Food & Drink

A Tasty Tour of the Modern South

With Secrets of the Southern Table, author and chef Virginia Willis explores the region’s changing culinary landscape—from cathead biscuits to catfish tacos

Photo: Angie Mosier

Virginia Willis has gone global. For the past ten years, the Georgia-born, French-trained chef and cookbook author has cultivated a brand around the time-honored, cast-iron cooking of Southern grandmas, from fried chicken to blueberry cobbler.

Along the way, she’s heard all the stereotypes—that Southern food is rich, fattening, bad for you.

In 2015, the author of Bon Appetit, Y’all and Basic to Brilliant, Y’all decided to set the record straight. Lighten Up, Y’all expressed her vision that that cooking from below the Mason-Dixon Line need not be hazardous to the waistline. (The book went on to win the 2016 James Beard Award for best cookbook with a focus on health.)

Now Willis is showing that the South’s borders are bigger than we may think. For Secrets of the Southern Table: A Food Lover’s Tour of the Global South, out on May 1, she traveled to eleven states, documenting African-American farmers in Georgia, Vietnamese shrimpers in Texas, and “Appalachicano” taco vendors in Kentucky. She found artisans who make fine country hams, bubbly apple ciders, and jewel-toned preserves—that all of them are women is a grace note. Along the way, Willis soaked up ideas and inspiration for her 80-recipe collection, a winning juxtaposition of the old and new.

We recently chatted with Willis about Secrets of the Southern Table, and how classics like soup beans and cathead biscuits can share the same table with Southeast Asian Chicken larb and ingenious oven-roasted rainy-day ribs.


How did this book come about?

The reason I wrote Secrets of the Southern Table is that I wanted to share with people that not only was Southern food all not unhealthy, but also an agricultural driven cuisine. Southern food is a living, breathing, changing thing. It is not something that is meant to be only sort of handled by dewy-eyed grandmothers or museums. I feel like there are so many different cultures that have come together to make Southern food what it is.


You dive right into the differences—and similarities…

Very specifically I chose to start the book with Will Harris (of White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Georgia) and Matthew Raiford (of The Farmer & The Larder in Brunswick, Georgia). Because Will’s family farm was founded when his ancestors came in from fighting for the Confederacy. And Matthew’s family farm was founded when his ancestors were emancipated. I wanted to start with black and white. This is where we are, people. This is where we start.


Many readers love your recipes because they aren’t too fussy. Is that intentional?

I work to try to make recipes that people are going to do, not just me a professional cook. … I can chef it up or go down-home comfort. I can make fancy food with tweezers. But that’s not usually what I write about. I think the reason people do like my books is because I try to do practical recipes.


Some of the recipes that you might expect to be rich in fat are fairly light. For instance, your Cream of Anything Soup calls for just ¼ cup of cream. Is nutrition still important to you?

I think it’s responsible thing to do, as both an author and for my own sake.

But it’s not only a personal reason. It’s also a professional reason, because I just keep going back to the fact that everyone thinks Southern food is unhealthy. It doesn’t have to be.


Summer is nearly upon is. What should we be thinking about cooking from this book?

Summer squash with lemon vinaigrette and harissa, the Moroccan spice blend. It’s like pan seared, super-high-heat summer squash. If one couldn’t find harissa, they could use hot sauce or sriracha. I inserted it in there because summer squash is such a Southern vegetable. Just because we are in the South, every summer squash recipe doesn’t have to be squash casserole. And having said that, there is a tomato pie, too.


Chicken Larb with Georgia Peanuts

This Thai-inspired dish from chef Virginia Willis makes a perfect light dinner

Serves 4 to 6


    • 1 pound ground chicken or turkey

    • 2 cups cold water, more if needed

    • 2 cups fresh mint leaves, washed and dried

    • 1 cup fresh cilantro leaves, washed and dried

    • ¾ cup unsalted roasted peanuts

    • Juice of 2 limes

    • 3 tbsp. fish sauce

    • 4 Thai red chiles, or to taste, seeded and finely chopped

    • 2 shallots, very thinly sliced (about ½ cup)

    • 3 green onions, chopped

    • 1 cup carrot matchsticks, or 3 carrots, grated

    • ¼ cup finely chopped fresh ginger

    • 1 head cabbage, cored, leaves separated

“Several years ago, I visited my cousins in South Georgia, the heart of peanut country,” says chef Virginia Willis, author of the new book, Secrets of the Southern Table. “It was in the early fall and I had my car windows rolled down to enjoy the evening breeze. Suddenly, the fragrant scent of soil filled the night air. I instantly realized I was traveling next to a freshly dug field of peanuts. It was one of the most powerful moments, my senses being flooded by the aroma of rich earth. Peanuts grow below the ground, not on a tree like pecans or walnuts. They are very high in moisture when harvested, so they are tilled and allowed to stay in the field for several days to dry out. Georgia is the number one peanut-producing state in the United States, accounting for approximately 49 percent of the crop’s national acreage and production.”

