Should have certain ingredients from certain places. This is the reason that my grocery shopping is never a simple task. I go to multiple stores, multiple websites and multiple cities for what I consider to be the best of the best. Local food may be all the rage today, but I have long known that this local food thing has had strong roots (pun intended), because what it actually boils down to in the kitchen is truly about the quality of the ingredients, the soil and regional/seasonal specialties. As a highly acclaimed chef once told me, “it really is about the food, not just the recipe, or the cook. Use good ingredients and you’ll end up with good food.” This is not entirely oversimplified, despite his use of century old balsamic vinegar.
With Chef Ken Vedrinski’s advice in mind, I actually pack a cooler or two and plan ingredient stops along the way on Southern sojourns. While I’m generally opposed to “states’ pride” on many issues (flags come immediately to mind), I do believe that state and regional food specialties deserve recognition. So, too does the cook who seeks them out in a quest for the best. It ain’t easy being picky.
Here’s a list of some of my favorites. I’m hoping for passionate responses with additions – even challenges to my favorites.
- Lowcountry Tomatoes: In season, of course. Yes, we all know that lowcountry land crosses the state lines of Georgia and South Carolina. As Gerald O’Hara said to daughter, Scarlett, “Why, land’s the only thing that lasts.” Thankfully, the land has lasted to provide us with the special brand of tomato that thrives in the acidic soil of the lowcountry. I’ve been generous in allowing the entire lowcountry to claim this category, when in fact I believe the very best tomato on the planet comes from John’s Island, South Carolina, just outside Charleston.
- Butter Beans: Fresh. Shelled. You can choose for the shelling experience to be something akin to meditation, or akin to torture, but either way the hard work is rewarded with good food. I’m frequently tempted to totally ruin them by experimenting with additional ingredients. Rarely do I end up doing so. Why ever disguise such delight? Except, of course, with, well, butter.
- Georgia Pecans: Yes, I know, many Southern states produce outstanding nuts. I am proud that many are my good and favorite friends. Still, freshly picked, and laboriously shelled, Georgia pecans are rich and sweet, and best of all, crisp. Crisp, in this category, should be highly valued.
- Vidalia Onions: Knockoffs abound, but none can truly compete. Take that, Texas.
- Georgia Peanuts: Lest this list become Georgia-lopsided, think Blakely, and realize that Jimmy Carter is the best thing that ever came from Georgia peanuts.
- Real Grits: Anywhere in the South where they are stone ground. No instant. No Jim Dandy. No nothin’ but local ground. Slow cookin’, ideally with a bit of chicken broth, some cream, loads of butter and fresh pepper. Worth the wait. Worth the stop: Four Oaks Farm in Lexington, SC (just outside Columbia), or order online: from Four Oaks Farm. Consider topping with sharp, white cheddar cheese when served, like our son-in-law, Adam Barr taught us to do on Saturday mornings in Charleston.
- While Lily Flour: If a carpetbagger is a Northerner/Yankee, what do we call a Midwesterner? The answer? Smucker’s. Or, shall I say Schmucker’s? Fine for certain jams, but they now own – and grow the White Lily wheat in the Midwest. White Lily, once produced in Knoxville, Tennessee is still the best choice for baking in my book, although it pains me to know that after over a hundred years as a Southern staple, it is now produced by people with no accent of any kind. WHO, I ask, are their people? The brand managers are on to this Southern sentiment with a bait and switch “contact us” on their website. The address? Memphis.
- Mississippi Blackberries: Get out of here, Guatemala. Sure, it’s nice to see the ginormous berries at the Publix in January, and they do make lovely garnish, but a cobbler or jam? Take me back to that spot alongside a railroad track in Biloxi where my family used to pick those bittersweet black beauties that stained my paws, their branches raking my ankles with their thorns. I’ll be in heaven.
- Southern Peaches: With all due respect to the Peach State, I’ve had some mighty fine peaches from South Carolina and Arkansas, too. It is music to my ears to hear the soft thump when a peach hits the ground as it falls from the tree, and it is only barely more divine than the flavor of the fruit. That is, assuming you are faster than the bees who will quickly descend upon your succulent treasure. California peaches? Stick to what you do best: artichokes, almonds, and avocado. What is it with this “A” thing?
- Carolina Plantation Gold Rice: Grown at Plumfield Plantation on the Pee Dee River, (that would be Darlington, darling), this exquisite, aromatic rice is not cheap. While “special occasion rice” may sound like a contradiction, special occasions are precisely when I serve it. At $9.85 for a three-pound bag (from their website), there is no point in serving this treat but in its purest form: Totally naked. Or, is that “nekkid?”
- Country Ham: What’s a Southern kitchen list without a country ham? Sorely lacking. This recommendation may uncover some closet country ham devotees, especially when I reveal my favorite source: Kentucky. There are, after all, folks who consider the bluegrass state to be what is known as a – border state. Salty, but tender. See: Meacham’s Hams in Sturgis, KY.
- Duke’s Mayonnaise: My husband loses faith in our marriage without a serious Duke’s inventory in the pantry. I once gave him a case for our anniversary. My daughter requests that I ship Duke’s to her in California. I agree with their love for this King of Condiments, based in Richmond, VA. As far as I’m concerned: “Hold, the B – the L – and the T, unless it can be generously painted with Duke’s.
- Shame on me for such a sugar-free list! Dixie Crystal has been around since 1843, and was — notably — founded, and headquartered in Sugar Land, TX. Headquarters are one thing; refinery plants are another, and Dixie Crystal plants abound in the South: Louisiana and Georgia come to mind. One might, for some nefarious reason, consider another white sugar, but brown? Never. Nothing caramelizes better.