Some of the stereotypes about Southern cooking are true. And some are not.
If you ever watched Paula Deen on television, you would assume that Southerners put gallons of butter in everything, including breakfast cereal. But Southerners don’t do that; only Paula Deen does that — and even she doesn’t do it anymore.
But the Southern fondness for biscuits? Yeah, that’s real. And grits? Grits are popular, sure, but they are not an everyday thing.
Sweet tea? That is an everyday thing. I once went to a fast-food restaurant outside Lynchburg, Va., and asked for an unsweetened iced tea. The young man behind the counter looked at me oddly. He had literally never heard of iced tea without sugar in it before.
I’ve spent about half of my life in the South, and I never did understand the compulsion to ruin perfectly good iced tea with a pound and a half of sugar.
Still, to celebrate those halcyon days of y’all, I decided to make a proper Southern feast.
I began, as one does, with soup and biscuits. Peanut soup, of course.
Peanuts are grown throughout the eastern part of the Southeast and also, for some reason, in West Texas. Virginians will tell you that Virginia peanuts are the best in the world, and they are right. West Texans will probably tell you that West Texas peanuts are the best, but Texans think the best of everything comes from Texas.
It is the easy availability of wonderful peanuts, no doubt, that makes peanut soup so popular throughout Virginia. Even though the main ingredient is that humblest of legumes, the peanut, it is nevertheless a dish that is typically served only for dinner parties or at the better restaurants and clubs.
Why? It’s the cream. Cream can take any ingredient and make it special. But few dishes are as special as peanut soup. I made mine using the hallowed recipe from the King’s Arms Tavern in Colonial Williamsburg.
The dish is simple to make but remarkably satisfying. Chicken broth is enhanced with celery, onion and butter, and thickened with flour. Then you add smooth peanut butter and light cream, and you have an unbeatable Virginia classic.
No, really. I know it sounds weird, but it tastes great.
For the biscuits to go with the soup — or basically anything — I made them the true Southern way: with White Lily Flour. White Lily has less gluten and protein than all-purpose flour, so the results are lighter and more tender than other biscuits. It’s the standard throughout the South, but if you can’t find it, regular all-purpose flour will do.
I bought mine at my neighborhood Schnucks store.
Most Southerners use shortening in their biscuits, which makes them flakier than biscuits made with butter. But I opted to use butter because of the flavor. In a trade-off of this sort, I always go with taste over texture.
Besides, you can get a wonderfully light biscuit with one simple trick: Work the dough as little as possible. That’s all it takes to make the perfect biscuit.
When I was contemplating what entree to serve at my Southern feast, I quickly realized there was only one option. Fried chicken is the go-to meal for every occasion, from picnics to funerals to bar mitzvahs.
Actually, ham biscuits are just as universal, although they are not as popular at bar mitzvahs. But they are too easy to make (split open a biscuit and insert a thin slice of salty ham). Fried chicken is easy, too, but at least those who eat it will think you have done some work.
With fried chicken, old-school is good, and older-school is better. So if you have a cast-iron skillet, use it (it will heat the oil uniformly). Try to find smaller pieces of chicken, like we used to fry before chickens started blowing up in size (it’s the only way you can cook the inside without burning the outside). And always use a brown paper bag when coating the chicken in flour (I have no idea why).
I soaked my chicken pieces in salted buttermilk for about 18 hours before cooking it, and that made it just a little too salty. If you’re going to let your chicken sit in buttermilk for more than 12 hours, I’d recommend omitting the salt from the brine and just using more salt in the flour. For less than 12 hours — and you can marinate it for as little as one hour and still benefit from the flavor — you should go ahead and use the salt in the brine.
My vegetable dish is actually not a classic or a tradition, but it uses a very traditional ingredient. Black-Eyed Pea Cakes were created by the Trellis restaurant, also in Williamsburg, Va., which at the time was one of the top restaurants in the South.
Black-eyed Pea Cakes are pan-fried patties of puréed and hand-mashed black-eyed peas, flavored with onion and garlic, and held together with a shockingly small amount of egg yolk and flour. More flavor comes from the judicious use of just a little parsley, spinach and thyme.
They’re best when served hot.
And dessert? Dessert was easy to choose.
For dessert, I made pecan pie. In my considered opinion, pecan is the very best variety of pie. And when I lived in a different part of the South, colleagues would bring in big bags full of pecans, still in their shell, that had fallen off their trees.
Pecans may be expensive here, but in East Texas you could swim in them.
I used a recipe from the undisputed doyenne of Southern cooking, Nathalie Dupree. She adds the zest of an orange to her pecan pie, which turns out to be a brilliant way to balance the sweetness inherent in the pie. If you want a traditional pie, just leave it out.
It’s still pecan pie. It will be great. It is a true taste of Southern cooking.