Food traditions connect families, communities

Embracing your culinary culture can strengthen relationships, preserve heritage

It appears the persimmons were right. Back in September, my husband plucked a few of the wild orange fruits growing on our farm and cut open the seeds to learn what kind of winter they forecast. Folklore says if the kernel is spoon-shaped, expect plenty of snow to shovel. Well, spoon, it was, and, boy, have we had the snow so far this winter.

Persimmon predictions aren’t exclusive to this region. The trees also are native to the south-central and southern U.S. I remember picking the fall fruit from fencerows on our Tennessee farm and eating it straight from the tree. Besides forecasting the weather, persimmons can also be quite tasty.

They also were featured in an episode of “A Chef’s Life,” a documentary-style TV show starring Vivian Howard, a North Carolina native who made a name for herself with a popular restaurant in her rural hometown. She spoke at the recent Missouri Governor’s Conference on Agriculture, and I found myself relating to more than just her Southern drawl.

Raised on a tobacco and hog farm, Howard tried to leave rural life behind and moved to New York City to start her career. But the aspiring chef struggled to find success until she returned to her roots and began exploring the foods and traditions that make her neck of the woods unique.

Her restaurant features locally sourced ingredients, and each show spotlights a dish indigenous to the eastern part of the Tar Heel State. In one particularly memorable adventure, she told about participating in a century-old, all-male family tradition of creating collard kraut with two neighboring brothers.

Overall, her message was about recognizing the value of your culture’s culinary heritage. For me, that means balancing my Southern background with foods that make the Midwest unique. Take, for example, something as simple as pork steak. Even though my dad raised pigs for years, I’d never eaten this tasty cut until moving to Missouri, where it originated.

I’ve also become a fan of gooey butter cake, a decadent treat born in St. Louis. And while I’m no stranger to Southern-style barbecue, I was new to the Kansas City specialty of burnt ends. These caramelized, extra-smoky hunks of brisket are now my first choice on a barbecue menu.

Some Southern food traditions, however, I’m determined to maintain in my Midwest home. Finding fresh turnip greens for New Year’s Day required visits to three different grocery stores, but I finally tracked them down along with everything else we needed for the first meal of 2019: greens for prosperity, black-eyed peas for luck, hog jowl for seasoning and cornbread for good measure.

I didn’t realize how regionalized this tradition was until my husband told me he’d never had the beans-and-greens combo for New Year’s. He’d also never had a good mess of poke sallet, most certainly a Southern thing. This delicacy made from the young, tender leaves of the pokeweed plant is one of my favorite dishes, but it’s tricky. First of all, poke is poisonous if not prepared properly (and you never eat the berries). You only use the first poke leaves of early spring, which means the window is limited. You harvest the leaves, boil them, rinse and repeat. Fry them in a skillet with onions and bacon grease. The final touch is scrambling an egg with the cooked greens. Trust me, it’s worth the work—if you do it right.

Not to be outdone, my husband has introduced me to foods from his heritage and Illinois upbringing. When we visit his folks, he craves regional favorites such as a loose-meat sandwich from Maid-Rite and pizza from Happy Joe’s. This Christmas, I learned how to make pierogis, one of his family’s cherished traditions. These delicious, cottage-cheese-filled dumplings are deep-fried in lard, dusted in granular sugar, and served alongside potato bologna. We all ate ourselves silly.

I hope this column inspires you to think about and share your own food traditions. It’s important. One way we pass down our history and heritage is through the food we eat, the recipes we save and the culture we cultivate. Cooking connects us in ways nothing else can. That’s one reason Today’s Farmer publishes recipes each month. Farm families keep their recipes alive from one generation to the next by sharing them with other people. In the pages of this magazine, that time-honored tradition continues.

At the governor’s conference, Chef Howard emphasized teaching young people about the food, recipes and cooking techniques that help define their families and culture. I couldn’t agree more. We risk losing those connections in today’s technology-centered, self-focused world.

So, for all my Midwestern food aficionados out there, what have I left out? What are your favorite culinary traditions? I want to hear from you. Your food for thought just might inspire a future column.

Published originally in the March 2019 issue of Today's Farmer magazine.

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