Nothin' Fancy, Y'all
Chef Virginia Willis puts a modern twist on Southern cooking
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In honor of Father’s Day, I want it noted that my dad was (and still is) a rock star of a cook. Family meals at his table bubbled over with yummy noises and boisterous conversation. But he kept weeknight suppers simple. When we wanted something more upscale, my little brother Ted would prepare “French Cuisine.” This consisted of several Pepperidge Farm cookies, artistically arranged on a nice plate. “French” meant “Fancy.” Of course, there are occasions that call for fancy. But most of us need ideas for meals we can pull together between helping with homework and drawing a bath.
In her inspiring 2011 book, Basic to Brilliant, Y’all: 150 Refined Southern Recipes and Ways to Dress Them Up for Company, Virginia Willis tells stories that remind us that these meals matter, too. We tie memories to food all the time — not just at the big events. In Basic to Brilliant, Willis recalls visiting her critically burned sister in the hospital on a mission to badger her into building her strength by eating. Her love for the green beans that saved her sister’s life shows in a recipe that pairs them with peaches lusciously seared in butter. In 2008’s Bon Appetit, Y’all, a summer afternoon’s haul of wild blackberries gets her Meme’s treatment in a crusty cobbler, as easy to put together as it is to eat.
Though Willis roots her dishes in her Southern upbringing, her technique arises from her training in, yes, French cuisine. But there’s nothing fussy about her approach. Au contraire! In a recent interview, she rejected media cliches about Southern food. “Fried chicken and barbecue are only part of the picture. And fried chicken used to be only for Sunday!”
Asked how parents can teach kids to love making and eating good food, she says, “Put down that Gameboy; get the kids in the kitchen, thinking about their food.” Should we visit a local orchard? She laughs. “A 13-year old does not want to be out there in that heat!” Instead, start with basics at the farmer’s market. “Step A,” she says, “this is a blueberry; it grows on a bush. They’re in season in June and July, real people plant and harvest them, and they taste better if they’re coming from nearby.” In fact, she says, most kids don’t know that “there’s something coming out of the earth 12 months a year here in the South.”
To start gathering the family for memorable, healthy meals, Willis said, “take baby steps. No one is born knowing how to cook.” Set aside at least a half-hour for meal preparation, and “incorporate small things — it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Pound a chicken breast thin and sauté it. It’s quick, and tastes better than food precooked four states away.” Once you’re done, enjoy it with your family. You’ve made Southern Cuisine.