Southern food: A lot to sink your teeth into

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comNovember 23, 2013 

Allan Benton proudly calls himself a hillbilly.

He may be a hillbilly, but he also is a rock star to white-tablecloth chefs around the world.

That says a lot about the South, and the Music to Your Mouth culinary festival this weekend that attracted Benton from Madisonville, Tenn., to the high cotton of Bluffton's Palmetto Bluff and its five-diamond inn overlooking the May River.

His grandmother would roll over in her grave if she could see it.

The slow-cured country ham and bacon Benton is famous for was plain old sustenance food to his family, scraping to survive in the rocky depths of Southern Appalachian poverty.

His hogs don't feed on acorns, like his grandmother's did because they were too poor to feed them in the winter. But he cures the meat the same way his father and grandmother did after their annual hog-killings on Thanksgiving Day.

As others turned to quick-cures and mass production, the words of Benton's father kept ringing in his ears: "If you play the other man's game, you'll always be the loser."

It made sense, but it sure did look like Allan and Sharon Benton and their three children were going to be the big losers.

Benton peddled hams sometimes cured 20 months to tourist traps and greasy spoons. Sharon planted, canned, cooked, sewed, and worked in the schools. A son went to medical school. Then Allan's old ways, with the same old family recipe, were discovered by chef John Fleer at the Blackberry Farm luxury resort.

Soon John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi, twisted Allan and Sharon's arms into cooking their smoky bacon for a party of 400 chefs and foodies. The Bentons reluctantly agreed, and loaded up their iron skillets as big as manhole covers.

After 40 years in the smokehouse, Allan Benton was an overnight sensation.

HONEST STORIES

Edge, whose organization helps stage Music to Your Mouth, said chefs and diners now see stories like that as a key ingredient.

They want to know the back-stories on the working-class cooks, farmers, ham-curers and fishermen who have sustained the region.

"Who are the provincial cooks of this region? What are the ways they cooked? What are the ways in which they sourced their food?" Edge said.

Since 1999, the Southern Foodways Alliance has larded away scores of oral histories, films, books, blogs, newsletters, symposia and other events to document a culinary culture now riding high on the hog.

"I've learned that, over the last five years, Southern food has been rehabilitated, Southern food has been gentrified, Southern food is now celebrated," he said. "It is our responsibility to leverage this moment when everybody is thinking about Southern food, everybody is writing about Southern food, to tell honest stories about Southern food."

On Thursday, Edge lost his mentor when alliance founder John Egerton of Nashville died. Egerton gave us "Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History" in 1987.

As we talked, he was writing Egerton's obituary for The New York Times.

From Egerton, Edge learned that a good look at food tells a lot about society.

"Reading Mr. Egerton," Edge wrote for the Times, "I took my first steps toward paying down the debts of pleasure that we Southerners owe the cooks who came before us."

He sees Palmetto Bluff as a good partner to give characters in the Southern food story a bigger stage and louder megaphone.

MANY INGREDIENTS

Edge grew up in a small town near Macon, Ga., about the time Southerners turned from farms and gardens to the shake-and-bake world of supermarkets and drive-thrus. It also was the era of the Civil Rights Act, which rocked the South.

"I went to grad school because I wanted to do race relations work and realized along the way that the work I could do and the work that interested me most was using food as a way of bridging the race gap, the class gaps and others," he said.

That means acknowledging that African American cooks helped shape the cuisine. And that they have names -- first and last names.

It means discovering that the South is far more diverse than people think.

"Some of my favorite restaurants in Texas are Vietnamese-owned Cajun crawfish joints," Edge said.

He said that's just as Southern as oyster stew and fried shrimp at Speed's Kitchen, two hours down the coast in Shellman Bluff, Ga.

"I don't want to box Southern food and present it with a bow on top and say, 'This is what Southern food is,' " Edge said.

But an honest look at food is important to more than the farm-to-table movement that has helped Allan Benton so much.

Edge believes it can be part of the South's redemption.

"If you can accept that this region has a tragic past and yet say that out of that tragic past came these beautiful bi-racial creations, music and food especially, and take pride in the beauty that has come out of horror, that is a way forward," Edge said. "That's a progressive way forward: to acknowledge our past and leverage it for the future.

"And that's what I am most hopeful about."

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

Related content:

Chef Sean Brock gets to the root of Lowcountry cooking, Nov. 19, 2013

Palmetto Bluff

Southern Foodways Alliance

Sharon Benton: "I Could Have Been a Pioneer Woman"

The Island Packet is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service