Southern Accent

`Vogue' ingredients spice dishes in centuries-old cuisine

July 26, 2000|By Jeannette Belliveau | Jeannette Belliveau,SUN STAFF

Picture Fells Point 500 years ago.

Algonquin women likely tended neat rows of maize, beans and squash, which they cooked with deer, turkey, oysters and turtle. When European settlers arrived, they quickly adapted to the local menu.

Centuries later, wealthy sea captains and merchants on Ann and Aliceanna streets brought in kitchen slaves. The women, quite possibly from Sierra Leone via Barbados, added peanuts, okra, sesame seeds and sweet potatoes from their traditional, low-meat diets to the householders' meals.

The scene was repeated with slight variations throughout the South - wherever Native Americans, English and French settlers and West Africans intermingled.

Ultimately, cooks from three continents created a new cuisine.

Fast forward to the Fells Point area today. Eight blocks apart, a pair of chefs - Cindy Wolf at Charleston on Lancaster Street and Damon Hersh at Louisiana on Aliceanna - are preparing blackened shrimp and gumbo, pecan-crusted catfish, grilled pork with roasted Vidalia onions, collard greens and grits.

The food is redolent of centuries of cooks who came before them. And the updated Southern-style dishes are scoring big with today's diners.

Charleston, which opened in 1997, was rated No. 5 in the Baltimore-Annapolis area for food in the 2000 edition of the Zagat Survey, which determines rankings based on feedback from local food lovers. And this newspaper gave the new restaurant Louisiana 3 1/2 stars out of 4 in February.

The innovative style of Hersh, 31, and Wolf, 35, seems to be placing Baltimore in the vanguard of cities where fine dining includes Low Country and creole - often called New South cuisine.

"The New South trend is traveling because it holds a substantial interest to people around the country," says Tom Miner of Technomic, a Chicago-based food consulting firm. "As American consumers become more interested in new stuff to try, New South fits the bill."

Cookbook author Sheila Lukins of "Silver Palate" fame calls New South cuisine "America's most exciting cooking trend."

But Wolf and Hersh resist the labeling of New South cooking as a trend, given its foundation based on 500 years of home cooking.

"It's inaccurate to say there is a trend toward Southern cooking in this market," says Wolf, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. "Chefs are celebrating ingredients. The products are available."

Hersh, who graduated from L'Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, concurs. "If you have something solid, people will support it. I would like to think we have more longevity than a trend - than the hula hoop."

Others also point to the staying power of Southern cooking.

"For a long time, it's been pretty popular," says Marsha Berman of the Books-for-Cooks.com online bookstore, based in Columbia, who sees continual orders for Southern cookbooks. "Maybe our world is getting too impersonal, and people want to get more comfort foods, to get more homey and more comfy foods, after sitting at their impersonal computers all day."

Wolf says that Southern food falls within Marylanders' comfort zone. "Baltimore is basically a Southern city," she says, "so we're doing a concept that is very recognizable. People love it: the cornmeal-dusted oysters, shrimp and grits.

"People from this area likely had a mom who prepared fried green tomatoes, collard greens, fried oysters, a lot of products indigenous to the South. They've had fried chicken with buttermilk somewhere."

John Shields, author of "The Chesapeake Bay Cookbook" (Aris, 1990) and owner of Gertrude's restaurant near Charles Village, agrees that Chesapeake cooking is a kissing cousin of Southern cooking.

"Just from a historical perspective, where the Chesapeake is, it is in the South," Shields says.

He also cites a regionwide African-American influence.

"Look at St. Mary's County stuffed ham, a fresh ham stuffed with greens," he says. "I can tell you the people from England could not come up with this recipe. The stuffing was field greens, watercress, kale. Anywhere you travel, go through the Carolinas, Georgia, you're going to find that whole thematic - greens, hams and lot of grains."

But Southern cooking has evolved over the years, chefs and others say.

In the cookbook, "The South: New American Cooking" (Williams-Sonoma, 2000), author Ray Overton describes contemporary Southern cooking as "something old, something new."

And Sidney W. Mintz, a Johns Hopkins professor of anthropology and author of "Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom" (Beacon, 1997), points to the presence of "vogue" ingredients, which aren't at all common to the Southern home kitchen: shiitake mushrooms, goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, foie gras.

"All the same," Mintz says, "it may be that some substrate of features -breading, deep-frying, the use of coarse greens or crucifers, biscuits, the role of cornmeal - link Southern cooking and vogue cooking here enough to make [us] feel more at home."

Wolf sees the new adaptations and ingredients as enhancements of Southern cooking.

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