Ocilla, the Slaw of the South

Crystal Slaw

More adventures were in store on my super steamy food travels through Savannah, Georgia this July.    This time they centered on a regional cole slaw.    Now I am a bit of a cole slaw snob.   I like the creamy version, but only if it has a spicy kick and only if it includes caraway seed.     It should also have a sweet-spicy balance and not be overpowered either way. My paternal grandmother used to make a creamy version from scratch in front of me to go with a lunchmeat sandwich after mowing her lawn in the summer. She’d grate the slaw, onion and a carrot, and always put a few teaspoons of sugar and caraway in with the mayo.   It was always fresh and amazing.

I do also like the vinegar slaw versions, but they also have to have a balance between tangy, sweet and spicy. Crunch is also more important in the vinegary version.   My sister-in-law makes a version that has crunchy ramen noodles in it that’s fantastic for summer picnics.

In Cincinnati we have our German bacon slaw version, which packs a huge sweet-and-sour shebang to the taste buds, and it includes bacon bits.     Maybe it’s this hot German slaw that has spoiled me to expect a full flavored cole slaw, whatever the variety.

The south has its cole slaws too, but coastal Georgia was too hot for the traditional mayonnaise based versions, so they tended toward the tangy vinegary versions.     The humid Low Country heat would spoil any mayonnaise based cole slaw in minutes at a cookout.

On my trolley tour of Savannah, I got off at the Market to explore and ask locals about some of the native dishes.   When I met an artist from Cincinnati at his gallery, and got to talking about food, we discussed Cincinnati chili and he told me about some of the local dishes.   He suggested for an authentic southern meal that I try the Crystal Beer Parlor or Sisters of the New South.   He said Lady & Sons, and Elizabeth’s, the ones all the tourist books gushed about were overpriced and not authentic.

He mentioned a local vinegar based slaw called Ocilla slaw, that I could find in town to get a taste of a true country Georgian food.   Ocilla is a small town about 100 miles to the southwest of Savannah.   They’re known for their annual Sweet Potato Festival, which has been going on since 1961, sponsored by none other than the Georgia Sweet Potato Improvement Association.  There’s a Jefferson Davis memorial in the center of town and the town website touts it offers “the charm of the old south.”

Apparently the local Baptist church published a southern cookbook with the recipe many years ago.   Steve, the artist from Cincinnati’s mother-in-law wrote the recipe for Ocilla slaw in that book that people have used all over.

So when I saw Ocilla slaw on the menu at Crystal Beer Parlor, I had to have it with my fried flounder and she-crab soup.   It’s a mix of crunchy white cabbage, green and sweet red and yellow peppers, apple cider vinegar, celery seed, sweet onion and dried mustard.   Their version was crunchy, but not sweet and tangy as promised. We ate late after an hour wait and I somehow think I got the last scrapings of the slaw made that day.   I would have used more vinegar, and added some sugar or even my favorite caraway to give it some oomph.    So I am determined I can make a better version which I plan to do the next time I make fish.

Nduja, Italy’s Amazing Spreadable Salami

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Who ever invented spreadable food of any sort should be commended.     Think of your favorite food item, make it spreadable on toast, and you get a wham bam snack.   I love chocolate, so when I found spreadable chocolate in the form of Nutella, oh man I was in heaven.   I grew up spreading Braunschweiger or chicken liver pate onto rye toast and that was good.     But when I read recently about a spreadable salami called nduja, I was enraptured and had to learn more.

Nduja, pronounced en-doo-ya, is a spicy spreadable pork sausage from the southern Calabrian region of Italy, specifically, the small town of Spilinga and its environs.   Calabria is the toe of Italy’s boot.

Nduja is like the Italian form of goetta. It’s a slaughter sausage. After you slay the family pig and take the good parts out for prosciutto, soppresatta, and pancetta, you use the leftover parts to make nduja.

It’s made of some good parts of the pig – the shoulder and belly; and some offputting parts of the pig – the jowl, tripe, skin, and fatback. It’s mixed with roasted hot Calabrian red peppers, which gives it the fiery taste, and maybe takes away some of the minerally flavor of the offputting pig parts.

It’s a take on salami, also loosely based on the French andouille sausage.  Although its origins are fuzzy, most believe it was a poor man’s version of andouille sausage – imparting the same flavor without the long aging process.   Andouille arrived in the area 1806 when Napoleon conquered Naples in the North.

Residents of the town of Spilinga, made their version with pork fat, ground lung, kidneys and other odd bits, and spiced it with their local fiery chilis.   The sausage was then smoked, aged, or both.

In Italy nduja is mainly served with slices of bread or with ripe cheese, like ricotta or burrata. In Calabria, chefs melt it onto pizza.   But, it’s unique flavor makes it suitable for a variety of dishes besides pizza and bruschetta.   In a hot pan it melts into a piquant oil that adds complexity and fire to all sorts of savory foods. It can be added to pasta sauces. It can be made into a salad vinegrette.   It can also be brushed onto grilled, roasted or seared meats before serving. And it can also be served with scrambled eggs.

