I studied Southern food for many years, on and off with varying degrees of intensity, before ultimately deciding that Southern cooking – Coastal Southern specifically – was where I wanted to focus my energy. I can talk forever about the thoughts and inspirations that led me to that realization, but at the moment I find myself thinking a lot about where my cooking is today and where it’s going. In the three years since Big Jones opened, I am more and more interested in the African diaspora largely because of the profound influences African cultures had on cooking in the coastal regions of the South from the very beginning. I’ve always known the influence is there, but I’m continually amazed at how little of the real story of American cooking is told.
I’m endlessly fascinated with the cooking of slave cabins, freedmen’s homes, and the rural South in general because a sense of kinship begins there, rooted in the simplest joys of life, the little pleasures, and the way life is structured around the quest for food when your means are modest, as was the case in my own family during my early years. My family, while of modest means, never knew the struggle of chattel slavery or life as sharecroppers during reconstruction, but all the same it was a great occasion in our home when squirrels, rabbits – or even better, deer – were shot and bagged in the woods that surrounded our home, because they were free and delicious. A mushroom hunt was always a great occasion, and so was a great day fishing that brought home sustenance for little other cost than time and some effort. Grandpa always brought in a couple of pigs every year for the larder.
In the foreword to Sallie Ann Robinson’s wonderful cookbook, “Gullah Home Cooking the Daufuskie Way,” author Pat Conroy describes the year he spent on Daufuskie Island as “one of the best-fed years of my overfed life.” Of course, he was describing a time spent as a teacher in a little schoolhouse on a tiny island inhabited by Gullah off the coast of South Carolina. Life on the island meant a life of poverty, but it also meant great eating because beautiful seafood, game, and forage were free to anyone with the motivation, and generations of saved seed meant vegetables and fruits were free but for the work of gardening. Finally, a few animals kept in the yard would mean a supply of eggs, poultry, and pork in season. This sounds so much like the best memories from my family and I hope through this dinner I can show you a taste of real home cooking – which by necessity meant whole animal cooking – from our common American history with the Lowcountry as our springboard.
Ultimately this means we are cooking from the same roots as soul food, but I would define soul food as the urban offspring of this kind of deep country cooking, soul food being much more limited in scope because urban markets by the 1950’s and 1960’s, when the term was coined, were not supplying the incredible variety of foods available in the back country of the South where the cooking has its roots.
Our intent of keeping this dinner as local as possible meant pork would be the focal point, rather than seafood as those are the main proteins besides wild game in the Lowcountry. During the dinner I’ll talk about the phrase “high on the hog” and its cultural roots in slavery and reconstruction, while we eat delicious food as close to the land as possible.
Finally, there is an unseemly irony about the price of $49 to feast upon offal, vegetables, peas, and rice. Only the irony isn’t there. Many of you reading this will declare this a huge bargain (and it is, this dinner is about community building and not about profit – I have 30 other days in May to worry about that) but the truth is $49 is a hell of a lot of money for dinner for most of the world. The real irony is that it costs us this much to eat clean food, while industrial garbage is cheap. In the past, and even in the present day to folks with the land, food of this quality is free but for the time and effort to raise it, hunt it, gather it, or grow it.
Please join us for what will be a wonderful meal.
Low on the Hog in the Lowcountry
Thursday May 19, 2011
6 p.m. reception, 7 p.m. dinner
Fried chitterlings, turnip & scallion slaw, rhubarb vinegar
Awendaw spoonbread with crackins and palmetto honey
She-crab soup, crispy trotter, spicy chicharrones, wood sorrel & lemon
Dandelion & mizuna salad, poached farm egg, smoked jowl & oyster vinaigrette
Pecan wood roasted collar & grilled blood sausage, reezy-peezy, turnip greens, potlikker
Pecan praline pie, leaf lard pastry, lemon curd, chicory coffee, vanilla ice cream
Sea Island Bennecake Cookies
Featured producers include but not limited to Gunthorp, Werp, Seedling, Genesis Growers, Three Sisters, Kilgus Farmstead, Miller Family Farm, Anson Mills
$49 includes tax, gratuity, and a $10 donation to Slow Food Chicago. For reservations, call 773-275-5725.