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Eatymology: Buttermilk Pie

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Eatymology: Buttermilk Pie
Written by Emily Storrow | Photos by Jonathan Boncek

Buttermilk

[bə-tər-milk]

n: The rich, tangy byproduct of making butter and a staple ingredient in Southern cooking

If you can get your hands on some high quality, farm-fresh buttermilk, Stehling recommends it. “It’s amazing how different it is,” he says.

Buttermilk is the bridesmaid of Southern food. Nearly always relegated to a supporting role, it’s a binder of biscuits, a one-stop brine for fried chicken. But rarely is buttermilk prized for its own merits. Generations of Southerners once guzzled it straight from the glass or spooned up the soupy marriage of buttermilk and crumbled cornbread, but those conventions have since gone the way of the aspic (though, in the age of Southern food revival, they’ll undoubtedly make their return in time). Still, there remains one recipe that gives the stalwart its due: buttermilk pie. The tangy sweet has been on the menu since day one at Robert Stehling’s Hominy Grill in Charleston, South Carolina. Born in North Carolina, Stehling cut his teeth working under the august chef Bill Neal at Chapel Hill’s Crook’s Corner, where a shelf of dog-eared cookbooks served as constant inspiration for the kitchen. “The way we cooked was you went to the shelf and pulled out all the books and put them out on the table,” he says. “You looked up all the recipes and cross-referenced what everyone did.” One of those books was Princess Pamela’s Soul Food Cookbook, a collection of recipes from the legendary Pamela Strobel, who ran a speakeasy-style soul food restaurant in 1960s New York City that served the likes of Diana Ross and Andy Warhol. “That’s where the buttermilk pie recipe came from: straight from Princess Pamela,” Stehling says. Years later, he still anchors his cooking in the traditions of those who’ve come before him. “It gives you a certain amount of grounding,” he says. “I don’t just want to pull things out of the air and put them on a plate; I want to have a story to tell. And buttermilk pie is definitely that. It’s more than a dish—it’s a story.”

Buttermilk Pie