even the dreariest of days.

After a blast of snow and ice that all but shut down the Triangle for three days, I found myself craving the satisfying crunch of meringue cookies. Not just any meringues, but ones swirled with the jammy goodness of jewel-toned strawberries. To keep them from being overly sweet, I tempered a few spoonfuls of jam with a splash of balsamic vinegar.

My first attempt with a dud. Although they were dutifully eaten, they were gummy, victims of excess moisture from snow and ice. Lesson learned: Do not attempt meringues on snowy, rainy or otherwise high moisture days.

I also tried a different “cook and forget” method, in which the cookies were supposed to slowly dry – in a few hours or overnight – in an oven that had been preheated and then turned off as soon as the cookie trays were tucked in. This may work in electric ovens, but my gas stove did not hold enough heat for this magical transformation to occur.

A few days later, after rising temps and sunshine cleared our neighborhood, I tried again. I went back to my standard practice of slow cooking meringues for about 90 minutes, but decided to leave them in the closed oven for a couple of hours for good measure. The resulting cookies were crisp on the outside with meltingly tender insides. They were irresistibly delicious, lasting just long enough to snap a few photos.

Strawberry Balsamic Meringues

Makes about two dozen cookies. Do not attempt when the weather is damp.

3 eggs whites at room temperature
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
2/3 cup granulated sugar
½ teaspoon strawberry extract
2½ tablespoons strawberry jam
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar

Preheat the oven to 225 degrees and line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Set aside.

Place strawberry jam and balsamic vinegar in a small sauce pan over low heat. Warm just enough to combine, mashing on any large chunks of fruit to break them up. Set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat egg whites until foamy. Add the cream of tartar and beat until fluffy but not dry. Add the sugar gradually, about one tablespoon at a time. When half of the sugar has been added, add the strawberry extract. Continue beating and gradually adding sugar until all sugar is dissolved and the meringue is glossy and firm.

Gently drizzle the cooled strawberry jam-balsamic vinegar mixture over the meringue. Using a wide rubber spatula, fold lightly into the meringue. Do not fully combine; the goal is to leave pinks streaks. Be careful to not deflate the meringue.

Using two teaspoons, lightly push a generous spoonful of meringue onto the lined baking sheets, leaving an inch of space between cookies. (Meringues also can be decoratively piped.)

Place baking sheets in the preheated oven and set the timer for 90 minutes. Turn off heat and leave the cookies (undisturbed) in the oven for at least two hours and up to overnight, or until cookies are crisp and dry.

Meringues are best eaten the same day but may be stored in an airtight container for up to three days.

Monday, February 17, 2014

A Spoken Dish: Mini-documentaries capture evocative taste memories

Durham photojournalist and filmmaker Kate Medley will be the featured speaker of Culinary Historians of Piedmont North Carolina (CHOPNC) at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill. The event is free and open to the public.

Kate Medley spends a lot of time in her car. As a photographer and filmmaker for Whole Foods, the Durham resident travels to visit stores between New Orleans and New York, pausing along the way to document farmers, cooks and culinary landmarks.

To pass time, she was thinking one day about community cookbooks, those tried and true compendiums that celebrate the best of locally-grown foods and the home cooks who prepare and serve them with love. These cherished volumes were once the cornerstone of church fundraisers and a go-to source for potluck dinner recipes. But in the current context of global online food communities and apps that provide technique tutorials on your smart phone, they seem out of step.

“I was really intrigued by a vision of what a community cookbook could look like today,” recalls Medley, a trained photojournalist, during a drive from Mississippi to North Carolina. “How could I apply the tools of my craft to a tradition that is especially celebrated in the South?”

The outcome was A Spoken Dish, a collection of taste memories and family traditions from diverse voices in Southern food and culture. She stayed close to home to launch the project in June 2013, choosing Chapel Hill teacher and cookbook writer Sheri Castle and Sean Lilly Wilson, owner of Durham’s Fullsteam Brewery, as her first subjects. The short vignettes range from one to two minutes.

