In 2010, the theme of the Southern Foodways Alliance Annual Symposium was “The Global South.” Symposium attendees learned about the influences of places and peoples from all over the world on Southern culinary culture. This year, Memphis-based freelance food writers Paul and Angela Knipple have released their treatise on the subject, which they titled The World in a Skillet. In the introduction, SFA executive director John T. Edge describes the Knipples as “culinary diplomats, intent on forging a coalition of inquisitive eaters who comprehend time at table as a passport to building common bonds.”
The World in a Skillet shares the stories of over forty first-generation immigrants who have settled in the American South, a region that already has a strong food culture. Fortunately, Southern food is already the food of immigrants, with African and Creole influences on low country cuisine and French and Cajun elements shining through in the rich foods of Louisiana. There is even a German heritage represented in the humble livermush sandwich served throughout the Carolinas.
These intrepid pioneers demonstrated their bravery not only by coming over to America and sharing their food cultures, but in many cases they also settled into towns without already established communities that shared their ethnicity. Still, these chefs survived and thrived as they introduced unique flavors into their new hometowns.
The Knipples have persuaded their subjects to share these flavors with their readers in the form of 50 recipes for exotic international dishes, including Central American and Mexican specialties, Vietnamese and Chinese staples cooked with traditional Southern ingredients, African dishes that demonstrate the roots of Creole cuisine and Eastern European comfort foods. There’s even the story of Alon Shaya, an Israeli cooking regional Italian food in a New Orleans restaurant. Go figure.
The contribution of these chefs and their influence on Southern food culture is compelling, but it is not just limited to the kitchen. They have succeeded in changing what staples are stocked in your local grocery and which exotic ingredients are available to other inventive restaurateurs seeking international flavors. After Hurricane Katrina ravaged Louisiana, a community of Vietnamese farmers relied on generations of experience cultivating flooded rice fields to quickly rebound and begin to provide fresh produce to Chef John Besh’s group of restaurants so that they could reopen as soon as possible. Besh still buys produce from these farmers, and they have become an important part of his list of purveyors.
If America is still a melting pot, the southern part of the country must be cooking gumbo in that pot. With The World in a Skillet, Paul and Angela Knipple provide a fascinating account of the hands that are helping to stir the cauldron.
The World in a Skillet, $35, amazon.com
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