Side dishes are the very heart and soul of southern cuisine. So proclaims Fred Thompson in this heartfelt love letter to the marvelous foods on the side of the plate. From traditional, like Pableaux’s Red Beans and Rice, to contemporary, like Scuppernong-Glazed Carrots, Thompson’s 250 recipes recommend the virtues of the utterly simple and the totally unexpected. Fred Thompson’s Southern Sides: 250 Dishes That Really Make the Plate celebrates the sheer joy of cooking and eating these old and new classic dishes.
In the following interview, Thompson discusses Southern hospitality, his favorite side recipes, and how sides can make the meal.
Q: So, just what is a side dish, anyway, and why did they really take hold in the South?
A: Technically anything that snuggles up with a protein. Sides are a part of the cultural history of the rural, agrarian south. Vegetables became a staple, a cheap way to fill us and to provide the energy to work the land. Meat and poultry were more valuable if sold to city folk and so limited amounts of protein, usually the lesser cuts, found their way to farm tables. As farmers turned to working in the cities they kept the traditions that they were brought up on. The result was “Meat and Three” restaurants cropping up through the south. Always more veggies than protein.
Q: Your book includes plenty of recipes from friends and family—many of whom are well known for their skills in restaurant as well as home kitchens. Who are some of your biggest influences among those who shared recipes with you?
A: Most folks would say their mother, and I would agree. Because of my Dad’s heart ailments she went from being a great country cook to having to cook with a whole different set of issues and products she really didn’t know how to handle. After his death, I found the real southern cook inside my mother. Ben Barker’s (Magnolia Grill) food always intrigued me and challenged me to learn more. The same with Frank Stitt (Highlands in Birmingham). The right to cherish southern food and many cooking tips came from the folks I’ve met with the Southern Foodways Alliance. Jim Villas and his mother, Martha Pearl, gave me so much insight as did Anne Haskins and her family. Both of my Dad’s sisters had a hand in molding me. Belinda Ellis knows biscuits and cornbread and got me to finally get them right. And my son-in-law, Kyle Wilkerson, a chef at Four Square Restaurant in Durham, NC.
Q: The concept of Southern hospitality is central to your book. What are some of the dishes that you always like to have on hand for unexpected company?
A: I always have Apple-Walnut Pâté in the freezer, and usually have either Fred’s Opinion on Pimento Cheese, or Fred’s Pickled Shrimp in the refrigerator. During the summer I keep Butterbean Hummus around because, yeah, it’s good as a dip, but you can also use it as a base for an upscale sandwich spread or thin it and it becomes a great sauce for white fish and scallops.
Q: Folks are always asking you for your recipe for this or that. Do some of your most-requested recipes appear in Fred Thompson’s Southern Sides? If so, which ones?
A: Right before tailgate season I get tons of cries for my baked bean recipe (Fred’s Fabulous Baked Beans), Mama’s Collard Greens, Oyster Casserole, and Cornbread Apple and Sausage Dressing. Around the fall and winter, Nick’s Stewed Tomatoes, Virginia Bagby’s Tomato Pie. For summer Bean Ragu and any recipe for shell beans. Always Fried Okra.
Q: How is the creolization of Southern food reflected in these recipes?
A: Gosh that’s what makes Southern food great—the influx of cultures. Most people think that so much of Southern foodways came from African-American roots, and that’s true, there were many black cooks enlightening white masters and later enlightening them as domestic help. But that’s just part of the story. My folks are Scot-Irish, maybe that’s why I love potatoes and whiskey so much. After the Civil War, Jews, Greeks, Lebanese, and Asians brought their cultures to the South’s unique crops.
Q: What are some of your most satisfying vegetarian side dishes?
A: Benne Seed Collards with Hot Chili Vinegar and Umbrian Spinach.
Q: Describe some of your favorite vegetable plates. What combination might you serve in high summer. And what might be on the plate in the middle of winter?
A: Summer’s easy; Shell Beans with Strutting Tomatoes, Fred’s Southern Fried Okra, Corn on the Cob, Tomatoes with Simple Balsamic Vinaigrette, or Nick’s Stewed Tomatoes. In the winter Cheese Grits with Fried Apples, Mama’s Collard Greens, a roasted winter squash of some kind, and some Not Quite the Bean Barn’s Pinto Beans. Mashed Sweet Potatoes might sit in for the grits or, heck, I may throw caution to the wind and have both!
Q: Some of your recipes include convenience foods and, in some cases, you specify brand names to help your reader get the desired results. Tell me about some of your favorite “cheats” and how they enhance Southern sides.
A: Miracle Whip is the great southern secret. We use it all the time but won’t admit it to outsiders. We are also funny about mayonnaise, Duke’s or JFG, for some things, and Hellmann’s for others. Miracle Whip and mayonnaise are not interchangeable. Frozen vegetables, either done at home or store-bought are time savers. And Velveeta. Check out Fred’s Opinion on Pimento Cheese.
Q: Which five dishes from the book do you suggest that everyone try?
A: It depends on whether one is exploring the South for the first time or an old hand, but in general, Mama’s Collard Greens, Mrs. Haskin’s Grapefruit Salad, Summer Bean Ragu, any of the sweet potato recipes, Baby Roasted Turnips That You’ll Really Like, Lentil “Risotto,” Oven Roasted Sunchokes with Warm Bacon Vinaigrette, Nick’s Stewed Tomatoes, oh wait you said five. Can’t do just five.
Q: What new taste variations do you introduce to the Southern palate?
A: Brazilian-Style Collards, Fried Cauliflower with Asiago Cheese, Spinach Paneer, Greek Green Beans and Green Beans with Brown Butter are not part of what we normally think of as Southern.
Q: This book is an inspired collection of both classic and modern recipes. Tell me about the ones that could be described as absolutely au courant.
A: Kale Chips, Roasted Broccoli with Truffle Oil, Baked Sun Gold Tomatoes with Herbs, Duck Fat Home Fries, Mediterranean Influenced Potato Salad, Lemon Braised Fennel, and the Sunchoke recipes are just a few that are of the moment.
Q: Side dishes are often synonymous with comfort food. But they can also be lighter alternatives to heavier fare. Which of your recipes do you consider guilt-free indulgences?
A: Benne Seed Collards with Hot Chili Vinegar, Umbrian Spinach, Wheat Berries with Butternut Squash and Cranberries, and Braised Fennel. That said you can leave out the pork fat in most any recipe and have a successful result.
Q: Your suggested “Menus Full of Sides” are so helpful. What are your tips for creating a plate of great flavor combinations?
A: Color—the more colors the more flavors. Have different textures. Be careful about the number of acid-based dishes that are on the plate, and always remember that a plate full of carbs is not a bad thing.
Fred Thompson is a food, wine, and travel writer and is publisher of Edible Piedmont. In addition to Fred Thompson’s Southern Sides, he is author of ten cookbooks, including Barbecue Nation: 350 Hot-off-the-Grill, Tried-and-True Recipes from America’s Backyard and The Big Book of Fish and Shellfish: More than 250 Terrific Recipes. He is the Weekend Gourmet columnist for the Raleigh News and Observer. Follow him on Twitter @fredthompsonNC.