The South has risen again, and this time our weapon of choice is not a musket but a knife and fork.
Gone are the days when New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco could claim unvarnished culinary superiority over the rest of the country. One harmonious consequence of the slow and local food movement is that chefs and diners from across the country stopped looking at what the restaurants on the coasts were doing and focused on local culinary bounty and traditions.
The result? Classically trained chefs taking rich regional favorites and preparing them with cutting-edge technique. It hasn't happened overnight — John Besh has been doing this for years in New Orleans, among others — but suddenly it's the hottest thing on the national culinary scene. With an ode to the cuisine from Josh Ozersky in Time magazine, the movement also suddenly has a name: lardcore, as in Southern food with hard-core attitude.
"Here's the thing about Southern food: For most of our history, it was the best food in the country, prepared in the warmest and most fertile region, where biscuits and bacon practically spring out of the earth. (The vegetables are pretty good too.) But the higher quality the ingredients, the less you have to do with them, and so Southern culinary life was, until relatively recently, a long tryptophan trance of country ham, collards simmered endlessly in pork fat, creamy pan gravies and other agents of stultifying bliss. Food that good needs little in the way of adornment, and such efforts over the years generally flopped.
But a slew of young chefs are taking modern Southern cooking to a new place, forming a movement in the crucible of high ideals, virtuoso technique and hard-core attitude. Call it lardcore. It's meticulous, it's ballsy and it doesn't care what you think of it. In that, it's very Southern."
"I think what we try to do is Southern traditional food but make it contemporary," says Reef's chef and owner, Bryan Caswell. "If you look at haute became haute cuisine in France, it's all peasant food. Collard greens are a great example of that, my grandmother would tell me about foraging for them during the Great Depression. They'd hide down holding sticks and wait for blackbirds to fly over and hit them and try to get some to make blackbird pie. It's very blue-collar stuff, and I think it reminds us of a simpler time."
The time may be simple and the ingredients humble, but that doesn't mean people aren't serious about it. The Southern Foodways Alliance, an 800-member organization devoted to documenting and mapping the region's culinary standard-bearers, was described in the Atlantic Monthly as "this country’s most intellectually engaged (and probably most engaging) food society."
Take that, New York.
More locally, the upcoming launch of Robb Walsh's Foodways Texas on Tuesday shows that "Southern" is still a limited adjective that can't adequately describe the myriad local traditions between Texas and Virginia. Foodways Texas, like the SFA, is "a grassroots organization dedicated to the preservation of Texas food cultures."
"It's kind of like when Robert Del Grande, Dean Fearing, Stephan Pyles and Kent Rathbun came up and put Southwestern cuisine on the map," Reef co-owner Bill Floyd says. "These guys are representing their home and cooking food that makes people pay attention."
Who's your favorite Houston "lardcore" acolyte?