Southern With a Side of Comfort
Foods of the American South often have gentle cadences of comfort in their DNA, a delicious truth that has revved up restaurants that tap its many influences.
Southern cuisine is served with hospitality and an accent. Carolyn O’Neil describes foods of the American South as so distinct, separate and delicious they might well be of another country. Or make that ... countries. “There’s not just one cuisine in the south. There’s Florida cuisine, Texas, New Orleans, the Carolinas, Virginia,” says the Atlanta-based cookbook author and dietitian. “They’re all different from each other. Yet they also ring true.”
Varied, ever-changing and entirely familiar, the cuisines are built and sustained on the very notion of comfort. “Southern food just makes me happy,” says O’Neil, an Atlanta-based author, dietitian and food consultant. “And that’s kind of what comfort food is, after all.”
O’Neil, a southerner by birth, is an ardent champion of the foods, many of which she chronicles in her newest book “The Slim Down South Cookbook” (Oxmoor House). “At restaurants here in Atlanta there is a resurgence of interest, a celebration of southern ingredients,” she says. “Chefs maintain the historic integrity yet latitude in how they’re presented is encouraged and embraced. That keeps the cuisine fresh and moving forward.”
In the Comfort Zone
Kevin Gillespie, chef/owner of Gunshow restaurant in Atlanta and Revival in nearby Decatur, concurs that “southern food” is a broad term under which many regional variations flourish and thrive. “It’s extremely personalized and means something different to everyone. I’m from Georgia where you have the coastal south, which is more affluent. You also have rural Appalachia, which is agrarian. It emphasizes freshness, seasonality and respect for the totality of ingredients. It’s about using what you have and not being frivolous. In Atlanta, you have a confluence of the two.”
At his restaurants, that has come to mean a refined and evolved style coexisting with strong culinary references to his southern heritage. “It’s the mentality with which you approach food that makes it authentic,” he says. “There’s a pride that goes into cooking and sharing. You toe that line and bring comfort to the lives of people you share the food with. We’re all in busy, bustling lives; food that seems simple, that your grandmother could have had a hand in it—that’s why southern food often strikes diners as comfort food.”
Vegetables are underpinnings of many things southern. From meat and three restaurants to the mess of greens that accompanies so many meals, they, more so than the protein, are the foundation. At Revival, Gillespie says that the peas are cooked as expected, with fatback and not much more. “But we put a personal signature on them. My grandma would pick wild herbs and add mint, wild onions and so on. Our chef there is Swedish; he added dill to the mix. That all adds newness, something not expected. It’s our fingerprint, a new iteration of something familiar,” he explains. “When my grandma tasted them, she said, ‘yes, I’ll accept this.’ And 25-year old diners say, ‘the dill is good in this.’ So it works all around. It doesn’t take the peas beyond recognition. It’s a subtlety.”
Southern food is not the sole province of its home states; it travels well and has settled in nicely to many points north, including New York. “There are so many Southern restaurants in Brooklyn now, some people call it New York South,” says Jeffrey McInnis, executive chef/partner of Root & Bone in New York City. Born in Florida’s panhandle region and spending summers on a family farm in Alabama, McInnis came honestly to his Southern culinary flair. “My grandma Bryce got me excited about food and the land,” McInnis recalls. Subsequent work experience in Charleston and Virginia tightened his skills and the grip that the cuisine held on him. “When it was time to open my own restaurant, Southern just felt right,” he says.
To build the menu, McInnis relied on the past, populating it with foods he grew up eating and took for granted. “They were so abundant and common. We lived in a coastal area so there was lots of seafood. And we had what my grandma called yardbirds—chickens, quail, ducks—she didn’t differentiate, and corn, lots of corn.” These categories are abundantly represented on Root & Bone’s menu. McInnis took the added step of sourcing ingredients close to home, even finding a small producer of grits in upstate New York. “They have an old, water-powered grist mill. The grits are as good as anything I could source in the south.”
Take McInnis’ meatloaf for example, a dish with echoes of the version on which so many Americans grew up eating that has been transformed into something decidedly upscale. Beef short ribs are slowly braised, the succulent meat then shredded and packed into a loaf pan. It is weighted down for at least a day. For service, it is sliced and seared in a red-hot pan. It ends up with a crispy char on the outside and a creamy soft interior. Heirloom tomatoes are melted down to a jammy consistency; it stands in for the requisite ketchup, adding acidic tang to cut the meat’s richness. Mashed root vegetables—often a combo of potatoes and celery root, deliver a creamy counterpoint. ”You know what meat loaf is and have an idea of what you will get if you order it in a diner. Ours is based on that but it is a different interpretation and presentation,’ says McInnis. “That’s our thing. It’s recognizable and yet it’s not entirely.”
McInnis, who was opening chef for Miami’s Yardbird, notes that fried chicken has become something of a comfort-food signature at Root & Bone. Not unlike his grandmother’s, the birds are brined, coated and then pressure fried. To add a spark of new, paper-thin sliced lemons are oven-dried and then pulverized into lemon dust that’s sprinkled on the chicken for service. As do so many of his menu items, it blends roots, tradition, inspiration and technique.
Says McInnis, “I cook what I ate and saw so much of it. It’s a magical spell that was put on me or it’s my grandma Bryce cooking through me. It’s exactly where I want it to be.”