Southern Cookin'

People around the world are making plans for celebrating the arrival of the new year and food will play a big part in starting the year off right. From lentils and sausage in Italy to soba noodles in Japan, almost every culture has their own idea of what foods should be eaten on New Year’s Day to ensure prosperity in the coming months.

We Southerners are no different. Down in my neck of the woods, eating black-eyed peas and collard greens on the first day of January is the formula if you want money to come your way in the new year. The tradition is actually less of “Eat this and get rich,” and more of “Don’t eat this and go broke.” Legend has it that every pea represents a coin that will come your way and every bite of greens will become foldin’ money in the wallet.

In my youth, this New Year’s tradition was hosted by my aunt and uncle at their home out in the country. My parents would pack us up in the station wagon, hair still smelling of firecracker smoke from the night before, and head out to my aunt and uncle’s farm for a big lunch of easy money.

We would arrive to the intoxicating aroma of black-eyed peas, collard greens and cornbread wafting from my aunt’s kitchen. For you folks not familiar with Southern cooking, collard greens may sound like pretty dull fare, but the addition of a select ham hock or two and a long, slow simmer will bring out the best in a bunch of collards.

As long as I am explaining a few of the nuances of Southern cuisine, I may as well bring all my Yankee friends up to speed on the ham hock. Anatomically speaking, the ham hock is the extreme lower end of a swine’s hind leg, just above the ankle. When lovingly smoked along with the rest of brother pig’s hind-quarter, the ham hock becomes an essential flavoring ingredient in all sorts of savory Southern delicacies.

My aunt’s table would be set with large bowls of the aforementioned food and we children would set upon our plates like starving bears as we proceeded to stuff dreams of wealth down our necks. In retrospect, I never seemed to eat enough on that day to conjure up sufficient cash for a motor bike the following summer.

Now, this bit of history and explanation has served to bring me around to the point of my little story – sugar.

I know my next statement runs the the risk of offending a lot of fellow Southerners and stirring up all kinds of disagreement, but here goes: Sugar should never be part of a cornbread recipe.

In a perfect world, cornbread is a simple mix of cornmeal, eggs, oil and water cooked in a hot cast iron skillet until a deep brown crust covers the exterior. Add butter to a piping hot wedge of the stuff and you have the perfect accompaniment to almost any traditional Southern meal. Cornbread is part of the main course, not dessert.

Sugar is a key ingredient in much Southern food. We have all sorts of cakes and pies (pecan being my favorite), good BBQ requires brown sugar, and let us not forget our beloved sweet tea.

I am sure one thing we can all agree on is that sugar and grits do not mix. In fact, I love to watch the reaction that folks from other parts of the country have when first introduced to grits. Many of them will mistake grits for Cream of Wheat or Malt-O-Meal and put sugar on it. Those of us in the know just add a little red-eye gravy or snuggle our ham next to the grits for some tasty goodness.

While I am harping on misappropriated sugar, I’ll stir the pot a little more by adding my short list of other foods that should not contain sugar: cole slaw, hush puppies, scrambled eggs, and biscuits. I understand how your opinions of proper Southern cooking may differ, but that is just how I was raised.

So, on New Year’s morning, while we all share in our breakfasts of golden brown biscuits, country ham, eggs and red-eye gravy, please pass me the grits and hold the sugar.

Copyright © 2011 by Doug Couch, All Rights Reserved. Collard Greens and Black-eyed Peas from Swirling Yin's photostream on flickr (Creative Commons License).
Doug Couch

Doug Couch

I like to tell folks that I was born in Georgia because I wanted to be close to my mother. I feel blessed to have been born and raised in the deep South where we have the best food, the best college football, and rich traditions. I got my sense of humor from my father and my proclivity for writing from my mother, an author of children's books. I enjoy writing about the funny side of life in the South and I am not above a bit of irreverence as long as it doesn't perpetuate negative Southern stereotypes. We Southerners enjoy a good story, and I remain determined to write one some day.

I have been in and out of the newspaper business since my early college days while following a parallel career in information technology. I am a big fan of Atlanta Falcons football, BBQ, Maker's Mark, all forms of automobile racing, flying (private, not commercial) and shooting sports.

Life has become immeasurably better since I have been forced to stop taking it seriously. ― Hunter S. Thompson

  1. Precious memories revisited at the New Year’s dinner table. This week’s New York Times dining section was all about country hamm, blackeyed peas, collard greens and sorghum syrup. The great Edna Lewis is still quoted regularly for her proclamation: “It was the South that gave America its food.”

  2. As a Southern big boy, over 300 lbs., I have to disagree with your diatribe on sugar being unacceptable.  I’ve never met a grit or cole slaw that didn’t benefit from liberal amounts of sugar!  Sugar is my main staple.  Also please note that Coke goes great with any breakfast food.  Coke, it’s not just for breakfast any more!

    1. Doug Couch

      If you want to taste Coca-Cola (Around here we pronounce it “Co-Cola”) the way it used to be, wait until Passover when the Kosher Coke comes out. They make it with real sugar and not corn syrup. Look for yellow caps on two-liter bottles. You may have to go to a store near a synagogue to find it, but well worth the effort.

  3. Reminds me of the line from the Ray McKinnon short film, “The Accountant” ,” your kids are already drinking iced tea with no sugar in it and eating cornbread that does.” Ray is from Adel,Ga., so you know he knows what’s what.

  4. Frank Povah

    Ham hocks…ah the essential basis of pea soup. And my mouth still waters when I think of pigs’ trotters, the bit cut off the end of the hock and pickled. Eaten with boiled new potatoes they were – along with Colonial Goose and saveloys – one of the great luxuries poor West Australians of my generation had which their rich brethren did not.

  5. Thank you for your comments regarding sugar in cornbread….Living in the northeast, my husband (we are both Mississippians) and I enjoy exploring food places that specialize in ‘southern cookin’……..Our first question is whether or not the cornbread served is made with sugar.  If the answer is yes, we smile graciously and pass, saving our calories for the fried chicken or fried okra…..or pecan pie, which can be done deliciously all over the country we’ve found….Thanks for your writing….

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