Early Southern food memories live on with The Alabama Project

Hemera

Scott Peacock is a Southerner. He was born and raised in Hartford, Ala. He’s a chef and a food writer. What’s not evident from these facts is Peacock's regard for folks who’ve been around a lot longer than most of us. He worked with legendary Southern cook Edna Lewis on The Gift of Southern Cooking: Recipes and Revelations from Two Great American Cooks  before she died, and then he started what he calls The Alabama Project.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: What is the purpose of the Alabama Project, and what have you discovered?

Scott Peacock: About a year-and-a-half ago, I started traveling around the state looking for the oldest living Alabamians I could find. I interviewed them about their earliest food memories. The project is wonderful because we start out talking about breakfast and it leads to a great many things. 

As Miss Lewis used to say, "You can’t talk about Southern food without talking about Southern people." You get these little details of pre-modern life in Alabama. It's a real glimpse into not just what people were eating, but how people were living and what it was like nearly 100 years ago -- or sometimes 105 years or 107 years ago. 

LRK: Could we hear one of these interviews?

SP: Absolutely. The first clip you’re going to hear is a woman in Montgomery, Ala., in her 80s named Dodgie Shaffer. She’s a woman of great style and substance and was wonderful friends with Scottie Fitzgerald, the daughter of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Zelda was from Montgomery.

In fact, she had Zelda’s signed copy of The Joy of Cooking. She is quite a character and quite a storyteller. Very intelligent. In the South, we have certain food traditions that are revered and Dodgie sort of tramples on one of those.

LRK: She sounds like a character.

SP: Everyone talks about cheese straws, and they’re a hallmark food. You can’t have a social occasion without them. Someone gets married, someone’s born, someone dies, someone shows up with cheese straws. But Dodgie’s very forthcoming and very funny and very aware of it and sends me emails signed "Our Lady of the Cheese Straws."

LRK: When I think of the South, I also think of cornbread.

SP: Yes, yes. Cornbread, a great delicacy of the South and also much more than that. It’s a staple and once was a very central part of the diet, even when I was growing up. Back in the childhoods of these people I’ve been interviewing, it was survival. They grew corn and then they would take it to the grist mill and have it ground into cornmeal, so it was readily available. Biscuits, which were a legendary Southern food, were not always available, because you had to buy flour. And, frankly, people didn’t always have the money to buy flour.

This next person we’re going to talk about is Ollie Glass. Ollie Glass is a wonderful woman from my hometown of Hartford, Ala. She’s African-American. She will be 100 this August. She still lives alone, she drives to the post office and is very active in her senior citizens group. 

She’s a very strong yet very gentle person, and she’s a model to me of how to live a life of sometimes great difficulty and still remain warm and open. During segregation, she worked for 20 years as a cook at the black high school in Hartford.

She also lived in New York for 20 years. She did a lot of things. You can do a lot of things in 100 years. The one thing that she talked about in addressing the importance of cornbread was how, at breakfast time, before they had their regular breakfast, everyone would eat a little bit of leftover cornbread from the night before. That was to help fill up before they ate their biscuit, because there might not be enough biscuit to satisfy everyone.

SP: There is one more person I’d like you to meet. Jim Murphy was my father’s school teacher and basketball coach in his late 80s in Slocum, Ala. He talked to us about a great many things -- about growing up and the importance of food -- but it was an especially poignant moment when he talked about the connections that are made through the kitchen, in reference to his wife who had passed on several years before him.

LRK: You know Scott, this is all about those connections, as you said, that happen in the kitchen.

SP: So moving. It still moves me and this clip is particularly poignant and moving because Mr. Murphy just recently passed away himself.

LRK: I’m sorry to hear that.

SP: Indeed. I will treasure that time that we spent and I’m so grateful to have his story recorded.

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