Foods of the South rise to the occasion SAVORING SOUTHERN TRADITIONS

January 10, 1993|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

Fried chicken. Corn bread. Pork barbecue. Cheese grits. Hush puppies. Sweet potato souffle. Black-eyed peas. Smoked catfish. Mint juleps. Peach cobbler. Magnolia blossoms. White-washed barn wood. Old family silver . . .

No question at all what region of the country we're talking about: It's the place where greens come out of the garden and pigs are at home in the barnyard. Where temperatures are hot and the blues are cool. Where passions run deep and voices run slow. Where manors are still maintained and manners still matter. Where razorbacks reign and Rhodes scholars . . . grow up to be president.

When Bill Clinton is inaugurated as president a week from Wednesday, many of the South's best-kept secrets may be out. Especially -- since this president is a man whom aides describe as a "seafood lover: He sees food and loves it" -- some of the culinary secrets.

It's no surprise that Mr. Clinton's inauguration festivities have a sort of homey, y'all come focus. There will be fireworks, and bell-ringing, and a community stroll across Washington's Memorial Bridge. "America's Reunion on the Mall," from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. next Sunday and Monday, will feature food, music and craft demonstrations from various regions of the country. The South will be represented by vendors offering shrimp and catfish from New Orleans, chicken and sausage jambalaya Baton Rouge-style, soft-shelled crab sandwiches and barbecued pork with collard greens from North Carolina, and crawfish in cream sauce over pasta, a jazz festival favorite from Metairie, La., among other items. (Admission is free, and none of the food will cost more than $5.)

In Mr. Clinton's home state of Arkansas, one guardian of the Southern traditions of hospitality and good food is Crescent Dragonwagon, chef, cookbook author and proprietor of Dairy Hollow House, a country inn and restaurant in the Ozark Mountain resort town of Eureka Springs, where the Clintons have occasionally dropped in for breakfast.

"What they've eaten with us," Ms. Dragonwagon says, "is pan-sauteed local trout, and a fresh fruit plate, and blueberry coffee cake -- and, of course, we had our cornbread." Arkansas Ozark cornbread, Ms. Dragonwagon said, is "unparalleled."

Ms. Dragonwagon will be participating in an inaugural brunch at the Decatur House in Washington next Sunday -- "to introduce the country to some Arkansas food." Among items to be served are the chicken enchiladas of Arkansas governor's mansion chef Liza Ashley -- a favorite of Mr. Clinton. (Arkansas has a major chicken industry.)

Ms. Dragonwagon foresees some changes in White House fare after the Clintons move in, but more in the direction of health than geography. "They are more cognizant of nutrition, and probably more sophisticated in their eating, than previous administrations," she says. "They both like fresh fruit and vegetables a lot. I can assure you that this administration will eat broccoli with pleasure and will not only know how to spell potato, but will eat them."

At least in the Ozarks, one hallmark of Arkansas food is simplicity, she said. "In the summer, cornbread, some really good buttermilk, a green onion fresh out of the garden, and maybe a fresh, sliced tomato, is a wonderful meal."

Simple or not, "there's a nice hominess" and generousity to Southern food, says Bill Aydlett, the Virginia-born chef at Sisson's Restaurant and Brewpub in South Baltimore. "It just allows you to have a little extra gravy on your mashed potatoes. Of course," he adds with a laugh, "these days that's a little extra demi-glaze on your purple-skinned new potatoes."

When Sisson's served a "Virginia Christmas dinner" over the holidays, Mr. Aydlett and his staff prepared peanut soup, fried oysters, venison with a molasses and corn vinaigrette, a "gathering of wild greens" salad with a cranberry vinaigrette dressing, and a lush bread pudding with a pecan topping.

There's no doubt that Southern food has grown up and branched out. But now as in the past, Southern cuisine is actually based on what Louisiana native Lee Bailey calls "great natural abundance."

In his book "Southern Food & Plantation Houses," based on the antebellum mansions of a favorite Southern city, Natchez, Miss., Mr. Bailey notes, "When you are blessed with what appears to be an inexhaustible supply of ripening fruits and vegetables, game, river fish, seafood brought up from the Gulf and more, making good eating the focus of practically all occasions seems almost inevitable."

"I grew up in a town that's ferociously steeped in the culture of entertaining," says Courtney Parker, a Natchez native and life long resident who is also a caterer, cooking teacher and author. Her latest book is "How to Eat Like a Southerner and Live to Tell the Tale." Natchez began its entertaining tradition when cotton was king, and wealthy planters built "these huge party houses" where guests would stay for days.

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