American chefs have layered it into grilled cheese or spread it onto a hamburger.   A New York chef has made a njuda and scallion hash as a garnish for a hearty broccholini soup.   Other chefs have used it to fire-up Hollondaise sauce used for eggs benedict or added a spoonful into crab cakes.   Some chefs even suggest using it with shellfish like clams and linguini dishes.

Salumeria Biellese in New York has been making it since 1925 and spices their version with cayenne and smoky Aleppo peppers.  There are a few places online where it can be purchased – www.ndujaartisans.com or at zingermans.com under the brand La Quercia.   The American made versions tend to be less spicy than the Calabrian versions, and they hopefully use better quality cuts of meat.

I am now on the nduja bandwagon and intend to look for it at Whole Foods or Jungle Jim’s and add it to my breakfast egg repertoire.

The Benne, the First Powerbar and Treat of the Gullahs

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On my recent trip to Savannah, I was in search of authentic low country southern foods to taste.   I wanted to find ones that have been around for 100s of years, not something Paula Dean dreamed up and serves in her tourist trap, “Lady & Sons Restaurant” in the Market District.     Everyone knows shrimp and grits, but I wanted to dig deeper and find obscure stuff you only find at the road side stops or in the small towns surrounding Savannah.   I had heard of purkel, a goetta-like version of the local livermush served in DeKalb County surrounding Atlanta.     I knew that the slaves of the region had influenced the foodways and also wanted to find any remnants of that food heritage I could find.

As I drove down I-17 my wish materialized in the form of the Carolina Cider Company, who advertised their Peach cider, at an upcoming roadside stand.     So, I excitedly pulled off to the side of the road.   While the peach cider was refreshing and definitely had that cidery taste with distinct peach flavor,   I was more excited to come upon a regional food item, the benne, brought by the Goolah or Geechee African American slaves, from Sierra Leon, West Africa.

The benne is the Bantu word for sesame, and is a thin crispy wafer-like cracker with toasted sesame seeds on top.   The crackers were eaten for good luck by the slaves.   Sesame was one of the food products brought by slaves from East Africa (Madagascar) through West Africa to the Low Country in the Carolinas and Georgia.

Sesame is a versatile seed that can be used in many of the same way as nuts. It has a nutty, sweet aroma with a buttery taste. When toasted the sesame seed’s flavor intensifies, yielding an almost almond or peanut butter like flavor. The seed is also high in protein and low in cholesterol, also rich in calcium, vitamins B and E, and iron and zinc. Think of these benne crackers are the first form of the power bar for African Americans working long days in the Low Country rice paddies.

These West African slaves also brought other foods like peanuts, which were said to be the food rations on slave ships, sweet potatoes, okra, black eyed peas, collard greens, kidney and lima beans, and most importantly – rice.

It was rice that brought these West Africans to the Low Country. Early colonists in Georgia and South Carolina discovered that rice was the only product that grew well in the swampy tropical environments. But, they didn’t have the experience to grow without technical aid.   Finding out that Africans from the Sierra Leon region of West Africa, or the Rice Belt, had been cultivating rice for centuries, they specifically requested slaves from these regions to be brought in to help.   These slaves were also immune to the malaria and other diseases prevalent in the region, that the white Europeans were not.

So this group very rarely even saw their white slave owners.   African American overseers managed them and their white slave owners stayed in their fabulous mansions in the cities.  As a result the Gullah were able to keep their customs, language, and food by being so isolated from white culture and other African American slaves elsewhere.   They became known as Gullah (also known as the Geechee people in Georgia), and after the Civil War settled on the undeveloped barrier islands of Georgia, like St. Helena.      These barrier islands aside from Jeckly, Tybee, and only a few others remain undeveloped and retain much of their natural wilderness.

The artist of our industry murals at the Union Terminal in Cincinnati, Winold Reiss, was commissioned by Survey Graphic magazine in 1927 to create over 20 portraits of the descendants of the Gullah slaves who were associated with the Penn Colony School on St. Helena Island.       These beautiful portraits painted a picture of this little known, isolated group of slave descendants on the coastal barrier islands of Georgia who had such a great influence on what we now know as Southern classic cooking.

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Boy from St. Helena Island,  Coastal Georgia, by Winold Reiss 1927

As the Gullah people were hired out to be house servants and cooks in the urban Savannah and Charleston wealthy homesteads, they brought their West African food items and integrated them into the European cooking creating the dishes we know today.

Now the benne is served as the primary dippin’ cracker for any dips at parties in Charleston.   Imagine these nutty, sweet crackers covered in a cheesy- goey, crab-artichoke dip or a nice shrimp pate at a Southern Christmas party.    Olde Colony Bakery of Charleston has been making the benne cracker since 1940, representing the fine taste and heritage of their city.     Their benne recipe is said to be over 100 years old and the only surviving original recipe.

