I am not from the South nor do I actually know anyone who lives in a Southern state. Truthfully, the only piece of the South I've ever seen is Austin, TX and most people say that doesn't count. So it has always baffled me as to why I'm so drawn to Southern cooking, food ways, storytelling, and writing. I own so many Southern cooking books that, truthfully, I didn't reserve high expectations for Martha Hall Foose's newest: A Southerly Course. But I was wrong. It's different from the rest.
Martha Foose Hall opens A Southerly Course with the thoughts, "Time and again I've wondered why it is I traverse these same roads over and over. Why do I reach for cast iron? I think it is perhaps because we Southerners are homesick for the place in which we still live." And this sense that a place can weave in and out of our lives, our relationships, and what we lay on the table each evening is one reason why I loved Martha's first cookbook, Screen Doors and Sweet Tea. This one is no exception. While decidedly more basic and simple than her first, this newest effort explores the Mississippi Delta flavors that she has so fallen in love with-- everything from Skillet Fried Corn to Sugarcane Sweet Potatoes. After flipping through the book, you feel like you've gone on a short but sweet vacation and taken a step back in time. If only all books could impart this. If only all recipes could inspire us to slow down -- if just for one day, one meal.
First impressions: A Southerly Course is organized logically, much in the way all cookbooks were ten years ago: Passed/Plates, Salads, Vegetables, Entrees, and Desserts. And while it isn't the hippest way to organize a cookbook these days, it certainly does serve a purpose in making it easy for the reader to navigate and find what they're looking for. What strikes me right away is the simplicity of so many of the recipes. Many times this is a breath of fresh air as is the case with the Oyster Patties or Custard Pie. Although other times, some dishes don't seem involved enough to warrant an actual recipe: they're too simple, in fact. Recipes for sweet potato wedges or grilled green onions make some of the pages of Martha's book seem a bit more like filler than actual substance.
Number of recipes: 100+; 256 pages.
The angle: What I appreciate about this book is the way Martha Hall Foose deliberately stays away from sentimentalizing Southern food or "mythologizing" it, as she mentions in the Introduction. Today it's so easy to romanticize the South simply for its slower pace as we continue to dial up the speed of our everyday lives. But Martha devotes this book to understanding the stories and the foods that make up those myths, to "a full immersion baptism in the font of Southern culinary eccentricity, ingenuity, and creativity." I think she succeeds. This book is about food, yes, but it's also about the stories and people behind the food. And that's why it has staying power.
The other stuff: Some recipes will include helpful "Notes" on preparation or serving ideas and occasionally Martha sprinkles in relevant quotes from Southerners. She'll also intersperse short essays introducing certain facets of Southern life (pageants, for instance) or Southerners like Eudora Welty and her cookbooks. In this way, it's not just a reference cookbook -- it's readable and visually captivating with photos depicting average afternoons, lunches, and porches from Martha's world.
Strengths: As always, Martha's headnotes and stories introducing each recipe are a major strength of this book. There's also a nice balance of dishes and they're not the 'same old, same old' that you've seen in every other Southern Cookbook (for instance, you won't see Southern Fried Chicken or Spoonbread here).
Recipes for right now: Crabmeat Casserolettes, Parish Olives, Sweet Pickle Braised Pork Shoulder, Carnival Funnel Cakes,
Recommended? Yes, if you appreciate cookbooks that lean towards storytelling and are looking for a book with some strong, basic Southern recipes.
Read It: A Southerly Course by Martha Hall Foose, $19.96 at Amazon
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