The South Rises Again (and Again and….) for Christmas Celebrating

The South, from Virginia to Texas, Kentucky to the Gulf of Mexico, has culinary traditions as deeply rooted as any other part of the country. And that includes holiday dishes.

Some holiday foods were hard to get or expensive—like a piece of citrus put in a Christmas stocking—that historically would be bought for special occasions. Oysters were another specialty for the holidays. Though common along the Gulf, they were a holiday treat for those who lived further away from the sea. “In warmer months, higher temperatures made transportation and preservation difficult,” says John T. Edge, a Southern food historian who grew up near Macon, Georgia eating scalloped oysters for the holidays. “But in the colder months you could get the oysters to inland areas more easily and cheaply. Now oysters are about indulgence and excess.”

Speaking of excess, Oysters Rockefeller was named after John D. Rockefeller, the wealthiest American when this rich dish was created at Antoine’s restaurant in New Orleans at the turn of the last century. The basic preparation was fairly simple: baked oysters on the half shell topped with a spinach puree seasoned with scallions, parsley, garlic, breadcrumbs, hot sauce (usually Tabasco) and anise liqueur, often Pernod. However, as with many classic recipes, there have been numerous substitutions and additions, such as bacon, anchovy paste, lettuce, watercress and celery.

Though many recipes also suggest frozen spinach as an adequate substitute for fresh, I think freshly steamed spinach makes a smoother, tastier topping. As for the oysters, it doesn’t much matter which you use as long as they are not too large or too small.

Because it has a range of flavors, this dish needs a wine nimble enough to handle them. My favorite was a 2010 South African Chenin Blanc, which had a good balance of fruit and acidity along with earth and mineral qualities and spice notes, all of which matched up well with the oysters and topping.

Ham is a popular meat for the Christmas holidays throughout the country, but it’s a way of life in many parts of the South. Pigs were slaughtered at the first frost, which was close to holidays. After butchering, salting and smoking, the hind legs were hung until they wound up on next year’s Christmas (or thanksgiving) table.

Country hams needed soaking and boiling to return moisture and remove some of the salt before baking. More traditional hams were simply baked, but rarely without some kind of fancification. “Pork was a mundane thing, used for bacon and salt pork,” Edge says. “But ham was special. So you really wanted to dress it up with something elaborate.”

Fresh ham, the uncured pork hind leg, is another story. Though fresh pork roasts were more likely to come from shoulder cuts or the whole hog, according to Edge, I think a roasted pork leg is right up there with standing beef rib roasts as the finest you can serve your family and friends.

The whole leg can weigh upwards of 20 pounds, which makes a sumptuous presentation for a crowd. But it can be cut down into roasts as small as four or five pounds. Ask the butcher to tie up smaller roasts, which helps keep the roast together, and to remove the aitchbone, which makes carving easier. If possible, get your fresh ham from a heritage breed of pig, though as Frank Stitt, a chef and restaurateur based in Birmingham, Alabama, notes, one famous southern breed, the Ossabaw Island pig from Georgia, is “more of a romantic story than good eating”. (See How to Get It). Brining the pork is a more recent technique that southern chefs like Stitt use to keep it moist.

Madeira was popular throughout Colonial America but perhaps more so in the South, unfettered by Puritan disdain for alcohol and because Madeira actually improved with heat, which softened its otherwise powerful acidity. To this day, Charleston, SC has a strong Madeira culture, “one of the places in the United States where you’ll see Madeira on the back bar and it’s not for show, according to Edge. In his sauce for the pork, Stitt combines Madeira with truffles, a luxury that befits a meal of indulgence.

I found a Gigondas with this dish (which Stitt recommended along with a Cotes du Rhone) a bit too heavy. A better partner was a Mondavi Carneros Pinot Noir 2008. Though lighter, it was still rich enough to handle the food and do it more deftly than the Gigondas.

Stitt’s white bean and collard green gratin evokes more southern holiday traditions. Greens of almost any kind but especially bitter greens such as collards, kale, mustard greens and turnip greens were a staple of slaves in the South, who typically cooked them with some kind of “seasoned” (which meant smoked) cheaper cuts of pork like hocks and jowls. But they came to represent for all Southerners a promise of monetary reward for the coming year, just as black-eyed peas and rice represented good fortune. If slaves were fortunate enough to have a benevolent master, or at least one whose harvest was successful, the owner’s largesse was passed down to them in the form of extra rations for the holiday table, a tradition that can still be seen on many a Southern holiday table.

Because two southern states, Georgia and Texas, are the largest producers of pecans, it isn’t surprising to see these nuts in holiday desserts. Pecan pie, of course, tops the list with variations that include chocolate, sweet potatoes, caramel candies and Bourbon.

Bourbon is also frequently evident in bread pudding, which has long been a favorite in the South, where it usually also contains cinnamon, raisins and vanilla. All of these elements are in the recipe I adapted from “A Taste of the South”, which has since been revised and renamed “Eating Southern Style” by Terry Thompson-Anderson (HP). But make sure the Bourbon is special. Get a small batch or single barrel bottling with some age on it, like the Knob Creek 9-year old small batch Bourbon I used. It’s the holidays, after all.

How to Get It

Here are some mail-order sources for fresh heritage pork legs.

  • D’Artagnan, Newark, NJ, 800-327-8246, (Four days notice required for 20 to 23 pound fresh legs. Call instead of ordering from the web site.)
  • Flying Pigs Farm, Shushan, NY,  518-854-3844, (regularly sells smaller leg pieces but needs 10 days notice for 20 to 30-pound whole legs)
  • Heritage Foods USA, Brooklyn, NY, 718 – 389 – 0985, (only full-size legs at 22 pounds)
  • Lobel’s Prime Meats, New York, NY, 800-556-2357, (Two weeks notice required for whole or half leg.)


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