NYT: Growing number of Southern farmers “want to reclaim the agrarian roots of Southern cooking, restore its lost traditions and dignity”

If you’re interested in “slow food”, “farm to table”, “eating local”, or any of the other relatively recent efforts to bring back old ways of thinking about food production, purchase, and consumption — or if you are just interested in good Southern cooking — then you might want to check out a great piece in the New York Times today: Southern Farmers Vanquish the Cliches.

Here’s the opening:

IT’S not hard to get Emile DeFelice riled up. Just mention Paula Deen, the so-called queen of Southern food, who cooks with canned fruit and Crisco. Or say something like “You don’t look like a Southern pig farmer.” He’ll practically hit the ceiling of his Prius.

Because there are a few things about Southern food that the man just can’t stand: its hayseed image, the insiders who feed that image and the ignorant outsiders who believe in it.

“Just because I’m a farmer doesn’t mean I spend all my time feeding pigs,” said Mr. DeFelice, a natty, voluble fellow who raises 200 pigs here at Caw Caw Creek Farm in the softly forested hills north of Charleston, S.C. “That’s an absurd proposition.”

The piece focuses on South Carolina and mentions various farms, growers, mills and restaurants (including Husk, Cypress, and Wild Olive).

The sheer number of players and the level of detail in the piece make it plain that Southern cooking just might be transformed by this movement.

Or maybe we’ll see an ironic divergence, with poorer people continuing to eat cheaper pre-prepared and overly processed foods and only wealthier people able to afford to eat the local delicacies talked about in the piece? Price is only mentioned once, and that’s in the context of high prices helping support small producers.

That concern aside, there are some other interesting — and heartening — passages, like this one:

“As an obsessive person, you realize that there is a better version of everything out there,” said Sean Brock, the Charleston chef whose restaurant Husk serves only food produced south of the Mason-Dixon line, from Georgia olive oil to Tennessee chocolate to capers made from locally foraged elderberries. Many Southern chefs are working along similar lines — Frank Stitt, Mike Lata, Andrea Reusing and Linton Hopkins are just a few — but Mr. Brock’s rigor has redefined what it means to cook like a Southerner today. Young chefs are joining in, learning butchery and fermentation, putting up chowchow and piccalilli, experimenting with wood ash to make their own hominy.

And this:

Around Charleston, the relationships between chefs and producers are particularly intimate. “The guys who taught me how to mill are stuck in their ways,” said Greg Johnsman, the owner of Geechie Boy Mill on Edisto Island, who drives around the region collecting antique machines used to preserve the particular bran-oil-starch ratio of his cornmeal and grits. “These days, the food comes from factories, and only the chefs care about how things taste.”

Even if you’re down to one or two free articles on the NYT this month, you might want to take a look at this one.

Meanwhile, Paul Deen has also made other news today. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine included Paula Deen’s Southern Cooking Bible on its list of the five most unhealthy cookbooks published last year. Mary Landers of the Savannah Morning News has interesting and entertaining coverage here.