Secrets of the Southern Table | Virginia Willis
Secrets of the Southern Table
A Food Lover's Tour of the Global South
By Virginia Willis
INTRO: Welcome to the Cookery by the Book Podcast with Suzy Chase! She's just a home cook in New York City sitting at her dining room table talking to cookbook authors.
Virginia Willis: My name is Virginia Willis, and my most recent cookbook is Secret of the Southern Table: A Food Lover's Tour of the Global South.
Suzy Chase: This cookbook was a real education for me. In the forward, Sean Brock wrote, "There is a misconception around the world that southern food is a singular cuisine." Explain that statement.
Virginia Willis: Well, I think to what Sean does, he sort of expounds on the fact that the south is roughly one million square miles, and so I really ... What he wrote in terms of we don't say, "I love European food," I think that that application applies to the south, that same sort of philosophy would apply to the south. The coastal cuisine of Louisiana is tremendously different from the coastal cuisine of Florida or the low country or Texas. So this southern food, when people say southern food or southern cuisine, there's actually many sort of pockets and micro-pockets throughout the south.
Suzy Chase: In terms of the pockets and micro-pockets, describe the differences between, let's say the food in Appalachia to coastal Carolina to the gulf.
Virginia Willis: So the food of Appalachia would be more of mountain cuisine, so corn grows there. It's not a great area for grains, so there'd be less wheat production. The soil is rocky, and it's mountainous. It's a poor party of the country. It always has been.
The cuisine of the deep south, of course, that's traditionally a long time ago would've been the plantations and cotton, but it's just huge expanses of land for crops. And then of course the coastal cuisines, the various different types of coastal cuisines would've heavily relied upon seafood. So each sort of geographic area by what grows in the region sort of dictates what the food of that region is.
Suzy Chase: You wrote, "Memory shapes the story of our lives and allows us to interact with the world." I adore the visual of your grandmother Louise sitting you in one compartment of her double-sided steel sink while she shelled peas or snapped beans in her kitchen with blue and white gingham curtains!
Virginia Willis: You can't paint a better picture, right? I mean, it's just ...
Suzy Chase: I know! So how did this memory shape your life?
Virginia Willis: Well, my earliest memories are being in the kitchen with my grandmother and with my mother ... my grandfather. I mean, really, truly I was three years old when my family moved from Georgia to Louisiana, which also had tremendous influence. The best times of my life have sort of been in the kitchen. That's always been what grounded me, what intrigued me, what excited me, and so that kitchen, my grandmother and grandfather's kitchen, those heart pine walls and the linoleum floor and the gingham checkered curtains ... That really distilled it for me about like where my love of food and cooking started.
Suzy Chase: I love that. I want to go there right now! The kitchen sounds so cute!
Virginia Willis: It was. She had it packed full. It was this tidy little kitchen with this little eat-in table for the two of them. And when I was a little girl, my sister and I both had stools that sort of were kept underneath the table that we would pull out so the two adults and the two children could sit and eat there. And of course we had a dining room, but I just remember grits for breakfast. And in the summertime, my grandfather would bring in tomatoes, and my grandmother would chop up fresh tomatoes for the top of the grits. So it really just truly ... I think my mouth is watering right now!
Suzy Chase: I know! ... So talk about the questions of ownership of southern cooking. We often hear about the nameless black women who helped mold southern cuisine, but talk about the nameless faceless poor white women that we don't really hear about.
Virginia Willis: Yeah ... It's so complicated, and it's so heavy. It is still ... It's only been a couple hundred years since the Civil War, right? In the scope of things, it just hasn't been that long, and of course the Jim Crow ... African-Americans have been kept sort of subjugated for the few hundred years since then.
But in terms of the ownership and the faceless white women, one thing to consider is that there really has always been a 1%. I mean, we've sort of reflected upon that more recently with the crash a couple years ago and such, but there really has sort of been always this 1%. And so in the south, there's this perception of great plantations and people owning multiple slaves, and this was true, and this was also part of the 1%.
So there was undoubtedly a system that kept different classes and cultures in place, and I'm actually reading this really sort of academic book called Masterless Men, and it's about poor whites in the antebellum south. And because slavery existed, there really wasn't a working white class because of course there was slavery, and so that was technically free, if that makes any sense. I mean, other than the cost of the person.
