— The South's love affair with fried chicken, collard greens, gumbo and biscuits is being challenged — and changed — by an unlikely influence. The North.
Which may seem strange — or even heretical — until you stop to consider that Southern food has always been a confluence of cultures, an amalgamation of its African, European and Native American locals. It just happens that this time around it's the North that is infusing its ideas in the culinary mix.
Credit for this fresh face of Southern cooking goes to a growing band of chefs — some born in the South, many not — who are looking North as they reinterpret the classics.
Take Vivian Howard, for example. The 35-year-old owner of the Chef and Farmer restaurant in Kinston, N.C., is a true Southerner, the daughter of a North Carolina hog farmer whose grandmother baked candied yams with butter and brown sugar. Yet the yams Howard serves are smashed and double fried, like a Caribbean plantain, a reflection as much of her time spent cooking in New York as of her heritage.
In Louisville, Ky., a Korean-American from Brooklyn marries sorghum and local lamb — and bourbon! — with Asian flavors. In Georgia, Canadian Hugh Acheson showcases the Mediterranean potential of Southern staples such as ramps, morels and veal sweetbreads. And in Carrboro, N.C., Matt Neal — whose dad Bill Neal helped revive Southern cooking in the 1980s — channels his love for New York City in buttermilk biscuits topped with pastrami.
Many argue that Southern food is the country's only true regional cuisine. But much of its distinctiveness comes from its ability to blend. African slaves brought their rice growing culture, laying the groundwork for iconic dishes like gumbo and jambalaya. Sweet potatoes resembled the yams they knew from home, and were used to fill European items like pies. Native Americans contributed their knowledge of the land and its ingredients, showing newcomers how to use corn for foods like cornbread and grits.