Books
1:48 pm
Fri January 11, 2008

Southern Belly: The Ultimate Food Lover's Companion to the South

Organized state by state, this is a guide to the finest . . . what shall we call it? Down home cooking? Country cooking? Soul food? Traditional southern fare? This is a guide to BBQ, fried chicken, fried catfish, sausages, oysters raw and cooked, crawfish, hushpuppies, Brunswick stew, smoked mullet, collard greens and pot likker, and a dozen different kinds of biscuits, cornbread, and rolls.

Southern Belly

To begin, let me say what you will not find in Southern Belly. You will not find any mention of The Highland Bar and Grill or Surin West or any fine dining at all. There are no ethnic restaurants. Although author John T. Edge acknowledges that many of the BBQ shacks, chicken shacks, etc. were opened and run by Greeks, The Bright Star is the only Greek restaurant mentioned in 338 pages. (Edge can't resist the snapper either.) There are no Italian restaurants or Chinese or Lebanese or French, with the exception of Antoine's.

Organized state by state, this is a guide to the finest . . . what shall we call it? Down home cooking? Country cooking? Soul food? Traditional southern fare? This is a guide to BBQ, fried chicken, fried catfish, sausages, oysters raw and cooked, crawfish, hushpuppies, Brunswick stew, smoked mullet, collard greens and pot likker, and a dozen different kinds of biscuits, cornbread, and rolls.

Although Edge praises fresh, properly cooked vegetables from time to time, I recall no vegetarian or health food restaurants being discussed. In fact, there was no mention of tofu or of the soybean in any form at all. The only olive oil in the entire volume is perhaps in the muffaletta at Central Grocery in New Orleans. Rather, the diet under consideration in this book is pork, salt, various peppers, sugar, lard, and other oils, rarely canola.

Knowing that Edge traveled tens of thousands of miles and visited and ate in thousands of restaurants, diners, shacks, and grills in researching this book, it is a miracle, or at the very least a testimony to his constitution, that he does not weigh four hundred pounds and have all blocked arteries. But he doesn't. And the book is what it says: a guide to the best of this kind of cooking, healthy or not.

Alabama is appropriately represented, with thirty-one pages. Only Louisiana, understandably, gets more, at forty-four. Edge praises The Bright Star and Milo's sweet tea in Birmingham. In Decatur, he praises Big Bob Gibson's BBQ and the Green Top Caf?. Huntsville, he reminds us, was once the watercress capital of the world?now, I did not know that. Edge remarks on the comeback of Wintzell's in Mobile, takes a moment to profile the late and much-lamented Eugene Walter of Mobile, author of the Time-Life cookbook American Cooking: Southern Style, and reminisces about the Morrison cafeterias. In Montgomery he profiles Georgia Gilmore, Chris' Hot Dogs, and Martin's, as well as the Curb Market?should you want any vegetables. There are a few other barbecue places around the state singled out, but Tuscaloosa wins, so to speak, as Edge praises barbecue at Dreamland and Archibald's, as well as breakfast at the Waysider.

A lot of this volume is what you might expect, but there are a good many oddities that are fun. The tamale has, for over a hundred years, been a big favorite in the Mississippi Delta, for example, probably brought there by Hispanic migrant workers up from Texas. (Edge, of Oxford, Mississippi., does include east Texas in this book, but out west is somebody else's business.) He includes a little section on Washington, D.C., mainly to discuss where homesick southerners can find soul food, chitlins and so on. He rightly focuses on the many uses of the peanut in the state of Virginia, most notably peanut soup, and on the mullet and oyster cookeries and smokeries of the Panhandle, especially Appalachicola.

As must be obvious, this book was not meant to be read cover to cover. This is not even a book to be dipped into in your easy chair. Keep it in the glove compartment of your car, and as a treat during a long day of driving, head to the next recommended spot that looks interesting to you. I don't think you will go wrong.

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