The World Outside My Skillet
“I’m Chinese by birth, but I’m southern just by growing up here.”
This summer my town supermarket started carrying fresh lychee. I just about fell over when I saw them—a couple dozen or so fruits, their wrinkled skins brown from being refrigerated, piled in the bin in the “tropical” part of the produce section, next to the star fruit I’m sure people sometimes buy, but no one actually eats. If you’ve only ever had lychee from cans, or sticky-sweet in take out Chinese desserts, then you have no idea how lovely they actually taste. It is akin to thinking you know what strawberries taste like because you’ve had strawberry syrup on your pancakes. You don’t.
When I lived in Boston my girlfriend and I used to haunt the Chinatown markets during lychee season—which always seemed to last about a day and a half—buying up several branches heavy with fruit (they were never sold loose), then spending a hot afternoon on a bench in the park, sodas and iced teas at our feet, peeling the fruit one by one to eat while we watched tourists watch the ducks in the pond and the orange-robed Hare Krishna types meditating under any shady spot they could find.
That lychee fruit would suddenly appear here, in my suburban southern grocery store, speaks partly to the general upscale swing of the community (we are a half hour’s drive to the city but across county lines so the taxes are much lower) and also, perhaps, to a badly kept secret—that there is quite a lot of the South that is not exactly “southern.” The quietly expanding exotic produce section in my supermarket is matched by the spreading “international” aisle, where almost an entire row is dominated by Hispanic ingredients on one side, and Asian foods on the other. Family-sized bottles of rice vinegar and salsa; five-pound bags of arroz; large cellophane packages of banana leaves, shitake mushrooms, dried corn husks, nori seaweed; economy-sized containers of bonito flakes; jars of ghee and cans of tahini. All of this stuff is readily available in my supermarket, in a town that doesn’t even have a movie theatre and whose county offices are in a strip mall. We only got a MacDonald’s this spring, but the supermarket has been stocking mole and Mexican chocolate for years.
It suggests that there is more to the South than barbecue, collard greens and fried chicken. Alongside the ancient meat-and-three diners and family-run seafood joints are the Chinese take out places, Mexican tacquerias, Indian tandoori kitchens, Middle eastern kebab grills and Thai restaurants. There is one intersection in town where you can eat from five different continents within a three-block radius. But these aren’t Johnny-come-lately establishments, opened to meet people’s sudden interest in “global” cuisine. They are small, family-run shops that have been around for years, quietly serving communities that have been here for so long you can’t really call them “immigrant.” The lady who runs the best Thai restaurant in my town has been here almost half a century. So has her cooking, in various incarnations.
It’s like there is this other South underneath all the hype about pecan pie and pulled-pork barbecue and the correct way to make deviled eggs. And it is this South that Paul and Angela Knipple take you in The World in a Skillet: A Food Lover’s Tour of the New American South. They focus on what I suppose people like to call “the global South”—the first and second generation immigrant communities that make up that part of the South that exists alongside the fish frys and fried chicken church picnics. And this South, is eye-opening.
I’ll say right now, I’m not used to my southern cookbooks containing detailed instructions on how to make sashimi.
Divided into sections that look at the intersection of the immigrant experience with American culture (“Seeking the American Dream,” “Bringing Tradition to the Table”), The World in a Skillet is as much ethnography as it is cooking manual. Each chapter focuses on a particular ethnic group, highlighting some of the forces that brought them to America, to the South, in fact, and how they negotiated adapting their own cultural identity to new circumstances. Each chapter is really a collection of three or four portraits of people for whom food has become an expression of what it means to be both themselves, and to be “Southern” in their communities. Julio in North Charleston came to the US looking for work and got his start driving a taco truck, which eventually became a full-service restaurant. Pepe Magellanes was a retired engineer who opened a Mexican restaurant in Germantown, Tennessee not because he needed the money, but because he missed the food of Mexico City. “What we do on the grill is not difficult,” he says “What’s difficult is to do it right always and to care. If we don’t care, we don’t need to be here.”
That sort of belongs-in-framed-cross-stitch sentiment is echoed throughout the entire book, by many of the cooks the Knipples interviewed, in many different kinds of communities. “We aren’t just cooks. We are friends to the people, and that makes us different,” says Merima Kresno, part of the Bosnian community in Bardstown, Kentucky. “Meeting people,” is what Moumen Hamwi in Little Rock, Arkansas says is the best part of having his own restaurant. That Hamwi serves halal meats and blesses each dish he makes in the name of Allah seems not to have bothered the people of Little Rock in the slightest: “Seeing people come back,” he goes on, “seeing people tell you the food was good, the food was excellent. It gives you a great feeling that you’re cooking and people come in and buy from you.”
Whether they came to the country as refugees fleeing genocide, or following husbands and wives for love, or as skilled computer programmers on the H-1B visa program, each of the cooks interviewed in the book has had to find an answer for themselves of how to retain their cultural identity, and yet become “American.” More than a few speak of their efforts to convince patrons to try “something different.” Some tell stories of people who came in wanting a burger and left a convert to the wonders of Indian food. Others talk about how they adapt their favorite dishes to American tastes: “...we don’t have to make huge changes to a certain dish,” notes Okiyo Demura of Little Tokyo in Ridgeland, Mississippi, “but what we might do is fry a little bit more or put some fried things into it or make it taste sweeter because Americans like sweet things.”
