Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015 | 10 p.m.
I spent the better part of 2014 traveling across the Southeast looking for the best food at the best family-owned mom-and-pop restaurants in the South. The end result was the creation of my book “Southern Routes,” which was released last week and — shameless plug alert — is available now on Amazon.
“Southern Routes” isn’t just a “best of” series of great and secret recipes collected during my journey across the South, but rather a collection of stories. Stories about people who own restaurants that are culinary landmarks; people who dedicate their lives to making great food.
For some, the word “Southern” conjures small-minded stereotypes of a funny sounding accent or that Southerners are uneducated hillbillies. Antiquated opinions and bigotry will always exist. “Southern Routes” is about the rich and vibrant culture of the places and stories of the people who are carrying the Southern banner through food.
Ultimately, Southern food is about history. It’s about heritage. Modern Southern culinary can trace its roots back a couple hundred years to a time when subsistence agriculture was the norm. Most people were poor, and they grew what the ground would allow and what they needed to survive.
This functional concept then transforms and permutates over generations and becomes what we know now as farm-to-table or a strong reliance on fresh and seasonal ingredients that is embedded in Southern cuisine. What was once functional becomes cultural over time.
Proteins were expensive. If you had a cow, you’d likely have a dairy cow that was used for milk and butter. When it came time to slaughter a pig, it was a communal event. People would gather as a community, usually on Sundays after church, and everyone would share in the bounty.
Modern refrigeration hadn’t been invented, and a whole hog would be far too much food for one family. So, functionally, it made sense to share with everyone; otherwise, most would go to waste. This develops into what we know now as a “ya’ll come” culture of joining for big meals. It also was the birth of what we know of as “whole hog” festivals in the Carolinas, Tennessee, Alabama, etc.
Because the preservation of food was essential to daily survival, curing meats was prevalent throughout the South. The functional preservation of ham by curing it with salt, or later sugar, creates country ham and sugar-cured ham, two pillars of Southern cuisine.
There’s a whole modern cottage industry in Kentucky based solely on great hams that you can order online and have shipped right to your door. Another notable method for curing meat? Smoking it. This functional practice would, of course, be the groundwork for a genre that is interwoven into Southern culinary and culture: barbecue.
As for “big country” breakfasts? If you were going to be working 15 hours of daylight out on the farm, your body would need fuel in the form of proteins and carbohydrates to get you through the day. Now a big breakfast on the weekend is the prelude to watching football and a midday nap! What was once functional becomes cultural over time.
All of that to say Southern food isn’t appealing because of its historical legacy and heritage. That’s not something we think about when we cook or eat. Rather, it’s appealing because it tastes great. It’s comfort food. But what is comfort food? I like to think of it as the intersection of taste and memory.
Comfort food, like Southern food, is rooted in history and heritage, the only difference being comfort food is personal history and heritage. Biscuits are comfort food for me because I have cherished childhood memories of my grandmother hand-making biscuits every Sunday. For you, it might be mashed potatoes or fried chicken.
Southern food can be a million ingredients used in a million ways. It’s not all just fried chicken and black-eyed peas. Southern chefs and cooks all interpret differently with a couple common threads that tie it. Ultimately, Southern food is fresh ingredients, great technique and, most importantly, it’s the memories we make and the stories we share all while celebrating great food.
In our modern society, eating isn’t just about surviving anymore. It also is about the experience. What was once functional becomes cultural over time.
Ben Vaughn is a chef, author and TV personality widely known as a host for the Food Network. Ben’s latest book, “Southern Routes,” chronicles his journey to find the best-kept food secrets in the South from the Carolinas to Texas. “Southern Routes” is published by HarperCollins.
Ben resides in Tennessee and serves as CEO and culinary director for his restaurant group Fork Knife Spoon. Ben’s new brand of Southern Kitchen food trucks hit the streets in Las Vegas. Follow all the action from the mobile kitchen @SoKitchenLV. @BenVaughn also is the host of “The Breakfast Show,” a TV series that premieres in the fall.
Robin Leach of “Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous” fame has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past 15 years giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.
Follow Las Vegas Sun Entertainment + Luxury Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.