In an especially endearing clip, Castle shows her pickling rock, pulled from the ancient New River and used by three generations of family cooks. She knows there are “perhaps more sanitary and conventional ways” of submerging food in brine now, but the treasured stone serves as her “good luck talisman.”

“I believe in my rock. It has history and place,” Castle says, adding it has a natural minerality that may help with the fermentation process. “So many quarts and gallons and crocks of good food have been made with this rock. Who am I to stop it?”

Medley knows how lucky she was to start with Castle, a natural-born storyteller who has shared tales of her Appalachian youth and exhaustive culinary research with major publications and institutions, notable the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA). Wilson manages to draw a giggle from the otherwise silent presence of the filmmaker with a claim that he keeps a potato ricer in his back pocket. Through years of trial and error, he’s found it to be the best tool to extract fruit from paw paws and persimmons used to infuse his craft beers.

“Sheri and Sean both were gung-ho to be my guinea pigs,” Medley says. “They really brought it to the table. They helped me see what this project could become.”

Castle, who calls Medley an “observer of the first order,” says the documentarian was “wisely vague” when she pitched the concept. “With the camera rolling, she offered a few prompts and then turned me loose,” Castle says. ‘”We spent a juicy hour together and she whittled it down to five short cogent pieces, each a sufficient documentary.”

Sponsored by Whole Foods, SFA and Georgia Organics, the project has continued to grow. It features about 55 clips from men, women and even children from across the South. They describe with passion everything from how to make biscuits or cook a pig’s ear to post-Katrina life and horticultural literacy.

“It’s all about how we, by way of these Southern stories, celebrate the diversity of the South and the diversity of what lands on our plate,” says Medley, who films, interviews and lightly edits conversations for the website. “It’s really the same format as the community cookbook: someone’s favorite family recipe or memory with a few sentences about whatever puts it in a context that is meaningful.”

A new set of 35 segments will debut on March 6 with a reception at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art; they will be added to the website a few days later.  The new clips will expand the project’s scope to represent speakers from six states in nearly 90 vignettes.

Among them are Lolis Eric Elie, New Orleans native and author of the acclaimed Treme cookbook; Becky Currence, mother of Oxford, Miss., chef John Currence, on classic Louisiana gumbo; and Ray Robinson, owner of the iconic Cozy Corner Bar-B-Q in Memphis.

A Spoken Dish, which may next explore the Lowcountry of South Carolina, is just one way that Medley documents culinary culture. An exhibit of her photos, Southern Food from the Backroads & Byways, was shown in 2012 at the UNC Center for Southern Studies.

“Apart from the bread-and-butter of my job, I always try to have a few personal projects brewing that are exploring different factors of community storytelling,” she says. “There’s so much out there. I just need more time, right?”

Friday, February 14, 2014

SnOMG! Time to make snow cream

Get a spoon. - JILL WARREN LUCAS

This post first appeared in Indy Week

Cabin fever due to snow is a rare, practically once-in-a-decade experience for us in the Triangle. But with minimal effort and ingredients from your pantry, you can turn your winter blues into a bowl of creamy snow cream.

The recipe for this simple treat is very forgiving, so don’t feel like to you need to risk an icy drive or sloshy hike to a store. I happened to have half-and-half in the fridge, but you also can use regular milk or, better still, condensed milk you’ve had in the cupboard for the pie you forgot to bake at Thanksgiving. If you’re lucky enough to have some creamy Maple View Dairy buttermilk, give that a try.

You can turn this into chocolate snow cream by mixing in syrup or cocoa mix before adding into the snow. I topped ours with some homemade strawberry sauce canned last summer.

SnOMG Cream

Make four servings

6–8 cups fresh snow

1–2 cups half-and-half, milk or canned milk (divided)

1–1½ cups sugar (divided)

2–3 tsp. vanilla (divided)

fruit jam or topping, optional

Collect fresh, ice-free snow in a large bowl.

Measure 1 cup liquid, 3/4 cup sugar and 2 teaspoons vanilla in bowl. (If using chocolate syrup or cocoa mix, add now.) Use a whisk or fork to combine, ensuring that the sugar is dissolved. Pour over snow and use a wide spatula to fold and combine into an ice cream-like texture. Snow will significantly reduce in volume.

