I ordered a copy about a month ago and it joined the pile by my couch where I could flip through it every now and then - does anyone else keep a pile of cookbooks by their couch? Am I actually Seriously Demented? Demented or not, I decided to use it as the source of my New Year's Day dinner - a meal I take rather seriously, or dementedly? (That's what I needed for the New Year, a new neurosis. If you think being Southern is a bowl of fried chicken, think again. We're all neurotic, some of us just happen to be successfully neurotic.)
Paula Dean's boys look like Bubbas.
However, I'm sure the Lee brothers and the Dean brothers mamas taught them, as my mama did, "Don't judge a book by its cover." So I opened the cover.
The Southern Cookbook contains around 150 recipes beginning with a chapter on drinks, ending with a chapter named "The Bread Basket and the Pantry," and including topics like "Grits and Rice" as well as the more common chapters on meats and seafood.
There are a nice assortment of sidebars. For example: "There was a time when you could eat pimento cheese sandwiches at lunch counters throughout the South..." is the lead to three paragraphs on pimento cheese preceding a recipe for the stuff. I never cared for it, but the South has some major pimento cheese fans - or did at one time.
The Lee's recipe is rather dressed up and calls for genuine roasted peppers and real cheese instead of the canned pimentos and Velveeta I detested as a youngster. But that's what makes this book worthwhile - for the most part the recipes are old traditional cooking. Not from the 60s when I grew up, but from the turn of the last century or earlier.
IÂ tried the "83 East Bay Street Shrimp and Grits." Shrimp and grits is a South Carolina Low-country classic and deservedly so - when it's done properly. I also made the Bird-head Buttermilk Biscuits using the cracklin's variation because I'd been rendering lard all day. And for dessert I made the Sweet Potato Buttermilk Pie. After all, I had to use leftover buttermilk I'd bought for the biscuits for something. (I also made collard greens, but used my own recipe.)
The shrimp and grits were good, but not great. The biscuit recipe is solid while the biscuits themselves are as light as could be desired in a Southern biscuit. The Sweet Potato Buttermilk Pie, however, was extraordinarily good. Light, slightly tangy, and not too sweet. It would have been the best sweet potato pie I'd ever had except I screwed up and used one of those pie crusts you find in the refrigerated dairy section. I knew better, having already used one of the two in the package, but I had it and so I used it. Bad choice.
I don't think I'll be using the book much except for reference. As someone who, like the Lee Bros, was "borned and brung-up" in the South and a long-time cook it doesn't offer me much. However, if you're interested in classical Southern regional cooking, this would be an excellent investment - far better than, say, Paula Dean's books. And I suspect it will be a worthwhile reference even for me.
Sweet Potato Buttermilk Pie
1 sweet pie crust
1 1/2 lb sweet potatoes - peeled and cut into 1/2" cubes
4 tbsp unsalted butter - melted
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1/2 tsp grated nutmeg
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp kosher salt
3 lg eggs - separated
1/2 c sugar
6 tsp all-purpose flour
1/4 c whole buttermilk
Heat oven to 375F.
Blind bake pie crust.
Separate eggs, cover, and allow whites to warm for about 1 hour - this will enable them to incorporate more air and whip more quickly. (The yolks can be refrigerated until ready to use.)
Steam sweet potatoes until tender, about 20 minutes. Allow to cool and then, in a two quart bowl, mash with a fork or potato masher. Add butter, lemon juice, nutmeg, cinnamon, and salt and mix thoroughly.
Beat the egg yolks lightly, add the sugar, and continue beating until the mixture is is a creamy yellow color. Stir the yolk mixture into the sweet potatoes mix thoroughly. Add the flour, about a teaspoon at a time, mixing well after each addition. Stir in buttermilk.
BeatÂ whites until they form soft peaks. Fold a third of the whites into the sweet potatoes mixing well, but gently. Fold remaining whites into the potatoes. Pour filling into pie crust and cook in the center of the oven until the center of the pie is set - about 40 minutes.
Cool pie completely on a rack and serve either at room temperature or cold.
KevinÂ Weeks is a Gather food correspondent (Paisano), personal chef, cooking teacher, and writer in Knoxville, Tennessee who spends too many hours on his feet, cooking. "Paisano" is a column focused on peasant dishes from around the world. To read more of Kevin's writings or connect to him click here. His blog,Seriously Good, is read by 75,000 cooks a month and in addition he writes a weekly column forSpot-On.