Though I grew up in northern Indiana, my mother took us to visit her large Southern family during summer and holiday breaks. A recent road trip to a reunion that has been going on for 52 years reminded me that the foods of my childhood encompass a wide range of dishes seldom seen in New England; that home-cooking in northern Louisiana, southern Arkansas, and East Texas is worlds apart from the biscuits and sausage gravy now ubiquitous at breakfast buffets in Southern motels; and that Southern food reflects a mix of cultures not always recognized or fully appreciated.
Take Southern peas, that family of legumes that includes black-eyes, field peas, crowders, pink-eye purple hulls, and cream peas. We found the latter two, fresh shelled, at a market in Ashdown, Arkansas, along with okra and our first tomatoes of the summer. Okra and these kinds of peas are said to have come to our shores in the pockets of the enslaved peoples of West Africa, and it was their growing, harvesting, and cooking of them (along with collards, mustard greens, and turnip greens) that instilled a love for them in all Southerners.
When we cooked the cream peas, a cousin-in-law suggested a bit of okra simmered with them, as long as we were careful not to cut into the pod, which would create the characteristic gumminess often associated with this veggie. They were delectably creamy, full of a sweet, earthy flavor quite different from English peas, as my family calls those round green Yankee peas.
We also had fried okra (dredged in cornmeal and pan-fried), chicken ’n’ dumplins, crookneck squash simmered with onion, “fried” corn (cut from the cob and cooked down with butter and milk), okra stewed with tomatoes and onions, both cornbread and grits made from white cornmeal, buttermilk biscuits with mayhaw jelly (the small tart fruit of a hawthorne tree native to the river bottoms of Louisiana) or fudgy chocolate gravy (a family “secret,” made with cocoa powder).
In Ashdown, we discovered a Texarkana-based local chain (four locations) called Big Jake’s Bar-B-Q, and we loved it so much that we went back two days in a row. Was it for the all-you-can-eat pinto beans simmered with sliced jalapenos? The potato salad with sweet pickles? The sweet potato fries (with or without powdered sugar!)? The fried pies (a turnover-like pan-fried delicacy, stuffed with a variety of fillings)?
No, it was actually because of the Texas-style barbecue, so tender and smoky from its long, slow cooking (usually over hickory) that it melts in your mouth, whether it’s pork, brisket, chicken, or turkey. That’s right, both chicken breast and turkey breast (pink from the smoking) are so delicious that it’s hard to stop eating the slices on a “small” plate (enough for two meals). “Pulled” pork or brisket is called “chopped” or “sliced” in this neck o’ of the woods.
When we got to Shreveport (several cousins live in or around the city), we discovered Minerva cantaloupes (huge, ribbed, juicy, and floral-sweet) and homemade chicken tamales (another cultural influence, eh?) at the farmers’ market. The tamales were excellent, as is most Tex-Mex food in this tri-state region (our “fast food,” as teenagers, was chili spooned over Fritos). There’s also a family tradition of hot-pepper-soaked vinegar sprinkled on greens or peas.