Cracking open Jean Anderson's "A Love Affair With Southern Cooking" is akin to settling in at your Southern grandmother's table for a long, leisurely lunch.
Story follows story, as quirky characters and tidbits of history and legend come to life. Time slows as you listen, until at last you look up from your umpteenth glass of sweet tea to find the afternoon has slipped away. You've been transported by the lilting sound of Grandma's voice and the sustenance of traditional Southern dishes.
For someone who never had a Southern grandma of her own, Anderson does a miraculous job of channeling one in print. This owes to her lifelong passion for all foods Southern, born when 5-year-old Jean tasted brown sugar pie for the first time at Raleigh's Fred A. Olds Elementary School. A daughter of Midwestern parents who settled in Raleigh when her father took a position at N.C. State, Anderson ate Southern every chance she could while growing up.
She graduated from Cornell and Columbia, and her lengthy career included a stint as woman's editor of now-gone The Raleigh Times. In the decades since, Anderson lived in New York and roamed the many parts of the globe, including the South, mainly as an editor and writer for national women's and food magazines.
These days she lives in Chapel Hill. According to press materials, Anderson worked on writing "A Love Affair With Southern Cooking" (434 pages, William Morrow, $32.50) for four years, but the depth and warmth of the writing and the thoroughness of the research reflect decades of heartfelt preparation.
You wouldn't pick up this book expecting to find a 30-minute dinner any more than you'd expect your grandma to toss a Lean Cuisine in the microwave for your lunch. The recipes are traditional -- Pine Bark Stew, Country Captain, Okra Pilau -- or Southern nouveau -- Collards Cooked in Garlic and Olive Oil, Black-eyed Pea Cakes with Tomato Salsa, and Creamy Grits with Tasso. Each comes with an introduction, such as an account of Anderson's attempt to find the historical origin of Surry County Sonker (a deep-dish fruit pie) or a brief description of the chef who inspired Casserole of Creamed Collards with Parmesan Crumbs (that's Scott Howell of Nana's in Durham).
In an introductory chapter, Anderson admonishes cooks to eschew substitutions and corner-cutting. "Lard is rendered hog fat, not vegetable shortening." she writes. (I must admit that my husband and I abandoned our search for lard and used Crisco to make the roux for Cajun Shrimp Gumbo to good effect.)
The book includes fresh interpretations as well as recipes that date back generations, though, so don't be afraid you'll be cooking from a history book. Anderson's experience as a recipe writer -- she has penned more than 20 cookbooks -- is evident. Her instructions are clear as glass, and her hints make you feel as if she's standing at the stove beside you.
Even if you never cook a dish from "A Love Affair With Southern Cooking," you could spend hours flipping through its 400-odd pages, soaking in the stories in the recipe introductions as well as the timeline of Southern cooking. Anderson begins with the arrival of Ponce de Leon in Florida in 1513, and includes every event you can think of -- and there are more than you can imagine -- that shaped Southern cuisine. The timeline runs throughout the book, and when a brief entry seems insufficient, Anderson includes longer stories.
As when you lunch with your Grandma, you'll find yourself pleasantly waylaid by the company. And each time you return to "A Love Affair With Southern Cooking," you'll find your own love of the cuisine renewed.