ST. MATTHEWS, S.C. — It's not hard to get Emile DeFelice riled up. Just mention Paula Deen, the so-called queen of Southern food, who cooks with canned fruit and Crisco. Or say something like “You don't look like a Southern pig farmer.” He'll practically hit the ceiling of his Prius.
Because there are a few things about Southern food that the man just can't stand: Its hayseed image, the insiders who feed that image and the ignorant outsiders who believe in it.
“Just because I'm a farmer doesn't mean I spend all my time feeding pigs,” said DeFelice, a natty, voluble fellow who raises 200 pigs here at Caw Caw Creek Farm in the softly forested hills northof Charleston, S.C. “That's an absurd proposition.”
DeFelice's pork is coveted by chefs around the country, but his ambitions are much bigger than bacon. In 2004, he started a local-only farmers' market because he was so outraged that produce from California and Chile was allowed at the state-run farmers' market nearby. He hopes to run for state agriculture commissioner in 2014.
And he is part of a thriving movement of idealistic Southern food producers who have a grander plan than just farm-to-table cuisine. They want to reclaim the agrarian roots of Southern cooking, restore its lost traditions and dignity, and if all goes according to plan, completely redefine American cuisine for a global audience.
Their work is being encouraged, and sponsored, by a new generation of chefs who have pushed Southern cooking into the vanguard of world cuisine — and who depend on these small producers to literally flesh out their ambitions.
“In the next five years we should be dominating the world in charcuterie, because we have the best pigs and the most skills,” said Craig Diehl, the chef at Cypress, in Charleston, who makes an extraordinary headcheese and about 25 other remarkable cured meats from DeFelice's pork.
A key ingredient
Pork is still the definitive ingredient of Southern cooking, past and present. But the “lardcore” trend has now become a bigger movement embracing the entire Southern pantry.
“As an obsessive person, you realize that there is a better version of everything out there,” said Sean Brock, the Charleston chef whose restaurant Husk serves only food produced south of the Mason-Dixon line, from Georgia olive oil to Tennessee chocolate to capers made from locally foraged elderberries.
Many Southern chefs are working along similar lines — Frank Stitt, Mike Lata, Andrea Reusing and Linton Hopkins are just a few — but Brock's rigor has redefined what it means to cook like a Southerner today. Young chefs are joining in, learning butchery and fermentation, putting up chowchow and piccalilli, experimenting with wood ash to make their own hominy.
Perhaps most important, they are paying (and charging) big-city prices for down-home ingredients: money that is keeping food traditions, and small producers, alive.
Jason Powell, a nurseryman in Jemison, Ala., grew heirloom roses until a decade ago, when he took a basket of overflow from his family's fig trees to the back door of a restaurant in Birmingham.
“I never felt like a rock star in my life until I went into a restaurant kitchen with a load of fruit,” he said. “All those hands, reaching out to touch your stuff.”
Now he raises old strains of blackberries, muscadines and scuppernongs (“grapes with a twang,” he calls them). They are traditionally used for jelly, but the region's chefs are churning them into sorbet or serving them pickled.
Hoppin' John, then ...
Around here, the New Year is ushered in with bowls of hoppin' John, a resilient mix of rice and black-eyed peas that is supposed to bring luck. One food lover in Charleston, when asked if the Lowcountry had any other New Year's foods, said, “I'm sorry, but all that bandwidth is occupied by hoppin' John.”
One of the most influential characters in the Southern revival is Glenn Roberts, the owner of Anson Mills in Columbia, S.C., a grower of heirloom grains across the region, and a walking Wikipedia on the agricultural history of the South. The modern hoppin' John recipe of converted rice and black-eyed peas, he says, is a flavorless facsimile of the real thing.
With sadness, he reported: “People taste it and say, ‘Really? That's the dish that has survived for centuries and represents an entire cuisine?'”
In his telling, after the American Revolution, hundreds of varieties of rice flourished in plantations and paddies along the coast of North Carolina and Georgia. The flavor of Carolina rice made it world famous; the finest grains were hand-pounded, barrel-aged and scented with bay leaves. From African slaves, white farmers learned to rotate crops of peas with rice, to replenish the soil; they learned that the two foods, eaten together, could sustain life over many months of winter or hardship.
At harvest, peas — usually flavorful red or cream-colored varieties — were eaten green and fresh, in a dish called “reezy peezy” (a name that shows the influence of the 17th-century Italian engineers who advised local rice planters: “Risi e bisi” is a spring specialty in the Veneto). In winter, the dried peas (what Northerners call beans) were the standard for hoppin' John.
... and now
Later, when mechanized farming took hold, black-eyed peas become dominant because they were easy to grow, with high yields. And machine-milled rice, sprayed with vitamins and pesticides, became the standard.
“Machining takes the flavor nuances out,” Roberts said.
These days, in high-end Southern restaurants, the hoppin' John is most likely to be made with creamy-textured red peas and heirloom rice, flavored with artisanal bacon fat and fresh herbs grown by the chef — past and present, coming together in delicious new ways.