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Virginia Willis' new cookbook asks: What is Southern food now?

Posted May 8, 2018 5:32 p.m. EDT

ATLANTA -- Skimming an early version of her daughter's new cookbook, "Secrets of the Southern Table: A Food Lover's Tour of the Global South," Virginia Willis' mother asked her a question: "Are you gonna have any normal Southern food in this book, too?'"

Among the recipes in Willis' sixth cookbook are shredded beef arepas, inspired by the Venezuelan classic; benne seed crisps made from the African heirloom sesame seed; and Mexican chocolate pudding with bourbon cream, using spices that give the chocolate its signature.

Eventually, variations of Southern standards such as macaroni and cheese, collard greens and chicken joined the other recipes in the final draft of the book. But, by spotlighting the less familiar dishes and ingredients, Willis is making a statement about something she's been wrestling with the past few years: What is Southern food today? And, who gets to define what that is?

Those questions have animated conversations, conferences, scholarship, op-ed pieces and menus across the South for some time. The debate among stakeholders and influencers sometimes has been cordial, but, just as often, fierce. Is Southern food the classic, if not stereotypical, dishes and preparations, like fried chicken and smothered pork chops or collards and ham hocks simmered long and slow?

Or, is Southern food something ever changing, dishes that reflect the shifting demographics of a region that has, over the past 50-plus years, become increasingly diverse. Do short ribs barbecued Korean-style, Vietnamese Cajun crawfish or okra prepared with South Asian inflections qualify as Southern food?

The Atlanta chef argues in "Secrets of the Southern Table" that the new Southern normal is all of it. More importantly, she declares in this sumptuous book that the food cannot be separated from the experiences and heritage of the people who call the South home.

"It's complicated," Willis said. "No one person or group of people own Southern food."

Over eight months, and through 11 states, Willis and photographer Angie Mosier traveled in search of stories to illustrate the Southern table. And, she found them, from a 140-year-old African-American family farm in Brunswick, Georgia, to an apple orchard in southwest Virginia cultivating heirloom specimens older than the nation itself. Those two examples are among the stories in the book that tell the more familiar story of the South, a tale of black and white.

But, at points in between, Willis sought out stories that have been unfolding for decades now, below the mainstream radar. They are well-known tales within the local communities that eat the bounty harvested by Vietnamese shrimpers along the Texas Coast. They are stories that long have been part of Lexington, Kentucky, and its strong Mexican community, where gorditas and pozole have become essential to the town's foodways. But, people outside the food world might never have heard of them.

"This book isn't a treatise on race and how to fix it, but look at all of these people," Willis said. "We are here and we're all Southerners: white, black, Vietnamese fishermen in Texas, Mexican women in Lexington, Kentucky. The place we have to come together is at the table."

Still, Willis said, she couldn't ignore the race and class factors that play a role in how we think about Southern food. She tackles them in pairs of essays that introduce each section of recipes organized around ingredients.

For example, in the chapter "Beef, Lamb and Pork," one of the essays focuses on Mexican Americans in Appalachia, specifically in a section of Lexington. She describes the migration stream of Latino workers who've come there for generations to work in the lucrative horse industry. She takes us into a taqueria, and, between her descriptions and Mosier's photos, the aromas almost leap from the page.

The area has become known as "Mexington," a moniker that has baggage that Willis does not fully unpack, but which she alludes to.

Steven Alvarez knows this part of Lexington well. He's now an assistant professor of English at St. John's University but, for many years, he taught at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, where he introduced the wildly popular Taco Literacy classes that explored Latino communities through their foodways. Alvarez knows the difficult parts of the story that shaped the community's food scene.

"She's going to a place, and she's honoring them and portraying them in a positive light," Alvarez said. "But, there's a reason people have to live out there and get pushed out there. 'Mexington,' itself, used to be a pejorative term. So (in telling the story) history has got to be part of it. Politics has got to be a part of it, and, of course, the people have to be a part of it. That's a lot to ask for a cookbook to do."

Willis acknowledges that, with her platform and pedigree, she can amplify the voices of her contributors in the hope of broadening the conversation around what Southern food is. Cookbook author and James Beard Award finalist Nancie McDermott said that, with the new book, Willis also is challenging those outside the South, as well as those who live in here, to reconsider old notions.

"There's a lot that we all eat that is the same, but we do it differently," McDermott said. "Like grits. Or rice. It's Southern, because the people have lived here for a while, settled, and they make something and use local ingredients, but they bring their histories into it."

Class also plays a role in what we've come to eat, and how we eat it. Willis examines that, as well. She also makes the case for what it takes to grow and raise good food, and why $8 for a dozen eggs is expensive, but the labor and love a local family put into raising the chickens in a healthy environment was not done for free.

For some readers, that's a question that might be up for debate. But, that's what Willis is trying to do: get us to talk with each other and acknowledge what binds us, particularly those of us who call the South home.

"These recipes are easy and accessible," Willis said. "We're taking on these issues but, at the end of the day, it is a cookbook, and the recipes taste good."

Rosalind Bentley writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Email: rbentley(at)ajc.com.

Story Filed By Cox Newspapers

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