So it's truly complicated, but one thing that does come back is that there has always been poverty in the south for a great many of the people, both black and white included. And so one of the things that I like to take into consideration or I want us to start taking into consideration with our dialogue is addressing and understanding the implications of slavery but also understanding the implications that there were poor whites as well that didn't have slaves. And so there always has been this sort of faceless women cooking food for people.
Suzy Chase: Why have we never heard that story? I'm sitting here thinking, "Well yes, there were white people who were out of work because of slavery."
Virginia Willis: It's really ... The thing is, is that I don't think that we've actually come to grips as a country with the fact that we were proponents of slavery for centuries, and it did live and exist in the south for far longer than it did in the north, but let's not kid ourselves. There was slavery in the northeast when the colonies were founded, and there was a tremendous slave trade between the Caribbean and salt cod in New England and Europe.
So I feel like that's part of the complication. We really ... In this day and age, it's hard for us to sort of grasp the fact that the United States is so deeply involved with slavery for so long, for centuries, truly for centuries ... And it did last longer in the south, and it did become ... It was the primary instigation for the Civil War.
But you, I have an expression like, "The truth is always in the middle." It's easily not one side or the other. The truth is always somewhere in between, and I feel like that's just part of it. We're still trying to figure it out. I feel it's just part of my organic desire as a southerner and a food person and a cook to try to figure out some of these questions, and then also just my place as a person, right? This is a person. How does this happen? How does this play out? How does this affect people's lives? You know, it's a tumultuous time.
Suzy Chase: The largest population of Vietnamese in the United States outside of California is Houston. Talk a little bit about the Vietnamese shrimpers in Texas.
Virginia Willis: So that is such a fascinating story because when I tell people that there are more Vietnamese in Houston than anywhere outside of California in the United States, people, their eyes just pop up. People think, Houston, Texas and cowboys or oil, right? There are some people who are little bit more geographically aware might realize that it's on actually pretty close the coast, and there's this seafooding industry.
But essentially, after the Vietnam War, when the Vietnamese were displaced and there was this humanitarian crisis, the UN placed these Vietnamese refugees, they were unceremoniously called the boat people ... The UN placed them in different places throughout the world, and Texas was one of them.
And so one of the things that's so fascinating there is that the Vietnamese came in. Of course, Vietnam has two coasts. It's a seafaring country, and so the Vietnamese entered the fishing and shrimping industry. And in my research, I learned that of course sort of history repeats itself time and time again. When a new population moves into an area and they start taking the jobs, then the dominant population reacts, and the dominant population, being white shrimpers in Houston and Galveston and in the area, it became sort of like the battle zone. And the KKK protested and became involved. It was fraught. Ships were burned, and shots were fired, and all these things.
So how does that play into my cookbook? I felt like it's important to tell those stories too. I mean, southern food isn't solely dewy-eyed women with gingham aprons, right? So there's the good, the bad, and the ugly, and if you love something or if you love a place or you love someone, you love it all or have to acknowledge it all.
So I wanted to tell that story, but what has also happened ... There's this sort of twofold realization that I had. The Vietnamese culture is still fairly closed. I mean, it was only like 40 years ago, so in time, that's not much time. So my goal in visiting Galveston and the Houston area was to try to talk to Vietnamese shrimpers and to talk to them about their experience. I gave it my best journalistic shot, and I couldn't get anyone to talk to me.
Suzy Chase: Really?
Virginia Willis: I couldn't get anyone ... Yeah. I contacted the Texas seafood marketing association and part of the department of agriculture and asked for assistance getting me in touch with the Vietnamese shrimpermen. They had nobody.
It was eye-opening. It was really ... It was a lesson, right? It's like only 40 years later, and this community is still pretty closed. I literally found myself like wandering the docks, walking into a clearly Vietnamese-owned seafood company, and they're like, "Oh, we're busy." And I'm like, "Oh, that's fine. I'll wait." "No, we're busy, and we're gonna be busy." I just met a gentleman mending nets and asked him if we could take his photograph, and he said no. He didn't mind his back being shown, but he didn't want to be a part of the story.
