“In the South, pimento cheese is a little bit like barbecue: everyone swears theirs is the best” is how Ashley Christensen, the chef-owner of Poole’s Downtown Diner in Raleigh and the proprietor of five other Raleigh restaurants, slides into her pimento cheese recipe in Poole’s: Recipes and Stories from a Modern Diner (Ten Speed Press; $35). “But pimento cheese,” Christensen notes, “didn’t originate in the South; it has roots in the industrial food revolution in New York. Sometime around the 1950s, Southerners claimed it, giving pimento cheese its now-permanent residence below the Mason-Dixon Line.”
That teaspoon of history points to a theme running through many of this season’s Southern cookbooks. The South may have a reputation for being insular, but don’t try to prove that with its cookery: Southerners have been assimilating far-flung influences into their kitchens for as long as there’s been a South, be those influences Native American (barbecue, cornbread), African (okra, boiled peanuts), Mexican (the Mississippi Delta’s hot tamales), Indian (Country Captain)…the list goes on. The South’s cuisine is often likened to gumbo—a thick and bubbling mélange, spiked with a little bit of this, a little bit of that—yet the metaphor, like the dish, comes from West Africa.
But let’s get back to the pimento cheese, because we’re hungry and no other gloppy substance, aside from cake frosting, provides as much ounce-for-ounce joy. Christensen is a North Carolina native, and her recipes paint a portrait of a hip, modern South: Duck Liver and Sweet Potato Dirty Rice Cakes, tuna tartare enlivened with deep-fried quinoa. The inspiration for her pimento cheese, however, came from her godmother’s parents, who hailed from Chillicothe, Ohio. Hers/theirs is a traditional but refined take. She ditches jarred peppers to flame-roast her own; her mayonnaise isn’t Duke’s but rather a cider-vinegar-based homemade version; the cheddar is aged three years; and she serves it on crostini (but probably on saltines at home). The extra labor doesn’t yield you anything showy—it’s still pimento cheese, honey. But it’s spectacular pimento cheese, bright and extra-nuanced like a blues classic given new vibrancy by remastering. The only downside: You might life-sentence yourself to repeating all that labor every time a craving strikes.
The pimento cheese in Elliott Moss’s Buxton Hall Barbecue’s Book of Smoke: Wood-Smoked Meat, Sides, and More (Voyageur Press; $28) is, appropriately, smoked. Well, some of it is: a quarter of the grated cheddar that goes into the mix. (Turning the page, you witness that pimento cheese going into a potluck-ready cheese ball that, for the full surgeon general’s warning effect, gets rolled in chopped smoked pecans and then dusted with smoked paprika.) Moss smokes grits and deviled eggs and cornbread, too, but that’s about as outré as he gets. Much of the book is a whip-smart, handsome-looking primer on the thing that’s earned Buxton Hall so much acclaim since it opened just a year ago in Asheville: meat, cooked low and slow over coals. This book is your one-stop guide for hosting an epic pig picking: building the pit, smoking the hog, making the sides, and afterward finishing off your pork-wobbled guests with a killer dessert (Grape Hull Pie with a Rye Crumble).
If the way you shop for meat involves a tree stand, hire Hank Shaw as your kitchen guide. Shaw’s venison-focused follow-up to his lushly informative 2013 waterfowl cookbook, Duck, Duck, Goose, is called—wait for it—Buck, Buck, Moose: Recipes and Techniques for Cooking Deer, Elk, Antelope, Moose, and Other Antlered Things (H&H Books; $30). It’s lush, too. The South’s deer camp kitchens get their nods (Kentucky Smoked Venison Barbecue, Cajun Boudin Balls), but Shaw’s hunger has a passport and gets around, darting from Eastern Europe to Ethiopia and wherever else antlered game ends up on a plate. He’s an especially agile and valuable guide to home charcuterie, an intimidating prospect for many hunters; this is the guy you want talking you through the three-to-five-month process of hanging a cured deer ham.
Asha Gomez’s My Two Souths: Blending the Flavors of India into a Southern Kitchen (Running Press; $35), cowritten with Martha Hall Foose, illustrates what happens when another cuisine meets the South’s and they have a litter of small-plate babies. Gomez was born and raised in Kerala, India. Sixteen years ago she settled in Georgia, where she made a big splash cooking at Atlanta’s Cardamom Hill restaurant; she now operates an Indian patisserie there called Spice to Table. Gomez likes to smuggle her ancestral flavors into Southern classics: Her biscuits get a crackle of Tellicherry pepper; curry leaves go into her hoppin’ John; coriander syrup drizzles her fried chicken; her pralines get wised up with black pepper and orange zest; and her shrimp gumbo adheres to Lafayette, Louisiana, Junior League protocol until garam masala and cardamom powder go jumping in. Some of these are fun experiments; others seem destined to become new Southern classics.
Cúrate is a Spanish tapas restaurant in Asheville, just a few blocks up from Buxton Hall. Chef and co-owner Katie Button’s Cúrate: Authentic Spanish Food from an American Kitchen (Flatiron Books; $35) doesn’t take the fusion route in its recipes, but the Southern larder is often peeping through in her ingredient lists. Exhibit A: a gorgeous salad of heirloom tomatoes and watermelon with goat cheese that gets crunch from a sprinkle of corn nuts. You have to love a salad that includes an ingredient most easily sourced at gas stations.
My favorite cookbook of the season, however—the one doomed to the most splatters—is Vivian Howard’s Deep Run Roots: Stories and Recipes from My Corner of the South (Little, Brown and Company; $40). Howard trained under New York’s avant-garde before opening Chef & the Farmer in Kinston, North Carolina, ten years ago. (She also cocreated and stars in the PBS series A Chef’s Life.) Howard cooks with what can only be called wit—her fried okra is accompanied by ranch ice cream; raw oysters, emboldened with jalapeños, are served on swoops of pork rinds—but also magnificent heart. There’s no magic besides old-fashioned memaw love in her Fresh Corn Roasted in Chicken Drippings. Duck, Date and Rutabaga Potpie with a Duck-Fat Biscuit Crust will keep your soul fed for weeks.
Oh, and as for pimento cheese: Inspired by the “artery cement” her sister Leraine serves out of a Crock-Pot with Fritos on Christmas Eve (cream cheese, sausage, Ro-Tel, you know it), Howard mixes her pimento cheese with crumbled sausage and bakes it into a gooey, bread-crumb-topped, casserole-like dip. It’s ridiculously delicious, as even the portioning note attests: “Serves one to eight.”
Want the recipe for Vivian Howard’s Baked Pimento Cheese & Sausage? Find it, and more recipes from the featured cookbooks, at gardenandgun.com/fallcookbooks