Savoring the South Regional delicacies fondly recalled in 'Memories'

October 03, 1993|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

We all have Southern memories, even if we never set foot there. Generations of talented Southern writers have brought it home to us, from Margaret Mitchell to Thomas Wolfe to Eudora Welty to Pat Conroy -- the hot days and soft nights, the iced tea and bourbon and branch, the white columns and wicker furniture and the food: grits and fried chicken, shrimp and oysters, fresh tomatoes and corn, hot biscuits and country ham . . .

All of these things are Nathalie Dupree's territory. Ms. Dupree, who grew up in Virginia and is a long-time resident of Georgia, has spent a lifetime absorbing the sights and sounds of the South, exploring its traditions and institutions, and cooking and writing about its food. The latest result of her abiding love for the region is "Nathalie Dupree's Southern Memories: Recipes and Reminiscences," (Clarkson Potter, $30).

Strolling through Cross Street Market on a visit to Baltimore recently, she notes the Southern influence on Marylanders' diets. Just inside the door, she is drawn to a meat-market display. "Country ham, it's right here." She reads the label: "Smoked and pepper coated."

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"The fall-time ritual of putting up a whole hog is still practiced by some traditionalists in the South. In the years past, 'putting up' (the colloquialism for salting and curing) was an important way of assuring an ample supply of meat for the winter. Today most of us go the easy route and buy a succulent country ham, and the tangy pink meat is an irreplaceable part of of many Southern celebrations."

-- Nathalie Dupree,

"Southern Memories"

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Ms. Dupree's first book was "New Southern Cooking," (Alfred A. Knopf, 1986, $24.50), and the PBS program based on the book is still airing. But she felt that, with growing interest in regional foods and regional cooking, and a return to the values of home and family, the time was right to explore some of the special contributions of Southern food to American culinary tradition.

"The best food is always what you can buy locally, what's grown locally," she says. "And when that's the best, that's what you should be eating."

A new television series based on "Southern Memories" will begin airing sometime this fall. For the show, Ms. Dupree traveled to dozens of places throughout the South to find the best examples of regional foods. "One thing I like about location shoots is that you learn so much," she says, stopping to point out how ripe a cantaloupe on display is. "See how thin the rind is?"

At a cheese stand, she picks out goat cheese. "I have a goat cheese timbale in the book, grits and goat cheese. Grits and cheese -- I think there's just a real natural affinity there."

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"Those who have not had the opportunity to visit and eat in our homes may not realize the depth of Southerners' passion for foods from the garden. But once the Vidalia onions meet summer's tomatoes in a perfect straight-from-the-garden salad, the Southern table is a nonending parade of vegetables that goes on to late fall and then some."

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At a produce stand, Ms. Dupree stops by trays of collard greens, kale and spinach. The collards could be stir-fried, she notes, a modern take on the traditional preparation of long boiling with fat-back or streaky bacon. "I have a recipe for grits and greens -- you cook the greens in boiling water -- you just blanch them, and chop them up, and then you mix them up with grits that you've cooked in milk and added whipping cream and Parmesan to. And then for a special time, like Christmas or Easter, you'd stuff them inside a ham. . . .

"Yellow squash -- you know, yellow squash is primarily thought of as a Southern vegetable, you don't see it everywhere." Okra, too, is mostly a Southern treat, she notes. Her favorite recipe for okra is the vegetable dipped in buttermilk, rolled in crushed saltines and deep-fried. It is snapped up as soon as it leaves the skillet, she says, laughing. "I feel like you're a real failure if you can get okra to the table."

She pauses by some fat, glossy eggplant. "Eggplants are also very Southern -- and peppers are too." She picks up a red pepper and holds it to the light. "Aren't they beautiful? That's one thing that you can finally find everywhere."

Red peppers appear in her version of hot-pepper jelly, a staple of Southern entertaining that, she writes, "combines the Southern yen for sweetness with the fire of the local peppers."

No one should be daunted by the idea of preparing a jelly, she says. "I like my recipe very much. . . . It should be foolproof. We test every recipe five times, and we always make people who've never made it before make it. I like my pepper jelly just a little loose, so you can use it more like a sauce."

Although the new book is "based on memories and stories," she says, "I think it's really important to have recipes that are doable."

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