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I put music on to to start this piece - get me in the mood an all that. At first the twangy overtone of blues wrapped firmly in harmonica. Bounce, Chug, Bounce! Then it’s onto to the sweet sound of country dripped in perfectly picked chords and laced with female harmony - I’m in Carolina, the South to be precise, it’s time to write.
Music seems a perfect place to start writing about cuisine from The South of America, a place built on strong regional rhythms and a mix of influence from all over the world. It’s also the perfect starting point to speak about Virginia born chef Sean Brock who, when he’s not in the kitchen, can be found spinning his rare collection of Honky Tonk records, or ripping up some twelve-bar-blues on one of his many guitars.
Brock himself likens The South’s diverse and hotly contested styles of cuisine to one of the most famous battles in music. “It’s just so distinct and unique and each little tiny micro-region, each State can hold a dozen different cuisines, each little pocket, each town can have two cuisines. Example, in North Carolina there are two worlds of BBQ, there’s East and West and they fight - just like Tupac and Biggie. One is very acidic - that Eastern North Carolina - and one has tomato and is a little bit sweeter.”
Since taking the job as executive chef at McCrady’s restaurant in Charleston back in 2006, Brock has been on a mission to unearth and share Southern cooking at its best, to share the truly diverse nature of the cuisine and ingredients available in that part of the world. Something that goes a lot deeper than a hip-hop style BBQ battle, as he explains: “I hate the fact that not enough people know what’s going on with Southern Cuisine, even in America. It’s just not a travel destination for eating, it’s becoming that and it will be that, it’s just a slow process.
“When people travel from anywhere in the world to eat in America their first thought isn’t Tennessee or South Carolina, but it should be, that’s America’s first cuisine. It’s a cuisine that is so specific to one area that it’s a true taste of America.”
I turn the music up and imagine Brock in one of his Husk restaurant kitchens in either Carolina or Nashville, surrounded by grains, corn and rows of rare, expensive, bourbon - something he likes to collect. He’s covered in tattoos of the heirloom vegetables he advocates and as the next bar of blues kicks in, I can almost smell his food. Grilled beans fired off with a side of Jimmy Red Corn Grits, proper grits, real corn bread with crispy bacon - proper soul food. Brock also play the blues, of course he does, he embodies the South. He lives and breaths it, just talk food for five minutes and you start to realise just how much he knows about the history of the area and how its many styles of cuisine were formed.
“If you look at the cuisine that was cooked in The South prior to the 1950s, starting in the 18th century, you’ll see one of the most beautiful agricultural based cuisines that the world has ever seen but it died with industrialisation after The Great Depression, the cuisine almost became extinct. The crops that carry the flavour and story of each area weren’t being grown so therefore the food that was being cooked with the old Southern recipes didn’t have the character and uniqueness and flavour that they had when they were cooked with those original forms of those land raised varietals of plants.
“What happens is someone travels to The South, they read about Hoppin John, they sit down and they order it and it tastes like nothing, so they say: ‘Southern food sucks’.” Brock says this unfair representation of Southern cuisine is caused by people forgetting flavour, no longer planting the tasty crops, “a cuisine is nothing without the plants, a cuisine can not exist without the plants that carry so much significance, and storytelling, and flavour in creating a terroir based, unique experience.”
Brock has been part of a movement in the South to change this, to step away from industrialised crop fields and regain the knowledge and flavour of the past - he is perhaps the biggest and earliest advocate of seed preservation in these areas, an idea he says has eventually caught on. “In the latter part of the 1990s we started to realise that and some people started to grow these old seeds on a larger scale so that they were available to chefs. Before that they were only available to the people who were saving them in their backyard gardens, they craved those flavours because their grandmother cooked it. A particular variety of bean, or a particular variety of corn for grits or cornbread, that’s what gets etched into your DNA, into your bones, into your blood. That’s what food is to you, that’s how it makes you feel, the emotion that it evokes and when that is taken away, the soul is gone, the flavour is gone and therefore the interest is gone. We order pizza instead.”
The industrialisation and loss of important seeds is not unique to Carolina. Brock himself says he saw many similarities during his visits to West Africa. “I went to West Africa because I wanted to taste Gumbo there, to taste the dishes that, as they travelled to the South, formed our base dishes; Hoppin John, shrimp and grits, these rice and grain based dishes. When I got there every restaurant I went to and almost every home I cooked in served Asian rice. Every market I went to sold Asian rice - I couldn’t find Senegalese rice, I flew all the way from Carolina to West Africa to buy Asian rice.
“I went there on two occasions, both to explore what we call the Carolina Rice Kitchen - the cuisine that was formed during the rice era of 1690 -1927. A cuisine that was a combination of cultural influences of the French, the Native Americans, The Venetians and most certainly The West Africans, based around the planting structure and crop-cycles needed to keep the soil healthy enough to grow rice as the main revenue source for the economy. Those plants; things that first ended up in a field and then got onto the plate - that’s how this cuisine was formed.”
The chef, although positive about a resurgence of these ingredients in The South, is worried about the negative affect this type of farming and over industrialisation is having on recent generations. “When you start thinking about the current timeline of cuisine and going back a 100 years, you start to see that period of time that The South went through and West Africa is going through, where those plants aren’t available to the masses, they’re not available to every home, to the chefs. So, if you’re born into that generation, if you’re from the South you’re born eating Uncle Ben’s rice or Asian rice. In your brain, that’s what rice tastes like, that’s your flavour memory profile that gets stuck there and embedded so you love the floral aspect of basmati rice and when you do finally taste Senegalese rice it’s flat because it’s not a floral rice like basmati, you don’t crave it anymore so the desire to want it goes away."
This is happening across all walks of life and is touching all styles of cuisine and it’s something we all need to be aware of. Foods can become extinct - we can loose them forever and just think how many memories are lost when they're gone. Brock warns us all to consider this but is confident the work curently being done will help maintain the hometown flavours of his Grandmother’s kitchen, and that good old Southern Pride will help secure those flavours for future generations. “In the last six or seven years there’s been this amazing movement in Southern food because now we can taste the plants, taste Carolina gold rice and taste our four-year country ham. We’re starting to realise our insanely special and delicious our cuisine is, pride enters the picture and pride is very powerful. When someone becomes proud of something they preserve it, they celebrate it, document it, they study it and they pass it on to the next generation and that’s what’s happening, finally in The South.”