Others plead: “In my menu, I have winter melon . . . but not too many people order it just because people understand eggplant, so they do not want something else. I think day by day over more time, maybe people will get tired of eggplant.” It hasn’t happened yet.
And still others take the melding of traditional and American cuisine to new and daring heights. Which is really the only way to describe Chef Wally Jo’s recipe for Braised Pork Belly on Sweet Corn Pudding with Green Tomato Marmalade. But whether it is exploring how people from cultures that don’t eat pork adapt to living in the land of the Pig (“I just eat around it,” shrugs one cook) or documenting how a culture holds tight to its identity despite relentless outside pressure, the authors have managed to paint a portrait of a culinary South that has hitherto been barely suspected by the magnolia set.
It should also be noted that although they concentrate on the recent immigrant experience, the authors do not neglect to consider the cultures that make up the foundation of American Southern cooking. “We are all from somewhere else,” they write in their preface—a truth that is sometimes forgotten in our sense of cultural complacency. Accordingly, then, the very first section is devoted to “the keepers of the flame”—a discussion of the Native American, the Cajun, the African, and Scotch-Irish Appalachian foodways that can be found at the heart of what we call “traditional” southern cooking. And if you don’t already have a nice long sidebar in one of your cookbooks about the importance and benefits of pot likker, well you will find one here.
Of course, books that explore food traditions run the risk of romanticizing their subject, especially if the goal is to get you to try the recipes that are being offered. Recipes sometimes become stories in themselves, sagas emblematic of the history and memory of an entire family and thus treated with the same kind of respect we show to old family photographs and letters. There is, however, another side to the immigrant experience in America, and this book does not shy away from it. So alongside the stories of family restaurants and heirloom recipes are stories of businesses that failed due to bad economic times, of racial prejudice and the kind of fears that come with being the only Muslim employee in a factory town during the 9/11 crisis. There are stories of lost traditions, of children who don’t want to be part of old traditions, of unemployment, street gangs, and cultural isolation. It is a sharp, piquant seasoning to the loving tone that underlies so many of the recipes in the book.
As a book to be used in the kitchen, The World in a Skillet is pragmatic in its approach, but perhaps not always practical. Some recipes are simple and easy to make, some less so. The authors are rigorous about authenticity, and carefully faithful to the words of the cooks who provided each recipe. This means that some apparently simple dishes, like Misr Wot (Ethiopian-Style Lentil Stew) require a bit of research since one of the most important ingredients is a quarter of a cup of nit’r qibe, an Ethiopian-style spiced butter, which has to be made first. They do, however, tell you how to do that and it’s rather more complicated than the lentil stew it goes in.
But if they don’t shy away from exotic ingredients or rare spices, the authors do encourage a spirit of experimentation and exploration throughout the book. They offer other uses for nit’r qibe (“Try using it for scrambled eggs.”). They provide the directions for making your own sofrito, admonish you against buying it pre-made, but then encourage you to invent your own version and to adjust their recipe to your own tastes. They offer vegetarian suggestions for the Bangladeshi-style Goat Stew, spice alternatives for everything from Bengali milk sweets to Twice-Cooked Pork with Garlic. In each case the goal is to appreciate the signature tastes of an particular dish, while at the same time opening up the possibilities of your own kitchen.
It is probably the goal of any cookbook author that their books live cracked open on kitchen counters, pages spattered with oil and gritty with flour. The World in a Skillet has a good chance at such an existence in my kitchen. But even more important than its ability to demystify kimchi or tuna tartare, what the World in a Skillet does is bring into focus the dozens of little restaurants, food carts and cafes you no doubt pass every day on your way to the Cracker Barrel.
“I think one of the beauties of all this,” says Chef Alon Shaya of New Orleans, “is that I’m an Israeli person cooking regional Italian food in the south of America. I would say America is such a wonderful place because it allows this type of stuff to happen.” Perhaps the next time you decide to grab a bite to eat, maybe you will pass up the drive through window at the local Chic-fil-A, and instead pull into the taco stand that is probably right down the road. You may be wonderfully surprised by the world you find right outside your skillet.
Books mentioned in this column:
Nicki Leone showed her proclivities early when as a young child she asked her parents if she could exchange the jewelry a well-meaning relative had given her for Christmas for a dictionary instead. She supported her college career with a part-time job in a bookstore, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that her college career and attending scholarships and financial aid loans supported her predilection for working as a bookseller. She has been in the book business for over twenty years. Currently she works for the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, developing marketing and outreach programs for independent bookstores. Nicki has been a book reviewer for several magazines, her local public radio station and local television stations. She was one of the founders of The Cape Fear Crime Festival, currently serves as President of the Board of Trustees of the North Carolina Writers Network, and as Managing Editor of BiblioBuffet. Plus, she blogs at Will Read for Food. She manages all this by with the loving support of varying numbers of dogs and cats. Contact Nicki.