|By Rachel Tucker|
Seeing as I hail from the land of barbecue and Tex-Mex, I didn’t grow up eating traditional Southern food. Instead, pork ribs and carnitas ruled my heart from an early age. Smoke, spice and grease have always been welcome at my kitchen table and it wasn’t until I left home that I stumbled upon the familiar and a newly found taste of home in Southern fare.
This is not to say that baskets of fried okra and buttermilk biscuits never crossed my path at a greasy spoon, but these outings were rare—reserved for lazy Sundays when no one felt like lifting a finger, let alone a fork. Southern standards like collard greens and skillet cornbread were about as common in my mother’s kitchen as a snowstorm in July. And for years I was okay with that. Much like the boy next door, Southern food was always within reach, but simply too obvious to notice. It was the environment in which I lived, so common that I was oblivious to it.
Then last summer, I moved from Austin to New York City and no sooner were my dinner plates unpacked than I became hungry. My stomach started to growl and I found myself craving something comforting. Yet, these were not my usual cravings for the three meat combo plate at my favorite barbecue joint. I’m not usually one to argue with my stomach, but I was perplexed when cravings for shrimp and grits and collard greens suddenly demanded my attention. I’d never even eaten shrimp and grits and I certainly didn’t know how to cook them. It appeared that my stomach had taken a southerly turn and I decided to go with my gut, thus beginning my adventures in Southern cooking.
As I said, it started with grits. While this pale, golden porridge has always been a foreign concept to me, I knew it achieved its appeal with excessive amounts of milk, butter and cheese. And seeing as my stomach was beginning to growl at the mere mention of butter, it seemed high time to cook up a bowl of a Southern classic—shrimp and grits. After bringing a mixture of water and milk to a boil, I carefully poured in the grits, stirring constantly. I watched anxiously as the mixture slowly thickened into a creamy porridge.
Not wanting to needlessly hover over the pot, I grabbed several strips of thick-cut bacon and started on my shrimp. If there’s one thing I know for sure, nothing sautéed in bacon fat is ever bad. As the shrimp sizzled away, I prepped my greens, before adding a handful of freshly chopped parsley, thinly sliced scallions and lemon juice into my skillet. Ladling a small mound of grits into a big white bowl, I spooned the shrimp on top—digging in for a taste. It was simple, delicious and about as close to clean and simple flavors as the South will ever get. A drizzling of lemon juice pooled on top of the grits, creating an instant sauce with flashes of green peeking out from under the shrimp and crispy, crumbled bacon for a bit of salt and smoke. Scooping up the remaining grits with my fingers, I went in for one final swipe before licking the bowl clean. Of course, I still had some room. I hadn’t had my fill yet. I’d only just begun.
Later that week, while meandering through stalls of ripe peaches and plums at the farmer’s market, another craving hit. This time it was collard greens. Walking through tents of peppers and tomatoes, I stumbled upon one full of greens. Stacked high on wooden vegetable crates lay disorderly mounds of curly kale, mustard greens and collards. Digging through the pile, I grabbed a couple of over-sized bunches of greens, vainly attempting to stash them in my under-sized shopping bag. After a quick rinse at home and some hidden surprises from Mother Nature (read white, crawly caterpillars), it was time to prep the greens. When it comes to cooking collards, the conventional wisdom favors a simple, slow preparation. Collards need time to wilt and soften and much like many Southerners themselves, they simply can’t be hurried or hustled. As the greens cook, they slowly become tender as they lose their color. Reaching into the pot for a taste, I popped some greens into my mouth, savoring their sweet and sour bite as the dull burn of Tabasco lingered on my lips. Yet, I still found myself wanting more and unwilling to end my culinary journey prematurely, I continued to cook, eat and explore.
All summer long, my love for Southern food grew as I feasted on bowls of stewed okra and tomatoes, collard greens and shrimp and grits. I even tried my hand at fried chicken. And sure I saw my love for Southern food on my hips and thighs, but I took it as a badge of honor—a mark of everything I’d learned. And indeed I had learned a great deal. For three months, I found great comfort in these dishes and I experienced a powerful connection to my roots, in many ways for the very first time. I might have been born and bred in the South, but becoming a New Yorker gave me permission to explore and embrace parts of myself that were novel and unfamiliar. Foreign as they might have been, greens and grits paved the way back home, serving up some much needed comfort and sparking an unexpected love that I never saw coming.