Ben Picks Ten: Southern Comfort Foods April 3, 2008Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
Tags: comfort food, North and South, one-Ben awards, Southern food
Our friend Ben is back with more One-Ben Awards, this time in the realm of Southern comfort foods. (What are One-Ben Awards, you ask? See my earlier post, “Ben Picks Ten: Music,” to find out all about ’em.) But first, a whole, whole lotta disclaimers. To begin with, the South is known for its food. To pare the list of comfort foods down to ten (plus one), our friend Ben had to establish quite a few criteria.
First of all, our friend Ben thinks the South is sufficiently famous for its meats—be it fried chicken, barbecue, spareribs, country ham, sausage, or you name it—to make discussing them redundant. Second, some favorite foods that have earned Lifetime Ben Awards, like pecan pie and biscuits, can be equally good—or equally bad—wherever you find them. You pay your money and you take your chances. Third, our friend Ben tried to avoid fantastic but complicated foods like corn pudding, boiled custard, and some of the South’s more famous desserts. Our friend Ben believes that comfort food should by definition be simple food. Finally, some of our friend Ben’s very favorite comfort foods, like mashed potatoes, bacon and tomato sandwiches, macaroni and cheese, cole slaw, pizza, tomatoes ripe from the vine, Krispy Kremes, and Cinnabons (oh, my), are favorites all over the place. So ’nuff said about them.
Instead, our friend Ben intends to focus on Southern comfort foods that don’t tend to translate well north of the Mason-Dixon line: foods that are misunderstood, badly prepared, or simply unknown. Northerners, listen up! You’re missing a world of good eating here. Give these foods a chance. Our friend Ben promises that you won’t be disappointed.
A final disclaimer: Southerners, my South may not be your South. Our friend Ben became aware of this while reading Robert St. John’s charming book, My South, a few years ago. Robert’s South was delightful, but it bore little resemblance to the Middle Tennessee South that our friend Ben so fondly remembers. Thus, you may not find your own comfort-food favorites listed here. (It’s also possible—gasp!—that our friend Ben has simply forgotten a few favorite comfort foods.) If that’s the case, please tell us all about ’em. And that goes for you Northerners, too! We could all use a few more yummy comfort foods.
Without more ado, then, let’s get to the One-Ben Awards for Southern comfort foods:
1. Grits. Yes, grits are actually good. In fact, they’re luscious. But they’re only good if they’re cooked long enough. The runny, watery, cold grits served at many restaurants and virtually all hotels are enough to make anyone, not just Northerners, run screaming from the table. It’s our friend Ben’s feeling that grits are often served this way because when you try to cook grits right, they fight back. When grits reach the right texture—thick enough to stand a spoon in—they get mean. They spit on you, the hapless cook, firing off scalding droplets of red-hot grits onto any exposed body part. Let me tell you, this hurts. But it’s worth it. Thick, hot grits, served with plenty of salt and dripping with melted butter, is the food of the gods. And fried grits is even better. So here’s a test for you to try next time you’re wondering whether to take a bite or leave them on your plate: You should always eat grits with a fork. If the grits won’t stay on your fork, put ’em down and move on to the eggs and toast.
2. Cornbread. This is a curious North-South distinction. In the South, white corn and white cornmeal are considered people food, and yellow corn is considered horse feed. In the North, it’s the reverse. Our friend Ben will never forget being presented with that first piece of yellow Northern cornbread—gummy, heavy, and bitter, with a sweetener added (presumably to try to cover the bitterness). Yikes!!! That is just not right, and our friend Ben is waging a one-Ben campaign to help you Northerners see the error of your ways. I’ve persuaded Silence to share her treasured family recipe for cornbread in tomorrow’s post. Try Dogood Family Cornbread, and you’ll never eat any other kind.
3. Butter beans. These are lima beans, but they bear little resemblance to the slippery, slimy, flavorless baby limas that seem to be all our friend Ben sees these days. Ugh! No wonder so many people say they hate lima beans. Butter beans are big and meaty, without a trace of sliminess. Our friend Ben loves them as a side dish with rice and a baked sweet potato. Or over fettucini or spaghetti in a simple butter and sour cream reduction. Talk about comfort!
4. Okra. You knew I’d list this, didn’t you? Our friend Ben has lost count of the number of people who have gone out of their way to tell me how much they hate okra. (And if anyone claims to love those slimy baby limas while claiming to hate okra because it’s slimy, our friend Ben has a thing or two to say to you…) Our friend Ben loves okra served up pretty much any way. But okra becomes comfort food when it’s sliced and fried. Dredged in spicy cornmeal and fried just right, it’s crunchy on the outside, tender on the inside, and even the harshest critic couldn’t find a trace of slime. Ahhhh. That’s good eating!
