Southern cooks like Virginia Willis fight a great battle in a world that tends to define our region’s cuisine as mac and cheese, biscuits, and fried chicken. Throughout her career, the Georgia-bred chef and cooking instructor has argued that succotash, stewed okra, and a perfect tomato sandwich are just as much icons of the Southern table. “Yeah, we’re known for fried chicken,” she says, “but judging the South only by fried chicken is like judging Chinese food by egg rolls.”
Not that the Southern culinary canon isn’t open to interpretation. For the last couple of years, Willis has been reworking beloved classics of her upbringing with the eye of a middle-aged chef who wants to eat healthier. It’s a world in which she can say yes, not no, to dishes like her family cobbler, a sweet dump-and-stir recipe designed to bake up in a cast-iron skillet.
Willis learned the original version as a child while she traveled around the country in a motor home with her grandparents. “Every other night my grandfather and I would pick wild berries and take them back to my grandmother, who would make cobbler for dessert.” These days, plump Georgia blueberries—which now rival peaches as the state’s top fruit crop— are her go-to filling. Baking enhances the berries’ particular juiciness, making them ideally suited to the cobbler treatment.
Willis’s grandmother’s recipe calls for a stick of butter, lots of sugar, and good old-fashioned white flour. Willis’s version relies on a mixture of heart-healthier oil and butter, agave syrup, and whole-wheat pastry flour (though you can certainly use White Lily). Lime zest brightens the filling, and sweetened yogurt delivers the creamy finish that in Willis’s youth might have come from a raft of whipped cream. “If you can make some changes and the recipe doesn’t suffer,” she says, “then why not?”