Contemporary Southern cooking is getting a taste of something fresh -- respect.
Even above the Mason-Dixon Line, the food of the South no longer is about fried chicken and barbecue cliches. It's a celebration of local, vibrant produce and carefully raised meats; of exotic ingredients like collards, okra, pork bellies and grits; and of traditions and cultures as deep, varied and flavorful as the foods.
"The South has always been cyclically hip," says John T. Edge, director of Southern Foodways Alliance. "But now it's become a permanent condition. America is coming to appreciate the range of culture and tradition in the South."
That appreciation has made it possible to dine on great down-home food in places as varied as Oregon, Illinois and New York.
At Hungry Mother in Cambridge, Mass., for example, chef Barry Maiden serves up what he and his partners call "contemporary American" food. The menu sports cornmeal-dredged catfish and other Southern classics that draw on Maiden's childhood in rural southern Virginia.
"For a few years now I think Southern cooking has become known as a serious type of cooking," Maiden said.
That interest also has produced a flood of award-winning cookbooks and chefs that can do better than just hold their own against the rest of the country.
This year's James Beard Foundation cookbook awards, for example. All three of the finalists for top American book are southern -- "My New Orleans" by John Besh; "Real Cajun" by Donald Link; and "The Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern" by Matt Lee and Ted Lee.
Food & Wine magazine will even devote its September issue to the region and its food.
"We've seen a huge rise in interest in the food of the South outside the South," says Dana Cowin, the magazine's editor-in-chief.
In many ways, the South has benefited from a growing national interest in local and crafted foods.
"A few years ago you used to go to the farmers' market and everything was from Florida or California," says Kathleen Purvis, food editor at the Charlotte Observer and chairwoman of the James Beard Book Awards Committee. "Now it's locally grown for the most part, and that is certainly a reflection of Southern cooking, which is closely tied to the land."
She also thinks the interest isn't all that new, pointing out that Craig Claiborne was writing about the South during the '70s, and Joe Dabney won a Beard award in 1999 for his cookbook "Smokehouse Ham, Spoon Bread, & Scuppernong Wine."
In explaining the appeal, Edge points to the variety of Southern cooking, which includes Cajun, Creole, soul and seafood.
Television also has played a role, giving voice to advocates such as Paula Deen and her sons, Jamie and Bobby Deen, who have launched their own shows and cookbooks.
The scattering of Southerners across the country that has taken place in recent years -- some forced by Hurricane Katrina -- may also account for some of the spread of down-home fare.
"I used to take the pimento cheese sandwiches my mother made for my lunch, the red velvet cakes for my birthday, the grits for Sunday breakfast for granted," says Bon Appetit magazine restaurant editor Andrew Knowlton.
Moving north made him appreciate the rich culinary traditions of the South, says Knowlton, who grew up in Atlanta.
"When chefs started focusing on local food, the South was a natural place for them to focus," he says. "Both in terms of flavor and tradition."
Because of that, Knowlton says he now can get such Southern delights as boiled peanuts, deviled eggs and his beloved pimento cheese in cities from Portland, Ore., to Portland, Maine.
>Fried Tomatoes with Aioli
For the aioli:
6 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon ice water
2 egg yolks
2 cups extra-virgin olive oil
For the tomatoes:
1 quart olive or vegetable oil
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups club soda
24 to 36 small cluster (on the vine) tomatoes
To make the aioli, in a food processor combine the garlic, lemon juice, water and egg yolks. Process until thick and evenly pureed. With the processor running, add a pinch of salt, then slowly drizzle in the olive oil.
If the aioli looks oily, add a touch more ice water. The color should be pale yellow and the texture should be matte, not glossy. Set aside.
In a deep heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high, heat the oil to 350 degrees.
Meanwhile, in a large bowl whisk together the flour and salt. Add the club soda, whisking gently to keep the batter fluffy. The batter will be thin.
Use scissors to cut tomato vines to divide them into small clusters. Rinse the tomatoes and pat them dry.
Working in batches, dip each cluster into the batter, coating them all over, then carefully slip them into the hot oil. Fry the tomatoes until the batter is lacy, crisp and golden brown, about 1 minute. Using metal tongs or a slotted spoon, carefully transfer the tomatoes to paper towels to drain. Serve with aioli. Servings: 6 to 8.
(Recipe from John Besh's "My New Orleans," Andrews McMeel, 2009)
1 pint strawberries, hulled
1 cup diced, seeded watermelon
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 cup sugar
In a blender, puree the strawberries, watermelon, lemon juice and sugar until smooth. Check that the puree has the correct amount of sugar. Add more sugar or juice if necessary (determine using method described above).
Transfer the puree to the canister of an ice cream maker and process according to the manufacturer's instructions. Keep the sorbet in the freezer until ready to use. Servings: 6.Per 1/2 cup serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 63 calories; 1 calorie from fat; no saturated or trans fats); no cholesterol; 18g carbohydrate; no protein; 1g fiber; 1mg sodium.