Taste to determine if the mixture is sweet and creamy enough for your taste; note it will be a little crunchy in comparison to traditional ice cream. If needed, prepare more of the liquid-sugar-vanilla mixture, quickly adding and stirring until it’s just right.

Serve immediately, topped with your favorite fruit jam or ice cream topping.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Snow Day Broccoli Soup - with potlikker

Necessity is said to be the mother of invention, but never discount two days of snow in the South as a source of inspiration.

It’s reasonably safe to drive or walk to Raleigh-area shops now, but why bother when the fridge is full of leftovers? Tim surprised us this morning with a creamy omelet that made good use of a scoop of backfin crab meat, a bit of sauteed onion and a handful of feta. He hit it out of the park, however, with a hearty soup for lunch.

At a glance, this easily could be dismissed as a bowl of basic broccoli soup. But this flavorful batch not only included a quart of decadently rich frozen chicken stock (marvelously gelatinous, thanks to otherwise creepy little chicken feet) but also a pint of savory potlikker saved from collards he cooked earlier this week. The green broth added a certain umami – a salty, smoked porky richness that nonbelievers don’t deserve to enjoy.

The finishing touch came from the heel of an exceptional but forgotten rustic loaf from La Farm. I thought it suitable only for desperate birds, but Tim hacked it into large cubes, rubbed them with a bit of bacon grease and warmed them in a slow oven to create irresistible croutons.

Snow Day Broccoli Soup
Adapted from James Peterson’s Slow-Cooked Broccoli Soup with Garlic and Olive Oil, Splendid Soups (John Wiley & Sons, 2001).

Serves four bored, hungry people.

4 stalks of broccoli, stems peeled if tough
¼ cup sweet onion, diced
½ cup olive oil
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 tablespoon garlic paste (or four cloves, finely minced)
4 cups homemade chicken stock (or good quality, low-sodium store bought stock)
2 cups potlikker (reserved from cooking collards with a smoked ham hock)
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
3-4 cups 1-inch cubes stale crusty bread
1 tablespoon bacon grease (or vegetable oil spray)
Salt, pepper
Freshly grated parmesan cheese

Cut broccoli into florets and trim peeled stems into 1/4-inch slices. Dice onion.

Combine all ingredients except for salt, pepper and parmesan into a four-quart stock pot. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer. Cover with a lid and cook for about an hour, or until broccoli is tender enough to break with a wooden spoon.

While soup is simmering, cut stale bread into cubes and rub lightly with bacon grease. Warm in 300 degree oven about 15 minutes or until lightly toasted.

Season soup with to taste with salt and pepper. Ladle into soup bowls, adding a handful of croutons and freshly grated parmesan.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Let’s Lunch: 'Go For the Gold' with Honeybell Chess Pie

Golden Honeybell Chess Pie
It’s not an official Olympic sport, but there is a major competition occurring right now in North Carolina over the relative merits of pie and cake. There’s no debate about the outcome at our house, where we are totally Team Pie.

Our State magazine is about to close out Round 1 of its bracketed Pie vs. Cake contest, which pits favorite Southern pies and cakes in a contest reminiscent of college basketball’s road to the Final Four. One of the contenders is the beloved Lemon Chess Pie, which I feel is sure will overtake its lesser opponent of Chocolate Chess Pie.

My favorite recipe for Lemon Chess is found in Southern Pies, a wonderful collection by my friend and fellow Let’s Luncher Nancie McDermott, who is featured in the special February edition of the magazine for this and a must-have companion book, Southern CakesMcDermott’s recipe is based on the one made famous by Chef Leah Chase of the famed Dooky Chase restaurant in New Orleans. (I have a story in the same issue about Raleigh's wonderful PieBird restaurant.)

With a creamy filling and crispy crust formed by cornmeal that climbs to the surface while baking, Lemon Chess was my choice for birthday pie last month. However, delicious as it is, I was concerned that it might not have enough color to meet the "Go For the Gold" theme of this month's Let's Lunch posting.

