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READING FOOD : Food Byways of the South

November 23, 1990|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

John Egerton: "Side Orders: Small Helpings of Southern Cookery & Culture" (Peachtree Publishers, Atlanta: $14.95)

This is not a cookbook, though there are about 70 recipes scattered through it. It's sort of a book of lore. The recipes are part of an easygoing flow of anecdote and speculation about Southern food, particularly its remoter byways.

Some of the lore in Egerton's book tells of boiled custard (a drink), stone-ground versus lye-treated hominy grits and the many varieties of corn bread (he notes the lack of bakeries in the South, due to the taste for fresh hot bread). He describes the line--much farther south than the Mason-Dixon Line--separating collard greens-eaters from turnip greens-eaters. He records the North Carolina custom of roasting oysters, the fried fruit pie phenomenon of the Upper South and the tradition of mutton barbecue in Owensboro, Ky.

As a collection of newspaper and magazine articles, the book has a somewhat scattered feeling, but it's no mere rehash of familiar stuff. Behind his Southern-gentlemanly charm, Egerton has the attitude of a serious researcher. He loyally points out the many contributions of the South to our national culinary heritage, such as ice tea (he is confident that Southerners were the first people on earth to ice tea) and most of our carbonated soft drinks, but he unhesitatingly argues the all but unthinkable proposition that pecan pie wasn't invented until the '30s.

The South probably has the most distinctive and stubborn food traditions in the country. Egerton claims it's only because of the remarkable stubbornness of Southerners that small smokehouses continue to produce old-fashioned country hams despite a virtually punitive federal program of regulation and inspection. Even so, the pervasive note of the book is nostalgia; even in the South, it seems, local food traditions are fading.

Anyway, Egerton is serious about his recipes, no matter how few there are. His prose is sometimes a tiny bit high-flown (and self-mocking because of it), but the recipes always seem solid. For instance, red rice--what we call Spanish rice, only flavored with bacon and baked at a high temperature for 45 minutes--is improbably good. The directions of nearly all his recipes have the air of long experience.

That's for the first 120 pages. The last 80 pages contain general discussions of Southern culinary heritage, a number of interesting byways (Spaniards from Minorca and Greeks have a curious prominence in certain places) and biographies of culinarily important Southerners such as Craig Claiborne and Verta Mae Grosvenor. It's pleasant reading, but Egerton is best when he has a recipe somewhere up his sleeve.

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