Y'all know how much we love working with Virginia Willis. Between sharing her pickle packing tricks to laying out the basics of braising, well, anything, her years of experience and wisdom have been a boon to Southern Kitchen. We're even more excited to be some of the first to share the news about her new cookbook, "Secrets of the Southern Table: A Food Lover's Tour of the Global South."
In her new book, Willis travels throughout the region to learn and share stories from the increasingly diverse array of Southerners who make and share our food. We get a glimpse of Mexican-American tortilla-makers in Appalachia, a French clamming evangelist in coastal Carolina, a generations-old African-American farm in South Georgia and more, all explored through detailed and exploratory essays in each chapter. Willis doesn't shy away from sharing the struggles and challenges of farming and preparing food in the modern economy either — yes, you'll see images of verdant fields and happy pigs, but you'll also learn that this business isn't always so rosy. It's an honest, exciting look at our region.
There are, of course, recipes as well. Willis gleaned inspiration from the countless chefs and farmers in the South to amass a colorful array of dishes that span all of the cultures and languages spoken here. "Secrets of the Southern Table" lands on bookshelves May 1.
To learn more about the book, Southern Kitchen connected with Willis to ask her several questions about the project. Her answers, which have been lightly edited for clairity, plus an exclusive recipe from the book, are below.
For those who are not familiar with your work, how is "Secrets of the Southern Table" different from your other cookbooks?
My previous cookbooks concentrated more directly on my personal experiences, the combination of growing up in the South and my French culinary training. The subtitle of my first book, "Bon Appétit Y’all" is “Recipes and Stories from Three Generations.” This, and the other books in the “Y’all” series, is very much about my own culinary heritage and history. Over the years I have come to realize that many people outside of the South don’t really know or understand the South, its food or the people. For "Secrets of the Southern Table: A Food Lover’s Tour of the Global South," I wanted to share stories and recipes inspired by a wide array of Southerners.
There is much, much more to Southern food than what you see on TV or in food website listicles. I often say that to judge Southern food as only fried chicken would be like describing Italian food as only spaghetti and meatballs or Mexican food as only tacos. And the South is made of roughly eleven states — that’s a huge territory! The food of coastal Louisiana differs from the food of the Mississippi Delta, which differs from the mountain South. Lastly, while undoubtedly formerly enslaved Africans contributed much to Southern cooking and many classic Southern ingredients, it’s simply not all black and white. The lines of ownership of Southern food aren’t clearly marked on a map. There have been Chinese living in the Mississippi Delta since the 1800s and, at one time, more Italians lived in New Orleans than New York City. Duluth, an Atlanta suburb is known as the “Seoul of the South.” And the region has more Hispanics moving here than any other part of the US. The South is rich in cultural diversity and the food of the modern global South reflects this. I asked cooks, chefs, and farmers from all over the South about ingredients and food memories. In "Secrets of the Southern Table," I wanted to showcase that diversity, and tell other people’s stories.
Indeed, you showcase a wide range of Southerners in your book. How did you choose who to include and which stories to tell?
Designing the roster of Southerners to include in the book was very intentional and deliberate. I wanted to make sure the book represented a wide variety of Southerners of different ethnicities, race, gender and ages. But, there are so many stories! It got tricky trying to put that puzzle together.
I started the book with the vegetable chapter because I feel that vegetables are the basis of Southern cuisine. The subjects of those two essays are my friends Will Harris and Matthew Raiford. Will’s farm, White Oak Pastures, was founded when his ancestor came home from fighting for the confederacy and Matthew’s farm, Gilliard Farms, was founded when his ancestor was emancipated. I felt that was a good place to start — then I set my sights on telling as many different and varied stories as I could. In Kentucky, for example, I share stories about Colonel Newsome’s Country Ham as well as a first generation Mexican-American tortilla maker. I cover artisan grains and farming with Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills, as well as a 6th-generation commodity rice farmer in Louisiana.
I was struck by one thing you wrote in the first chapter, in your essay about Gillard Farms: “I realize all at once that I have no real idea about this South.” How did this sense of exploration inform how you approached the book?
In this story specifically, I was talking to Matthew, and I don’t know what it would be like to be a person of color in the South. I don’t know what it’s like to be a Latina tortilla maker or a Mennonite in rural Tennessee. And that’s what this book became: Trying to share the stories of all the people that sit at the Southern table. I honestly didn’t know the true journey I was embarking on when I wrote this book. My dear friend photographer Angie Mosier and I traveled over eight months to capture stories in 11 Southern states. It was the trip of a lifetime.
Whose story surprised you the most?
The Vietnamese shrimping story was the most challenging. I found myself sneaking around on a loading dock with “No Trespassing” signs and menacing dogs. When I set out from Georgia, I knew that there were more Vietnamese in the Houston area than any other part of the U.S. outside of California. I also knew many worked in the seafood industry. I wanted to interview a Vietnamese shrimper. It seemed like a pretty simple story to tell. Yet, when I cast my proverbial net, it kept coming up dry. I tried to go through the Texas Department of Agriculture, the government agency that regulates the Texas shrimping industry. They couldn’t help. I consulted with award-winning journalist Robb Walsh for sources and we even contacted the lawyers who had represented a group of Vietnamese shrimpers in a famous lawsuit. I could not find one single Vietnamese shrimper to interview. In the early '80s the KKK waged a terror campaign against Vietnamese fishermen in Galveston Bay and from what I could see nearly 40 years later, there’s still too much fear and distrust.
