In a presentation titled “Sons of the South,” Sean Brock and Linton Hopkins put on a great show for the 7th Annual Starchefs ICC. On Day 1, they united to present their take on the Southern Culinary Revival that is sweeping the United States south of the Mason-Dixon. These guys are on the warpath to restore tradition to a cuisine that, over the last century, has lost its way in the face of mass-produced and flavorless rice, corn, beans and other ingredients from around the country. Perhaps I should be clear – these gentlemen are at war against banality. Their fight is against bad-tasting food. Chef Brock told the story about the first time he ordered “Hoppin’ John” – a veritable Southern staple – and how bad it was more than once over these three days. It was so bad that he couldn’t believe that Southern food had been revered for its flavor, so he took matters into his own hands and over the years, through friends, acquaintances, and fellow Southern food enthusiasts has managed to implement a seed bank to preserve these endangered traditions well into the future.
Sean’s hands-on workshop the next day was entitled “Exploring the Pantry of the Carolina Rice Kitchen”, and that’s exactly what we did. He began with a quick lesson in crop rotations – in order to keep the soil rich and healthy, plantation workers would rotate crops through every seventeen years. Although that seems like a long time, proper rotation technique allowed for an impressive variety of rice, beans and other foodstuffs. Monoculture has since all but wiped out these fantastic ingredients, and in doing so decimated the soul of Southern cuisine; however, Chef Brock’s workshop showed those in attendance that if we fight together to preserve good food, it can be done, and it’s the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation’s goal to do just that.
Everything on his demo platter was cooked simply, yet perfectly. The grits were rich and buttery, but in reality they were almost all grits. The richness came from the corn. The same goes for the cow peas, the benne (“Southern Sesame”), the faro, the oats, and the rice. After all, what is a rice kitchen without rice? I enjoy all kinds of rice – the sticky, steamed rice served in low-end Chinese restaurants, artisanal wild rice from the organic market, and especially well-made Japanese sushi rice. Not one of those rices comes close to how marvelous Sean Brock’s Carolina Gold rice tasted that morning in the Armory. It was sweet, it was smooth, it tasted like it must have been cooked in fat but it wasn’t – just plain old Carolina Gold. And it was marvelous.Market economics aside, I really do not understand how the South could have almost let this beautiful product go extinct. We’re all lucky to have chefs like Sean Brock and Linton Hopkins to pick up the slack and fight on our behalf. To them I raise my tumbler and say, “Cheers!”
All photos by John M. Sconzo, M.D. For more photos from Sons of the South and The Carolina Rice Kitchen see the Docsconz Flick’r set.