An anomaly on the list of Southern delights
Sweet tea, smothered pork chops, fried green tomatoes, blackberry cobbler, okra, lima beans, hopping john, chow-chow pickle, tea cakes... these are only a few of the tasty delights you might find on a hunt for bon-a-fide southern cuisine. The list goes on and on. And like in other regions of the country, these tasty gems are tied directly to the geography and colloquialisms that give rise to local culture. All of these delectable wonders (except for hopping john which surely must be an Alabama concoction) and more provided the backdrop for good times and good eats at our farm on the flat side of Tennessee.
My grandmother, Mary, was an extraordinary cook. She hummed while she cooked. A woman of measured words, it didn’t take me long to determine that when she spoke, I needed to listen. Looking back, I think she was a deep thinker and I’ve recently decided that it’s one of the treasures that she passed on to me. I love my quiet time and require a good deal of it to satisfy my insatiable need to think. But thinking isn’t the only skill I inherited from my grandmother; I got her cooking skills too! Some years back I added to my “to do” list a book I should write titled “Pot Liquor and Turnip Greens”, a tribute to the wonderful legacy of food passed on for several generations in my family.
I’ve not yet written the book, but it’s still on my ever-growing list. Until the time when I can give it the attention it needs, I thought I’d share a bit of my yore and lore with you now. An exhaustive list of “Southern Delights” would not be complete without the entry “pot liquor.” I call it an anomaly because it does not fit into any food group OR maybe it fits into all of them. I guess I’d better define “pot liquor” for my readers who don’t hail from the South. Pot liquor is that rich, tasty juice that’s left in the bottom of the pot once you’ve removed whatever meat or vegetable that was boiled therein.
Where I come from pot liquor, like brown gravy, was an important part of most meals. Not only were these staples palatable fare, but for struggling families, they often served to bridge the gap between hungry and fed. I grew up on a 30-acre farm which produced as many as 30 different kinds of fruits and vegetables annually including: sweet and red potatoes, several varieties of peas, beans, greens, peppers, squash, berries and melons; peanuts, onions, tomatoes, and corn. In fact, my grandfather, who died before I was a twinkle in my mother’s eye, left a legacy of wisdom and feeding the hungry. When neighbors ran short of food in our community they were almost always directed to “Brother Andrew.”
Every year Papa Andrew planted huge gardens and truck patches (a large patch of land dedicated to one vegetable) and when harvest time rolled around Mama Mary canned and preserved the year’s ransom. They always hatched chickens in the spring and slaughtered a fatted hog in the winter. And to add just the right dose of variety, they hunted and fished and gathered sugar cane to cook into sorghum molasses. There was always more food than their family of seven could consume. So they fed people. Year in and year out, they fed people.
I think fondly of my days spent in the fields and gardens planting, weeding and gathering all those wonderful foods. And every now and then something on that list calls my name. A few nights ago, it was pot liquor! By now you may know that I co-host a Sunday afternoon radio program called “From the Mountain 2 the Valley Civil Rights Radio Broadcast” which highlights civil rights issues past and present. Born out of that effort is “Supper with the Foot Soldiers” held the FIRST Monday of each month at “Z’s Restaurant” downtown. Mr. Zeke, who over the years prepared food for Rev. Shuttlesworth and the other Civil rights leaders, serves up an everchanging menu of southern delicacies using NO pork!
We hosted our latest dinner this week and one of the vegetables on the menu was field peas, which quickly rallied my taste buds. But if you know me, when I’m hosting, I give very little thought to my own needs; and as a result I found myself at the end of the serving line. When I approached the steam table the field peas were no more! Of course, my taste buds started to work out a strategy of their own. It sounded something like this. “You see that pot liquor and that corn muffin over there? We could make a meal out those, truth be told! And while we are not in the least embarrassed to spin the web to make our plan a reality, we simply need to determine which of these unsuspecting servers will most likely accommodate us.” So with a broad smile on my face accompanied by an announcement that I am a REAL country girl and not some wannabe, Mr. Zeke transferred the field pea pot liquor to a Styrofoam bowl and instinctively added the corn muffin; after which we both wallowed in laughter as we reconnected with days gone by. As I dug into my “special order” delicacy, some of my table mates expressed what could only be described as sheer envy.
It’s amazing how the simplest of things can cause us to reflect and relive some of the best times of our lives. And though I travel the country over, I never get too far removed from my Southern roots. They have kept me humble and grounded for a long time now and for that I am eternally grateful! It is true that none of us gets to choose the family or situation in which we are born, but in that matter, I fared very well. I hope you can say the same; but more than that, I hope you will take the time to recall and relive some of those simple pleasures that accompanied you along your journey. And like me, I hope they tickle your taste buds, your funny bone and your down-home Southern fancy!
Sephira Bailey Shuttlesworth
As part of the commemoration of the first anniversary of the death of her late husband, Birmingham Civil Rights icon Rev. fred Shuttlesworth, Sephira will be serving one of his favorite soul food dinners in the gallery. Check back for details.
Here is the schedule for Weekly Gallery Dinners:
Oct. 7, Sephira's Soul Food
Oct. 11, George Reis of Ocean and the wines of Athens Imports
Oct. 18, Brandon Cain of Saw's Soul Kitchen in All-Avondale dinner featuring the beers of Avondale Brewery in the Avondale Bricks Gallery