I am more convinced every day that Southern foodways are real American treasures—and that’s coming from a New Jersey-raised, Italian-American Yankee. This series on iconic Southern foods from UNC Press is another argument for that opinion. The series will include something for everyone–from bourbon and peaches to catfish and tomatoes. These first books introduce Pecans and Buttermilk.
As a baker, I’ve had a long relationship with buttermilk. As author and food historian Deborah Moose points out In Buttermilk, the acidic “iconic liquid” of the South adds tangs and tenderness to pancakes and cornbread, but beyond that it can to tenderize meats, and add flavor to any number of sweet and savory dishes. Old school Southerners, like Moose’s father used to, will drink it straight or spoon it up with a crumble of cornbread.
Buttermilk, by the way, was the liquid that remained after churning butter out of sweet milk. Its lactic acid would ferment and thicken the liquid, adding flavor and shelf-life. Today buttermilk is made with added cultures, and because industrialized milk production separates out fat into whole milk, 1 percent and 2 percent, it’s hard to find whole milk buttermilk anywhere but at a small dairy. But even from a paper supermarket quart, buttermilk is a versatile addition to the kitchen.
Moose includes Southern recipes like cornbread and okra, but also travels the world offering Indian lassi, German quark cheese, and Russian beet soup. And she offers tips for cooking with buttermilk. It curdles in heat, so sad it at the last minute and bring it just to fingertip warmth. She also offers other ways to use buttermilk—add it to your bathwater if you’re feeling like a suburban Cleopatra, mix it with heavy cream and whip it into a sweet-tangy topping—I’ll race you for the peach pie. You can even make antique milk paint.
I made BBB Scones. Bacon, buttermilk, and buckwheat a homey combination that is a great start to any morning. Moose sensibly starts the book with breakfast breads from a sturdy Irish Soda Bread to indulgent Chocolate Chip Scones to yeast-risen Cinnamon-Raisin Rolls that will beat out the ubiquitous mall version anytime.
She moves on to dinner dishes that range from Blossom’s Buttermilk Fried Calamari with Red Pepper Remoulade to Tex-Mex Corn Pudding. Soups, dressing, dips, and desserts, buttermilk adds an appealing tang to all of them.
Southern ingredients can engender real passion, and in Pecans, Kathleen Purvis writes, “Put pecans in any dish and I will crave it.” She’s right, they are a most delicate nut, with a flowery flavor that adapts itself to sweet and savory dishes. They also seem special, reserved for holidays and polish the silver occasions.
Purvis begins by addressing a most important topic—pronunciation. I thought it was a north-south thing, but apparently, Purvis’ sophisticated Atlanta-born mother preferred pah-cahn, to her father’s pronunciation, pee-can, which sounds unseemly. Like a good daughter, Purrivs lands in the middle with pee-cahn.
It’s actually an Algonquin Indian word for this native nut, related to the hickory, and is a good source of protein as well as vitamins A, E, and some antioxidants. Purvis notes that it can contribute to lowering bad cholesterol, an effect that is invariably invalidated in pies, cheese balls, and pralines. Wild pecans were eventually propagated into a crop tree by an enslaved gardener named Antoine at the Oak Alley Plantation in Louisiana.
As Moose does, Purvis shows off pecans’ versatility in recipes ranging from appetizers and snacks, main dishes, sides, and desserts. The desserts are particularly appealing, from delicate tarts like Pecan Tassies to a kitchen sink of a cookie that Purvis calls the World’s Greatest Pecan Cookies and stuffs with oatmeal, puffed rice cereal, and coconut. They have a sandy, delicate texture that’s hard to resist. And of course, she includes pecan pie in both classic form and in variations from creamy to crispy to chocolate.
Versatile, grounded, homey, and elegant when necessary, Southern cooking is always appealing an appropriate. These books will get you started.