Sauerkraut is Southern, and Other True Stories

Perhaps the most common question Mark and I have heard since we launched Big Jones is “What made you choose Southern food?” There’s also the less-often heard but related “What’s your connection to the South?”

I’ve always – even more than two years in – been flummoxed by that question. It’s not because I don’t understand, or that it’s a bad question. In fact, it’s a very, very good question. The reason I have a hard time with the question is because it’s not an easy one to answer. There’s a lot of background, and I unfortunately have a serious tendency to give a thorough and thoughtful answer when someone asks a question of me. So, truth is, it’s a long story. The jokester in me wants to answer “well, you’re here for brunch, so if you have time to stay through dinner, I’d be happy to tell you the story…”

I’ve done a lot of different cuisines over my career in the restaurant business, but until recently had never done American. I’d done Contemporary American, but nothing with roots in the same sense you’d find in a great regional Mexican restaurant, for instance, or Italian, Chinese, or classical or country French. Even though I’ve always been happiest working on the front end of trends, I’ve always really enjoyed having a home cuisine to work from, a tradition.

For years, it never occurred to me that there was an American Roots cuisine. Everywhere you looked as I was growing up, there was fast food, diners, and chain restaurants, French, Italian, Mexican, Chinese. I was completely ignorant of the fact that much of my family’s cooking at home was rooted in a tradition, even if it was a dying one. Knowing from a very young age (six or seven) that I would wind up in the restaurant business, I looked around me and saw everything but my home cooking. Traditional American wasn’t something I saw through my restaurant lens, at least not in my small town of Jasper, Indiana.

I just let out of the bag that I’m not even from the South, which bemuses folks even more when I try to explain why we’re doing Southern cooking at Big Jones. It took me years and a natural evolution to come to appreciate and understand the foods I enjoyed growing up. Then, after taking a job at Schubas Tavern in 2002 after years in the Southeast Asian kitchen at Hi Ricky, I had a little bit of a chance to explore American food, and the angle I’d take there would focus on New Orleans, Southern, and Texas/Southwestern to tie in to the music venue’s historical musical biases.

Even though it admittedly sounds cheesy, my interest in the cooking of NOLA and South Louisiana grew exponentially in the wake of hurricane Katrina, so my focus turned in that direction. For awhile then, most of us up north might not remember, it wasn’t certain that New Orleans would ever make its comeback. Those wonderful and spirited folks in NOLA pulled together and those worries proved unfounded. Just as those worries faded away, here we are with the present oil geyser situation, and Katrina seems like a road bump on a journey someplace far more ominous, but I digress.

In late 2004 then, my cooking found a new focus. The things I was able to do in the context of a small restaurant attached to a corner tavern and music venue were very limited, but the exploration was fun, and as I dove into those American regions with the type of obsession that comes quite naturally, I fell upon a series of revelations. Much Southern food is my food. That is, my grandparents’ food. True, my mom’s family is from the South (Florida way back when, Tennessee, Texas) but had moved to Detroit by the time my dad met my mom while he was in grad school there. Still, those early memories of Grandma Melba’s cooking remain very influential, however forgotten they were for much of my early culinary career.

I grew up in a small German American town in southern Indiana at a time when the fast food barons and casual chains were laying waste to what traditional foodways were still left after a generation of TV dinners and two generations of diners. The old timers who still gardened their own vegetable and fruit, then preserved them with generations of wisdom and time-tested recipes were dying off or giving up, one by one. Home-fermented sauerkraut straight out of the garden was becoming unheard of, the ethereal smell of home-baked bread from carefully maintained mother starters was fading, and everyone was looking forward to the next chain restaurant to open in town. And people were getting fatter.

What has been most surprising to me, and may strike some folks as a bit odd, is that the remnants of German farmhouse cooking I witnessed in my youth bear such striking resemblance to much cooking from the South, especially the Lowcountry and South Louisiana. Honestly, when I first heard the assertion that fried chicken is a Southern thing, I thought it was the most absurd idea I’d ever heard. I grew up north of the Mason Dixon line and I can scarcely remember a celebration without fried chicken! And watermelon! Who said that was Southern? Biscuits? Had them all the time growing up! Same with biscuits and gravy, red velvet cake at church potlucks, and a penchant for cooking green vegetables with salt pork.

It’s true that Jasper is a mere 40 miles from the Ohio river and the country accents there sound much the same as they do in Tennessee or North Carolina. We used potatoes as our primary starch, as opposed to rice and corn in the South, and although the old-timers in Jasper were known to enjoy their hominy, grits were unheard of. we couldn’t trek down to the nearest tidal marsh and harvest all the crabs and shrimp we wanted, as folks on the Carolina Sea Islands could for generations, but our rivers, lakes, and ponds yielded all the fish we’d like. The similarities are there, but there are regional differences apparent in the pantry. Still, I really related to those Southern cuisines more and more as I read, cooked, ate, and traveled.

