I spend a lot of time explaining to people that the South is not a monolithic region where we all talk like Vivian LeighÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Scarlet and Burl IvesÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Big Daddy and eat nothing but greens and grits. Ã‚ I mean a lot of us do eat a whole lot of the latter, but itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s actually in our cuisine where we are most diverse.
This was brought home to me the first time I took my friend Robert Harling to Nashville. Robert is from Natchitoches, Louisiana and the brilliant author of Steel Magnolias, in which he immortalized the ever-popular Armadillo GroomÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Cake. But he had never tasted fruit tea, fried hot water cornbread, a cheese dream, or the Belle Meade Country ClubÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Frozen Tomato, Faucon Salad, and Caramel Fudge Ball until he visited Nashville, Tennessee. Ã¢â‚¬Å“What? Do they stop cars at the edge of the city limits and confiscate the food?Ã¢â‚¬ he asked me. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Why have I never tasted any of this stuff before?Ã¢â‚¬
Last week, I was in Montgomery, Alabama and asked myself the same question. It was my first time in the city, a lovely place where I gave a talk to the Antiquarian Society. At the festive dinner party in my honor on the first night, I was reminded of how much I love good old-fashioned Deep South hors dÃ¢â‚¬â„¢oeuvres like the cheese straws on the coffee table and the sausage-stuffed mushrooms that were passed on silver trays. (The dinner that followed, cooked by chef Bud Skinner, was so good that I must now return to eat in his restaurant Jubliee Seafood.) But it was at the reception after my speech the next day at the Montgomery Museum of Art where I had my mind blown. (The museumÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s fine collection, which includes a great Edward Hopper and a beautiful William Merritt Chase is pretty mind blowing too, but thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s another story.) On the table along with some iced tea and cups of creamy tomato soup, there was an enormous pile of some sort of scruffy looking ham rolls. Now in my time I have eaten a ton of ham biscuitsÃ¢â‚¬”country ham on beaten biscuits in Virginia, baked ham on sweet potato biscuits in Louisiana, every kind of ham on buttermilk biscuits in my own kitchen. In this very space IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve also discussed the merits of the Charleston-based Lee Brothers Ham Relish sandwiches. But I had never seen a Ham Delight, which is apparently an Alabama thing and seriously addictive, until my trip to Montgomery.
As I type this, I am in Charleston, South Carolina where I have had my mind blown again, this time by the supremely talented Sean Brock at his new restaurant Husk. Every ingredient, down to the smoked sea salt and olive oil, is from the South. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s the perfect place to celebrate our glorious bounty, and to check out our differences as well. Last night I had fried chicken skins (letÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s face itÃ¢â‚¬”itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s the only part we really want), unbelievably fresh Capers Inlet Blade Oysters (which I didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t know existed), and strips of fried pigÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s ear wrapped in lettuce leaves Oriental style (delicious). My husband had cornmeal-dusted catfish with okra and tomatoes that tasted like my Mississippi childhood (even though it was from North Carolina) and I had pork shoulder with smoky butter beans and field peas. But the best way to start is with the ham tasting. Sit at the bar and enjoy some mighty fine hams from across the region accompanied by some equally amazing bourbons.
Until you get to Husk (which, along with BrockÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s other restaurant McCradyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s, is worth the trip to Charleston), I highly recommend the Ham Delights. The recipe, from MAGIC, The Cookbook of the Junior League of Birmingham, Alabama, 1982, is below.
Makes 36 rolls
1Ã‚½ pounds cooked ham
Ã‚¾ pound Swiss cheese
1 medium onion, quartered
2 sticks butter, softened
3 tablespoons prepared mustard
1 teaspoon Worcestershire
1Ã‚½ tablespoons poppy seeds
3 packages Pepperidge Farm Party Rolls
Using steel blade of food processor, chop ham finely.Ã‚ Remove to bowl.Ã‚ Chop cheese finely and set aside.Ã‚ Combine onion, butter, mustard and Worcestershire. Process.Ã‚ Add poppy seeds and process.
Split the whole package of rolls as one large roll.Ã‚ Spread both insides with onion mixture.Ã‚ Sprinkle ham and cheese on one side of rolls.Ã‚ Put rolls together in original container and cut out individual rolls by separating with a knife.
You may return to original plastic bag cover and freeze.Ã‚ When ready to serve, preheat oven to 375 and heat rolls for 15 to 20 minutes.