Tim and I were lucky enough to receive a box of Florida Honeybells as combined birthday gift. Due to unseasonably cold conditions, these hybrids of the Dancy tangerine and Duncan grapefruit are not as spectacular as past examples, but their bright color inspired me as a substitute for standard lemon juice and zest. 

The result was lusciously golden – or maybe bronze, if you’re not feeling as charitable. If you don’t have access to Honeybells, choose whatever orange variation is at peak flavor from your market.

Golden Honeybell Chess Pie
*Adapted with permission of Nancie McDermott from Southern Pies (Chronicle Books, 2010).

Pastry crust for a 9-inch single-crust pie
2 cups sugar
2 tablespoons cornmeal, preferably stone ground
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
4 eggs, beaten well
¼ cup butter, melted
¼ cup freshly squeeze Honeybell juice (or other flavorful orange)
¼ cup evaporated milk
3 teaspoons grated Honeybell zest

Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a 9-inch pie pan with crust and then crimp the edges decoratively.

In a medium bowl, combine the sugar, cornmeal, flour and salt. Stir with a whisk to blend. Add the eggs, butter, melon juice, evaporated milk and zest. Using a fork or whisk, mix well, stirring and scraping to combine everything evenly into a thick, smooth filling.

Pour into the piecrust and place the pie on the bottom shelf of the oven. Bake until the edges puff up and the center is fairly firm, wiggling only a little when you gently nudge the pan, about 45 minutes.

Place the pie on a cooling rack or a folded kitchen towel and let cool to room temperature. 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Crook's Corner Book Prize winner Wiley Cash reads from new book tonight at Quail Ridge

Wiley Cash will read from his new book, "This Dark Road to Mercy," at 7:30pm today at Quail Ridge Books, 3522 Wade Ave., Raleigh. This post first appeared in Indy Week on Jan. 7.

Wiley Cash (Photo: Tiffany B. Davis)
Wiley Cash of Wilmington, author of A Land More Kind Than Home, was celebrated Monday (Jan. 6) night at Crook’s Corner as the inaugural recipient of the famed Chapel Hill eatery’s namesake book prize. 

The contest was open to first-time novelists whose published works were set in the South. More than 100 writers from across the country competed for the prize, which confers $1,000 cash, bragging rights and, in the fashion of Parisian literary cafes, a glass of wine a day for a year at Crook’s.

“It’s just such a fine novel, period. But for it to be a first novel, I think it really knocks it out of the park,” says best-selling author Jill McCorkle, who picked the winning entry from a field of four finalists. “Also, I’m a sucker for a child narrator. I think it is hard to walk that line, but he never once fell off that tightrope.”

McCorkle is a professor of creative writing at N.C. State University and a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers. She said that all four finalists produced exceptional books, but Cash stood out for “what he had taken on in terms of point of view and weaving everyone’s history into place. He gave himself a very difficult assignment. It was very ambitious and completely successful.”

Cash’s novel has been described as a tragic ballad rooted in the unquestioning faith of a small community in the mountains of western North Carolina. The New York Times chose it as “Notable Book of theYear” for 2013, describing it as “mesmerizing … [an] intensely felt and beautiful story.” 

For his well-drawn sense of place, Wiley earned rapturous comparisons to Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner. The Richmond Times-Dispatch took its description of the chilling page-turner a step further: “[It] reads a little as if Cormac McCarthy decided to rewrite Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.”
McCorkle says Cash represents a distinct voice in new Southern literature. She was similarly impressed with his second novel, This Dark Road to Mercy.

“Wiley Cash is the kind of writer who could take you into any situation. These people happen to be Southern, but emotionally, these stories could be anywhere,” she says. “I’m always looking for that story that transcends the place and the period to deliver an emotional truth that anybody, anywhere would understand. I think that’s the goal of fiction.”

Entries are now being accepted for the second annual Crook’s Corner Book Prize, which will be judged by writer Randall Kenan. Author of the award-winning Let the Dead Bury Their Dead, Kenan is a professor of creating writing at UNC Chapel Hill.

