If “Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking” sounds like an ambitious title, that’s because it’s an ambitious book, years of work from preeminent Southern chef, author, and teacher Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart, Dupree’s producer on the Georgia Public Television series, “New Southern Cooking.” (At 720 pages, printed on glossy stock, it’s also a doorstop.) Published amid a multiplying crowd of Southern cookbooks, it aims to be authoritative.
Whether or not it is depends on what you’re looking for. Given the title, you might expect a number of elements to manifest in this volume: a cultural history of the South and its foodways; a collection of classic Southern recipes, along with notes on their provenance; a look at what “New Southern” cooking means and where it’s headed; a glossary of Southern ingredients and how to source them; an education in cooking from an experienced cook.
On this last point, “Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking” delivers. From breaking down a chicken to kneading a bread, Dupree and Graubart set out to communicate a great many basic kitchen skills that are no more specifically Southern than my rice cooker. So you could make an argument for this book as a sort of roux-thickened “Joy of Cooking.” On the other points, however, the book only partly satisfies. In the end, it’s less a definitive work than a personal statement, adorned with vignettes from Dupree’s own rich life.
Although this volume may take pains to narrate the right way to make a stock, the recipes can be curiously reticent on the details. In a recipe for Hoppin’ John, the classic black-eyed peas dish, there’s a hot red pepper, but it’s not clear whether you add it whole or chopped. In a basic grits recipe, there’s no concrete indication how long to cook the grits; even a broad range (say, 20 to 40 minutes) would have been helpful. I had to resort to Google.
MASTERING THE ART OF SOUTHERN COOKING
An oven-barbecued pork tenderloin took much longer to cook than specified, even though I had less meat than the recipe called for. Is it perhaps supposed to be marinated at room temperature, therefore gaining a few degrees head start? The recipe doesn’t say. Later, readers are instructed “to make the sauce, bring to the boil,” but bring what to the boil? I guessed the marinade. Should the pork be sliced? Thinly? I guessed yes, but would’ve liked to know for sure. Also, the recipe calls for heating the oven before marinating — hours before you need to (a pet peeve of mine).
Spice-rubbed roasted fish fillets need salt, which isn’t mentioned. (Sometimes salt and pepper are specified; sometimes not.) Lemon zest is divided in the ingredients list, but the second half is never called for.
A chicken, orange, and tomato casserole cooks as prescribed, though it’s thin and soupy and there is a discouraging amount of leftovers. A quick peanut-ginger soup loosens and enhances the unctuous taste of peanut butter. It’s overwhelmingly rich, and I couldn’t finish one serving. But it works wonderfully as a sauce.
Despite these quibbles, there are a number of deeply satisfying recipes, like shrimp pilau (or purloo), simply sauteed with red pepper, celery, and bacon and perfect for a weeknight. Waffles made with cooked grits are substantial, yet crisp and buttery. Roasted okra chips are tasty, flavorful, and as “slime free” as advertised (but still, no hit with the kids). A zucchini and celery saute is sumptuously garlicky. Is it Southern? Does it matter?
I did find one recipe with that addictive, sell-your-soul-at-the-crossroads quality Southern cooking can ignite: pecan tassies. With a delicate, drop-dead-easy cream cheese crust, the little tassies pop sweetly into your mouth and are gone in two bites. The recipe is almost perfect as written (but reduce the yield from 30 to 24 if you use mini-muffin tins).
Is it unfair to hope for more from a book dedicated to what Dupree calls “the Mother Cuisine of America,” from one of its great interpreters? Possibly. The recipes’ flaws could easily be remedied in a second printing, which I hope the book will enjoy. For what it lacks in focus, “Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking” makes up for in passion, talent, and versatility.