What do you think people most regularly get wrong about the South and about Southern cooking?
The diversity of people and cultures is the greatest piece. I learned years ago that my accent could trigger negative assumptions and that my Southern drawl was seemingly an indicator that I was dumb or redneck. I also think that many people outside the South have a perception that we’re only black and white — and we don’t get along. Sure, that’s true for some, but it’s not the only truth and it’s not my truth.
In terms of Southern cooking, it’s just so much more than what people see at first glance. To view Southern food as only unhealthy fried food and biscuits is a great over-simplification. Where are the okra and tomatoes, whole grain cornbread, hearty greens, sweet corn, field peas and butterbeans? The term itself is limiting. As Sean Brock writes in the foreword, “there is a misconception around the world that Southern food is a singular cuisine." In my opinion, it’s one of the globe’s most misunderstood cuisines. In reality, the South makes up nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population and covers nearly 1 million square miles. If you were to break off the South from the rest of the United States and cut and paste it next to Europe, you would see in relation its size. Then think about how many cuisines make up Europe. People don’t use the term “European cuisine.”
What are your favorite three recipes from the book, and why? (Yes, you have to pick three.)
What cruel punishment you inflict! I’d have to say the spicy Asian Cajun BBQ shrimp with grilled baguette, the sorghum butter roast chicken, and the lemon ice box tart with saltine cracker crust are three of my favorites. And they represent the breadth of recipes in the book, as well. The shrimp are a cultural mash-up recipe, a result of the Vietnamese moving into the Gulf region. The chicken is more of a chef-inspired recipe, using a classic Southern ingredient in an innovative way, and the tart is my version of a traditional recipe from the coast of North Carolina.
A large part of the narrative in your book centers around the increasing multiculturalism of the South. If you wrote this book five years from now, how do you think things will have changed?
Southern food is a living, breathing, growing thing, so yes, I think it will change in five years. Our population will continue to grow and become even less homogenous. I solidly believe that everything that we do — what religion we practice, our level of education, our morals, and our sense of ethics is reflected on what appears on the end of our forks. We are truly what we eat. So to that end, as our population changes, the book would change.
West African Chicken Stew with Collard Greens and Peanuts
Note: The peanut likely originated in South America and spread throughout the New World via Spanish explorers. It now grows in tropical and subtropical regions throughout the world, including the American South. The first known printed recipe for peanut stew comes from an 1847 cookbook by Sarah Rutledge, a housewife from South Carolina, who published a recipe for “Ground Nut Soup.”
However, it’s important to understand that enslaved Africans introduced peanut stew to the South. There’s perhaps no greater expert on the food and foodways of the African diaspora than Dr. Jessica B. Harris. She is the author of twelve critically acclaimed cookbooks documenting the food and culture of Africa in the Americas. According to Jessica, peanut stews are found across West Africa, originally made with indigenous groundnuts before the peanut arrived from the New World in the sixteenth century.
The list of potential ingredients in this hearty stew often extends to okra, tomatoes, hot peppers, and ginger, but it’s the indispensable peanut that gives this dish its essential earthy character.
Serves: 6 to 8
Hands-On Time: 1 hour
Total Time: 1 1/2 hours
4 cups homemade chicken stock or reduced-fat low-sodium chicken broth
1/4 cup tomato paste
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1-inch pieces
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 sweet onion, chopped
2 carrots, diced
1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh ginger
1 cup crunchy peanut butter
1 Scotch bonnet or habanero pepper, seeded and finely chopped
1 bay leaf, preferably fresh
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
4 cups loosely packed chopped collard greens
2 sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
Combine the stock and tomato paste in a large measuring cup or bowl. Whisk or stir until no lumps of tomato paste remain. Set aside.
Heat the oil in a large pot over medium-high heat until shimmering. Season the chicken with salt and pepper. Add the chicken to the pot and sear it, in two batches if necessary to avoid crowding, until brown on all sides, 8 minutes. Transfer the chicken to a plate. Set aside.
Add the onion, carrots, and bell pepper to the pot and cook, stirring, until the onion is soft and translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and ginger; cook until fragrant, 45 to 60 seconds. Add the stock mixture, peanut butter, Scotch bonnet, bay leaf, coriander, cumin, and cinnamon; stir until smooth. Add the chicken, collard greens, and sweet potatoes.
Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook until the vegetables are tender, 25 minutes. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Ladle into warm bowls and serve immediately.
This recipe for West African Chicken Stew with Collard Greens and Peanuts is excerpted from "Secrets of the Southern Table," © 2018 by Virginia Willis. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.
Photo credit (Book Cover): Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Photo credit (Pickles, Potato Soup): Virginia Willis
Photo credit (Virginia Willis, Collard and Peanut Soup): Angie Mosier