Durham company Barley Labs dog biscuits could snag Super Bowl ad

This post first appeared in Indy Week

Experienced planners of Super Bowl parties take their guests' preferences to heart. There's the chili-and-nachos crowd, the cheese-and-crackers eaters, the mindful nibblers of vegetables and fruit.
At the Durham home of Scott Beaudry and Theresa Chu, they set out a special snack for a regular with a sensitive stomach. And if Feb. 2, the evening of the Super Bowl goes right, the treat will elicit tail wags and global exposure for Barley Labs dog biscuits.

The upstart is among four finalists in the national Intuit Small Business Big Game contest, which awards a highly coveted Super Bowl commercial to the winner. Last year's game drew a record-setting 111.3 million viewers—enough to turn a small operation with a growing regional following into a bona fide national brand.

"We didn't have very high expectations at all when we submitted our video," says Chu, who produced the short clip herself. "It was free and easy to enter. We figured, why not take the chance?"

The entry features Barley, their beloved 5-year-old Lab mix, who serves as Chief Inspiration Officer and VP of Quality Control at Barley Labs. The business officially launched in September 2012, but the couple had been using spent barley from Baudry's home-brewing projects to make biscuits long before then.

"Barley has always had a sensitive stomach, so it was important that we knew exactly what was in the treats we fed her," Baudry says. "The vet suggested adding pumpkin puree to her diet, so that's how we developed the pumpkin biscuits."

Other flavors of the crunchy product include all-natural peanut butter and cheddar, the latter of which is sourced from Culture Cow Creamery in Durham. The main product is spent barley procured from Durham's Fullsteam brewery. Baudry struck a deal with the dog-friendly business when it became evident that demand was outpacing the 60 pounds of grain he collected from each batch of home brew.

"The funny thing is, we went to a Durham Bulls game and drank beer at Fullsteam as part of our first visit to the area when we were planning our move from Chicago," Baudry says. "We liked it right away and felt so at home. We're happy about being able to work with them."
Fullsteam owner Sean Lilly Wilson admires the couple's mission. "As an entrepreneurial venture ourselves, we love supporting local start-ups and watching them grow from bar patrons to business owners," Wilson says. "How can you not cheer for a local company that makes dog treats from local beer grain and local cheese?"

The barley saved from the brewing process has been soaked to yield barley-infused water, which is used to make beer. The spent grains have no alcohol content and will not, as some customers have wondered, make biscuit-loving pups tipsy.

Barley Labs biscuits are available online and in several Durham-area businesses, including Fullsteam, where the 8-ounce bags sell for about $6.49 each. In thanks for their own rescue animal, Baudry and Chu donate 10 cents from each package sold to support the Animal Protection Society of Durham. They also feature adoptable dogs from the Triangle and across the country on the Barley Labs website.

The positive exposure already has translated into increased sales and inquiries from out-of-state businesses that want to stock Barley Labs product. Biscuits can be purchased from shops in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Georgia, Arkansas and Iowa.

The couple recently moved its home baking operation to The Cookery, a commercial kitchen space in Durham. Access to industrial equipment means they can produce more biscuits at a time.

Chu says they plan to introduce more products, another crunchy flavor and some soft treats, but have no firm timetable. "Everything's been put on the back burner until we know what happens," she says.

They hope to hear from Intuit before the end of the month and understand that the contest winner will have input into the creative development of the advertisement.

"Barley is definitely the face of our business, but she's a nervous girl," Chu says. "She's really been stressed out with people coming in and out of the house in the last few weeks. I've read that animals can pick up on emotional signals from humans, so we're trying to help her be calm. We're trying to assure her that it all will be worth it."

To view the video entry submitted by Barley Labs to the Intuit Small Business Big Game contest, visit For information about Barley Labs, or where to buy biscuits, visit

Atlantic Foodways Conference celebrates the foundations and sustainable resurgence of Lowcountry cuisine

This post first appeared in Indy Week.

A distinguished group of academics, chefs and farmers converged last Friday to both examine the foundations of South Carolina’s Lowcountry cuisine and celebrate its sustainable resurgence during the Atlantic Foodways Conference at UNC Greensboro.

Charleston Chef Sean Brock
This was the first year that the annual conference —which also examined the native foodways and transatlantic impact of Italy, France and Spain—featured high-profile chefs who are influencing contemporary cuisine through their commitment to restore fading traditions. The Lowcountry was ably represented by Sean Brock of Charleston’s acclaimed Husk and McGrady’s restaurants.

