South, by Sean Brock

Extended version of my review of South, by Sean Brock, from The Menu, my weekly Irish Examiner food column

Cookbook: South (Artisan), by Sean Brock

Skim the surface and Sean Brock appears a facsimile of the 21st century hipster chef: food tattoos; visceral attachment to meat (in his case, pork); zealous advocate for the gospel of locavorism and heirloom produce. That he has earned global renown over the last two decades through his elevation of ‘hillbilly redneck’ cuisine of the Deep South to the stuff of fine dining might even suggest a calculated, post-modern ironic take on culinary populism. 

But slough off preconceptions to dig deeper and you’ll find a sensitive and genuinely unaffected country boy who has almost singlehandedly kickstarted the revival of the vast and varied cuisines of his native Deep South, a food heritage long subsumed by the reductive and utterly destructive present-day US industrial food and agriculture system. 

In a country that is the canary in the coalmine for the global epidemic of diet-related non-communicable diseases, now the leading cause of mortality in the developed world, one of the lazier go-to tropes to encapsulate the catastrophic nutritional downgrading of the American diet had been the notion of redneck yokels gorging on BBQ, fried chicken and similar cholesterol-laden coffin food, a protracted, lingering death sentence for the impoverished, ignorant and poorly educated.

Brock not only put paid to the cliches but triggered a revival in the cuisine and through his passion for the hyper-seasonal and hyper-local (‘the only way to truly taste the South on any particular day’) and his appreciation of its impact on the quality of his finished dishes, also facilitated the creation of a new commercial space for premium heirloom ingredients, such as Carolina Gold rice, Jimmy Red corn (a heirloom crop that utterly transforms Southern staples such as cornbread and grits) and Sea Island red peas (legumes), that had almost entirely vanished. 

He has become a grower-chef, developing a restaurant farm and also working with specialist farmers who sometimes produce whole crops based on a handful of heritage seeds supplied by Brock. (Much of the reductive homogenisation of Southern cuisine before Brock came to prominence can be linked to the increasingly poor quality of primary ingredients produced by industrial agricultural systems—a global problem—which always emphasises quantity over flavour. For example, as the natural sugars in dried corn were no longer to be found, cooks began adding more and more sugar to cornbread recipes.) 

Over the last two decades, his personal pilgrimage has seen him evolve to the point where he is now as much culinary historian and curator of the myriad traditions of Southern US cuisines every bit as much as he is a chef and, at this stage, it seems would prefer to be remembered primarily for the former.

First up, let’s be clear, you will not be taking this book down to your local Irish supermarket to stock up on ingredients to replicate the bulk of these recipes; you will hardly fare much better at specialist food stores, for this is locavore food, based on specifically regional produce, very much of Brock’s native Southern US terroir. Quite simply, you will never get watermelon or peach of sufficient quality in Ireland to bother with the very tempting salad that pairs the two; two-year aged country (smoked and cured) hams, Carolina Gold rice, Sea Island red peas, sorghum seeds and flours and a range of bourbon-based condiments might as well be for sale on the moon; and recipes demanding a piscine shopping list that includes catfish, snapper and sheepshead, will equally demand knowledgeable and improvisational shopping at an Irish fish counter to find alternatives. 

Rather this is a tome for keen amateur cooks and pro chefs seeking to get the juices flowing and the synapses firing as they engage with what is a hodgepodge of epicurean influences. Those influences—native American, African slaves, European colonial settlers and more—collided in a climate ideal for outdoor cooking and, more pragmatically, where open fire was often the only affordable cooking option for slaves and poor whites too impoverished to afford a proper stove or oven. This style of cooking, of course, furnishes smoke, Southern cooking’s primary unifying ‘ingredient’, shared right across what Brock believes to be a host of Southern cuisines as myriad and differing as the cuisines of continental Europe, two geographical areas of similar size.

