No Place Like Home (Cooking)

Maintaining the link to his Southern culinary roots requires ingenuity for this Moscow-based journalist

Story by William Mauldin

One of the first things we all realize upon leaving the South is just how much we love the cuisine. I had thought, after warnings from my grandmother, I would miss the attitude of the people back home more than anything else after I left the South to attend college in Connecticut. To my surprise, I found non-Southerners can be friendly, too, when you get to know them. (In fact, many of them are quite clever and entertaining.)

Yet my grandmother also wisely warned me about something else — home-cooking withdrawal. The smell and taste of food touches us deep in our consciousness, in an place closely tied to our upbringing and culture. After all, with only a little variation, Southern cuisine unites groups of people who are often divided by class, race and politics, from the bayous of the Delta to the mountains of North Carolina.

To keep that vital gustatory link to Southern culture intact, we have to keep on eating Southern food, no matter where life takes us. In the absence of suitable restaurants, we need not only recipes and culinary know-how, but also Southern ingredients, which can prove elusive.

In New York, I was able to find many ingredients for Southern dishes in areas such as Harlem, as well as in neighborhoods with immigrants from the West Indies, which seem to share some foods with Southern states. Still, I couldn’t help but be disappointed at the scarcity of good pork barbecue. Some celebrated rib joints have been closed down because of the smoke, while others have had to install scrubbers in their smokestacks as if they incinerated garbage or generated electricity rather than culinary bliss.

In Columbus, I often had the pleasure of eating the legendary ribs prepared by the late Judge Curtis Austin, but in Moscow, where I live now, barbecue as we know it simply doesn’t exist. On my last trip to Memphis in July, I bought a cloth visor cap from a downtown barbecue restaurant as a keepsake. To my delight, the smell of barbecue ribs stuck in the visor and stayed with me all the way to Russia.

If finding good barbecue is a hopeless quest, other Southern dishes are more accessible to amateur cooks living abroad. Biscuits can be baked quite well in the gas ovens common in Moscow apartments, and since I can’t get buttermilk, I use a fermented local dairy product known as kefir with Crisco replaced by softened butter. Baking soda is available locally, but baking powder is best brought from the States.

For making gumbo, I’ve often brought filé, the thickener made of ground sassafras leaves, from the States in my suitcase, and so far customs agents haven’t confused it with marijuana. Frozen andouille sausage is actually available in Moscow, where it’s prepared by a sausage-obsessed British man who sells in bulk. Frozen okra can be found at an Indian food store run by Russian hippies, where it’s known as bambia.

Frozen okra doesn’t really smell like the real thing, so on a recent trip to Turkey, I couldn’t help but bring back a large bag of fresh okra to fry in Moscow. The only problem was I didn’t have any cornmeal, having run out of Aunt Jemima’s, and my pantry only contained a coarsely ground corn product similar to grits. The solution? My wife put the phony grits in the coffee grinder, and before long we were frying okra in cornmeal with Russian sunflower oil.

The Indian food store helped us with frozen okra, but where to find sweet potatoes to make my great-grandmother’s sweet-potato pudding for Thanksgiving? Again, my wife came to the rescue when she realized that sweet potatoes are part of Japanese cuisine. So a trip to Moscow’s Japanese food store near the embassy was all we needed, and now we can have them whenever we want. But only at about $5 per sweet potato.