Chef Virginia Willis’s new cookbook offers a food lover’s tour of the global south.
Story by Erin Z. Bass | Photos by Angie Mosier
Georgia-bornChef Virginia Willis’s cookbooks have become staples for southern cooking. Need a foolproof chess pie or cornbread recipe? Consult Bon Appetit, Y’all. What about a lighter version of cheese straws or chicken and dumplings? Just pull the James Beard Award-winning Lighten Up, Y’all off the shelf. With five previous cookbooks under her apron, Willis also serves as an editor-at-large for Southern Living and writes a regular column “Cooking with Virginia” for SouthernKitchen.com.
Her latest book Secrets of the Southern Table explores southern foodways that you may find surprising: Chinese Americans in the Mississippi Delta, Italians in New Orleans, and Atlanta’s “Seoul of the South.” The South is now global, and Willis uses the documentary photography of Angie Mosier to transport readers—and home cooks—across the region, from Florida’s Gulf Coast to the Blue Ridge Mountains, from the farms and fields of Louisiana through Georgia and the Carolinas.
“The lines of ownership of Southern food aren’t clearly marked on a map,” Willis writes in the book’s introduction. “There is a rich narrative that lies beneath, a tangled and compelling web of race, politics, and social history that is served up alongside our beloved biscuits and gravy.”
Stories of farmers and food artisans accompany new recipes like Chicken and Butterbean Paella, Mississippi-Style Char Siu Pork Tenderloin, Chicken Larb with Georgia Peanuts and Spicy Asian Cajun BBQ Shrimp (recipe below).
I was able to ask Willis five questions while she was on the road during a busy book tour that included Georgia Center for the Book’s Festival of Writers and the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival.
Erin Z. Bass: Why did you want to spotlight the “global south” in your new cookbook?
Virginia Willis: As a born and bred Southerner who’s lived both outside the South in the U.S. and in Europe plus travels a great deal, I came to realize that many people living outside of the South don’t seem to understand the South. I think that many people still believe the caricatures about uneducated Southerners … I also think that many people only see white and black and that those two cultures don’t get along. In short, I think they see some of the incredibly polarizing things on the news and assume the South is still stuck in the past. That’s a truth for some people, but it’s not my truth and it’s not the only truth. And, there have been many cultures and ethnicities in the south for hundreds of years. There have been Greeks in Birmingham since the 1800s, Chinese in Mississippi since the mid-1800s and Italians in Louisiana since the 1800s. The second-oldest synagogue in the United States is in Charleston, South Carolina. In modern times, the largest population of Vietnamese outside of California is in Houston, Texas, and the Southeast is the fastest growing area outside of California for Hispanics. Duluth, a suburb of Atlanta, is now known as the “Seoul of the South” as so many Koreans and Korean Americans are moving from Los Angeles and New York City for a better standard of living. The narrative is predominantly a black-white one and yet there is no clear line that defines who owns Southern food. Secrets of the Southern Table is about presenting the unexpected.
EZB: Did you learn anything surprising about the state of Southern food in your travels for this book?
VW: The most surprising bit, not specifically about the food itself but about our journey, is that the South is positively huge! Sean Brock writes about it in the foreword—the South covers nearly one million square miles and comprises nearly 40 percent of the population. Driving across 11 states over the four seasons really hammered that home. For nearly a year, my dear friend Angie Mosier and I explored the South on trails ranging from single-path red dirt roads to multi-lane interstates. We traveled through the flat intercoastal waterways of the salty tideland marshes to the lofty, smoky ridges and peaks of the oldest mountains in the United States. So, while I knew that the South was an enormous place and that the food of Texas is different than that of Tennessee, the coastal food of Florida is different than the coastal food of Louisiana and the coastal food of the Carolinas, and that the food of the mountain South is very different than the food of the Deep South, it was quite a different piece for me to be immersed in the experience. I also learned that Southern hospitality is a real thing.
EZB: You include essays about farmers, harvesters, makers, and others in this cookbook. How do storytelling and food go hand in hand?
VW: There’s the expression “Know Your Food, Know Your Farmer.” As a cook and a food writer, I’m inextricably drawn to want to know and to tell these stories. Modern agriculture has removed a lot of people from their food, and where our food comes from is possibly one of the most intimate things in our lives. I solidly believe that everything we do—our level of education, what religion we practice, our morals and our sense of ethics—is reflected on what appears on the end of our forks. We are truly what we eat. What better way to know more about people than to read or listen to stories about where our food comes from?
EZB: Do you have a favorite recipe in Secrets of the Southern Table?
VW: It’s very hard to choose! I strive to make my recipes accessible to home cooks. The Slow Roasted Fish with the Tomato Vierge is one of my favorites. I love the slow—and easy—technique of cooking the fish. Fish cookery is so intimidating to people, and this method is so simple. Instead of having to babysit a filet in the oven for 10 to 20 minutes, the fish is slow roasted at 250° F for 40 to 60 minutes, resulting in a silky smooth, tender texture.
EZB: What’s your go-to dish for summertime?
VW: It’s all about the vegetables! We have a 12-month growing season in the South and yet summer is stupendous: Okra, green beans, corn, tomatoes, summer squash, butterbeans and field peas. I make my decisions when I go to the market—most often fresh vegetables. Since it’s so hot down South, I often rely on room-temperature dishes and salads, maybe with some simple grilled chicken or fish. I love the Tomato Ginger Green Beans and the Vegetable Stuffed Tomatoes. Both are excellent hot, warm or even served chilled.
Spicy Asian Cajun BBQ Shrimp with Grilled Baguette
1 baguette, cut into thirds and halved lengthwise
1 1/2 pounds extra-large (16/20-count) shrimp
1 Tbsp. Homemade Creole Seasoning (recipe below) or to taste
8 Tbsp. (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, cut into cubes
6 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1/2 of a jalapeño, or to taste, seeded and chopped
1 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh ginger
1 Tbsp. finely chopped lemongrass
Juice of 1 lemon
1 Tbsp. hot sauce, or to taste
1 tsp. fish sauce
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Homemade Creole Seasoning
Makes about 1/2 cup. This is a handy blend of herbs and spices that can easily be doubled or tripled. This will keep in an airtight resealable container for about six months.
2 Tbsp. freshly ground white pepper
2 Tbsp. cayenne pepper, or to taste 1 Tbsp. coarse kosher salt
1 Tbsp. dried thyme
2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
2 tsp. paprika
1 tsp. dried sage
1/2 tsp. onion powder
1/2 tsp. garlic powder
Combine all the ingredients in a small airtight container or mason jar. Shake to combine. Store in a cool, dry place for up to three months.
Heat a grill pan or skillet over medium-high heat. Working with a few pieces at a time, cook the bread until browned and toasted, 2 to 3 minutes. (Alternatively, heat the oven to broil and broil the bread until toasted, about 2 minutes, depending on the strength of your broiler.) Set aside and keep warm.
Place the shrimp in a bowl. Add the Creole seasoning and toss to coat. Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add the garlic, jalapeño, ginger and lemongrass. Cook until fragrant, 45 to 60 seconds. Add the shrimp and increase the heat to medium-high. Add the lemon juice, hot sauce and fish sauce. Cook, turning once or twice, until the shrimp are firm and pink, 1 to 2 minutes per side. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper.
Spoon the shrimp and juices atop the grilled bread. Serve immediately, with lots of napkins.
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