With this in mind, he devotes serious effort to bringing al fresco open fire cooking indoors, citing it as being ‘absolutely central to [his] cooking style and philosophy’, and offers a wealth of technical information on methods and means of achieving those resultant charred, smoky flavours so crucial to Southern cuisine (smoked tomato vinaigrette, anyone?).

Salads, generally, are ‘substantial’ affairs, dressed with bolshie flavours and soups too present like main courses in their heartiness and heft. Actually, that is pretty much a recurrent theme: fish recipes are the polar opposite of, say, the spartan ascetic of Nordic purity; Grilled Swordfish with Green Gumbo, sees greens cooked with butter, flour, vegetable stock and Bourbon Barrel Bluegrass Soy Sauce; Lowcountry Fish-Head Stew, a sticky, rich melange, is rooted in African cooking; and Shrimp and Oyster Purloo is Brock’s take on another wonderful, deeply flavoured classic, a Southern cousin of Spanish paella.

A definitive fried chicken recipe takes two days including overnight brining, an ice bath to remove impurities, another night’s rest for now-breaded chicken to form a near unbreakable bond with the skin ,and then a last-minute second breading just before frying, before finishing with a quick toss in ‘super-flavourful’ rendered animal fats.

Above all else, Brock prizes genuine pasture-raised (ie from free range pigs, a rarity on the Irish table) cured and smoked country hams, aged for anything up to two years and as prized as Jamon Iberico.

Animal fat is another crucial ingredient to Southern cooking. Recent scientific evidence suggesting the connection between the consumption of saturated animal fats and elevated cholesterol is not at all the forgone conclusion once presumed will come as reassuring news to those intimidated by its primary place in Southern cooking, nowhere more evident than in Brock’s meat dishes, which heavily feature lards and fats derived from beef, bacon, pork and ham.

Strip steak, grilled with plenty of butter, comes with his ‘love sauce’ made of bourbon barrel Worcestershire sauce, fish sauce, chives red onion, garlic, lemon juice and melted, rendered beef fat. Elsewhere, he suggests resting/finishing cooked steak in warmed fat near fire embers. It even turns up in Killed Lettuces, hot bacon fat as part of a vinaigrette to be poured over green salad. Less-informed health Nazis may deem it madness, but there is no denying the method for fat is where true flavour lies and Brock freely employs it for vegetable side dishes as well. A pot of iconic collard greens (close cousin to kale) uses rendered lard, the umami quotient furthered heightened with the addition of one of the following: pork belly, jowl bacon, ham hock, dried shrimp or oyster; elsewhere, shiitakes and morels are exquisitely grilled in beef fat.

Very occasionally, this Southern quest for big, boisterous flavours and ultimate umami can verge on the paradoxical: he writes correctly of the subtle delicacy of the flavours of spring lamb but his recipe for same (with Rhubarb Butter) calls for a stentorian glaze including soy, fish sauce, miso and sorghum syrup, along with peppers and citric zests.

Desserts are, for the most part, cobblers, pies and puddings, homely and delicious but proof positive that Southern cuisine values the pitmaster over the pastry chef though hickory smoked ice cream is very much on my to-do list.

While it may be nigh impossible to truly experience Southern US cuisines as envisioned by Brock short of visiting one of his restaurants or at least taking a trip to the Deep South, keen cooks of all stripes will derive endless little tips and tricks to transfer to their own culinary locale: either partial elements gleaned from whole recipes, such as Barely Cooked Tomatoes (heirloom tomatoes, fish sauce, turmeric vinegar) served with grilled catfish, but surely an equally sound partner for various northern hemisphere species; or various condiments, pickles, preserves and other flavour additions, such as fermented pepper ‘mash’ flavoured with char from the hearth and used to spike sauces. Best of all, turnip ferment, an elixir tailor-made for those Irish chefs still living in ignorance of the wonders of this mighty yet criminally undervalued tuber so superbly suited to our growing climate, yet for many years viewed as no more than fodder for pigs. Pigs? Now, isn’t that an epicurean irony that Brock especially would appreciate.

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