`The Glory of Southern Cooking' by outstanding American culinary journalist, James Villas is, in many ways, an answer to my quest for a `definitive' cookbook of Southern cuisine. Villas himself is too modest to claim being the final authority on Southern cooking. He even cites three works which are closer to being the `Mastering the Art...' for Southern cuisine than this work; however, he does attest to the fact that it is far more comprehensive than any of his earlier `general' cookbooks, which are based on his mother's North Carolina cooking experiences.
For those who don't know Villas, he is the author of thirteen (13) earlier books, the best of which are collections of his columns from `Town and Country' and other culinary and lifestyle magazines. As such, Villas has been researching the far corners of `Southern Cooking' for the better part of 40 years, largely from the same insider's point of view as his friend, Craig Claiborne. After all this time, Villas' great hypothesis, for which he offers this book as a verification, is that the cuisine of the American South is as rich, diverse, and as involved as those of France, Italy, or China.
Many writers have approached `Southern Cuisine' from the bottom up, such as Edna Lewis in her `The Taste of Country Cooking', Justin Wilson's several cookbooks, or Sallie Ann Robinson's `Gullah Home Cooking the Daufuskie Way'. Even more, it seems, have approached things from the top down, from the point of view of high-end restaurants specializing in Southern cuisine. Prime examples are celebrity chefs such as Paul Prudhomme, Emeril Lagasse and Frank Stitt. Books which seem to combine these two approaches are the many cookbooks from Paula Deen, based on her `The Lady and Sons' Savannah restaurant, the `Mrs. Wilkes Boardinghouse Cookbook' and the recent `The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook'. Of all these books, Villas seems to have three distinct advantages. First, his broad and long experience has enabled him to cover the cuisine(s) of the entire south (from which he excludes Texas, which he considers something of a land unto itself). Unlike, the Lees, the Deens, Wilson, Stitt, and Lagasse, he is not bound to the Tidewater, Cajun, Creole, or `soul' food styles. Second, his point of view has an element of the scholarly about it. Thus, while he may not be giving us the very best or most elaborate recipe for pimento cheese spread (he does that in `Stalking the Green Fairy'), we are assured of getting the recipe most familiar to the greatest number of `Southern Cooking' practitioners. Third, Villas explores that great middle ground of genteel home cooking and entertaining, below the great New Orleans restaurant practitioners but above the raw roots. A fourth virtue of Villas' presentation is that while many of his headnotes include personal information like the Lee Bros. chitchat, he goes into greater depth regarding the cachet surrounding various dishes and their role in Southern cuisine at large.
These four points are interesting and make good reading; however, the best feature of the book for the student of Southern Cooking is the Introduction which covers more than 35 pages of material on `Equipment', `Ingredients', `Special Cooking Techniques', and `A Southern Glossary'. This is stuff that appears in no other book I have read on Southern cooking. It is by far the best argument Villas has for both the distinctiveness and richness of Southern Cooking. The high point is Villas' description of how to make a classic Cajun roux, which involves far more than the simple French white roux. Villas claims that he spoiled ten (10) attempts at the task before getting it right, in spite of being tutored by none other than Paul Prudhomme.
And, the best feature of the book for the average cook is the fact that the book may be the very best source of recipes for virtually every classic Southern dish you can think of (as long as you don't want any Texas recipes). `James Beard's American Cookery' may just be a bit more complete and a bit more authoritative, but Villas is far more fun to read and his recipes are much easier to follow.
A fine sample of Villas' range and emphasis is his chapter on barbecue. The 20 recipes cover Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Creole, Florida, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Virginia styles, covering pork, veal, chicken, shrimp, fish, quail, duck, and rabbit, but no Texas or Kansas beef styles! Of course, Villas lets his personal preferences shine through now and again, when he considers Carolina pulled pork to be the king of all barbecue recipes. Of course, he doesn't weigh in on the theological arguments over the superiority of Lexington (western) versus Tidewater (eastern) recipes.
While I can't guarantee Villas will have every single Southern recipe you may want or need, I can't find any of the classics I'm familiar with among the missing. I thought for a moment he may not have the fried pickle chips I had for the first time last year on a trip to Myrtle Beach, but there they were, on Page 22.
It's easy to say that a cookbook is a good read or scholarly or well-written, but that doesn't address whether this is a good book from which to cook. Well, this is a good book for cooking, as well as all these other virtues. The recipes are written well, they are easy to read, the pages will photocopy well, and the tips and techniques are well presented, without being preachy. My happiest discovery was the recipe for shrimp remoulade, which tastes good simply by reading the ingredients.
If you are put off by the extensive use of deep-frying, my best suggestion is to read Shirley Corriher's exposition on deep-frying in `Cookwise' to appreciate that the method actually doesn't add that many fat calories.
I hope Villas keeps writing for us for a long time, but I suspect he has now given us the most important book of his career.