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Lessons in the Kitchen from Southern Women

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From resourceful home cooks to pioneering chefs and restaurateurs, women have long shaped Southern food. In honor of Mother’s Day, we asked a few female chefs to share what they’ve learned from the women in their lives.

 

Cynthia Wong
Butcher & Bee, Charleston, South Carolina

My mom used every last scrap in the house—nothing ever went to waste. My favorite example of this is her banana “pancakes.” They were more like flat fritters than pancakes. She would use bananas that were so brown and old they were practically liquid. She mashed them with one serving spoon of sugar and one of flour, and one egg. They are flat and custardy inside with crispy, nearly burnt edges. She pan-fried them in vegetable oil (I cook mine in way too much clarified butter). I once stopped dating a guy (among other reasons) because he didn’t like these pancakes. My husband and my boys love them.

Katie Button
Cúrate and Nightbell, Asheville, North Carolina
One of the biggest cooking lessons I learned from my grandmother was to store my spices in the freezer. Today when you open the freezer at my home, the first thing you will notice is that the doors are jam-packed with spice containers. It helps retain their freshness. Not only would she keep her dried spices there, but she had a wonderful vegetable and herb garden and toward the end of the season she would chop up the fresh dill, chives, and tarragon and throw them in the freezer to have fresh herbs throughout the winter. If you don’t have an herb garden, you can do the same with fresh herbs you buy from the grocery store—it is a fantastic trick.

Melissa Martin
Mosquito Supper Club, New Orleans, Louisiana
My mom cooked two to three meals a day and ran a tight ship. She stood guard at her stove and allowed us a peek at everything, but we were mostly chased out the kitchen so she could work. We peeled potatoes and eggs and were allowed small tasks. She fed six hungry mouths daily and always cooked from scratch. I learned how to streamline a kitchen, clean as you go, stay organized, and move quickly. Mostly I learned how to make something out of nothing and to cook with what was available. Lucky for us, that was always fresh seafood.

Emily Blount
Saint Leo, Oxford, Mississippi
My mom didn’t make fussy food, just simple, ingredient-driven, vegetable-based, delicious meals. The most important and indelible thing she taught me about food was uncompromising freshness. I grew up in her garden, where she would give each of my sisters and me a small plot of our own. We ate out of the garden all year long. If we were not out back, we were at local farmers markets, where she would be first in line—literally making us get up first thing in the morning—so she could hand-pick the best.

Annie Pettry
Decca, Louisville, Kentucky
My mother taught me that cooking was not only about good ingredients and technique, but about nurturing others. The love that we pour into our food while cooking is passed on to the people eating it.

Maneet Chauhan
Chauhan Ale and Masala House, Nashville, Tennessee
Some of my most favorite cooking memories are with my mother and with my mother-in-law. Growing up, Sunday brunches were the highlight for me, because it meant an afternoon of decadence. I would travel to the farmers market in the morning, then bring the vegetables home and jump into the kitchen with my mom. We made elaborate brunches of dishes like spicy garbanzo beans with deep fried bread—or puris—and alooparanthas, which are potato-stuffed flatbreads. After getting married, one of my fondest memories has been going to visit my husband’s hometown of Jaipur and spending time with my mother-in-law in the kitchen. She taught me about Rajasthani cuisine, which was something I was completely unfamiliar with. It was a wonderful bonding experience.