“I’ve been lucky enough to watch and be part of the rebirth of one of America’s first cuisines,” said Brock, who grew up in rural Virginia before moving to Charleston during a low point in the city’s now-booming food scene. A decade ago, he added, “People came to this beautiful city from around the world with romantic ideas about great food in their minds, but the rice was Uncle Ben’s and the grits was Quaker instant. They were not satisfied and the cuisine was dismissed.”

As in other historic food communities, Brock and other concerned chefs worked closely with local and national growers, cultural anthropologists and food scientists to identify heirloom plant species that could be restored through seed projects. Some are now thriving, like the Carolina Gold rice, Sea Island red peas and juicy Dancy tangerines used in a four-course dinner curated by Brock.

Keynote speaker David Shields, a prolific author and president of the influential Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, commended Brock on his leadership in sustainable restoration of Lowcountry foodways. “This is not a cuisine of re-enactment,” he said firmly. “What’s been brought back is the ingredients, and those ingredients give permission for creativity.”

Brock's deeply flavored Senegalese Gumbo as prepared by
Chef Jay Pierce of Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen.
The Lowcountry dinner was prepared by Greensboro and Cary chef Jay Pierce of Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen and served at the elegant Proximity Hotel. It started with a benne (sesame seed) oyster stew, a Lowcountry classic that was punched up with glossy bacon from Allan Benton’s legendary Smoky Mountain Country Hams and creamy Old Mill grits from Guilford County. It was followed by Senegalese fish gumbo, whose unexpected spice profile provided a flavorful nod to slaves whose culinary achievements generally were attributed to white plantation hostesses who rarely stepped inside their own kitchens.

Pierce took the lead on a “Roots & Shoots” plate that featured braised pickled turnips and greens alongside the red peas from Anson Mills, which had been simmered in a luscious ham hock broth. Some diners regretted the lack of cornbread while others contentedly slurped the soupy remains. The meal finished with cakelike chocolate and a tangy orange sorbet distinctively drizzled with natural birch syrup.

The Lowcountry sessions featured key voices in the efforts to more fully document the abundance of antebellum Charleston’s farms and kitchen gardens. Shields delivered a powerful discourse that tracked the ways foods migrated and changed – some to the point of extinction through aggressive manipulation meant to adapt to local conditions. He also linked the seemingly “magical” ability of slaves to excel in plantation kitchens to specific marketing of those procured for that very purpose from rice-growing regions of Western Africa.

Marcie Cohen Ferris
Marcie Cohen Ferris of UNC Chapel Hill presented a preview of her new book, The Edible South: The Power of Food and the Making of an American Region, which is scheduled for fall publication by UNC Press. Her remarks focused on the cultural politics of Charleston’s “culinary brand” during the growing tourism economy of the 1930s through the 1950s.

“No city packaged and sold the ‘Old South’ better than Charleston,” said Ferris, noting the port city fashioned itself as the epicenter of all things great and Southern. “Masterminded by white elites, they rewrote the city’s history.”

As represented by an ever-present demure Southern belle, this imagined history ignored slavery by depicting black men in romanticized field labor and women who spoke in vernacular while deploying “culinary wizardry” in well-appointed kitchens. It also dismissed a large Jewish community that established the nation’s second oldest synagogue building, which today is the oldest in continuous use.

By the late 1930s, popular national magazines were printing Lowcountry recipes and touting the appeal of culinary vacations. Some homes near the historic Battery were converted into boarding houses while others attracted Northern socialites like Claire Booth Luce, who became the “invented mistress” of her plantation.

The fascination with the South and its air of high society extended to New York City, where the flagship B. Altman’s department store featured a Charleston garden restaurant complete with a Tara-like courtyard setting.

Recent scholarship has revealed such whitewashed depictions and dumbed-down food as creations of a powerful public relations campaign, but many people still cling to the myths.

"Lowcountry tourism really transformed the flavor and racism of the culinary South in a way that still has resonance and power today," Ferris said.