Try ‘A Love Affair with Southern Cooking’

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 5, 2008

She’s fun to talk to ó we chatted a while before we got serious about the subject, “A Love Affair with Southern Cooking,” by my new friend, Jean Anderson.
“Yes!” she says, the exclamation point in her voice, it was a monumental undertaking to produce this cookbook that reads like a history book, a novel and a romance.
“Everything in my book I have done,” she says.
Anderson will talk about her book and serve a light lunch at Literary Bookpost on June 14.
“The thing is that so many people wanted to know why I didn’t want to write it sooner. … There was a lot more I wanted to do. I needed to learn about Southern food and about the South.”
Although she grew up in Raleigh, her parents were from other parts of the country. “My mother, who lived in the South far longer than Illinois, never was a Southern cook.”
The one exception was the Country Captain she made for parties. Anderson learned about Southern cooking in school cafeterias in Raleigh. “Everything was prepared fresh every day. And it was good food.”
In the book, she writes about wangling invitations from her schoolmates so she could eat fried chicken and collard greens. “I loved the funny names of the recipes, loved the stories behind it.”
Right out of college, Anderson became a home extension agent in Iredell County. From there, she ended up in New York as a magazine editor, working at Ladies Home Journal and Family Circle, among others, then freelancing for Bon Appétit and Gourmet. For some reason, editors often sent her south for stories.
Ladies Home Journal would profile an entire family, how they lived. “I would do the food.”
Interviewing a wealthy, landed grandmother of a debutante in Richmond, she was sitting in the grand dining room, surrounded by crystal and silver. “First from the kitchen was this amber broth with a tiny julienne of chicken breast, precise cubes of tomato and little bits of celery.”
She said it was delicious chicken soup. Highly offended, the woman replied, “This is Brunswick stew!” Anderson said she thought the stew was usually thicker. “Yes,” the woman replied, “You’re from North Carolina. You make it with potatoes.”
She knew she had a lot to learn about the different regions of the South. The book focuses on recipes from states Anderson traveled to and worked in ó Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
What makes the book even more interesting is her sidebars on local products, like Salisbury’s Cheerwine. (“I had not tasted that until recently,” she confided.)
She writes about Texas Pete, Krispy Kreme, Mount Olive pickles.
She’s “well aware” of the barbecue wars in the South, and writes about several places she’s tried.
“Last summer we went to Ayden,” the Skylight, where everyone is served the same thing. Anderson’s friend bought 15 pounds of barbecue, and then they rushed around to buy coolers and ice to bring it back.
Gourmet’s Sara Moulton is a good friend who loves the A&M in Mebane. “The balance of flavors there is very good.”
This book “has been in my head for years and years and years.” The hardest part was narrowing it down. As it was, the publisher cut 50 or 60 recipes. And that hurt.
“When I think of regional American cuisines, Southern is the most diverse. What came out of the Midwest, corn chowder? California? Three classic salads, green goddess, Cobb, Caesar, and cioppino (a seafood stew). That’s pretty much it. Not much variety.
“I think what came out of the South is huge.”
She attributes it to the variety of ethnic groups who settled here ó French, Spanish, Caribbean, Brits, Germans, Poles, Indians of various tribes, African-Americans, Scots-Irish.
In New York, she said, the ethnicities haven’t really merged.
She became totally immersed in Southern food the year she worked in Iredell County with 4-H’ers and Home Demonstration clubs.
“That’s when I tasted Jerusalem artichokes.” In Statesville, a little company toward Union Grove, Dixie Dames, made Jerusalem artichoke pickles.
“It’s wild, you go out and gather it, like persimmons. … The people there were very much into gleaning and getting stuff in the wild, they were so poor.”
But they sure could cook. Anderson collects community cookbooks, “but I don’t want recipes for ravioli.” She wants the real thing.
It nearly killed her when she moved to Chapel Hill from New York. “I gave up 86 boxes of cookbooks. … Every now and then I miss them, and say, why did I give that one away?”
She feels very strongly about the recipes in the new book. “You really have to try the Kentucky Bourbon Cake. … It’s a very tall cake … the only liquid is 3/4 cup of bourbon … the batter is like cookie batter.”
A timeline of events related to food in the South starts in 1513, when Ponce de Leon explores Florida.
“I wanted a book people would love to curl up with. … People tell me, even if they never cook with the book, it’s fun to sit with and read.
She is constantly looking at cookbooks. “The new ones don’t give very good instructions. There are way too many cookbooks, way too many irresponsible cookbooks.
“People say, ‘Your recipes work!’ I try to be diplomatic. Many recipes have never been tested.”My background is food chemistry and I do know if things work or don’t. I test recipes and have a colleague run it through again.”
She writes clear instructions and warns about things that might happen, like the Kentucky Bourbon Cake. “Make it exactly as I tell you.”
“I’ve done more than 20 books … and this is a book I care very much about.” Reviews have been raves and it has been nominated for numerous awards, including the James Beard award and the Southern Independent Booksellers Association Award.
Contact Deirdre Parker Smith at 704-797-4252 or dp1@salisbury

Book signing, talk and lunch
Jean Anderson will talk about her cookbook, iA Love Affair with Southern Cookingî on Saturday, June 14, starting at noon at Literary Bookpost, 119 S. Main St.
Her proposed menu is Peppered Pecans (p. 40-41) to start, then traditional Chicken Bog (p. 134) and for dessert, Moravian Gingerbread (p. 345) with a half a cup of finely ground fresh ginger.
Bookpost owner Deal Safrit also promises liquid refreshment.
See Wednesdayís Lifestyle page for a recipe from the book.