Food for Thought

Illustration by Michael Witte
by Julia Reed - Oct/Nov 2011

A few musings—old and new—on the greatest of all Southern levelers

I have been trying really hard to think of something new to say about Southern food, a subject that I (along with a host of other people) have written a whole lot about. I have written about funeral food and pimento cheese factions and George Jones versus Jimmy Dean sausage. I have attempted to prove the superiority of Southern cuisine with the all too easy comparison of our Junior League cookbooks with those from the North (Talk about Good! versus Posh Pantry; Aunt Margie’s Better than Sex Layered Cookies versus Grape Nuts Pudding). And I am still trying to prove the existence of the lone Mexican who introduced the hot tamale to the Mississippi Delta, where I grew up.

Whether or not this mythic figure ever actually roamed these parts is immaterial. The existence of the Delta tamale itself proves what I have long known, that Southern food is the Great Leveler. Hot tamales are beloved by rich and poor, black and white, and they are easily accessible at roadside stands, cafés, and restaurants. A dozen hots wrapped in shucks at either Scott’s in Greenville or the White Front Café in Rosedale sell for $8. The ones wrapped in paper at Greenville’s Doe’s Eat Place (the first solid food I ever ate) sell for a little more than $10. But then, pretty much all great Southern food is cheap. Wyatt Cooper, the late Mississippi-born husband of Gloria Vanderbilt and father of Anderson Cooper, once wrote, “The best French restaurants in the world are wasted on me. All I want is a few ham hocks fried in bacon grease, a little mess of turnips with sowbelly, and a hunk of cornbread and I’m happy.”

If this was Cooper’s menu of choice, then he was not only happy, but also rich—even without Gloria. I myself just returned from France, where I dined at two of “the best French restaurants,” L’Oustau de Baumanière in Les Baux and the Grand Vefour in Paris, and the bill for four people at each place put me in mind of what my father once said about a particularly pricey family ski trip to Aspen: “Next year, we don’t have to go—I can get the same effect standing in a cold shower burning up thousand dollar bills.” France in July might not have been as chilly, but each l’addition was considerably more than the entire tab for a brunch I gave for a New Orleans debutante the weekend I returned home. The deb in question is the daughter of one of my closest friends, and her special menu request was for an hors d’oeuvre I make consisting of a piece of bacon wrapped around a piece of watermelon pickle and broiled. I was delighted to comply—these little bundles are not only inexpensive, they are also salty and sweet and pair extremely well with the ham biscuits and pimento cheese sandwiches I alspassed around. The main course, 250 pieces of fried chicken from McHardy’s on Broad Street, cost me exactly $240.90. The debs had just been introduced to what passes for high society in my adopted city, and they seemed not just content but really happy to munch on some crispy chicken that cost less than a dollar per piece.