So it was sort of disheartening on that end, and then we did meet some young, early 20-something Vietnamese kids that are probably third-generation now, maybe second, and they're like, "Hey, yeah. You can take our picture." So they were brothers, and one was sort of like a version of like a Vietnamese Ken, right? Ken doll? You know Ken?
Suzy Chase: Yeah.
Virginia Willis: Super clean cut and t-shirt and buff and clearly works out ... this really clean cut. And his brother was sort of the Johnny Depp of Vietnamese culture! He was great! I mean, seriously, it's like somewhere between Johnny Depp and Pirates of the Caribbean kind of Keith Richards look. And they were very open and would talk to us and had no problem. So I feel like the tides will turn, right, eventually. Assimilation does happen. It just takes awhile.
And then the only thing I'd say lastly to that is that open or closed, the presence of so many Vietnamese in the Houston area has definitely affected the local food and culture. It's just present. We went to a place to eat, and they had ... They called them Vietnamese fajitas because everyone of course knows fajitas, but they were Vietnamese fajitas. But it wasn't a fajita at all. It was a Vietnamese rice paper wrap, right? And lots of restaurants have Vietnamese influence throughout. It's taken awhile, but the presence the Vietnamese in Texas is definitely affecting the local food wave there.
Suzy Chase: And I think I read in the book that they call it Viet-Tex?
Virginia Willis: Yeah! There's a Viet-Tex, and then of course there're Vietnamese all along the gulf because they didn't just sort of stay in Texas. They moved to Louisiana, and there's Vietnamese in Mississippi and Alabama as well. And so in Louisiana, there's a Viet-Cajun-
Suzy Chase: Oh my gosh!
Virginia Willis: Sort of this incredible mashup of like the creole spices and the southeast-Asian spices with like ginger and lemongrass and garlic. And it's this incredible mashups or fusions or just this natural evolution of what southern food really is.
Suzy Chase: In addition to the recipes in each chapter, you have two essays about a farmer, catcher, harvester, or maker. One that caught my eye was Many Fold Farm. Talk a bit about Ross and Rebecca William, the new face of farming and their hurdles with a small farm.
Virginia Willis: Oh, it's just sort of amazing. My goal of this book was to present this rich and diverse south, and so my goal was also to present the unexpected. So for example, in Georgia the average farmer is a 57 year old white male. I don't have any problems with 57 year old white men, and neither one did, but what I wanted to do is to not feature that, not to feature that man, to feature someone else.
So Ross and Rebecca are this young couple. They've been high school sweethearts, stayed together through college, have purposefully chosen this region in Palmetto, which is 30, 45 minutes tops from Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson, the world's busiest airport. But it's completely rural, tranquil, quiet, countryside only 30 minutes away from Atlanta. And they have chosen this region because there are some pretty strict zoning laws that have been put into place by local governance to restrict sprawl. Atlanta has a ton of sprawl, like in all directions, and big buck stores and malls and traffic, traffic, traffic. We've got terrible traffic in Atlanta.
So Ross and Rebecca started with chickens and have moved to goat cheese and different sheep milk cheeses ... winning award fast, but when I went and interviewed them, shortly thereafter, they had to put pause on the farm because the challenges that farmers face, right? They wanted to continue making this beautiful award-winning cheese, but to scale up, they would've had to have imported sheep's milk from the Midwest. And it sort of flew in the face of their values.
So there's so many different considerations in farming, and the first one of course, you can be sustainable, but if it's not economically sustainable, it's not sustainable at all. And so that's sort of where it was left. They're hitting pause for a bit, so they can sort of regroup and figure out what they're doing.
Suzy Chase: Then I read about the gospel of ham, Nancy Newsom. Newsom's country hams! Describe the country hams that she makes.
Virginia Willis: Oh my god. I love Ms. Nancy. She is just amazing! So she's this sort of powerhouse of a woman and the ham is like nothing you've ever tasted before. It's just amazing ... So it would be ... For folks who aren't familiar with country ham, country ham is a traditional means of preservation that's hundreds and hundreds of years old. It's been long practiced in Europe, and then those traditions came to the south. And primarily hams are salted, and in the United States, in specifically sort of like in Appalachia, in the mountains, they were salted and smoked. So there's like a twofold process. Because it's so hot in the south, we have to have like extra layer of preservation.
