Good weather stimulates the appetite. Something magical happens when we’re immersed in sunshine, breathing fresh air and gathered with family and friends. The urge to entertain runs deep, and will often result in food and drinks served with imagination and flair.
The Deep South has its own variations. Diversity is a key component of the feasts we enjoy, an immeasurable component of what is prepared and served. I’ve often compared it to music, something that I learned during a presentation by Jazz maestro Wynton Marsalis at Emory University. He made the case that music from the South was born in the “slave fields” and churches, absorbed by Europeans and ultimately synthesized to emerge as jazz, blues, country, gospel, bluegrass and rock and roll.
A multicultural pattern evolved and spread into every nook and cranny of life, particularly food and beverages. In other words, cultural cross-pollination. The kitchens gave birth to wonderful and delicious vegetables, entrées, soups, stews, salads and desserts that brought people together whether for an evening at home or a big shindig at a park. Food enhanced the celebration of daily living and the feast could be as intimate or expansive as you wanted.
The legendary Southern raconteur Frank Spence knew food of the warm weather states and reveled in sharing stories. A Nashville native, Spence became a front-office executive with the Atlanta Braves and the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons and was well-traveled. Southern to the core, Spence maintained close friendships with baseball greats like Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker and Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Neikro.
It was Spence who made the convincing case that Tailgating, the great football food tradition was born during the Civil War. He could explain different barbecue styles from the Carolinas to Tennessee and beyond and had a truffle hound’s nose for identifying good places to eat.
After decades of listening and dining in myriad places, I thought it would be a shame not to record these culinary experiences in an enjoyable book. Thus, the idea of “Southern Outdoor Feasts: Tailgating, Backyard Barbecues and Family Reunions” was born.
Emeril Lagasse’s “Tailgating,” his TV streaming series, is a masterpiece of diversity, blending in great and different sports cultures with friends gathering for food, drinks and fun coming together in a New Orleans setting. The magic didn’t escape me for a moment. Each show is entertaining, original and appetite stimulating.
Abby Jackson is a lovely person, accomplished cookbook author and brilliant entertainer. Her Blackhawk Fly Fishing resort in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Georgia is transformed on Saturdays during college football season for her version of Tailgating on the banks of the pristine Soque River. Guests, seated at a decorated picnic table, enjoy gourmet dishes and fine wines while her beloved Georgia Bulldogs are playing on television.
You have to be there to appreciate the magic of these moments.
David Hazelwood, a retired minister, innkeeper, cookbook author and restauranteur hosted a family reunion at his home in Normandy, Tennessee, a place that reminds me of the lovely Irish countryside. An ancient cast-iron kettle over burning wood was filled with meats, vegetables and seasonings that, over several hours became Burgoo, a traditional dish well-known to his family and friends in Kentucky.
The dish was served to relatives and guests from throughout neighboring states accompanied by fine wines selected by the host.
Occasionally, on chilly days during the fall, I have a yearning for Burgoo.
The backyard and patio are sacred places for grilling, sharing good wines and casual dining. The aromas from the fire are enticing, filling the air with expectation. The tradition was introduced to me beginning in childhood. Nostalgia adds special flavor to good food.
My relatives and close friends are scattered throughout the region and some faraway places. When we gather, there’s no better place than the huge park, Stone Mountain, almost within walking distance. The fireplace is made of native granite and the grill is cast iron. Ancient logs and a dirt floor provide authenticity to the pavilion. Nearby is a covered bridge and a water-wheel-powered grist mill. The setting could easily be late 19th Century.
Pork, brisket, chicken, slow-cooked on the grill is served with deviled eggs, potato salad, slaw, corn on the cob, baked beans, sweet potatoes and macaroni and cheese. Sauces are homemade delights representing preferences common to Georgia, Florida, the Carolinas, Tennessee, and California. Desserts are incredibly beautiful with flavors that excite and satisfy.
Good and affordable wines are poured. Beaujolais is the most popular. Sweet Iced Tea, lemonade and hot coffee complete the menu.
The ritual is honored; the traditions continue and happiness reigns. My little part of the world is at peace.
Note: “Southern Outdoor Feasts” will be published late summer 2023. It will have stories and recipes from football coaches and athletes, high-profile chefs, TV celebrities, home cooks, musicians and street preachers. Also, original paintings by Georgia Folk Artist Olivia Thomason, and much more.