As ever, I was late to the B. Smith party. Until I received the uncorrected proofs for her cookbook B. Smith Cooks Southern Style, she remained under my radar. She owned three restaurants in New York, DC, and Sag Harbor and expanded her brand to include a home decor collection, specialty serveware, and furniture. Somehow she found time to write two books on entertaining, as well.
So how can a Pennsylvania native write with any authority on southern food? She absorbed southern culture from her parents and learned to cook from her mother and aunts and other relatives. This is a question I asked several times as I made my way through the proofs.
Smith begins with a bang: Country Style Alligator Sausage Patties and Gravy. This is not the only recipe using "game" meat. And Smith's interpretation is not the standard either. Beer-braised rabbit is tempting. Other game meats she includes recipes for are venison, frog legs, and turtle.
This is not your typical southern cookbook. Her objective is "to lighten up traditional southern dishes we love by revisiting the traditional recipes, unlocking old secrets to perfect taste, and creating new ones." Perfect examples of these are her Vegetarian Etouffee and the Sweet Potato Salad with Orange Maple Dressing. And yet, she uses soda, or cocolas, which is a "traditional" quirky southern cooking thing. The Rootbeer BBQ Pulled Pork recipe is one.
Smith suggests pairings frequently and that's helpful. Say, the Cornbread Oyster Dressing with the Turkey. And this is one example that actually didn't work in the proof. I searched throughout for the Cornbread Oyster Dressing recipe and never found it. Hope they take care of that in the finished book.
The book is arranged as you'd expect, by dish and the order in which it's served during the meal. Before the ingredients list there's usually a hefty paragraph where Smith includes an anecdote about how her female family members were always baking bread, or about John the butcher, or how she and her friends went gaga over mimosas when they were hot young things out for Sunday brunch. Not every recipe contains anecdotes. A good third, or more, possibly (I wasn't paying strict attention to it), were bland sentences about the history of grits or some other ingredient. Sure, that might be helpful for an audience who isn't familiar with southern food history, but for the rest of us, it's common knowledge.
Getting a handle on Smith as a cook is truly difficult. She's heavily influenced by her childhood in the 1950s, especially her mother's reliance upon convenience foods ala Betty Crocker. Smith writes about the deliciousness of the "frozen cornmeal crusted whiting." Several of her recipes use already prepared items. Like boxed cornbread mix, or pre-baked pie crust shells. Yeah, this is a turn off. And I had a hard time with these things as they appeared in the cookbook. It made me think that Smith was just inauthentic about food, but then I realized that we're all a little that way. We like our comfort foods. I prefer the Kraft mac n cheese with the orange powdered cheese sauce because it's quick and I don't have to think about whether I have the appropriate fresh cheese on hand.
It's hard to trust her, still, because she admits to eating very little bread. Not even liking it, really. She says that when she does eat bread, it can't be any old piece of bread. Inferior bread. But then she talks about Pillsbury Biscuits. Then she also provides a buttermilk substitute, which I think may be neat to try, especially if you want to try to eat more healthy biscuits. Oh, and while she enjoys making desserts for her family and friends, she doesn't eat it.
The dishes I thought I'd probably make are: Southern Peanut Soup, Sweet Potato Salad with Orange Maple Dressing, Black-Eyed Pea Gravy, and Blackberry-Cardamom Cobbler with Creme Fraiche.
This book left me wondering about southern and foodie authenticity and raised more questions than it answered. Marketing it as a southern cookbook is probably wrong. While regional Western Pa. cookbooks don't have the came cache as do those from the south, I think it Smith could bring new respect to that area if she promoted it rather than adding another book to the southern food genre. Her coverage of each and every southern region reminds me of The Cheesecake Factory's approach to their menu. They have everything. You can find something to eat. There's no specialization. For example, in the section on soups, she jumps from Kentucky Burgoo to She Crab soup in the Low Country and then on to New Orleans.
Wrapping my head around Smith's eating was difficult, too. Her distance from bread and desserts indicated that she and I have very different priorities when it comes to eating. Her section on salads was quite good, and maybe that's where she excels. It just didn't seem clear to me who her audience for the cookbook was. You cannot be all things to all people, and I'm convinced that it would work better with a narrower scope and different focus.