On the evening of Oct. 18, the 15th annual Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium kicked off with a dinner, cooked at a new, storefront restaurant on the picturesque main square of Oxford, Miss. Chefs, writers, scholars and Southern-food enthusiasts gathered on the eve of what has become one of the most important and beloved food events in the country: three days of presentations, readings, policy talks and eating, all in celebration of the food of the American South.
The chefs asked to cook this first Southern feast? L.A.'s own Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo.
The pair's two Mid-City restaurants, Animal and Son of a Gun, have racked up accolades and fans in L.A. and around the world. While Southern food is a trend in Los Angeles and nationwide, you rarely hear Shook and Dotolo mentioned as part of it. When I told several people that Shook and Dotolo would be cooking at the Symposium, in fact, the response was usually "That's weird. Why are they cooking there?" And at the Symposium itself, I sat next to an L.A. participant who complained that "no modern Southern restaurants have really made it in L.A."
"That's not true," I said. "Animal and Son of a Gun have done OK."
At Sassafras, the new "Southern" bar in Hollywood, you might just expect Rhett or Scarlett to arrive any minute, drawling and ma'aming and saying "Well, I do declare!" The place is a Southern fantasy, bolstered by an interior made mostly from a Savannah townhouse that was dismantled and rebuilt inside the space near the corner of Vine and Hollywood. It's impressive — and about as authentically Southern as House of Blues up the street. The drinks are fun, but the food is bad, mostly because it turns to the tired stereotypes of the genre. What else would you expect? You don't expect to be served world-class sashimi at the Japan pavilion at Epcot, do you?
Other Southern food has popped up recently in L.A. as well. The Hart and the Hunter, recently opened in West Hollywood's Palihotel, shows signs of moving beyond stereotypical Southern and toward a fresher, more modern interpretation. Govind Armstrong's Post & Beam takes the classic, Southern meat-and-three model and adds pizzas and cocktails. But much of the cooking people call Southern hews too closely to cliché.
When people think of Southern food, they invariably think of biscuits and fried chicken, collards and mac 'n' cheese. Which is why there's a disconnect between the Southern-food fad currently sweeping the nation, and the actual cooking happening in the South. Southern food is an irresistible trend, in part because it fits into the seasonal, farm-to-table ethos so well, and because it holds comfort as one of its main principles; it is also our country's best-defined regional style. But like the South as a whole, the region's food is often misunderstood and misinterpreted by the rest of the world. To be frank, it's minstrelized, turned into an ugly parody of itself. The word "Southern" has been slapped on an avalanche of sweet sauce and fried stuff. (If the term "cookin' " is used in a restaurant's literature, beware.)
Yes, there is barbecue and fried chicken. Those things have always existed in the South and will continue to be an important part of the culture. But what has made Southern cooking so exciting in recent years, and indeed hoisted it into the national spotlight, is the cooking of chefs who take Southern ingredients and traditions and revive, update and expand them. So, at Charleston's Husk (a restaurant that cooks only food that's been grown and produced in the South), Sean Brock is serving oysters on the half shell with buttermilk, elderberry maple mignonette and opal basil. In Raleigh, Ashley Christensen serves red cabbage with red wine and currants at her fried chicken joint. In Atlanta, Hugh Acheson and Ryan Smith serve North Carolina catfish with pepper dashi, rice grits, African squash and mustard greens at Empire State South. This cooking, and these chefs, are the reason food journalists and food obsessives are enamored of the South.
In Los Angeles, the cooking that most closely resembles that Southern style is the food at Animal and Son of a Gun. Shook and Dotolo, raised in Florida, are both subtle and explicit when it comes to the Southern nuances of their cooking: at Son of a Gun, country ham with hush puppies; pimento cheese and buttermilk ice cream. At Animal, chowchow, a Southern pickled relish, tops "crispy pig head," disks of pulled head meat that have been breaded and fried. Braised rabbit legs with potato puree, mustard jus and green beans will look familiar to anyone who grew up in the South as a revamped version of Sunday supper: chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, gravy. Sweetbreads are chicken-fried. The classic barbecue sandwich gets an update with pork belly rather than pulled pork, topped with slaw. Through this dish, and most of the dishes these guys cook, is a kick of vinegar — the acid that gives so much Southern cooking its heart and balance.
Yes, there are Asian influences on these menus and Middle Eastern touches, too, but none of this is out of line with the cooking of the South, which in recent years has become increasingly international. There's no doubt Shook and Dotolo's restaurants are Californian, in part, but they're also shining examples of what Southern chefs are bringing to the culinary table.
Asked if he considers the cooking at his restaurants to be Southern, Dotolo responds, "Absolutely. Not just in the spirit of it but in the ingredients we try to incorporate, and also the kind of service we want in our restaurants."
This is something places like Sassafras could stand to learn — the term "Southern hospitality" is no joke, and it's the major difference I see between Southern bars and restaurants and those here.
Dotolo also talks about a feeling of kinship he has with Southern chefs, which is a major reason why he attended the Southern Foodways Symposium this year. He counts Linton Hopkins, the Atlantan given the James Beard award for Best Chef in the Southeast this year and the outgoing president of the Southern Foodways Alliance, as a kindred spirit and close friend.
As with all trends, the fascination with Southern food will likely fade. But great soul-food spots will continue to serve their neighborhoods, and great chefs will continue to take inspiration from all over the map, including the South. When trends come and go, they invariably leave a trace — the mark of a positive trend is that it affects cooking for the long term.
My wish for L.A., and the whole country, is that comfort, hospitality and a love and respect for American foodways are our takeaway, not false nostalgia and a simple, wrongheaded idea of what it means to be Southern.