For a Southern family, tradition is not only sacred – it’s the obligatory albatross that you hang around your own neck. Nothing signifies this more than the food. Every holiday, season and most evenings, are defined by the meals made from traditional southern cooking. Sitting down to a table groaning with platters, baskets, and tureens filled to the brim with home cooked food is the norm, not the exception.
As with any albatross, certain stipulations must be adhered to. Each New Year’s Day you will eat pork roast, black eyed peas, Hoppin’ John (chopped Vidalia onions, green onions, tomatoes, and red peppers that go on top of the peas) and that pepper vinegar that’s been fermenting since last year. Come March, the Irish bleeds into the Southern, and corn beef gets pickled, potatoes, carrots and cabbage are stewed until they self-mash, and mustard so hot your eyes water gets placed on the table. Summer is for sitting outside on hot lazy evenings, candles burning, corn doused in salt n’ pepper and butter dripping down your fingers while cow, pig, or chicken parts drip fat onto the coals and send neighborhood children squealing for a piece. Fresh cantaloupe pulled straight from the garden, fragrant herbs adding pops of green to every dish, and sweet tea with lemon completes the meal from April through late September.
Come the fall, the fruit gets stewed, root vegetables are roasted, and the summer garden’s yield is canned to become thick sauce through the winter. Beef turns to turkey and pork, smoked or roasted while anticipation and planning ensues for the serious holidays. Come Thanksgiving, there are homemade cinnamon rolls for breakfast and freshly made cider while watching Macy’s parade: brie, shrimp, and raw oysters on the grill for appetizers, and when it is time for dinner you’re already fit to pop. The main event never fails to impress, laden with greasy beans that have been cooked for two days, Basmatti rice, two turkeys, real cranberry sauce, homegrown collard greens with pot liquor, giblet gravy, cornbread sausage dressing, and of course a big pitcher of sweet tea and lemon. Pumpkin and bourbon pecan pies round out the evening, as belts are loosened, the kitchen is a disaster, and even the dogs are passed out, stuffed from just the bits snuck under the table. Christmas looks much the same, with beef replacing the poultry and the dressing taking a much needed respite.
Despite the rules though, the reality behind most family traditions is how they’re adapted to each generation. Historical elements are preserved, but as families grow and new heritages are added in, they shift in unexpected ways. My mother’s sister married a Sicilian, so pasta replaces the rice, and instead of roast beef on Christmas, she serves lasagna. The youngest sister is a vegetarian who married into a Jewish family, so she’s removed all animal by-products from Southern cooking, effectively, some might argue, erasing the Southern all-together. But when she sits down to dinner with her father, a man born and raised in Georgia, there better at least be fresh seafood and well flavored vegetables, and none of that, as he says, “hippy tofu horse shit.” My uncle married a Texas native and has a ranch out there, so the beef is large, the seafood is fresh, and the recipes are traditional.
These meals take hours and sometimes days to prepare – even the minor ones, and they’re gone in minutes. The memories last of its deliciousness, the dishes remain stacked high on counters waiting for a volunteer, and the checkbook reflects the expense to put on the hog, as the expression goes. Depending on whose house you’re eating at the meal will always be slightly different.
From these recipe variations comes a common core, the real truth behind all Southern cooking – the seasoning. It hardly matters if it’s garlic or red peppers that make up each dish, but it’s the love and essence of the meals before it that truly flavor it. The lingering pinch of salt baked in without being added, the ease of which it glides off the pan, the feeling of generations before culminating in each preparation can be added only through one item – the cast iron skillet. Some sections of the family have bought new ones. Some are ridged for grilling, deep for making sauces, or flat for sautéing. It hardly matters its shape or size – it’s all in how their family seasons it.
At one point in time my grandfather sat each of his kids down and showed them how to care for cast iron. “Never put to soap to it,” he advised, “you lose its personality that way. Just wipe it down when you’re done, scour it with water if you must and let it cool. Then take some fat and work it through. Throw it into the oven and let it seal, wiping out the extra when it’s done. Trick is to never waste the flavor you’ve already put into it. You want to taste its history in every use.”
Growing up cooking on and eating traditional Southern food from an old cast iron pan has given me a taste for the old ways that reflects in my own cooking. The cast iron pan simplifies my recipes – I don’t have to work so hard to infuse each dish with distinctive bold flavors – it is already there. My mother, grandfather, his mama, and his aunts, and so on and so forth have all done the work for me. Someday I’ll be included in that long line, as will my cousins who will inherit from their folks or buy their own. But after being raised on this food and watching our parents take on the onus of preparing the food and preserving the old ways of making it, one day we’ll be standing at our own stoves after dinner, sealing the cast iron with our own buttered love for our kids.