5. Greens and beans. I’ve chosen to lump these comfort foods because they’re both beloved side dishes that are served very differently in the North, much to our friend Ben’s continuing dismay. In the South, cooked spinach, whether originally fresh or frozen (never canned, please), whether boiled, steamed, or sauteed, is served with vinegar.
Our friend Ben will never forget my first encounter with spinach after moving to Pennsylvania. I was at a friend’s family home for Thanksgiving. A big dish of cooked spinach was brought out and passed to our friend Ben. I love spinach, so I took a generous helping, then scanned the table for the vinegar. No vinegar? They must have forgotten to set it out in the rush to get everything on the table. Our friend Ben politely requested it. “What do you want it for?” Bemused, I explained that I wanted it for the spinach. There was a virtually table-wide gasp. My friend’s mother produced a bottle of vinegar, and the assembled multitude watched in fascinated horror while I applied it liberally, along with a generous sprinkling of salt, to my spinach. And then I watched in equal astonishment as they all buttered their spinach.
Cooked greens could, shall we say, use a little help in the flavor department. Vinegar and salt provide just the right boost. Our friend Ben has since been served spinach that was sauteed in olive oil and garlic, and it’s certainly an improvement on butter. But our friend Ben can’t help but think that it would be even better with a splash of balsamic vinegar.
And no, I haven’t forgotten the beans. Green beans, that is. Our friend Ben’s childhood idea of green beans was Frenched green beans boiled for half an hour with onions and bacon grease, then served with salt. If you think you’re cringing now, you haven’t heard the best part: These so-called French-cut beans were canned.
Now, the thought of all this is too much even for our friend Ben. But you’ll have to take my word for it—they were delicious. The younger Ben could not get enough of them. So you can imagine my horror when I first ordered green beans in the North. Far from being presented with the green beans our friend Ben knew and loved, I was offered a plate of bright green, hairy, lukewarm things. Bright green, hairy, lukewarm things with no seasoning on them whatsoever. No onions. No bacon grease. No olive oil. No butter, even. Nada. Eeeewwww!!!
To this day, our friend Ben cannot bear the hairy texture of lukewarm, undercooked green beans. But our friend Ben has come to love fresh green beans cooked just long enough to lose the hairiness and get truly hot, served simply with butter and salt or sauteed with butter or olive oil and almonds. And our friend Ben is indebted to my Pennsylvania neighbors for introducing me to wax beans, pickled beans, and best of all, the incredible luscious flavor of ‘Dragon’s Tongue’ heirloom beans, with purple-freckled yellow pods. Our friend Ben could eat huge helpings of them all season long, and call it comfort.
6. Iced tea. Don’t laugh. In our friend Ben’s experience, Northerners don’t know the first thing about making iced tea. They make it so strong a spoon could stand up in it (right for grits, wrong for tea), and then the spoon would dissolve because the tea’s so acidic. It’s so strong and astringent it’s practically ropey. Our friend Ben, who like all good Southerners adores iced tea, has been reduced on numerous occasions to surreptitiously diluting it with ice water. But it still tastes awful. Our friend Ben feels a rush of nostalgia just thinking about iced tea Southern style—mild, fragrant, refreshing. If you Northerners haven’t ever had good Southern iced tea and are trying to imagine what it’s like, sun tea is probably the closest to it.
Now, a lot of sweet tea is served in the South. Sweet tea, unlike sweetened tea, appears to be made from a sugar solution so strong that no more sugar will melt into the hot water. Our friend Ben believes that, like the heavy salt consumption that characterizes the South, sweet tea came about to keep Southerners from passing out in pre-air-conditioning times. Sort of the original Gatorade. Sweet tea tastes great, but the thought of the calorie count plus tooth-rotting potential causes our friend Ben to drink my iced tea plain, preferably with a slice of lime. Though I do cherish the occasional glass of iced tea punch (tea with fruit juice, usually orange and peach) when visiting family in Nashville.
