The Northern Reach of Southern Cuisine:
Eating Well in the City of Many Tongues
New York’s crush on Southern food began, perhaps predictably, with fried chicken. The gateway drug, as Arkansas-born, Brooklyn-based chef Rob Newton calls it. It was such that, in New York dining critic Adam Platt’s “Where to Eat 2010” guide, a dining companion told Platt, “If I have to eat another piece of fried chicken, I might go insane.”
Into this environment, two years ago, Newton opened his Southern restaurant, Seersucker. He wanted to challenge the “fried-chicken thing,” the simple dish as synecdoche for the complex cuisine. So he only served it on Tuesday nights.
That lasted a year, until popular demand put it on the menu full-time, with local carrots and potatoes and bourbon-Vidalia gravy. There’s nothing wrong with this, really. Newton didn’t want Seersucker to be a theme park, but having one roller coaster doesn’t mean you have a theme park. Besides, having weathered the fried-chicken epidemic, he—an antidote—is now freer to introduce New Yorkers to the nuances of Southern cuisine.
Seersucker’s menu is erudite and introspective—unexpectedly familiar, like watching your favorite show in a hotel room on vacation. Thus, the first plate I ate there: shaved radishes and carrots, scattered like fallen blossoms on a dab of Pennsylvania yogurt-and-Sea Island benne seed dressing.
“The idea that every time a Southern family sits down it’s just a mountain of hush puppies and you stick your head in a bowl of grits is fucking insulting,” Newton says as we start eating. He’s a warm, salt-and-peppered guy, Dude-like in demeanor. “When people sit down, I want them to start thinking, ‘Wow, I didn't expect that from a Southern restaurant.’” He wants to refine Southern dishes without ripping out their souls, which means menu items like his collard greens—New Jersey collards cooked with country ham and house-made stock—are “rich and soulful and just cleaned up and polished, without being, like, collard-green foam.”
It’s an ethos that is perhaps most purely expressed in the grilled North Carolina trout. It comes from Sunburst Trout Farms, a three-generation outfit in Canton, North Carolina; the piece on my plate arrived that morning. The trout is served atop Carolina-rice risotto with New Jersey mâche, morels, slivered asparagus, and charred-ramp vinaigrette. (Newton, who sources largely from the farmers’ market across the street and stocks all-American wines and spirits, had just bought six pounds of ramps off a neighbor.)
Between the cleanliness of the fish, the sultriness of the risotto and the earthiness of those vegetables—especially the ramps, which called to mind my West Virginia home—the dish was elemental and confident, a little handsy. I’ve been thinking about it for days. It’s with glee that I await the first New Yorker who threatens to go insane over too much trout.
Seersucker’s popularity signals the beginning of a more enlightened local interest in Southern cuisine, following the first-wave frenzy for its greasiest components. Its prominence in New York, chicken-fried warts and all, has a certain symmetry: It’s roomy, for starters. As Sean Brock, the esteemed Charleston chef behind Husk, put it to me, the South is almost a mini Europe, culinarily. (Here’s some Southern love for you: Brock is the only Southern chef in recent memory to be profiled in The New Yorker. The national food media loves him, which means that restaurant-savvy New Yorkers know him despite their being separated from Husk by about seven hundred and fifty miles.) He spoke of influences ranging from the French Huguenots to West Africa, and that’s only in Charleston. Southern cuisine is a food of many fluencies, and New York is a city of many tongues.
Right now, it’s also a place in the throes of an urbanist-artisan movement strong enough to keep its residents in small-batch popsicles and hyper-local beef jerky for years to come. It’s a campaign rooted in integrity—a careening from the artificiality of the mid-century diet—but not without pitfalls. For inhabitants of a concrete island suddenly fond of keeping bees and bottling moonshine, those pitfalls include a farmhouse romanticization that can border on fetishistic. (One can only hope that, like the fried-chicken frenzy, this trend will soon reach a more aware equilibrium.)
When I talked to Francis Lam, Gilt Taste features editor, about Southern food’s moment in New York, he made a similar point. “I can't help but think there’s a connection between wanting to eat locally and feeling close to the source, but you still live in cities, so you romanticize an agrarian past,” he said. “Even though, in New York, New England is much closer and in many ways still has a vibrant rural culture, there’s this weird thing where you’re both wanting to feel connection to a past and wanting to exoticize it a bit.”
Of course, in doing this, eager pastoral-sentimentalists must be careful not to generalize Southern life as rural life, and in turn, generalize rural life as idyllic life. It’s part of the reason that Newton bristles at the idea of hailing Southern cuisine as a kind of universal comfort food.
