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  • “Peace and a Smile to the Lips”Favorite Southern Food Dishes
  • Kathleen Purvis (bio)

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“In the South, our food isn’t just the things we eat. Our food is experiences, history, heritage. It’s as personal as the sound of our mothers’ voices and as sweet as the smell of breakfast on a cold morning.” Photograph from the Collections of the Library of Congress.

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You might want to handle these pages carefully. What you have in your hands isn’t just a list of memories and tastes. It’s an act of bravery akin to holding a lit stick of tnt.

We have asked these southerners—respected writers and historians, all—to pick their favorite southern food experience. I shake my head and pity them. We southerners are an argumentative lot. We can’t hear a frog croak on a summer night without starting a debate. (“You think it’s hot tonight, Mr. Croaker? Oh, I’ve known hotter nights, and better ponds than the one you think is so fine. Why, let me tell you about this pond my mama told me about . . .”)

As the food editor of a southern newspaper, The Charlotte Observer, for nearly twenty years, I’ve learned to be careful about stating any opinion, no matter how carefully considered. I once wrote about the southern origins of pimento cheese. I pored over records and old cookbooks. I interviewed the late Jeanne Voltz, who was born in Alabama early in the twentieth century. Food-wise, that’s the same thing as being present at the creation.

What happened? Readers lit up my phone, debating the minutest point of pimento cheese history. One determined gentleman sent me a three-page typed letter accusing me of “a shoot-from-the-hip reporting style.” Why was he so upset? Because I reported that pimento cheese’s origins were southern. His grandmother, he declared, had made pimento cheese—in Maryland. (I didn’t point out that Maryland is a southern border state, and recipes migrate.)

Actually, I think I understand the point he was trying to make. In the South, our food isn’t just the things we eat. Our food is experiences, history, heritage. It’s as personal as the sound of our mothers’ voices and as sweet as the smell of breakfast on a cold morning.

Before the South got so darned rich, we were a land of deprivation; the only thing most of our ancestors had was pride and memory, and what kept them alive was sheer stubbornness and determination. If you live like that long enough, you’ll start to harbor a few opinions. So all I can do in introducing this piece is bow with respect to my fellow food writers. Jean Anderson, Mildred Council, John Currence, Nathalie Dupree, John Egerton, Jessica Harris, Matt and Ted Lee, Fred Sauceman, and Bill Smith: I respect and admire you all. But I hope you know what you’re getting yourselves into.

Jean Anderson on Tidewater Sweet Potato Pie and the Home of Robert E. Lee’s Mother

Back in the 1980s while on assignment in Tidewater Virginia for Bon Appétit, I spent several days at Shirley Plantation, first interviewing the lady of the house and then photographing the colorful makings of tomato ketchup in the old slave [End Page 29] kitchen. Dating back to the 1720s, the mansion at Shirley Plantation, overlooking the James River, is a tall, proud, red-brick house with a unique Queen Anne forecourt. It was here that Ann Hill Carter, the mother of Robert E. Lee, once lived. Now open to the public, Shirley remains in the Carter family. During my visit Helle Carter, the Danish wife of Hill Carter, gave me a number of old Tidewater Virginia “receipts,” including one for sweet potato pie—for me the most glorious in all creation.

Tidewater Virginia Sweet Potato Pie

The sweet potato filling, though made with cream and spiked with wine, is surprisingly light—a rarity among southern pies. Note: If you use a frozen pie shell, choose a deep-dish one and re-crimp the crust, making a high, fluted edge...


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