7. Coca-Cola. Elsewhere, Pepsi may rule, but in the South, the beloved “Co-cola” is still king. Spiked with bourbon or taken straight up, Coca-Cola is the soda of choice. Our friend Ben has been bemused for years by people who claim they can’t tell the difference between Pepsi and Coke. Huh?! Try it: Take two ice-cold bottles, one Pepsi, one Coke, and just taste them. Pepsi is sweet and flat. Coke is less sweet and super-carbonated. It’s that blast of carbonation in the mouth that makes Coke so refreshing and so good. Thinking about it, our friend Ben wonders if people who claim they can’t tell the difference drink their soda on ice. Never, never drink your Coke on ice! It dilutes the carbonation. Drink it cold, and drink it straight. (Or, of course, with bourbon.) You’ll see why “things go better with Coke.”
8. Chess pie. Moving on to desserts, most Northerners have never heard of chess pie, one of the best desserts on Earth. It’s sort of like pecan pie without pecans, but that doesn’t even start to do it justice, since it’s neither heavy nor sticky. Instead, it’s light and delicious, the perfect accompaniment to an after-dinner coffee. Our friend Ben has been served chess pies that were almost transparently golden, and more egg-rich chess pies that were translucent gold. But in both cases, these pies are redolent of vanilla and served warm—and plain. (No ice cream or even whipped cream, God forbid. And no lemon!!! Some people seem to feel a holy obligation to destroy every vanilla-flavored dessert from chess pie to pound cake and cheesecake by dumping in lemon instead of the traditional vanilla. Get a grip!!! If you simply can’t control yourself, at least say that there’s lemon in there before the unsuspecting Ben plunges a fork in.) Why is it called chess pie? Theories abound, but our friend Ben tends to go with the one that says that, when asked what pie was being served that night, the cook replied, “Jes’ pie.”
9. Melons. Everybody loves melons, and cantaloupe and watermelon in particular. In the North, people tend to eat their melons plain, or, in the case of cantaloupe, with a refreshing dash of lime juice. (Our friend Ben approves.) But in our friend Ben’s family home, melons were never eaten plain. They were eaten with salt. (And pepper, in the case of cantaloupe.) Our friend Ben is not a big fan of pepper. (Frankly, our friend Ben hates pepper.) But it’s true: Salt does bring out the sweetness of cantaloupes and watermelon. Doubt me? Try it! Our friend Ben would not recommend my parents’ technique for eating grapefruit—with sugar, salt, and pepper. In fact, our friend Ben likes grapefruit plain. But I still eat melons with salt. And don’t try to stop me!
10. Goo Goo Clusters. Our friend Ben would be remiss if I didn’t put in a plug for this native Nashville treat. The name is as bizarre as Piggly Wiggly (see my previous post, “This little piggy went to market,” for more on that). But the candy itself is delicious: caramel, marshmallow cream, nuts, and chocolate, and plenty of all of the above. Our friend Ben isn’t a fan of peanuts, so I prefer Goo Goo Clusters Supremes, which are made with a big favorite, pecans. But try them both: You’ll like ’em, as long as they’re fresh.
And now the bonus:
11. Salt. Okay, salt is not a food. At least, not for most people. But in the South, people have traditionally loaded up on salt. Many of our friend Ben’s favorite comfort foods are basically bland substrates for butter and salt. Our friend Ben believes that, as in the case of sweet tea, Southerners used a lot of salt to keep from falling over in the pre-air-conditioning heat and humidity that blankets much of the South from April to October.
Our friend Ben remains a heavy salt user even in the (somewhat) less humid Pennsylvania countryside. But when I first moved to Pennsylvania, the use of salt was not PC. Our friend Ben could bring the cafeteria at work to a standstill by salting my food. Silence would fall, I would look up, and there would be a hundred-odd people staring at me openmouthed.
Our friend Ben was also an inadvertent salt hog. In the few instances where someone else actually wanted the salt, they’d always have to ask for it. That’s because the salt shaker would inevitably be positioned front and center at the top of our friend Ben’s plate. Now, our friend Ben was not—contrary to certain rumors—raised by wolves, and I generally try to be considerate. So this salt-hogging tendency, which was completely unconscious, baffled and mortified our friend Ben. Finally, however, it dawned on me: In my family home, each and every family member dined with a huge silver salt shaker of our own. And each shaker was positioned precisely at the top of the plate. None of this “Please pass the salt” nonsense. Mystery solved! Now if I could just stop doing that…
Thank God, salt is undergoing a revival of sorts now that gourmet salts have come into fashion. You won’t find our friend Ben using sea salt unless someone can present a convincing argument that they’ve managed to get all those pollutants out of there. But if you’re in a restaurant and see someone, salt shaker in hand, repeatedly salting food before every bite, please come on over and introduce yourself. Our friend Ben would be pleased to meet you.