Food & dining

Southern cooks focus on heritage food

Blueberry cobbler.

Sena Desai Gopal for The Boston Globe

Blueberry cobbler.

The South — known for fried chicken, barbecue, and ribs — might surprise you with its heritage cooking.

The region was home to more than 30 varieties of peas and beans and several kinds of rice until the mid-20th century, when large-scale agriculture displaced the cultivation of traditional crops. Instead of cooking with peas, beans, and vegetables harvested from their farms, residents became dependent on rice from a package and dried peas and beans they bought at the grocery store. Many varieties were forgotten until a decade ago, when chefs and farmers began resurrecting heirloom crops.

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“There has been a renaissance of chefs who use traditional ingredients,” says chef Ben Adams, 33, who worked at Piedmont in Durham, N.C., and is opening his own restaurant, Picnic, whose menu is a twist on a modern roadside barbecue joint. “We are now able to get rice and peas of the past. People treat them, and traditional dishes, with respect. Like Hoppin’ John. It is now made the way it was and is no longer a gimmick of a dish.” He uses Sea Island red peas, which he gets from Anson Mills in Columbia, S.C.

Hoppin’ John, made with rice and peas, was brought to the United States by African slaves and considered a simple dish to feed the masses. Now, it’s on high-end restaurant menus and is the first recipe in Sean Brock’s award-winning cookbook, “Heritage.”

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“Hoppin’ Johns symbolizes the history of the South,” says Adams. “It is easy to make and really, really delicious.” Adams has his own recipe for the dish, traditionally served on New Year’s Day in the South. His is made with white wine and finished with a dash of Tabasco.

David Gregory, 30, a chef who worked at the Orangery, a French-style fine-dining restaurant in Knoxville, says there are Southern dishes he doesn’t even know despite having lived in Tennessee most of his life.

“There are lots of micro-regional dishes that can be found only in a specific area,” says the chef. “I grew up with my mom and grandmother’s cooking and they often made dishes other people didn’t know.”

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One of Gregory’s favorites is a quick blackberry cobbler. He likes to make it in a cast-iron skillet to reduce the cooking time and give the dish a golden crust. Heritage cooking can be something simple from a childhood table.

Sena Desai Gopal can be reached at sena_desai@yahoo.com
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