Nicole Taylor’s The Up South Cookbook is a direct challenge to rethink the definition of Southern cuisine. As a proud southern belle in New York City, Taylor’s expanding knowledge of cultural food influences her to adapt traditional recipes. She also shares classic recipes seldom recognized outside their region, such as the Southern Rice Pilaf (see recipe below). Her recipes are globally diverse, but they’re undoubtedly Southern. In the following interview, Taylor discusses New Yorkers’ perception about Southern food and global influences.
What was your first impression about New York’s definition of Southern cuisine?
In 2008, I arrived in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn not really looking for Southern cuisine. As I settled in, I craved foods that were in the far reaches of my mind. New Yorkers pretty much define Southern cuisine as fried chicken and biscuits. I’d be a rich woman if I had a dollar for every time people asked, “Tell me the best place to get Southern fried chicken in New York City.” Only a few times, I’ve had conversations about go-to spots serving butterbeans and sugarless cornbread — essentials.
In our quest of looking for authentic cuisines, we forget how each generation changes their parents’ recipes because of relocation, unavailable ingredients, cultural influences, and so on. How has the diversity of New York evolved your opinion about Southern cuisine?
I love grits and partake in a hearty bowl once per week — with a side of sautéed greens. Oftentimes, I hunt down “Georgia ice cream” at specialty stores like Court Street Grocers or order online from Anson Mills.
Living in a culturally diverse city raised my antennas to Vietnamese congee and Caribbean porridge and gave me another option for my ritual. Both dishes are cousins to grits and coat your belly and comfort your entire being. Exploring colorful neighborhoods with culinary traditions intact made me fall back in love with down home staples.
What’s amazing about The Up South Cookbook is the mix of classic recipes and recipes influenced by other cultures, such as the Indian-inspired Chaat Masala Popcorn, Italian-inspired Rice and Spring Onion Cakes and the West African-inspired Purple Hull Pea Fritters. But The Up South Cookbook remains an authentic Southern recipe book. How does having a solid knowledge about Southern cuisine affect your process to developing recipes with cultural influences?
My home cooking knowledge was informed by watching old-school southern cooks. Those stern kitchen managers taught me things like prepping far in advance, and how using fresh ingredients can change the profile of a dish.
When testing original recipes, I keep a written cabinet inventory of spices, nuts, and special ingredients in a red Moleskine. My pantry is a timeline of travels, gifts from friends, or dining out inspirations. Then, I start to think about classic provisions, like vidalia onions or field peas. My goal is always to make the star shine, for example not adding too much sweetener to fruit desserts. Finally, I build the entrée’s foundation with attention to seasonings and flavor.
This isn’t a stereotypical Southern cuisine cookbook. It’s as if you came up from the South to remind people about the authenticity of Southern cuisine: The result of various cultures adapting to their new world. When people read The Up South Cookbook, what would you like for people to learn about Southern cuisine?
Up South is an ode to my roots and my present. Southern food isn’t just one thing and is prepared differently based on place and time. Between the pages, you’ll find porgy, apple and raw bok choy salad, and muscadine cocktails — dishes from my memories and things imagined from the place I now call home.
The Southern Rice Pilaf, the recipe here, is a dish with many cultural influences, but I still see it as an American Southern dish. It reminds me how rice is an adaptive ingredient found in almost every cultural cuisine. What were the cultural influences to developing this dish, and what makes it a Southern recipe?
When I was growing up, the backyard garden would be overflowing with hot red peppers. I remember my great-aunt stringing them and placing them on a hook near a sunlit window. Also, pecan trees over 65 years old lived all around me. Rice feeds plenty, and combining these readily available fine foods makes this a below-the-Mason-Dixon nouveau classic.
Visit Parade.com’s Community Table to get Nicole’s recipe for Southern Rice Pilaf here.