Reviewed: The World in a Skillet: A Food Lover’s Tour of the New American South
by Paul & Angela Knipple
(University of North Carolina Press, 2012)
A couple of years back, when I was in New York’s Chinatown on my way to meet a friend for tea, I walked past a Chinese bus depot that stopped me dead in my tracks. Lit up on the departure board were a host of Southern locales and a waiting room full of Chinese immigrants waiting to get there. As I heard the familiar roar of the conductor in Cantonese and English for boarding, the group in the waiting room slowly shifted on to the street to board buses for cities like Charleston, Chattanooga, and Wheeling, West Virginia.
These immigrants bring with them a hunger for a new life in America, but also carry the tastes and traditions of back home. The vibrant and diverse culinary landscape produced by this exciting exchange of flavors and ideas is the subject of Paul and Angela Knipple’s new book, The World in a Skillet: A Food Lover’s Tour of the New American South. The book paints a picture of a new American South, where Barbacoa is as Southern as barbecue and genteel ladies lunch on goat Halim at a Bangladeshi restaurant that shares space at a strip mall with a Latin Ballroom, a Chinese buffet, and a Mexican grocery store. It is a South where hungry lunch-goers scour the streets in search of the perfect Carne Asada and where the local Kroger stocks Sriracha, horchata, and ingredients for feijoada.
The Knipples, through their travels as freelance food writers, have collected over forty stories from first-generation immigrants who call the South home. There is the story of Antonio, a butcher from Oaxaca whose day-to-day struggles are complicated by his undocumented status; there’s the story of the Montano sisters, who left their native Bolivia to study at Tufts, then left successful careers in finance and international relations to open Luna Maya, a chic Bolivian-Mexican restaurant in Norfolk, Virginia. There are stories inspired by love, like that of Jeung Donaho, who left Korea to follow her husband to Lexington, Kentucky, and those marred by war, like Osman Ademovic, who was forced to leave his native Bosnia during the Yugoslav War in 1992 and later settled in Mobile, Alabama, where he currently runs a thriving restaurant that serves German, Italian, Bosnian, and French foods. While it’s clear that some have had a smoother transition than others, all work hard to make their indelible (and delicious) mark on contemporary Southern food culture by feeding hungry Southerners a taste of something new.
Though this book is firmly tied to the present with an eye towards the future, the Knipples also take the time to look to the past for inspiration. In a wonderful (though all too brief) preface, they tell the story of the Native Americans, Europeans, and African influences to the Southern culinary canon: the Native Americans and their sophisticated agricultural methods of cultivating corn; the Spanish introduction of pork; and the black-eyed peas, okra, and yams carried on slave ships from West Africa. Side stories highlighting the history of important ingredients found in the immigrant kitchen are strewn throughout the book as well. These “Culinary Tour Guides” not only provide context but also build connections between seemingly “foreign” ingredients with the Southern kitchen—how ketsiap, a Chinese fermented fish sauce, becomes ketchup, for example.
Back in the fall of 2010, I had the privilege of attending the Southern Foodways Alliance’s annual symposium. The theme that year was “The Global South,” and ever since then the subject has been on my mind. When I saw a copy of The World in a Skillet at my local library, it looked as though someone was reading my mind. The World in a Skillet by Paul and Angela Knipple is a must-read for those interested in contemporary Southern food culture—what it was, what it is, and what it will be.
Oi Sobaegi Kimchi (Korean-Style Pickled Cucumbers)
Active cooking time: 25 Minutes
Total cooking time: 55 Minutes
Serves 4 Side Dish Servings
2 to 3 pickling cucumbers (about 1 pound)
2 teaspoons of white vinegar or rice-wine vinegar
1 clove garlic, minced (about ½ teaspoons)
1 (1-inch) piece of fresh ginger, peeled and grated (about 1 once)
Pinch of salt
Pinch of sugar
Korean red pepper flakes (Gochugaru)
Cut the cucumbers in half lengthwise and slice them into thin crescent-shaped slices (note: If you're preparing this dish with large, salad cucumbers, I'd go ahead and remove the seeds before slicing). Toss the sliced cucumbers, vinegar, garlic, and ginger in a bowl and season with salt, pepper, and Korean red pepper flakes to taste. Allow the mixture to rest in the refrigerator for at least thirty minutes (though my mother insists that this dish be served immediately to retain the crispness of the cucumbers). These pickles will last, covered, in the refrigerator for up to a week.
Hummus (Chickpea Dip)
Active cooking time : 10 minutes
Total cooking time: 10 minutes
1 (15 oz. can) chickpeas
4 cloves garlic (about 2 teaspoons)
2 tablespoons lemon juice
4 tablespoons tahini (Middle-Eastern sesame purée)
2 teaspoons salt (or to taste)
Combine the chickpeas and about 2 tablespoons of the canning liquid with the garlic and lemon juice into a food processor or blender and process until smooth. Add the tahini and salt to the mixture and continue blending until well blended.
To serve, drizzle the olive oil on top of the hummus and sprinkle with some paprika.