Larb is a Southeast Asian salad from Laos and Thailand and is most often made with ground pork and traditionally garnished with peanuts. The South isn’t exactly known for its Thai food, but one Atlanta family is developing an outsize reputation for this cuisine. Charlie and Nan Niyomkul own Nan Thai Fine Dining; their daughter Dee Dee and her husband opened Tuk Tuk, rated as one of the top Thai restaurants in the United States. This recipe was inspired by Tuk Tuk’s larb kai prepared with minced chicken and cabbage.”


  1. Place the chicken in a small saucepan. Add cold water to cover (about 2 cups). Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat to maintain a simmer. Cook gently, breaking up the chicken with a wooden spoon as it cooks, until the chicken is opaque, 5 to 7 minutes. (Skim the foam that rises to the top while cooking. It’s simply coagulated protein and doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the chicken.)

  2. Remove the chicken from the heat and drain well, reserving the cooking liquid for another use. (You can use it as a light stock to cook with or even season it and sip it.) Transfer the well-drained chicken to a medium bowl and set aside to cool just slightly.

  3. Add the mint, cilantro, peanuts, lime juice, fish sauce, chiles, shallots, green onions, carrot, and ginger. Stir to combine. To serve, spoon a few tablespoons or so of the larb into a cabbage leaf, fold the cabbage leaf somewhat like a taco, and eat.

Excerpted from Secrets of the Southern Table © 2018 by Virginia Willis. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

Rainy-Day Ribs

Chef Virginia Willis on how to save the cookout when the weather won’t cooperate

Serves 4 to 6


    • 2 racks baby back ribs (about 3½ pounds total)

    • 1 cup Sweet Heat Rub (below)

    • Tangy Barbecue Sauce (recipe follows), for serving

  • Tangy Barbecue Sauce (Makes about 6 cups)

    • 2 tbsp. canola oil

    • 1 sweet onion, very finely chopped

    • 1 (24-ounce) bottle ketchup (2½ cups)

    • 2 cups apple cider vinegar or distilled white vinegar

    • ½ cup Worcestershire sauce

    • ¼ cup Dijon mustard

    • 2 tbsp. firmly packed brown sugar

    • Juice of 2 lemons

    • Hot sauce

    • 2 tbsp. freshly ground black pepper, or to taste

    • Coarse kosher salt

  • Sweet Heat Rub

    • ¼ cup brown sugar

    • ¼ cup paprika

    • 2 tbsp. coarse kosher salt

    • 1 tbsp. garlic powder

    • 1 tbsp. freshly ground black pepper

    • 1 tbsp. piment d'Espelette, Aleppo pepper, or red pepper flakes, or to taste

    • 2 tbsp. canola oil

“When it comes to deciding what type of ribs to cook,” says chef Virginia Willis, author of the new book, Secrets of the Southern Table, “you have basically two choices: spareribs and baby back ribs. Spareribs are cut from the ribs closest to the belly and are meaty, bony, and thick. Baby back ribs are cut from where the rib meets the spine. They’re only called “baby” because they are shorter and thinner than spareribs; they don’t refer to the age of the pig. Each baby back rib rack averages ten or so curved ribs that are 4 to 6 inches long and weighs about 1½ pounds, which easily feeds two people as a main course. Baby back ribs also usually have a slightly higher price tag, but I think they are well worth the cost, as they are generally leaner, more tender, and quicker cooking.”

“Discovering low-temperature oven roasting was a serious revelation. Yes, of course ribs taste amazing slowly smoked, but long cook times on a grill isn’t the only option for succulent ribs. Rainy-Day Ribs and ribs with little to no effort also sound good to me. Lifting the ribs above the baking sheet on a rack lets the heat circulate on all sides. After a few hours, the meat is tender, nearly falling off the bone, and you’ll have finger-licking-good ribs.”


  1. For the ribs: Adjust the oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 300°F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil and set a wire rack on the sheet. Spray the rack with nonstick spray.

  2. Rub each set of baby back ribs with ½ cup of the sweet heat rub. Set aside to come to room temperature, 30 minutes. (This step can be done a day ahead for deeper flavor: Rub the ribs with the rub and place in a resealable plastic container, or wrap in plastic wrap. If you use plastic wrap, make sure to place the wrapped ribs on a rimmed baking sheet to catch any seeping liquid due to the salt in the rub. Refrigerate to marinate overnight.)

  3. Place the rubbed ribs side by side on the prepared baking sheet. Transfer to the oven and roast until the ribs are done and a knife slides easily into the thickest part of the rib meat, 2 hours.

  4. Remove from the oven and let the ribs rest, covered loosely in aluminum foil, for about 10 minutes, and then cut between the bones to separate the individual ribs. Serve immediately with the barbecue sauce for dipping.

  5. For the barbecue sauce: 

    Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and simmer until soft, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the ketchup. Pour the vinegar into the ketchup bottle and shake to loosen all the ketchup from the sides. Pour the vinegar from the bottle into the saucepan and add the Worcestershire sauce, mustard, brown sugar, lemon juice, hot sauce, and pepper.

  6. Bring to a boil, decrease the heat to low, and simmer until the flavors have smoothed and mellowed, at least 10 minutes and up to 30 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator. The sauce will last for months.

  7. For the rub:

    Combine the brown sugar, paprika, salt, garlic powder, black pepper, and piment d’Espelette in a small bowl.

Excerpted from Secrets of the Southern Table © 2018 by Virginia Willis. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.