More thoughts on culinary conservatism…

Alan Jacobs had a nice post at the American Scene about culinary conservatism, and about Birmingham’s Frank Stitt, in particular. Jacobs correctly places Stitt into a sort of conservative tradition in that he combines his heritage with his grownup experience to create something new that is yet rooted firmly in the past. Driving through Cullman County one is unlikely to think that gourmet French cuisine could be influenced by such a landscape, and yet it is, and the results are immaculate. The same can also be said for Stitt’s Italian endeavors, Bottega and Bottega Cafe.

And yet I think this is an idea that runs into much trouble. I wonder how many Southerners regard their cuisine as anything special? At best, my hunch is that most Southerners look at Southern cooking as one option among many and in this day and age, the deep South diet is just a consumer option alongside cheap Mexican food and Texas-style steakhouse. It is a great irony that Stitt comes along with his high-end offerings that the average middle-class Southerner would regard as expensive and, more derisively, frou-frou offerings. How tragic that great traditions might yet die because their current practicioners – Stitt and all of his Williams-Sonoma shopping imitators (and I cound myself among this number) – are regarded as elite and snobbish.

I was once talking to my grandmother about my love for Johnny Cash, and she asked if I really liked him, or if I were making a joke of him. She found it hard to believe that I was sincere in my appeciation for the Man in Black. I think this is the case with much of the new appeciation for all things Southern, rural and authentic; the older generation never took itself seriously, and therefore it has a hard time believing that the rest of us could ever take them seriously; their food, their music, their movies. I’m still not sure why that is the case, but I’m sure it has something to do with anti-intellectualism among the rural and middle classes, and an almost pathological inability to appreciate anything beyond its immediate pragmatic uses. There are marvelous exceptions of course, but they are always the minority, always the spectacle, and never the norm.