“My dad grew up on a farm where they grew their own corn, killed their own hogs, made their own bacon,” he said. “That’s not fucking comfort. That’s necessity.” The comment reminded me of a New York Times Magazine essay by Elisabeth Donnelly, in which her mother expressed confusion at Donnelly’s desire for a shapely dress from Banana Republic’s “Mad Men” collection: “Why would you want to go through that again? I really like wearing pants.”
And yet the spirit of this nostalgia, if not always its zealotry, is warranted. When I talked to Sean Brock, he singled out the Reconstruction era as the time when Southern cuisine began to really take shape. (It gave us hoppin’ johns, which he describes as pretty much an edible metaphor for the cultural, racial, and socioeconomic temperature of the period.) I suggested that American cuisine could be embarking on a re-Reconstruction era, a climate that enjoins us to tear apart, re-examine, and rebuild. “As Americans, we gotta be proud of where we’re from and how we grew up, and our customs and traditions,” he said. “The trustiest and most honest form of cooking is right underneath your feet, and it’s always been there. It doesn’t matter where you are. We’ve been so busy looking forward, but we haven't looked down.”
We’re starting to now—and not just down, but back. Starting a small-batch jam company in your Queens apartment or building a Southern menu from Brooklyn are both attempts to answer the same question of culinary self-identification that, writ large, asks what American cuisine is right now.
As Lam said when we spoke: “For a long time we looked outwards toward Europe, Asia, ‘more exotic locales.’ And in the last twenty, fifteen years, we’ve tried to find that stuff back home. I think it coincided with American chefs in the ’80s saying, ‘Hey, we’re doing cool stuff here.’ The media has followed that inward look, looking back into our own land. I can’t say ‘this begat that,’ but there are all these interesting confluences.”
Within this broader rediscovery of American cuisine, then, the South has a lot to offer, including a rich history (“People love dishes with stories,” Brock said) and fertile agriculture that once fed much of the country, including New York. Also, as food writer John T. Edge said to me, there’s been a cyclical interest in the South since the days of Gone with the Wind. “This moment is particular in that I think America is waking up to the import of regional culinary culture,” he said. “This kind of punitive food press of the moment that says, ‘My God, America, what are you eating?’, Michael Pollan’s great work, and so many others. There’s also this counter influence: ‘OK, if that’s wrong, what’s right?’”
And where is it?
Sean Brock has the admittedly evangelical view that Southern cuisine is terroir. He’s a seed-and-earth man. This makes relocation tricky: “You can pull it off, and people should. But I’m so obsessed with tasting the dirt that it’d be very difficult for me. Morally,” he said with a laugh.
Perhaps, like a person uprooted, a cuisine uprooted looks back to its origins for understanding. Perhaps it’s not most important where this happens as that it happens at all, and what happens next. With distance, our gazes toward home can provoke powerful insights. It seems then that it’s beneficial, maybe vital, that a cuisine flourish both at home and away, together if not always in the same direction.
I asked John T. Edge about cuisine through space. “I think it’s about intent and honesty, and a deep and profound knowledge of the place you’re interpreting,” he said, mentioning Rob Newton. “To my mind—what he’s doing at Seersucker—the menu is pretty straightforward, with local ingredients and Southern sensibilities. To me, that seems right in the North. I think the best restaurants in New York represent Southern inspiration and a New York supply chain.”
Of course, Newton’s menu is still in some ways a literal product of the South, with Sea Island benne seeds, Carolina trout, even Georgia olive oil. It’s also worth noting, as both Brock and Newton did, that the geographical distance in question isn’t that far. “Where does local stop?” Newton said. “Because I can drive to where I can get this trout; I can make it to Asheville in a day.”
The finale of my meal at Seersucker was rice pudding, simple in theory. It was topped with Southern pecan pralines and local rhubarb, and the inside of the bowl was coated with dulce de leche, so that each spoonful captured some. Newton told me that its inspiration came from the rice pudding at the Paris restaurant L’Ami Jean. I read about this restaurant in Adam Gopnik’s 2011 book, The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food. Gopnik is told to visit L’Ami Jean by a member of France’s energetic Le Fooding movement—Le Fooding’s perspective being that French cooking, after so many years of dogmatic devotion to the canon, needs to be reinvigorated as a “living cuisine.”
This is not to say that Southern cuisine is aged or tired; indeed, we’ve only just begun the historical excavations that will propel it. But Newton’s globalized inspiration—Arkansas by way of Paris by way of New York—combined with the Le Fooding concept of kinetic cuisine took me back to that conversation with Edge about transporting a culture’s food. He’d begun by bringing up the anthropologist Sidney Mintz, explaining Mintz’s argument that having a cuisine meant having an engaged and educated class of eaters that know and defend the canon—astute eaters informed enough to give feedback and be part of the conversation. “I think what New York lacks is that educated class of eater who knows what the canon is and says, ‘Oh you’ve gone too far, boy,’” Edge said.
At this moment, I’d agree. But maybe not for long.