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The Southern Cook's Handbook
by Courtney Taylor and Bonnie Carter Travis

Reviewed by Elliot Essman

Southern food is like Southern music in one critical respect. The rules, the structure, of, say, blues or bluegrass music are basic. Once you get the structure down you can improvise and express yourself forever. Mess with that structure, and mess is what you get. As with any art form, find the core of it, master the essence, respect it for what it is.

Southern cooking, like a perpendicular spoon in a heap of mashed potatoes, stands on its own. It makes no sense to compare it to French cuisine or any other standard. (Although, returning to our musical analogy, compared to the American variety, French popular music is a true abyss.) The Southern Cook’s Handbook: A Step-by-Step Guide to Old-Fashioned Southern Cooking, by Courtney Taylor and Bonnie Carter Travis, is at once practical—it stresses that structure—and yet evocative. It puts you side by side with the warm, wise southern cook you wish had reared you. “Our love for Southern cooking has as much to do with our memories of the people who taught us as it does with getting the pastry on a peach cobbler to turn out just right,” the book begins. An experienced, knowing hand accompanies us throughout. We are taught to respect the melodic and harmonic structure of the cuisine as we are seduced into loving it.

Taking the music analogy a further step, I’ve found that much traditional American cuisine suffers from writing that is not necessarily bad, but misaligned. What do I mean? We get a paean to grandma’s chicken (great song lyrics perhaps) followed by a recipe. It’s rarely enough. The Southern Cook’s Handbook avoids this easy trap. The book begins with an excellent “Basics” section, with advice on using the appropriate kitchen equipment and on choosing fresh produce. A “Methods” section then gives us step-by-step techniques for pan-frying, gravy-making, biscuit mixing, cake baking, and the like. The “Recipes” sections apply what we have learned to real traditional food. Now you might think that you, the experienced cook, could easily get away with skipping yet another dull basics and methods treatise; I wouldn’t, because these basics are part and parcel of this particular cuisine. It’s as important to learn the cooks as it is the cookery.

It’s all in there, of course, from “Pan-Fried Chicken” to “Oyster Stew,” from “Fried Green Tomatoes” to “Dirty Rice,” but the seven-page précis on making cakes is perhaps the most telling example of the book’s value. “No matter how fine or fresh the ingredients,” the authors stress, “they must be combined with care, or your cake will not have the proper texture. Whether you’re making a Lady Baltimore or a Robert E. Lee, you want it to be tender and moist.” You start with butter, and butter has rules. Of course there is no substitute for butter in a cream-based cake. Butter behaves best at 70 degrees; never help it along in the microwave. Flour has its own rules: it should be southern soft wheat flour; all-purpose is really no-purpose. You must sift and stir with a fork before measuring, then gently spoon the flour into your measure and level off with a knife. Salt, milk, leavening agents, and especially eggs (separating, whipping to various levels) are explained in sensitive detail. We prepare the pan (two methods) to prevent later sticking, and then follow a 13-step process to mix and pour our batter into the pan. Further sections cover baking, turning the cakes out, filling, frosting and storage. Tradition, if it is to be true tradition, demands this kind of detail. It’s hardly an empty (or skip-able) exercise.

While I’ve already stressed that a full perusal of the techniques sections in The Southern Cook’s Handbook would be especially valuable, even the recipe-jumper can profit from the book’s excellent system of cross reference. The recipe for “Parker House Rolls,” for example, cross references to the “yeast breads” section of the chapter on “working with dough.” “Dilled Green Beans” references the section on “choosing fresh snap peas.” The extensive recipe for “Country-Fried Steak with Cream Gravy” refers us to both gravy-making and pan-frying basics sections. This is Southern cooking as an integral whole. What that means in plain talk, folks, is that if you take the time to learn to do it right people will love you for it. Top -- Culinary Reviews Home

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