Photo by earl53 on Morgue File.
What’s the one item in your kitchen you can’t possibly cook without? A spice, your grandma’s measuring cup, instant ramen — what’s your magic ingredient, and why?
Being born and raised in the southern part of the USA, you have certain ingredients that are essential to be considered down home cooking; that is, southern cuisine or soul food as it is also known. I have written a post about a southerner’s love of cold sweet tea and the amount of sugar we use to make it. If you are interested, you can read that post HERE.
As for this post, I could rehash the sugar fix that goes, not only for our famous and beloved sweet tea, but for all our baking and desserts. Some even put sugar in their cornbread; though, this is a disputed point by many southerners. You see, some think sweet cornbread is the best thing since sliced bread, but others think it is a cardinal sin to add anything sweet to cornbread. I myself am neutral on the subject. I can eat my cornbread either way, but usually it is of the non-sweet variety.
So, sugar is an important ingredient if you are going to cook authentic southern food. And yes, I mean actual sugar, not that substitute stuff in pink, yellow or light blue packets. No, a true southern would never think of desecrating their food (and especially not their sacred tea!) with anything abhorrent like that!
But, there are a few other things you need. Southerners love spices and seasoning. This goes all the way from salt and pepper, which is on nearly every table, to cinnamon, cayenne pepper, cumin, bay leaves, oregano . . . etc. Southerners want their food to taste good, not bland and dry.
Flour is another important staple in a southerner’s kitchen. Of course, continuing the good, but not good for you diet of southern cuisine, many things we cook are fried. We literally can find a way to fry anything. Of course, we fry chicken and fish. We fry steak and veggies. We fry shrimp, pork chops and bacon. We fry eggs and rice. Some even fry macaroni and cheese, Oreos, Twinkies and anything else you can drop in a hot vat of grease!
That reminds me, grease is another staple, a vital one, of a true southern kitchen. The older amongst us, opt for good old-fashioned lard. Now we are cooking!
For most, a healthy (pun intended!) supply of bacon grease is essential. Now if you are not familiar with bacon grease, all I can say is you have been missing out for your entire life! Bacon grease is collected, of course, after cooking a nice big pan of bacon. All southerners love bacon. There is just something about the smell of frying bacon filling a house in the morning or evening that makes a heart feel all warm and cozy!
So, you cook your bacon (and promptly eat it of course!) and then, the grease that is left in the bottom of the skillet is collected into a container. This is saved in the pantry or a cabinet to be used later. Typically, it is used to flavor or season other foods. For instance, if you are cooking beans, (which if you are cooking in true southern style you must do in a crock pot or the equivalent, because true southern food is homemade food), then you add some bacon grease to give the beans a bit of a kick. Now, this works especially well if, shame shame, you do not have time to do the slow cook method and, instead, must cook the beans from a can. This is where bacon grease is a life saver. Just throw the can of beans in a pot (minus the can of course!) and add a liberal amount of bacon grease. What the bacon grease does is give the beans that slow cooked, down home flavor. It is like a Rachel Ray 30 minute meal, you have to take a few shortcuts to get the effect.
Well, after considering all of this, I would have to say bacon grease is the one ingredient a true southerner just cannot do without. It is an indispensable ingredient in many dishes.
I had a coworker once who had previously worked in the restaurant industry. He worked at an upper crust southern cuisine restaurant. One day a patron asked him why his food, which he cooked at home, did not taste as good as the food at the restaurant. The patron assured my coworker that he cooked the same food (creamed potatoes, turnip greens, fried chicken . . . etc.), but, for some reason, the food just did not taste nearly as good as the food at the restaurant. My coworker questioned the patron concerning his ingredients. The patron assured him he cooked in a health conscious manner. My coworker stopped him at this point and basically said, that was his problem. If he wanted to cook true southern food and have it taste good, he must put all the bad stuff in: sugar, butter (real butter!), heavy cream, salt and pepper, grease, lard . . . on and on we could go!
After all, it is called soul food, which means it is good for the soul, but not necessarily for the body! If you want body food, well, you might have to stick to tofu and all that other stuff!