Perhaps one of the reasons I identified so much with these cuisines is that they have their own healthy dose of German influence from settlements such as Dutch Fork, SC and the German Coast in Louisiana. I also felt the attraction of rediscovery there – the South had held onto many of the same food traditions I witnessed slowly dying while growing up. Regional differences aside, I reveled in the similarities. For example, does anyone think Sauerkraut is Southern? It’s been on South Louisiana menus for two centuries!

I’ve come a long way to believing that for me at least, Southern Cooking is American Cooking. Cooks in the South have been relatively successful in preserving the foodways that have been lost throughout most of the country, and that is powerfully alluring to me. History was always my favorite subject in school and I’m always reading at least one history-related book purely for enjoyment. This intellectual focus has ingrained in me a deep deference to preservation, whether it’s art, language, architecture, or food.

Over the years, Southern cooking has been dismissed as simple, too heavy, fatty, one-dimensional, and worse. That just goes to show you the strong propensity we as a culture have toward sweeping generalizations and stereotypes. If all Southern food means to you is fried chicken, collard greens, and jambalaya (three of my favorite things, I admit) then of course it’s simple and one-dimensional, but that is to dismiss the entire history and heritage of all the people that have lived and cooked in the South since pre-Columbian times. Southern cooking owes its great regional variations and traditions to folks beginning with the Native Americans who were here before us, then settlers and slaves from Africa (the major contributors to the early rice industry,) Great Britain, Ireland, France, Spain, Germany, Scotland, the Caribbean, and Italy, to be followed in more recent times by Greeks, Vietnamese, Mexican, and more. What a great melting pot!

They say respect is earned, and Southern cuisine has earned it if you look at the full scope of Southern foodways throughout history to the present day. I challenge those who have stated thus about French and Chinese cooking over the years: Southern cuisine, is every bit as complex, seasonally driven, and interesting as French country cooking. If you don’t see that you’re not looking at it closely enough and with an open mind. I also think that Southern food is finally beginning to gain its respect and place as a great world cuisine in the global culinary lexicon. It was inevitable, and more chefs than ever are taking Southern cuisine in new directions, refreshing it by going back to old traditions while applying new culinary techniques and recipes from a global pantry that begins with historic Southern food staples such as local everything, from hominy grits to rice to seafood, vegetables, and game.

All that aside,  many Southern foods have languished in obscurity for years, but we are fortunate to have a vibrant food preservation community in the Southern Foodways Alliance which provides a network of chefs, producers, writers, and eaters the information needed to preserve what we have and revive what’s been lost. We hope to continue bringing wonderful foods such as sea island red peas, crowder peas, boudin, chaudin, and tasso to your table, and we are always looking to find more. Each food is like a new discovery, and yet connects us in a very intimate way with our past. Since I’ve begun this journey with Southern food, I have had countless “involuntary memory” experiences as flavors and aromas take me places I’d forgotten I’ve been. Some of them can be overwhelming.

My pursuit of Southern food comes down to that deep personal connection I seek with my own history, to saving what we can of our foodways and reviving lost ones. Two generations of fast food and chain restaurants, three generations of the industrialization of food have left our foodways in ruin, our waistlines larger, our communities more fractured, and it would seem, we are less happy. There is profound and disheartening cruelty to animals ingrained in our industrial food system. I hope to do my part to reverse this trend.

For many years the industrialists would hurl the derisive term “luddites” at groups of people who opposed, or cautioned against, industrial advancement. You can’t say that about me or most of the folks involved in the back-to-the-farm movement or the preservationists that want to revive and renew America’s food traditions. I have an iPhone, a lap top, a wii, and apply science every day in my kitchen. I’ve been accused of dabbling in molecular gastronomy. None of that will change, and none of us are opposed to the advancement of science. What’s never been left up to common folk to decide is how best to apply science to serve people. Industrialization has made food cheaper, but it’s also less tasty, less nutritious, and sometimes flat-out dangerous. I want to enjoy my food, I want it to nourish my body and my soul, and to tread lightly on the earth for future generations.

Southern food at Big Jones is a metaphor for something larger – revival and renewal of our foodways. It’s been a joy to me as so many folks have taken to our food whether they know about the values behind it or not. Foremost, we have to be a good restaurant so you’ll want to eat here. We also see our company as a member of a larger community which we hope to leave better than we found it.