Trotters and collards, fried chicken, coke-glazed hams and hush puppies — the food of the American South is making a comeback. It's also making a strong case for slow cooking and rendering previously ignored parts succulent with time, with braises or smoke.

Even in New York City, southern food is getting its due. Barbecue restaurants abound, touting Texas-style, Lexington, or simply “authentic” barbecue, with no particular place to call home.

Barbecue is possibly the most-debated food item in Dixie, its accoutrements and even basic nature varying by city and state. As contentious as the 'cue debates can be, one thing is for certain: However barbecue is (or isn't) sauced, whether it's made from beef brisket or pork butt, wood smoke is the common denominator.

Smoke and the City

In Manhattan, emission restrictions and fire codes can make serving authentic barbecue a tough — and expensive — prospect. But Danny Meyer's Blue Smoke barbecue restaurants helped kick-start a revolution with nearly 15 stories of chimneys, ostensibly funneling the fragrance of pit-smoked pig to the gods.

When Meyers open Blue Smoke in 2002, there were only three barbecue restaurants in the city. A current search for restaurants serving barbecue in New York City on MenuPages turns up more than 150 results. That's a certified explosion.

Even in Los Angeles, a city more apt to serve beans refried than baked with sugar and fatback, southern food is making its mark.

At Spring Street Smokehouse, brisket gets top billing (perhaps owing to the restaurant's closer proximity to Texas than Kentucky). In Hollywood, Sassafras restaurant and bar offers sweet potato pie and coke-glazed short rib sliders, to be washed down with mint juleps or premium Kentucky bourbon.

Southern Exposure

“Right now, there's a whole Renaissance of southern culture, especially southern food culture,” says Jeff Buben, winner of the James Beard Foundation's Best Chef Mid-Atlantic 1999. Buben, who hails from Philadelphia, now lives just South of the Mason-Dixon line in Washington, D.C.

Jeff Buben

Southern food is hot in the nation's capital right now, says Buben. Though international cuisine is well-represented — the better to entertain the diplomats and delegates — the majority of American cooking in the District is southern-focused, “just by virtue of position,” Buben says.

With his wife, Sallie, a North Carolina native, Buben is a partner in the Fully-Baked Restaurant Group, which includes D.C. restaurants Vidalia, Bistro Bis and Woodward Table.

Buben thinks the rise of southern-food culture is consistent with that of a certain soul-searching among the American dining public.

“With an interest in food sourcing and where food comes from, and going back to cooking with soul and with passion, (southern food) lends itself very well to that,” he says. “It's a very deep and soulful kind of cooking, and it's very ingredient-driven.”

Chefs Love a Good Lacquer

With all of the talk of ingredient-driven menus, one item is turning up as a glaze on hams and ribs that's not grown in the field. From the Atlantic to the Pacific, southern-focused restaurants are toying with cola in glazes and braises for a touch of sweetness.

In her book, Bon Appetit, Y'all: Recipes and Stories from Three Generations of Southern Cooking, Virginia Willis says that many Southern families have recipes using Coca-Cola in everything from cake to Easter ham. (Her book includes a recipe for Coke-glazed ribs.)

At Woodward Table, Buben adds a lacquer-like finish to some of his meats with Coca-Cola. Coke, he says, adds a caramelization, deep hue and and a crispness to the exterior of dishes like ribs. “And that's what you're looking for," he says. "It's a natural way to go, once you taste the flavors and see how unique they are."

Buben particularly likes what a cola glaze does to lamb ribs. “You have a little bit more fattiness to the lamb rib, so you want something to just glaze, rather than be heavy,” he says. “That's why we like to use the Coke and other colas — to give it that viscosity.”

It also lends itself well to braises, and Buben shares his recipe for Coke-braised heritage pork cheeks below. It's a dish with plenty of character — which he says is a defining feature of southern food.

“If you think about it, out of all the American regional cooking, the cooking with the strongest character is southern cooking because it has the strongest roots, and I think the oldest roots,” Buben says. “For me, that's why southern culture has the strongest influence — because it's the oldest and the most defined.”

Coca-Cola Glazed Heritage Pork Cheeks

Ingredients:

  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 4 pounds heritage pork cheeks, cartilage and sinew removed (or substitute pork-shoulder medallions)
  • ¼ pound carrots, chopped
  • ¼ cup leeks, chopped
  • ½ cup sweet onion, chopped
  • 1 garlic head cut in half
  • 2 cups coca cola
  • ¼ cup bourbon
  • Juice of two oranges
  • Zest of one orange
  • 3 tablespoons sorghum syrup (or substitute molasses)
  • 3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • 1 ½ teaspoons dry mustard
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 4 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 6 cups veal or pork stock (or substitute chicken stock)

Method:

  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
  2. Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottom braising pan over medium-high heat. Season the pork with salt and pepper. Add the cheeks to the pan and sear until well caramelized. Remove from pan and set aside.
  3. Add carrots, leeks, onions and garlic and saute until tender and browned. Return pork cheeks to the pan. Add coke, sorghum bourbon, orange juice, zest, mustard, mustard powder, bay leaf, thyme and stock. Bring liquid to simmer.
  4. Cover pan and transfer to oven. Cook until cheeks are tender, about 2 to 3 hours. Remove pan from oven and let rest 10 minutes.
  5. Remove pork cheeks and set aside. Skim fat off the top of the liquid and strain liquid into a medium saucepan. Simmer on low heat for and additional 10 minutes. Add pork cheeks and simmer for an additional five minutes.