With new book, Virginia Willis chronicles the diversification of the South’s taste buds

By now Virginia Willis’ loyal readers have come to regard her Southern mama and grandmother, Meme, almost like characters in a novel.

In her deeply personal cookbooks, from “Bon Appetit, Y’all” to the James Beard Award-winning, “Lighten Up, Y’all,” Willis has painted a sweet and tender portrait of a matriarchal dynamic in which a tradition of shelling butterbeans, frying chicken and making biscuits has been handed down from one generation to the next.

Together with Atlanta photographer Angie Mosier, the Georgia-born, French-trained chef traversed the region — they visited 11 states over eight months and four seasons — to bring home a thoughtfully detailed volume of recipes and reportage that documents the ongoing diversification of the region’s palate.

This time, for Willis, it’s political.

Brussels Sprout and Benne Seed Coleslaw is not just a crunchy, and delicious side dish to pair with her Rainy-Day Ribs and Nashville Hot Grilled Chicken. It’s a tribute to Southern slaves   who found in the nutty allure of sesame a way to channel a momentary glimmer of home—of Africa.

Spicy Asian Cajun BBQ Shrimp with Grilled Baguette is not just a marvelous sandwich to stuff into a picnic basket (um, perhaps with a Lemon Icebox Tart with Saltine Cracker Crust). It’s a manifestation of the culinary cross-pollination that comes about when Vietnamese shrimpers fishing the waters of Texas and Louisiana marry a bahn mi to a po’boy.

Mississippi-Style Char Sui Pork Tenderloin was inspired by the long-flourishing community of Chinese immigrants who came to the Delta State after the Civil War to pick cotton, only to end up opening grocery stores and restaurants.

Greek Crispy Lemon-Herb Potatoes and Greek Okra and Tomatoes are Willis’ way of honoring the Greek restaurateurs who arrived in Birmingham in the late 19th century to work in steel mills, and went on to introduce the South to moussaka and Greek salad.

Agriculture is the heart and soul of the Southern table, and in these pages Willis visits Louisiana rice farms, Virginia apple orchards, and South Carolina heirloom-grain and quail concerns.

Local readers may recognize familiar faces like Will Harris of White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Ga.; Ross and Rebecca and Williams of Many Fold Farm in Chattahoochee Hills; and  Matthew Raiford, who cooks at The Farmer & The Larder in Brunswick while managing his family farm, founded in 1874 in the aftermath of the Civil War, nearby.

Explaining why she chose to start the book by pairing portraits of a white and black farmer (Harris and Raiford), Willis writes: “So much of what defines the South starts with the complex and entwined story of black and white.  I know that the secret of the Southern table was birthed in this story.”

In Willis’ South, there’s just as much room on the table for Shredded Beef Arepas and Carnitas Nachos as Apple Stack Cake and Meme’s Cornbread and Oyster Dressing.

It’s a new day, y’all. And it tastes muy-mighty-molto good.

10:30 a.m. May 5. Author reading, cooking demonstration and book signing. Free. Carnegie Library, Auditorium, 1 LaGrange St., Newnan. 770-683-1347, register online at newnanclf.com/secrets-of-the-southern-table.

2 p.m. May 19. Reading and book signing. Free. FoxTale Book Shoppe. 105 E. Main St., Woodstock. 770-516-9989,  foxtalebookshoppe.com .

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