A Southern Revival

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Chef Mashama Bailey on time and place, heritage and traditions, community and history. Photo by Cedric Smith

I wasn’t born in Savannah, but I lived here as a child, eating date palms and running barefoot through the streets of Baldwin Park. I don’t remember many things about those days, but I do remember they were warm, like sun tea. Savannah was a safe place—quiet, spread out, yet everything a child ever needed was within walking distance. Our school, Charles Ellis, was around the corner, and we ran around the neighborhood with change in our pockets to buy frozen thrills from the thrill ladies, all while our parents watched from a distance.

When we moved to New York in the mid-Eighties, we lived in Queens. My father’s mother owned a house there, and we all lived with her on and off until I moved back to Savannah in 2014 to begin my partnership as executive chef of the Grey.

I packed my gray sedan and decided that, on my way down, I needed to reacquaint myself with the South. I went to Knoxville and drank fresh, unpasteurized milk for the first time. I spent a weekend in Nashville eating Prince’s hot chicken with my cousin. I stopped in Memphis to visit the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. I raced through tornado warnings in Mississippi. I ate Vietnamese in New Orleans and rested up in Atlanta while visiting farmers’ markets and hanging with friends.

Up until then, my knowledge of Southern food came from my family. We had Sunday dinners of fried or roasted chicken and collards. We ate stewed cabbage with rice and peas. My mother made cornbread from a box. You can’t image my surprise when I found out that Southerners didn’t always use sugar or flour in their cornbread. I began to research old Southern recipes as I learned about the history of food in Savannah. I found cookbooks from the antebellum era and wondered what happened to this food. Where were the hearts of palm? Why would someone pickle oysters and where did the date palms that lined the streets of Baldwin Park go? 

The old cooking methods that helped shape the culture—developed by slaves, servants and damn fine good cooks—have been killed by the deep fryer.

I began to understand something about the South and Southern cooking. Walking through the streets of historic Savannah, you can still see the carriage blocks and hitching post in front of beautifully preserved homes. These things instantly take locals and visitors back in time. Yet the food that has developed here, and is celebrated around the world, has changed. The commercialization of Southern food has been happening for decades, to the point where chefs and cooks don’t recognize it anymore. The old cooking methods that helped shape the culture—developed by slaves, servants and damn fine good cooks—have been killed by the deep fryer. Even a second-generation-once-removed Southerner like myself understands that chicken is to be fried in a skillet! 

Southern foodways are complex, filled with the richness of soil, history and race.  One can’t eat a dish of red rice without receiving a history lesson. So how do we get back to cooking the way we used to? What was it about these old-school recipes that made them so legendary?  Recently, I attended a lecture titled “The Antebellum Cook,” given by culinary historian Damon Lee Fowler at the Davenport House. Old Savannah recipes, Fowler reminded us, came from old Savannah kitchens, which had open hearths equipped with cranes, spits, spit jacks, brick ovens and stew stoves. Back then, roasting really meant turning meat over an open flame, not baking in an oven at 450 degrees. This type of cooking (think rice muffins, cream rolls, deviled crap, turtle soup) that formed the basis of Savannah’s cuisine and culture required staff—in many cases, slaves or domestic labor. In a post-antebellum era, these traditions were lost due to lack of manpower.

Mashama Bailey. Photo by Cedric Smith

I once thought that if I read an old recipe and found its ingredients, I could replicate the dish. Mr. Fowler’s lecture reminded me why Southern cooking is so special: It’s about time and place. It’s about heritage and traditions. It’s about community and history. Southern food is inextricably linked to the blood of those who built this country, and it is painful to look back. If we embrace the truths that made us, maybe we won’t be so quick to set those traditions aside.

Even though a lot of the crops are dead and gone and our kitchens have been different for almost a century, the past few decades have been a time of rebirth for culinary traditions in the South. Chefs, scientists and researchers interested in preserving the legacy of this country’s food have replaced antebellum cooks as stewards of history, but as awareness increases and demand for the food builds, we must relearn to cook. These recipes are part of who we are, and when we cook them authentically, we produce more than food—we convey a taste of our shared history.

Mashama Bailey is the executive chef and partner at the Grey. She is nominated for the 2018 James Beard Award, Best Chef: Southeast. The winner will be announced at a ceremony in Chicago on May 7, 2018.

Shrimp and Savannah Red Rice

When we moved from Savannah to New York, my mom used to make red rice for us all the time. It wasn’t until I moved back to Savannah as an adult that I realized red rice’s connection to the South. This is basically my mom’s recipe, but I like to add smoked paprika to give it a richer flavor. A lot of people cook red rice with bacon, but I save it for the end, sprinkling it on top with chopped scallions. That’s how I eat it when I’m at home.

3 tablespoons tomato paste

1 onion, small diced

1 tablespoon smoked paprika

1 green bell pepper, small diced

2 cups of Carolina Gold Rice, rinsed in cold water

6 cups water

1 cup white wine

1 sprig thyme, picked

1 pound large peeled and deveined Georgia shrimp

Crumbled bacon and chopped scallions, for toppings

In a heavy bottom pot with a lid to cover, sweat onions and green bell peppers in vegetable oil until onions are translucent. Add tomato paste and cook until it starts to caramelize. Add rice, and stir until it’s mixed well with tomato paste and vegetables. Deglaze with white wine. Once wine has cooked down, add water and thyme. Bring rice to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 12 minutes or until the water has evaporated. Add shrimp on top of rice and cover. Let it all sit for another 10 minutes. Gently fold the shrimp and rice together and serve on a platter. Add crumbled bacon and chopped scallions, or whatever toppings you’re in the mood for.