President Taft and the Invention of a Low Country Favorite – She-Crab Soup

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On a recent visit to Savannah, Georgia, I fell in love with their Low Country  staple – she crab soup.   Every menu in Savannah has it, and it’s the signature dish of their coastal neighbor-to-the north, Charleston, South Carolina, where the dish was invented.   The soup is a thick cross between bisque and chowder, made with the freshest Atlantic blue crab meat, heavy cream, fish stock, sherry, shallots, onions, and a variety of seasonings like mace (nutmeg).   Traditional versions have the orange roe of the she-crab, which gave it the name.   You can tell by the orange tinge of the soup whether or not is has the crab roe included.

I tasted this beloved bisque in two places while in Savannah – at Crystal Beer Parlor and the Pirates house.   At the 82 year old Savannah institution, Crystal Beer Parlor, the soup had a grey hue, and thus was without the crab roe, but was thick with lots of crab. At the Pirates House, on the other hand, it did have the orange hue and was much richer in flavor. Both were fantastic just for the freshness and flavor of the she- crab, probably harvested within the last 24 hours.   At the Crystal Beer Parlor, the waitress warned me – “We use fresh crab meat, honey, so be careful – you will find bits of shell in the soup.”   So an unexpected shell crunch is the indicator of fresh crab.

Unlike chowder in the north, which is served with starchy oyster crackers, if anything, she crab soup is served with buttery club crackers or, at higher end places, with little cheese biscuits the size of oyster crackers.     There is also usually a bottle of good sherry to sprinkle on the soup for added richness.

Low Country food historians credit the early north eastern Scottish settlers who arrived in the Carolinas in the early 1700s with bringing their famous seafood bisque recipes called partan bree, a crab and rice soup, to the area.

I fell in love even more with the dish when I found its connection to our local super-sized President, William Howard Taft.     Taft visited the mayor of Charleston, R. Goodwyn Rhett, in 1909 at his historic house, the John Ruttledge House.   Taft was a huge fan of turtle soup and brought his own cook who knew the recipe to the White House.   In elegant society, turtle soup, crab soup, or oyster soups were the accepted start of a sumptuous banquet. Knowing that Taft was a foodie, Rhett asked his butler and cook, William Deas to amp up the pale crab soup they usually served.   So, the butler added orange-hued crab roe to give color and add to the flavor, thus inventing the delicacy now served from South Carolina Low Country to the Georgia coast.     With the abundance of blue crab available in the coastal Carolina waters, this soup became very popular.

The amped up she crab soup was a hit with Taft.   Apparently he liked it so much he requested the recipe to include on the White House’s menu.   So if it wasn’t for our Cincinnati born plump President, Savannah and Charleston may have never have had their beloved she crab soup available everywhere.

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President Taft in Columbia, SC, 1909

Skyr – Odin’s Favorite Dairy Treat

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We have been bombarded for the last several years with the health benefits of Greek yogurt. It’s thicker and higher in protein than the typical commercial Dannon and Yoplait brands. When not sugared and flavored to high heaven it makes a great energy packed breakfast.

But a new, even healthier yogurt is making its way into the American domestic market from Iceland of all places.   It’s called skyr, and it’s been around in Scandinavia for over a millennium, brought to Iceland from Norway. It’s even thicker, supposedly three times, and higher in protein than Greek yogurt.

Traditionally, this former Viking treat, was made with raw sheep or cow’s milk after the cream was floated off to make butter, but now it is made with pasteurized skim milk.   A portion of skyr is added to the milk to introduce the right bacteria culture and left to coagulate.   The whey, or yellowy liquid portion, is strained out, and the milk solids are kept for skyr.   It has a slight sour taste, with a bit of natural sweetness.   The result, varying between brands, of unflavored skyr, is about 12% protein and only 3% carbohydrates.

Traditionally it is served with sugar and heavy cream, or with jam, berries, or granola for breakfast.   Men’s Health has recently jumped on it’s bandwagon, toting it’s high protein health benefits.   They recommend dropping sunflower seeds or almonds into a cup of skyr for a quick protein packed breakfast.   One domestic version is Siggi’s, made in Upstate New York, with milk from dairy farms who do not use bovine growth hormones on their herds.   They have nearly 20 different flavors, some sounding very Scandinavian, like lingonberry.

Other cultured dairy foods exist in other cultures. For example, there’s Mongolian Yak cheese, that Whole Foods probably won’t be getting any time soon.   There is also a Russian dairy treat known as tvorog, made by boiling buttermilk and letting the milk solids hang out for a while, but that has quite a pungent kick for most Middle Americans.   So, for now, going the way of the Vikings with skyr, is the hippest and healthiest way to get your yogurt.