Paul and Angela Knipple are authors of The World in a Skillet: A Food Lover’s Tour of the New American South, which celebrates the flourishing of global food traditions “down home.” Drawing on their firsthand interviews and reportage from Richmond to Mobile and enriched by a cornucopia of photographs and original recipes, the book presents engaging, poignant profiles of a host of first-generation immigrants from all over the world who are cooking their way through life as professional chefs, food entrepreneurs and restaurateurs, and home cooks in the South. In this guest post, the Knipples relate how they found common ground with such a varied group of southern newcomers.
We were inspired to write The World in a Skillet by a single restaurateur in Memphis, but at the back of our minds we also had an awareness of the tremendous diversity among the new people coming to the South. We knew that the source of our original spark had to be just one of many stories that deserved to be told.
Things turned out well. The book paints a portrait of the South in all its new global glory. Still, after all was said and done, we looked back at all the stories and realized something amazing: beneath all the differences of language and nationality, of culture and cuisine, the people we spoke to are as southern as we are.
The people we met were unquestionably different. We talked to young and old. We talked to “green card lottery” immigrants who were thrilled at the chance for a better life. We also talked to refugees who were very specific that, though they were happy to be in the United States, they were not coming here—rather there was somewhere else they had to leave.
With the exception of Australia and Antarctica—sorry Aussies and penguins—we covered every continent. In the places that they came from, our subjects were businessmen, farmers, guerilla fighters, and political prisoners. The journey to the United States for some was a comfortable plane ride. Others trekked through multiple countries before arriving here. Still others faced the threat of imprisonment and even the risk of death when they fled their home countries.
Some of their stories were funny; others were poignant. All of them left deep impressions on us. We took them to heart. Their stories became part of our story as we worked to put them together. But it wasn’t until the book was done and we were looking back that we saw one simple intrinsic fact that binds them—and us—together: we’re all just southerners. This is how we came to that realization.
Some folks just plain acknowledge that they’re southern. But that’s easy to do. Most native southerners have an innate distrust of “carpet baggers,” so you have to do more than just claim the title to convince us.
More than one person told us how much they love a good cheeseburger. Frequently our subjects had a hamburger as their first American meal. And as it is with the rest of us, “good” is subjective based on your first cheeseburger. Krystal came up more than once. So did curly fries and Cajun spice. Still, hamburgers are an American symbol, rather than a southern one. But we were getting closer.
Southern food is symbolized by the dishes born of the legacy of poverty in the South. We’ve learned through the years to make do with what we’ve got, and that shows in a lot of our cuisine. Nose to tail eating and the “lesser” cuts? We’ve done that for a long time. It just makes sense not to waste meat.
Some of the recipes people shared with us struck a familiar note. Beans and rice are inexpensive and filling. Oxtails that are the parts people who can afford steak don’t want. But with skill and the experience of generations, those lesser, simpler meals become ambrosia just like the soul food and country cooking we love.
For most of us, the realities of poverty haven’t been a part of everyday life, but for those of us whose grandparents grew up during the Great Depression, we grew up on the stories about it, and our grandparents didn’t forget the lessons they learned. For many of our subjects, no matter where they came from, they were living a southern life and making do.
Everyone loves their mama and their grandmama, but we’ve always felt like mamas and grandmamas have a special place in the southern kitchen and the southern heart. That legacy of family as a source of strength is especially southern. We heard stories from so many people who have maintained a strong connection with their mothers and grandmothers despite being half a world away. They couldn’t emphasize enough how important that was for them and how important those women had been in getting them to where they were in their lives today. Their stories were really tugging at our southern heart strings now.
It all really came home to us when we talked to Yilma Aklilu, an Ethiopian immigrant, former political prisoner, and now a restaurant owner. Yilma said to us, “The meat is good, but the gravy is what is important. You can ignore the meat, but you have to sop up the gravy.”
Southerners sop gravy. We’re taught to do that from an early age. If you don’t, you’re missing out on the best part of the meal. Even four-star chefs down here are disappointed if a bowl of shrimp and grits comes back with gravy in the bowl because that means the diner just didn’t get the whole experience.
For one thing, Yilma reminded us that we can never truly know another’s story. We ate at his restaurant for years before we started the book and never had any idea how difficult his life had been. We also never knew he was a gravy sopper. We know now, though. And we know now just how southern he and the rest of the amazing people we spoke to are.
Paul and Angela Knipple, natives of Memphis, are freelance food writers, long-time members of the Southern Foodways Alliance, and authors of The World in a Skillet: A Food Lover’s Tour of the New American South. Visit the book website worldinaskillet.com for more information and bonus recipes. Follow Paul on Twitter @PaulKnipple. Find them on Facebook at facebook.com/FromtheSouthernTable.