Charleston cookbook author Brys Stephens has some intriguing ideas about what modern Southern cooking should be, and he's captured them in The New Southern Table: Classic Ingredients Revisited.
"It's not a menu of what the new Southern classics are," he says. "It's more a comment on or a snapshot of where I think Southern cooking is heading." And where he sees it heading is quite different from where it was in the past.
This new vision is reflected in the very structure of the book. Each of the first 13 chapters focuses on a different ingredient, and those ingredients are all fruits, vegetables, or nuts. (The final chapter provides notes on purchasing and preparation techniques.)
The book starts with okra and field peas and makes its way through peaches and watermelons. The chapters tend to open with Stephens' memories — making gumbo as a child, buying fresh shelled field peas at the local market — along with ruminations on how to cook and prepare and serve the ingredient. And then it's on to the recipes themselves, and they're not exactly what one would expect to find in a Southern cookbook.
Stephens intentionally shies away from the heavy, iconic dishes of the past. "I don't know a lot of people who are cooking cornbread and fried chicken in their house every day," he says. "If you go into the kitchens of North Charleston or to a Vietnamese family's house in East New Orleans or a professor's house in Alabama, what are we currently cooking in the South?"
For Stephens, the region's flavors are defined not by recipes or techniques but by ingredients. Though there's plenty of meat and fish in the book, he decided to organize it around produce. "I wanted to choose ingredients that, when you heard the name, you had a strong thought that that's a Southern ingredient," he says. "Pork, beef — those are kind of everywhere.
"I like to think about place and climate and wealth and history, about cooking based on a connection to a place, and plants for me are a really interesting way to do that."
A native of Birmingham, Ala., Stephens has been living in Charleston and writing about food for several years, including a stint reviewing restaurants for the City Paper. He's since contributed to magazines such as Bon Appetit and Garden & Gun and has been a recipe tester and co-author for books such as chef Graham Dailey's Peninsula Grill: Served with Style.
The New Southern Table lets him finally explore his own personal style of cooking. Before arriving in the Lowcountry, Stephens worked in marketing in Paris and studied photography in Rome. (The splendid, colorful photographs in the book are his own work, too.) His travels have taken him everywhere from Japan and Vietnam to Morocco and Peru, and the dishes and flavors he encountered along the way inspired many of the recipes in the book.
"Sometimes it's just me riffing on, say, an Italian pasta dish but substituting their white beans and zucchini for kidney beans and yellow squash, cooking with ingredients I have here in Charleston but inspired by something I ate in Rome."
Stephens is particularly interested in how other cultures have prepared dishes from the same ingredients that are so closely associated with the American South.
"Watermelon pudding is a classic dish that you find in Palermo," he says. "It's another way to look at watermelon." The version from his book is seasoned with mint and cayenne pepper and garnished with pistachios and grated bittersweet chocolate. "People don't think of watermelon in Sicily, necessarily, or sweet potatoes in Ho Chi Minh City or corn being grilled on the streets of Bangkok."
This approach, Stephens says, is linked to the ingredient-centric mode of cooking that has blossomed in Charleston in recent years "[The book] is definitely inspired by new Charleston restaurants like Xiao Bao Biscuit," he says. He points as well to Sean Brock's exploration of heirloom seeds and grains and Mike Lata's application of techniques learned in Provencal to fresh seafood from Lowcountry waters.
If Stephens' thesis is correct, more and more Southern tables may start seeing dishes like fig and black olive tapenade or the Andean-inspired pork, hominy, and squash stew. "Like a vernacular architecture, vernacular Southern cuisine continually evolves," he writes in the book's conclusion. "I hope that sharing these geographical, historical, and place-based recipes and photographs might inspire other home cooks — and maybe some restaurant chefs, as well — as we all contribute to the evolving Southern table."
March 1 was the official publication date of the New Southern Table, and a pair of events at the Charleston Wine+Food Festival will help launch it to the world. Stephens will be signing books Saturday afternoon from 3:30-4 p.m. at the Culinary Village in Marion Square as well as during the At Home with Celebrity Tastemakers event Friday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. Blue Bicycle Books and the Heirloom Book Company have plenty of copies as well.