Chef Virginia Willis’ newest cookbook hit shelves this month. Titled “Secrets of the Southern Table”, this newest book by the James Beard Award-winning author is a collection of essays and recipes gathered from across the global South.
There’s the South that we know and there’s the South that many people don’t know. Southern people and Southern food have long struggled to be recognized beyond the stereotypical view. The South is often cast as a place unfriendly to outsiders with a cuisine restricted to Southern fried everything.
In her newest cookbook, Chef and Author Virginia Willis lets the world in on a secret: the South is a dynamic place where global influence has always been welcome at the table. Chef Willis takes readers around the South to explore the global influences which serve as the basis of many traditional Southern dishes.
About Virginia Willis and her Newest Cookbook
Chef Willis was born in Augusta, Georgia and later spent a large part of her childhood in the bayous of Louisiana. In her newest cookbook, Willis recounts her early culinary influences in the Introduction, and we are given an intimate glimpse into the family and places that informed her cooking and writing. This warm account of growing up in the South alongside wild rivers and hunting fields will strike a chord with many readers, who will immediately recognize some of these scenes from their own childhoods. Readers will also enjoy a thoughtfully written Foreword by superstar Southern Chef Sean Brock.
Following the Foreword and Introduction, Secrets of the Southern Table is divided into eight chapters, with earlier chapters dedicated to groups of ingredients and the last three chapters organized by food type. All chapters maintain a focus on the diversity of food traditions throughout the South and contain essays by Chef Willis about local farmers and makers who produce many of the ingredients used in the recipes following the essays. The recipes throughout the book are written in a clear, easy to read style and are supplemented with useful hints periodically inserted among the recipes. Oftentimes, cookbooks are written with assumptions that can leave cooks in the dark. This cookbook makes no such assumptions and will be appreciated by all cooks, from novice to expert.
Navigating Secrets of the Southern Table Chapter by Chapter
The first chapters of Secrets of the Southern Table are dedicated to the cornerstone of Southern cooking: the garden. Chef Willis’ essays in these chapters tell us the story of two Georgia farms: White Oak Pastures in Bluffton and Gilliard Farms in Brunswick. Willis highlights both the commonalities between the farms and the starkly different origins of each farm. Although the lines in the Georgia dirt may have been drawn by opposing forces, Willis’ global South acknowledges that all food comes from common soil, undefined by imaginary lines. Recipes in this section focus on traditional Southern vegetables including okra, squash and tomatoes, but veer into international waters with ingredients and techniques from various countries and cultures.
Willis includes similar essays throughout other sections of the cookbook. In the chapters dedicated to seafood, the reader visits Southern coastal fishing villages and learns about the thriving Vietnamese food culture in Houston, Texas. We get to follow along with Willis as Galveston area food writer and restaurant owner Robb Walsh takes her on a culinary tour of Texas’ international coastal flavors. Following the essays are a variety of Southern seafood recipes that draw from Latino, Italian and Vietnamese influences, among others.
As you page through Secrets of the Southern Table, the chapters of the book dedicated to Beef, Lamb and Pork will take you on a journey through the Bluegrass State and into the rolling green hills of North Alabama. In Lexington, Kentucky, Chef Willis introduces us to Maria’s Kitchen, and also visits renown fashion designer Natalie Chanin in Florence, Alabama. The reader follows along with Willis and Chanin as they tour Blue Water Creek Farm, a local supplier for Chanin’s restaurant, The Factory Café. Local and international flavors harmonize perfectly in the recipes contained in this section, ranging from Roasted Leg of Lamb with Mediterranean Spices to Mississippi-Style Char Siu Pork Tenderloin.
The remaining sections of the cookbook give thorough attention to grains, chicken, soups & stews, game birds, biscuits and breads. Other farmers and makers visited in Willis’ trek around the global South include Manchester Farms in South Carolina; Many Fold Farm in Georgia; Anson Mills in South Carolina; Farmer’s Daughter Brand Preserves in North Carolina; Muddy Pond in Tennessee; Foggy Ridge Cider in Virginia, among others. The final chapter is dedicated to desserts and like the rest of the book, it contains recipes that highlight the international flavor of Southern cuisine. Chef Willis’ recipe for almond jelly relays a bit of the fascinating story surrounding the strong Chinese component of Mississippi food culture. The dessert section, as in the balance of the cookbook, contains beautiful photos by photographer Angie Mosier.
“Southern Food is International Food.”
Secrets of the Southern Table tells the tale of the real South, a place where food traditions arrived from all over the globe and combined in unlikely communities to create a unique American cuisine. Willis’ recipes let the world in on a secret: Southern food is international food. It has always drawn from the cultures and identities of the people who call the South home. She has combined time-honored Southern ingredients from farms and makers across the South with traditions and techniques drawn from its own communities. This is a secret that bears repeating, and a collection of recipes that brings the global story of Southern food into focus.
Secrets of the Southern Table is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and is available for purchase from major retailers and online at Amazon.com and other internet retailers.