What Southern Folks Eat - Celebrating the heritage of country cooking
Over the years I have amassed quite a large collection of cookbooks. I have books ranging from Southern Living cookbooks from the 1980s (because that’s when my parents cooked from them), to “The Taste of Country Cooking” by Edna Lewis from 1976, as well as the treasured Julia Child books I have mentioned before, that were written in the 1960s. I also have a number of church and community cookbooks, including one that has some of my mom’s recipes in it, from Beach Baptist Chapel on St. Joe Beach. I especially love that cookbook, as I have a loving connection with many of the people who contributed to it.
I recently I read a new-to-me cookbook which is in the vein of those community cookbooks, complete with a spiral binding. It has a name that might seem derogatory to some: “White Trash Cooking,” by Ernest Matthew Mickler. It was first published in 1986 by Ten Speed Press. It was re-released on its 25th anniversary in 2011, with a foreword written by John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA), an organization based at the University of Mississippi that studies the culture of Southern people, their food and its origin. Edge looks at the cookbook as a piece of Southern history, a look inside the culture of small town, working-class folks who made something they were proud to serve out of very modest ingredients like saltine crackers or canned tuna.
Mickler’s book doesn’t seek to be derogatory to Southerners of any station or race, he said. When he wrote the title, some folks thought he was making fun of the people who brought him up, country folks from a small town in North Florida. Mickler denied that and said that he was writing about and celebrating the food he grew up eating, food prepared by the people he loved in his working-class town. He said it was the food that he learned how to make while standing on a step-stool beside his mother at the kitchen counter, stirring and chopping and watching. It was the food that was brought to his home after the service when his mother died. It was the food he wrote about and carried around with him for years before that, stashing recipes as he collected them from friends, family and neighbors, in a plain brown paper sack.
The book, when it was finally pulled from the brown paper sack and published, was filled with recipes such as Aunt Will’s plum jelly, “kiss-me-not” sandwich (which featured sliced onions, hence the name), soda cracker pie, and Reba’s Rainbow Icebox cake. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies. It came along at a time when, as an article from the Southern Foodways Alliance states, Martha Stewart was bringing her expensive, perfectly elegant brand of cooking and entertaining to the masses. But if you lived in a humble place, and were of humble means, Stewart’s style may not have struck a note with you; Mickler knew his book would, because that’s how the people he knew and loved cooked, and he wanted to preserve and celebrate that.
Mickler said that there were similarities between “white trash cooking” and soul food, such as the use of bacon grease, fresh vegetables from the garden, and cast iron cookware. The main difference he noted was that soul food was more highly seasoned and spicy, which is my preference, honestly. But I love the idea of preserving the South’s recipes, from every part of the culture: from the coastal towns and their use of seafood in every imaginable way, to mountain folks and their creative uses of meats like possum, rabbit, and squirrel, and everything in between. It speaks to the creativity of people of all races and backgrounds, the imaginative ways they used the resources at hand, letting nothing go to waste.
I believe that no matter what your economic status, race, or gender, you will find recipes in Mickler’s amusing time-capsule of a book that you recognize or that you’d like to try. Now, I’ll be honest with you, some of the recipes in this book are not for me. I’m not going to make the four-can deep tuna pie that I found among its pages. But the Buttermilk Sky Pie? That I will try. In fact, I did try it, approximating the recipe in this book, because I love a good buttermilk pie. It’s an old Southern staple, and if you’re uninitiated, I think you should take the time to make this one, or go somewhere to order a slice, because it’s a unique creation. I think of it as sort of a poor woman’s creme brûlée. It’s creamy and delicious, and easily made with ingredients most people have on hand.
I changed Mickler’s recipe, as I wanted to use real lemon juice instead of bottled, and I baked mine longer, for starters. Try my recipe or search the internet or your own bookshelves, as there are hundreds of recipes for buttermilk pie, each with its own slight variation. The important thing to note is that it doesn’t taste like buttermilk, so don’t let the name throw you. The creamy, lemony, custard-like concoction is sure to be a favorite at your next dinner!
Lemon-essence buttermilk pie
1 chilled and unbaked pie crust
1 1/2 cups white sugar
1 cup buttermilk
one tablespoon fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons plain flour
one stick of butter, melted
2 large or 3 medium eggs, beaten well
one tablespoon vanilla extract
1. Combine the flour and sugar in a medium mixing bowl. Whisk together, then add the beaten eggs, butter and buttermilk. Stir to combine. Fold in the lemon juice and vanilla extract.
2. Pour filling into the unbaked pie crust, place pie on a baking sheet, and bake at 350 for 55 minutes, or until only the center is a bit loose when jiggled. If top is browning too quickly, cover loosely with a tented piece of foil.
Serve at room temperature or chilled. Excellent with a cup of coffee for breakfast, too!
Stephanie Hill-Frazier is a writer, food blogger and regional television chef, whose on-air nickname is "Mama Steph." She grew up in Gulf County, on St. Joe Beach, a place she will forever call home.
She is married and has three sons who are considerably taller than she is. You can find more of her recipes at WhatSouthernFolksEat.com, and she'd love to hear about your own favorite recipes via email at Steph@whatsouthernfolkseat.com.