Southern Food’s Return to the Limelight

Southern-inspired food has been big for a while and there’s no sign of it dying down. Shrimp and grits are on menus everywhere, sweet tea is a cool flavor, and weekly fried chicken nights are sell-out events at unlikely restaurants. We asked Nicole Mouton (pictured, left), the co-owner of the Screen Door in Portland, OR why she thought Southern food has become so popular.

What do you think is behind the current interest in Southern cuisine?

In my opinion, this relatively recent love affair with southern food in the national consciousness coincided with Hurricane Katrina. Post-Katrina there was a massive national effort to help heal that which was broken. As cliché as it is, you don’t really know what you have until you’ve lost it. I think that Americans collectively took a hard look at New Orleans and its 200-plus years of history and saw that its cultural contributions were [uniquely formed]. Americans in all walks of life and in all disciplines and from all over this country did whatever they could to help save New Orleans. Suddenly, we saw a great deal of aggrandizing of Southern culture and Southern chefs, which Americans embraced, whereas, I argue, in a pre-Katrina environment, they would not have had such high billing. Pushing these personalities to the forefront was a way to help the cause of healing. It took a massive, deadly storm to make our nation see the validity of its own history and culture.

What about the hyper-trendiness of some of these traditional foods?

In this post-Katrina nation, we have gotten to the point that traditional Southern foods are now “hot.” They’ve been marked and accepted as valid, but I can’t help but feel that it’s just a phase. Are they just buzzwords for menus, or are chefs and restaurateurs really seeing a connection between their heritage and the history of the food that they are creating and marketing?

This isn’t the first cycle where Southern cooking has been popular, right?

We had a breakthrough with chef Paul Prudhomme in the ’80s, in which he brought Cajun food to the national eye. However, the craze ended up devolving into bastardized notions of Cajun cuisine. In this country, we’ve lost so many of our foodways and we don’t celebrate and investigate those who have done their part to cherish and record [them]. It makes me crazy that so few people know about Edna Lewis and her contributions, for instance. We’ve put Italian and French peasant food on the menus of some of our most celebrated fine-dining American restaurants, yet we still struggle to put our own history at that same level.

What’s happening now to reclaim that history?

Some people are creating new brands for the historical foodways of their particular American regional area. I think that this is great as long as it is done with the proper care and respect to an area’s traditions, local culture, local foods, and unique history. This is how we will find and rediscover our cultural identity, by doing it on a micro level.