The Southern Spread
Our culture, our history, our spirit, and our hospitality are some of the ingredients. Southern foods are heavily influenced by African, English, Scottish, Irish, French, and Native-American cuisine, and although most of them are served across the country today, there are foods in the U.S. that are strictly thought of as SOUTHERN. There’s Creole, Lowcountry, and Floribbean, and I’m not sure where fried chicken and deviled eggs fit into the mix, but to be sure, they perform with a southern accent. In “The Southern Spread,” we’re exploring southern foods and traditions.
December’s Feature on the Southern Spread:
“The only kitchen item I usually bring to Italy is plastic wrap… This time, however, I have brought one bag of Georgia pecans and a can of cane syrup, pecan pie being a necessary ingredient of Christmas.”
— Frances Mayes, Under the Tuscan Sun
Whether it’s pronounced phuh-KAHN or PEE-can, a pecan pie is bound to show up here in Dixie at one or more holiday functions. It’s indeed a southern offering, because pecans themselves are native to our region.
Leave it to those show-off French though to take a nut that the Native Americans had been eating for about 8,000 years, and turn it into a delectable dessert. The Quinipissa and Tangipahoa tribes introduced pecans to them shortly after their arrival in New Orleans, and they worked their culinary magic to create the world-famous southern specialty — or so legend has it.
Everybody wants to take credit for discovering the syrupy pie, and who wouldn’t? It’s a scrumptious plunge into blood sugar overdrive.
Alabamians have laid claim to making pecan pie in the early 1800s, but there are no recipes or literature to substantiate that. A pecan custard pie recipe was published in Harper’s Bazaar in 1886, but no evidence of the pie is found in writing earlier than that date. The makers of Karo syrup insist that the wife of one of their executives was responsible for the discovery, and while their recipe is one of the easiest and best ways to make the pie, their claim just ain’t so. Although their method went a long way toward popularizing it, there’s evidence that the pie was being made using molasses long before Karo syrup was around. I, for one, am perfectly willing to give full credit to the French.
Phuh-KAHN pie is a southern staple, and it has morphed into many variations. There’s butterscotch pecan pie, made with butterscotch chips and brown sugar — in addition to corn syrup! There’s whiskey and chocolate chip, adding the obvious ingredients. Sawdust Pie is a signature recipe of Patti’s Restaurant in Paducah, Kentucky, consisting of an egg-batter filling with coconut, graham cracker crumbs and pecans, topped with whipped cream and sliced bananas. And, a version true to the southern spirit is — yep, you guessed it —“FRIED PECAN PIE,” served by Bourè restaurant on the Square in Oxford, Mississippi. I can personally confirm that it’s over-the-top delicious and worth whatever drive you have to make to have a slice.
Obviously, since I’m willing to drive to Oxford to have fried pecan pie, I’m not above enjoying variations, but when you get right down to it, anything other than the basic pecan pie recipe is just gilding the lily. It’s a noble southern cuisine offering, no matter how it’s pronounced or who invented it.
“Nothing rekindles my spirits, gives comfort to my heart and mind, more than a visit to Mississippi… and to be regaled as I often have been, with a platter of fried chicken, field peas, collard greens, fresh corn on the cob, sliced tomatoes with French dressing… and to top it all off with a wedge of freshly baked pecan pie.”
— Craig Claiborne
Photos: Deborah Fagan Carpenter