But Nancy's hams are this amazing salty and sweet and intensely savory ... absolutely incredible. It would be similar to one of the finest prosciutto hams from Parma. When sliced really thinly, it's exactly the same sort of quality of prosciutto.
Suzy Chase: How did ham become a secret of the southern table?
Virginia Willis: So pig is the meat of the south. If you kind of think about it, how did that happen? There's these large expanses, and in Texas, definitely beef is king. And there are cattle raised in the south, but for much of the south, these wide expanses would not have been used for pastureland. They would've been used from crops, for growing soybeans or cotton or corn or whatever it is.
So pigs have long been sort of the meat that sustained the south, and then of course cured ham would be a natural extension of that. The pigs would be raised throughout the year, and then there would be a hog killing the fall. Of course when it got cooler, so that would be the perfect time to sort of cure the hams and put them in the smokehouse so that there would be meat for the wintertime.
So ham is a very integral part of southern food throughout the south. So I say that southern food is different cuisines. Southern food throughout the south involves ham.
Suzy Chase: What is one southern dish that you make that immediately brings you back to growing up in the south?
Virginia Willis: There's so many, right? Like okra ... I literally have an okra pendant around my neck. I think okra is a sort of aggressively southern vegetable. It primarily grows in the south. But if I were to be really truthfully honest, even though I'm trying to present all these different recipes from the south, from different cultures, I think that biscuits are probably the food that takes me back ... going back to that gingham curtain and the kitchen of my grandmother's. I've been making biscuits since I was three years old in the kitchen, so that is firmly burned into my memory.
Suzy Chase: You've wrote in the back of the cookbook, "As we drove across 11 states, the radio sat silent for hours upon hours as we examined our thoughts and beliefs regarding our homeland, perused its difficult past, contemplated its complicated current situation, and voiced our hopes for its future." Was there one person you met traveling while researching your cookbook along the way that made a huge impression on you?
Virginia Willis: I can't truly weigh like one experience more than the other because it really was just a sort of journey of a lifetime, and pulling out one person, I think, would be too problematic because I met so many different voices.
I might point towards Glenn Roberts at Anson Mills because I think that what he is doing is really incredible. Many people may have heard of Anson Mills. It's become sort of the darling of chefs in the past decade or so. But Glenn is a seed saver, and so what he's doing sort of extends past just the food of the south. He's sort of saving the world, which is obviously tremendous.
But there have been so many seeds lost. There's been such an impediment to seed diversity. And Glenn is famous for grits and Carolina gold rice, but he's actually bringing back all these heirloom breeds and heritage breeds that have sort of almost fallen off the face of the earth. And he's working with Indian tribes and Rhode Island and Massachusetts like bringing heirloom corn from colonial times there. So he's, I think, indicative of this really sort of life changing things that are happening around southern food that extend past southern food.
Suzy Chase: Last night for dinner, I made your recipe for catfish mulldown on page 203.
Virginia Willis: Yum!
Suzy Chase: Nothing knocks my socks off more than a simple delicious dish, and this blew me away! Describe this old-fashioned dish and give us a little background on your uncle Marshal, the fishing guide.
Virginia Willis: Yeah, okay, so uncle Marshal was a river guide ... I don't know. Working on the river has always been sort of a roughneck, a rough position. I mean, if you think about the bars were on the river, and the gambling houses were on the river and all that. And I don't know anything about uncle Marshal doing that, but I do know that he was sort of perceived as this sort of character, right? And would take people fishing.
So I'm not certain that he had it, but a mulldown was sort of a catfish stew, catfish and potatoes, more of like a stew, and it would've been put into a dutch oven and sort of layered and cooked in potatoes and catfish and salt pork or something like that, maybe a little bit of ketchup or something. And I've sort of turned it, sort of chefed it up a bit, for a lack of a better word, with cream and potatoes and catfish, and it just sort of becomes this sort of really rich but undeniably simple and satisfying supper.
And of course catfish are native to the south. There are lots of catfish that live in our rivers, and Mississippi now is a big state for raising farm raised catfish. So catfish is a very southern fish for the inland, not the coast, not the ocean, but catfish is super southern fish.
Suzy Chase: I love catfish. This dish was so darn good, and it only has four ingredients!
