5 Southern Food Myths Debunked
Photo: Marianna Massey, Getty Images.
Fried chicken. Black-eyed peas. Grits. Cornbread. Collared greens. Southern food is often imitated but isn’t always served authentically. Thomas Boemer is one chef who knows his stuff when it comes to soul food. The two-time James Beard Award semifinalist has mastered the art of cooking classic Southern dishes like shrimp and grits, fried green tomatoes, Johnny cakes, hush puppies, and more. When he opened Revival in Minneapolis in 2015, word of his crispy-tender fried chicken spread quickly, causing epic waits and lines down the block for those eager to get a taste. His Southern cooking expertise was so in-demand, he and business partner Nick Rancone had to open a second Revival location in St. Paul as well as a concessions outpost in the U.S. Bank Stadium (where Super Bowl LII will be played come February 4, 2018).
Who better, then, to debunk some of the most common myths about Southern food?
Myth #1: Fried chicken is greasy.
“The process of frying, which is at a much lower temperature, usually on the stovetop, will produce a crust that’s very crispy and not crispy. The only time you would have a greasy crust on it is if the chicken was fried at an improper temperature. If you have a greasy piece of fried chicken, you’re not eating a properly cooked piece of fried chicken,” explains Boemer. “It would be very common that when frying in the South, you would fry your chicken in batches and do enough to feed a large group of people. No one fries chicken for two people. When you set up the fryer and go to all that work, you’re generally frying for an after-church supper or a meal for the family. You’re generally cooking for a larger number of people. What they tend to do is fry, then put the chicken in a low oven to keep it warm, or put it in a basket and take it somewhere else to eat warm or at room temperature. In either of those cases, the chicken won’t have this greasy, oily feel to it.”
Myth #2 Southern food is unhealthy.
“That’s just blatantly false,” says Boemer. “Something amazing about Southern cuisine, especially where I grew up in the Carolinas, like any other coastal area, you’re dealing with seafood, as well as the diversity of produce, legumes, and rice. The Carolinas, especially, are really well-known for their rice. In the Carolinas, we eat rice with almost every meal. They have pork chops and rice, you may have a ‘bog’, which would be a little country dish that is rice and seafood and sausage or cooked pork. When people think of Southern cooking, you do think of quintessential fried chicken, but even when you do that, it’s all the sides that you have with it, whether it be turnip greens or stewed okra or all these amazing dishes that really round out the meal.”
Myth #3: All Southern food is spicy.
“We’ve got a Southern restaurant in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. We bring a little bit of spice to things. It’s a little bit of a surprise for people here and they absolutely love it,” Boemer says. “With Southern cuisine, you’re going to have spice where it might be applicable, you’re going to have richness, you’re going to have sweetness. People in the South might add hot sauce to something but they’re not cooking with a ton of chiles or anything like that that’s going to bring a tremendous amount of heat to any of the dishes.”
Myth #4: Barbecue means hot dogs and burgers.
“There are a number of myths associated with barbecue. The biggest one has to do with regional differences. A lot of people think barbecue is getting a little grill and some charcoal and putting some hot dogs and burgers on it. In the Carolinas where I grew up, barbecue means one thing: whole hog or pork shoulder,” Boemer says. “It’s always pork and it’s cooked under live coals. A lot of people refer to barbecue as ‘smoked’, like ‘This is a smoked pork shoulder.’ With barbecue, we don’t really smoke anything. It’s cooked under coals.”
Myth #5: All grits are created equal.
“I think a lot of people’s first introduction to grits are instant grits. I talk to people who come through the airport in the South and their first introduction might be at an airport restaurant,” Boemer laments. “Real grits, it’s a very specific thing. You want a grit that’s milled, properly made from the right corn, and cooked in a way that you preserve the texture and flavor of the corn. When you compare that to an instant grit, they’re just not even close to the same thing. I wouldn’t touch instant grits with a ten-foot pole.”