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If there’s anything I hate worse than a bad fake southern accent in a movie (hello John Travolta, Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt), it’s the widespread misunderstanding in other parts of the country that southerners eat only fried foods and that vegetables in southern cuisine are obliterated in the cooking. I blame Paula Deen for perpetuating this myth with her vegetable recipes swimming in butter, heavy cream, bread crumbs, bacon and cheese. Anyone who grew up at a southern table knows that’s sacrilege.
Where else in the United States are aunts, cousins, grandmothers and mothers prized for their expertise with beans and peas? I can remember casual conversations around the kitchen table in which a relative’s name was raised and was inevitably associated with her best dish, usually a vegetable. Aunt Marguerite made the best green beans, hands down, and also held the title for best fried corn. This honor extended posthumously and continues to this day. I can still sit at my mother’s table over a mess of beans and hear the familiar refrain: “Nobody ever made better green beans than Aunt Marguerite.”
I live in the Rocky Mountain West where we have to wait until August for a good crop of most any fresh vegetable and by mid-September it’s all over. In winter, except for squash the size and density of small boulders, you might as well forget it. Farmers market out here is like a religious experience, the annual revival where food lovers line up to rededicate their lives for one brief, fervent season. In the South, the variety and availability of fresh vegetables rivals only the humidity in abundance.
It’s true that southern-style vegetables are slow-cooked and that a smoked ham hock is often added to the cooking water for flavor, but it’s not true that all southern vegetables are slathered in bacon grease and rendered to mush. Whoever made that up needs to take a trip to Atlanta or Jackson or Huntsville or Birmingham and get it straight.
On a recent trip to Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana and south Texas, I ate fried chicken exactly once, at a soul food joint in downtown Memphis. My vegetable intake, however, surged. Over three weeks I ate cabbage prepared three different ways; turnip and collard greens; green beans, lima beans, and pinto beans; sweet potatoes and new potatoes; black-eyed peas, purple-hull peas, and crowder peas; three kinds of squash; and endless slices of juicy red tomato — all fresh.
Southerners eat more vegetables because they’re abundant and cheap, because it’s culturally ingrained, and because they know how to make them taste good. That ham hock in the beans doesn’t render them null and void, as many outside the South seem to think, it just makes them a main dish. Put a pot of beans or peas together with a second side dish, a skillet of cornbread, and a garnish of crunchy green onion and sliced tomato, and you’ve got dinner.
My mother’s friend Sue walked in one day when I was visiting with a bag from the farmers market that fed us for nearly a week. The first day I went exotic and made a ratatouille of roasted eggplant, bell peppers, onions, zucchini, red potatoes, garlic and basil, sweating like a sailor in the bowels of a ship in my mother’s heated mid-afternoon kitchen. When she tasted it, my mother thought she’d died and gone to heaven.
The next day, while Mama took her nap, I simmered a pot of purple hull peas and green beans with a ham hock, onion and poblano pepper. I baked sweet potatoes, their skin lightly oiled and salted. There was no buttermilk in the house, so I subbed a sluice of white vinegar and sweet milk in the cornbread batter and turned out a skillet crackling and brown on the outside, silky and white on the inside.
We repeated the theme the next day with fresh black-eyed peas and roasted butternup squash glazed with oil, black pepper, and a little maple syrup. My mother, who had only ever eaten summer squash, declared it as good as a sweet potato, maybe better.
When I read about all the healthy food trends touted by Dr. Oz and in women’s magazines — eat your colors, increase your daily intake of legumes and leafy vegetables, superfoods — my mind immediately goes to those relatively meatless plates and their endless variety. I think about my skinny little mother spooning an extra helping of peas onto her plate and offering the highest compliment. “Mmmmm. These are almost as good as Aunt Marguerite’s.”
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Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.