Virginia Willis: My philosophy with food in general is to just use really good ingredients and do as little to it as possible to mess with it. Just trust the ingredient and honor the ingredient, and that comes from not sort of some recent chef driven revelation. My grandfather had a garden ... We had a garden my whole entire life. We ate summer squash in season. We ate eggplant in season. We ate okra in season. We ate collard greens in season. We ate sweet potatoes. I mean, everything was in season, and it wasn't some sort of highfalutin thing. It was just what it was.
And so when you're dealing with something that's fresh out of the garden, not for a week in a produce department, or a week and a half in the produce department, it just tastes so much better.
Suzy Chase: So before we wrap up, one last little story I have to tell you. In the 90s, I was a cookbook publicist in Kansas City. You'll see where this is going. And desperately wanted to move out of Kansas City to work with cookbooks on a larger scale, and it was a no-brainer to contact the absolute pinnacle of cookbook publicity at that time, which as Lisa Ekus. So she said she would talk to me if I wanted to come to Massachusetts, but I really wanted to move to New York City. So I was bummed that I never got the chance to meet her, and I never got the chance to learn from her.
So fast forward, I was pleasantly surprised to see her name mentioned in the back of your cookbook. Talk a little bit about Lisa Ekus for the cookbook lovers who may not know her name.
Virginia Willis: Well, I first have to divulge that Lisa is my partner, so she and I-
Suzy Chase: Yes!
Virginia Willis: She was first my agent, and then we became friends, and then it was like, "Oh wow, hey!"
Suzy Chase: I love that!
Virginia Willis: And so we fell in love! ... Gosh, I have such a smile on my face right now! I'm so glad. Lisa has been in the business of cookbooks and publishing and all things culinary for roughly 35 years. When I chose to send her the book proposal for Bon Appetit, Y'all, which was my first book that out ten years ago. I knew her to be the best in the business. I mean, that was just sort of, for me, being in food for roughly 25 years now, I at the time, 10 years ago, was like, "Well, if I'm gonna get an agent, I want it to be Lisa Ekus."
So I sent her my proposal with an exclusive and said, "You're the only agent I'm sending it to. I'll give you six to eight weeks before I take it out anywhere else." She has worked with Julia Child and Jacques Pepin, Marcella Hazan and Amanda Hesser from Food 52 and on and on. It's just sort of comical when we go to a bookstore and she's like, "Oh, I worked on that book. Oh wait, I worked on that book."
And so she is sort of a behind the scenes person that has had a tremendous amount to do with food and cookbook publishing for the past three decades, and I love her!
Suzy Chase: I love that!
Virginia Willis: Yeah!
Suzy Chase: So for season four of Cookery by the Book Podcast, I'm kicking off a new segment called: my last meal. If you had to place an order for your last meal on earth, what would it be?
Virginia Willis: I've been able to enjoy and taste and have so many crazy different things from food that the bazaar in Turkey to handmade Italian pasta to foie grois in France. I mean, I feel very fortunate about my life and my travels. I guess at the end of the day, if I were to say what I would want for my last meal, it would probably involve fried chicken and biscuits and butter beans because that's my comfort food. That's the food of my people, and that's what I grew up with. And hopefully I won't be putting in that order anytime soon.
Suzy Chase: Definitely not! Where can we find you on the web and social media?
Virginia Willis: Oh awesome! Well thank you Suzy! So people can find out probably more than they ever wanted to know by going to virginiawillis.com, and at the top of that page, at the home page, there are links to all of my social, but essentially it's @VirginiaWillis for Twitter and Instagram and all that. But if they go to virginiawillis.com, they'll be able to find my books and find my blog and social media and all that kind of good stuff and events that I'll be doing throughout the year.
Suzy Chase: It was such a pleasure chatting with you! Thanks Virginia for taking us on a food lover's tour of the global south, and thanks for coming on Cookery by the Book Podcast!
Virginia Willis: Thank you so much, and I'd say, Suzy, Bon Appetit, y'all!
Suzy Chase: Subscribe in Apple Podcasts, and while you're there, please take a moment to rate and review Cookery by the Book. You can also follow me on Instagram @CookeryByTheBook. Twitter is @IamSuzyChase, and download your kitchen mixtapes, Music to Cook By, on Spotify at Cookery by the Book. Thanks for listening!