Regional Foodways: A Relic of the Past?

Guest blogger Julian Brunt shares stories of his culinary upbringing, and the importance of regional boundaries when it comes to food traditions.

 Rice and chicken from the Delta Corner. Image courtesy Julian Brunt.

Rice and chicken from the Delta Corner. Image courtesy Julian Brunt.

From Julian Brunt

Talking about the food of the South can be a dangerous endeavor. Dangerous, you say?  Yes, indeed, the regional differences in food are striking, and so are the opinions. What the good folks in the Carolinas call gumbo would be considered treason on the Gulf Coast. Ground beef, corn and beans? You have got to be kidding me. And if you want to start a street fight, express a strong opinion about roux.

Tighten your focus down a bit and look at the Gulf Coast and you will again find significant regional differences: south Louisiana, the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Texas and south Alabama, all have local favorites that just don’t seem to travel well. The good folks in Texas have never had the pleasure of Biloxi’s shrimp boat spaghetti, and a good Texas brisket is hard to find in Louisiana.

Even within the confines of the state of Mississippi the differences are vast. I grew up in the Mississippi Hills, all of four hours north of the Gulf, and never heard my mother mention gumbo, red beans and rice, or etouffee. And she never considered making a fried shrimp, oyster or soft-shell crab po-boy. I didn’t know what a Barqs root beer was until I first visited the Mississippi Coast in the 1980s. Cayenne pepper? Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning? Zatarains? Nope. A dark brown roux, suitable for a good gumbo, was unthinkable.

 Proper Shrimp Po-Boy, image courtesy Julian Brunt

Proper Shrimp Po-Boy, image courtesy Julian Brunt

I am not being sanctimonious when I say we grew up eating farm to table. There was no other choice. Greens and grits, peas and beans, cornbread and fried chicken on Sunday. It was classic country cooking, simple, seasonal, and delicious. We anointed greens and beans and buttered cornbread with a concoction we called chow-chow. Fine dining establishments today call it tomato chutney. But it was damn good. We also anointed biscuits with sorghum molasses. If your luck holds, you just might find some of Terry Norwood’s Rocky Ford Sweet Sorghum Molasses. He lives outside of Etta. You know where that is, right? I had my first sip of fiery, dark brown bourbon in the Hills (thank you Doc Stabler).

If you take a road trip through the Delta, almost certainly on the Blues Highway, State Highway 61, the culinary climate with take another turn. Look for Delta style tamales, lots of catfish from Simmons, and comeback sauce. You have just got to stop at the Old Country Store in Lorman, for some of the best fried chicken ever, Abe’s BBQ in Clarksdale, and the Delta Corner in Indianola for a huge plate of steamed rice, amazing fried chicken and pan gravy. Damn.

 Bowl of Homemade Gumbo, image courtesy Julian Brunt

Bowl of Homemade Gumbo, image courtesy Julian Brunt

Life has changed dramatically in the rural South, but the food traditions abide. You will still find crab meat and cheese po-boys in Biloxi, and red eye gravy in the Hills, sorghum is still popular, but the very soul of rationality is changing. There’s too much fast food, damn the soul of that institution.

Sad to say, the regional boundaries are blurring.

But when I sit on the front porch of my house in Biloxi on a cool fall evening, and have a sip of bourbon, in a coffee cup, of course (wouldn’t want the neighbors to see), the fog lifts a bit, the old days do not seem so far away, and I rejoice that the gumbo simmering in my kitchen can be had nowhere else. It’s a recipe that just doesn’t travel well.    


About the Author

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Julian Glenn Brunt has been writing about the food and culture of the Deep South for more than ten years. He has logged countless miles on dusty back roads, interstate highways, and city streets from Memphis to the Gulf Coast, and can talk with some authority about collard and turnip greens, chow-chow, sorghum molasses, shrimp boats, immersion circulators, and the proper roux for a gumbo. His favorite place in the world is the kitchen, whether it is his own in Biloxi, Mississippi, or that of a restaurant he is writing about for a magazine.

Julian is the eleventh generation of his family to live in the South, but as the son of a military man, he grew up in Europe, then traveled the southeast and southwest USA, and Caribbean for sixteen years, settled in Biloxi in 1992, and was temporarily diverted to Thailand before Hurricane Katrina. He has regular columns in the Sun Herald News Paper, eat.drink.Mississippi Magazine, Mississippi Magazine, and has contributed countless restaurant reviews to other publications. He has appeared, briefly, on Gordan Ramsey’s TV show, 24 Hours to Hell and Back. Julian teaches cooking classes at the Lynn Meadows Discovery Center in Gulfport and the Mary C. O’Keef Cultural Center in Ocean Springs, Mississippi.