Comfort Food Defined by Southern Soups and Stews
Nancie McDermott established her career as the writer of books that empowered home cooks to create authentic Asian fare. But the daughter of the Piedmont, whose grandparents established the beloved Maple View Farm, has spent the last decade documenting classic Southern cakes and pies.
This year, the Chapel Hill writer and culinary instructor turned her attention to Southern Soups & Stews: More Than 75 Recipes From Burgoo and Gumbo to Etouffée and Fricassee. She did so not only with the zeal of a historian but also the hospitality of a neighbor only too glad to open the kitchen door and welcome anyone willing to take the time to cook.
“I love that people get it that I want them to put aside worries about whether a recipe comes out perfect or how it looks. That’s how you learn to cook,” McDermott says. “I doubt my grandmother had a single cookbook. She was just cooking regional Piedmont recipes everyone made in the 1920s and ‘30s. She was like a chef today going to into the walk-in cooler and thinking, ‘I better cook this or I’ll lose it.’”
This approachable mindset has long made McDermott’s books popular with both critics and home cooks. But Soups & Stews, her 12th collection, has rapidly achieved a degree of success that surprises its humble author. Soon after the book’s September release, Yahoo.com featured a week’s worth of recipes in its Food tab. PeachDish, an Atlanta-based service that delivers meals-for-two kits to addresses across the U.S., offered one featuring ingredients and her recipe for Cajun-style gumbo. And the book has been reviewed and excerpted in newspapers, magazines and food blogs around the world.
Furthering its global reach, McDermott joined Garner cook Jenni Field, who blogs as Pastry Chef Online, and renowned California food stylist Denise Vivaldo, for a bi-coastal cook-along broadcast in real time. Cook the Book with Denise and Jenni, believed to be the first broadcast of its kind in the U.S., included at least 157 participants from across the country and from as far away as Sydney, Australia.
“I think I’m lucky to be writing at a time when people are thinking about connecting through food. And of course, the love and excitement around Southern food,” says McDermott, whose vast social network has helped to fuel this interest. “It’s not trendy. We’re just having a permanent family reunion going on about Southern food, what it’s meant in the past and how it fits in today.”
McDermott includes recipes from several icons of Southern cuisine, including Leah Chase, Nathalie Dupree and James McNair; she also features several contemporary Piedmont cooks, including Bill Smith, Sherri Castle, Jay Pierce and Fred Thompson.
Only a handful of recipes are attributed to big names, however. Mc- Dermott strives to present a best-of assortment that reflects regional variations in Southern home cooking long before dishes appeared on the menus of upscale restaurants. Touchingly, she credits a recipe for Brunswick stew to the father of Debbie Gooch, her UNC college buddy, to whom the book is dedicated. McDermott’s description of the hearty dish, which Benton Gooch of Reidsville made outdoors each fall in a 25-gallon cast iron pot, makes its life-changing impact deliciously clear.
From a storyteller’s point of view, the most endearing recipes come from her maternal grandparents’ Hillsborough kitchen. Whether it’s the one for coconut cake featured in Southern Cakes or the rich yet plain chicken and dumplings in Southern Soups & Stews,McDermott’s celebration of Nancy Lloyd Suitt comes straight from the heart.
McDermott continues to cook her grandmother’s recipes not because she is tied to her namesake’s specific methods. The recipes remain important because they allow her to recreate the memory of how she cooked them for her.
“It’s the love and the connection of sitting around the table,” Mc- Dermott says. “But nothing would make me happier than having people to take the recipes and make them their own so they create that same kind of experience and occasion.”
McDermott knows about the power of recreated memories. When she returned home from Thailand, where she served in the Peace Corps in the 1970s, her first stop was Mama Dip’s restaurant in Chapel Hill. “Her chicken and dumplings was that same taste. It took me right back to my grandmother’s table, and she was long gone at that point,” McDermott recalls. “There’s a reason it’s called comfort food.”
McDermott also shares her grandfather William Iverson Suitt’s recipe for oyster stew, which rightly reads like something made by a man who only stepped up to the stove to make it once a year.
“Making that, and helping my grandmother crack open a coconut to grate it for cake—both for Christmas—were the only times you’d find him in the kitchen for the purpose of cooking,” McDermott recalls with a laugh. “It was a different dynamic back then.”
The simple recipe might well be the perfect introduction to cooking Southern soups and stews for someone who thinks they are incapable of making either. “I remember eating only the buttery milk broth when I was a kid because I thought oysters looked scary,” Mc-Dermott says. “Pretty soon, though, I was right there asking him for extras in my bowl.”