From Boudin & Crawfish Ponds to BBQ & Cotton Fields

Louisiana Landscape

Imagine a map of the United States. Now, based on that map draw a mental circle around what you would consider to be “The South.” If I asked 10 different people to describe their circle, I would have 10 different answers, especially if those 10 people were all from the south. Does geographical landscape, culture, food or accents form our opinion about the south? Did you include Texas? Florida? Where do you draw your boundaries? And what makes the south “The South?” Until I moved from my thick roots of Louisiana to the knee-deep culture of Alabama, I really didn’t appreciate the differences myself.

Cottage Path

I didn’t travel much whenever I was young. I lived in a circle that reached as far as Houston is to New Orleans. You should have seen my reaction whenever I found out that the whole country did not partake in Mardi Gras or eat boudin from their local gas stations. I lived in a world where French was many peoples’ first language and taking your curlers out of your hair in the morning was an option, not a necessity. There were not many conversations you could have with someone you just met without asking them, “Who is yo’ mama?” Almost everyone was Catholic and making a roux was in your blood. Dinners were excuses for everyone to get together. Men spent their pre-dinner time around the trucks, knees against the mud flaps, talking about LSU football. Women gathered like hens in the kitchen, quickly prepping the fixings while “catching up.”

The Yard

The food is humble, reflecting its people. Louisiana food, like almost all Southern food, imitated what was on the land. Crawfish, rice and roux showed up on nearly every table of my childhood. No one had much, but they appreciated what they did have. Everyone’s lot looked about the same, and I don’t remember anyone ever complaining about it. Good food and family remained consistent in my life. As far as I knew, those were the only two things you needed to be happy.

Going from crawfish ponds to cotton fields was a completely different Southern experience. I went from ever-flat terrain to hills. Actual hills! North Alabama landscape changes with the seasons. Many people take this for granted, but for me, this was a first. In Louisiana, a lot of the trees are evergreen, so watching the majestic ridge by our house transform from grassy green, to soft amber, then to a fiery red was magical. I felt myself get as giddy as a schoolgirl at the turn of the seasons.

Cotton Field

On the subject of fare, there is one thing that I was made aware of very quickly: pig is king. Barbecue is a way of life in Alabama. Whether the inspiration is Cherokee, Floridian, Appalachian, Mississippian, Georgian, Texan, Tennessean, or just plain Alabamian, barbecue can be found all over the state with significant distinctions. And these Alabamians have it down to a science: to the kind of wood to smoke with, kind of sauce to baste with, and how long to cook it.

History still peeks its head around the corners of the old homes in the Alabama country. Silverware that was buried during the Civil War remains in drawers lined with black velvet. Rocking chairs and tables are passed down from generation to generation. Great wealth was not part of my culture. It was unfamiliar to me. It reminded me of a great European family, where things are not bought, they are inherited. Therefore, pieces of history are kept close to the heart and the mantle like treasures. One of those treasures came in a frame: a photo of a sweet, elder black woman who was a member of the family.

Southern Spread

I gathered around the pimento cheese and pickles one afternoon and listened to native Alabamians pour over these black women that served as guideposts in their lives. There seemed to be a deep respect and love that each one had for the other. These women were considered as part of the family. It was as if they were second mothers to many. This relationship, again, was unfamiliar. Growing up, I never heard stories of anyone having servants or any kind of help other then relatives or friends. Sure, there were racial tensions that I witnessed, but I never had that deep, emotional experience that these women underwent. It was like a different world. A world somewhat tinged with guilt but great pride for these women.

Through the South’s many differences, the two bonds that seem utterly Southern are food and family. No matter what the food or family looks like, these are the bonds that seem to tie us together in the beautiful, broken, hospitable, proud place we call “The South.”

Spanish Moss

*Photo Credits: Louisiana Landscape (author’s own), Cottage Path (etsy.com),The Yard (Jesse Harding), Cotton Field (auntpeaches.com), Spanish Moss (gardenandgun.com), Southern Spread (southernliving.com)

Dreamland Bar-B-Que

A trail of smoke guided me through a neighborhood to Dreamland Bar-B-Que in Birmingham.  The smell of smoke was my lighthouse.  White bricks with red lettering were the only sign of decoration to the building. As I walked into the restaurant, license plates and beer signs supplied hints of color to the dark booths and tables. The clientele was a mixture of businessmen and blue-collar workers elbow deep in ribs and conversation.

Behind me, there was a man tending to a plethora of ribs in a brick pit. The smell of wood and meat took me back to my grandparent’s house on a Saturday afternoon. My waiter greeted me and I ordered a rack of ribs and fries. Seconds later, a Styrofoam plate filled with white bread and their signature sauce appeared on the table. Such a humble presentation for the most addictive sauce in the universe; spicy, vinegary, with a tomato base.

Shortly after, ribs and fries were piled in front of me. The ribs were drenched in the signature piquant sauce, crispy at the ends, tender on the inside. I dunked the crispy, perfectly seasoned fries in the sauce (I would have drunk it if I weren’t a lady). Full and content, I gazed outside and there was a haze from the smoke billowing away from the restaurant. As I got up to leave, I noticed the paper that my ribs were served on and it read, “Ain’t nothing like ‘em nowhere.” What an appropriate assertion as I venture through the smoke, wake up and get back to reality. Thank you, Dreamland.

Peach Ice Cream

Summer is a beloved time in the south. Yes, the heat can cause dogs to go crazy, turn plastic neon pools into a backyard oasis, and shatter windshields. But still, there is something beautiful about the season. One of those special entities comes in the form of a perfectly ripe, juicy peach. The floral smell mingling with honey is tantalizing and slightly addictive. One of my summer infatuations comes in the form of a creamy ice cream with fleshy pieces of peaches poking through. There is a small produce stand right on the side of the road in Clanton, Alabama where the peach ice cream is downright mesmerizing. As you walk up to the stand, the smell of peanuts roasting fills the air, tomatoes the size of my face stare at me, but alas, it is inside, where my heart is truly fulfilled (and its where the air conditioning is, but that’s for more practical reasons). There is a case of homemade ice creams: strawberry, vanilla, chocolate. But only one can make me go weak at the knees: fresh peach. I grab my cone of peach goodness and wave it around like a scepter. The peanut eaters and the tomato pickers may be angry with me gesticulating around my torch of happiness, but I don’t care! I am content, happy and in love with my Southern summer.

Recipe: Makes 1 Quart: Adapted from The Blackberry Farm Cookbook

2 cups of heavy cream

1 vanilla bean, split and scrape the seeds out with the tip of a knife

6 large egg yolks

¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons of sugar

2 peaches, skinned and chopped finely

Pour the cream in a saucepan and add the vanilla bean to the cream. Bring mixture to a simmer over medium-high heat. Remove from heat and let steep while preparing the rest of the ingredients. In a bowl fitted with a whisk attachment, whisk the yolks and ¾ cup of sugar together until the mixture is pale and thick. Take your time on this step; it does take a few minutes. With the mixer still beating away, slowly, slowly pour the warm cream in the bowl in a steady stream. Place the bowl over a pot of simmering water and continue stirring until the mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Remove from heat and refrigerate until chilled.

Place the peaches in a bowl with the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar. Let sit for about 5-10 minutes.

Process the base in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. When the cream is almost done (it will start to thicken up quite a bit), add the peaches to the mixture. Once the machine is finished with the ice cream, place into a container and freeze until ready to eat.