Belinda Smith-Sullivan reminisces on the hoghead cheese and summer succotash recipes that take her back to her childhood.
Now a professional chef and three-time cookbook author, Belinda Smith-Sullivan’s introduction to cooking came at just seven years old. “I had the best of both worlds because I had both my grandmother and my mother as teachers,” she says.
Helping out in the kitchen became part of her after-school chores: Her parents worked full-time, but dinner was always served at 5:30. “I was like my mom’s secret weapon for getting dinner on the table in time,” she says. The first thing her mother taught her to make was cornbread, which she then made every afternoon. (“In Southern African-American families, cornbread is like a baguette in France,” she says, “I really do believe cornbread goes with everything.”)
It sparked her curiosity in the kitchen and she started taking an interest when her mom was cooking, sitting and watching while other kids played outside. By the time Smith-Sullivan was ten years old, she was making all the desserts for their forty-person Thanksgiving dinner.
“My dad, on the other hand, does not cook. But head cheese is the one thing he knew how to make,” she says. He was raised on a farm in Mississippi and grew up making head cheese with his mom before moving to Chicago, where he was a stockyard butcher for more than forty years.
The Hoghead Cheese Method
Souse, also known as head cheese, is traditionally made from what would otherwise be thrown away after a pig is processed: feet, ears, tails, and even snouts. “All the parts the average person would just turn up their nose at, that’s what’s in there,” Smith-Sullivan says.
“It’s combined with herbs and spices and cooked for long enough that the tough meat softens and is easily separated, and the bones release their natural gelatin into the cooking liquid. When you’re a kid, it feels like forever, but it’s really just around four hours,” she notes.
“And then when it cools, then you just reach in there with your hands and you just start pulling everything apart and discarding the bones and stuff. As kids, that’s how we would help—we kids would just roll up our sleeves and just jump right in.
Smith-Sullivan spent years trying to recreate her father’s recipe, experimenting and talking to family members to piece it together. “He didn’t have a recipe, it was all in his head,” she says. “I wanted to recreate it so that I can have something to give to my family, because they all love it but no one wanted to tackle it.”
Smith-Sullivan, who now lives in Trenton, South Carolina, grew up splitting her time between Chicago and her grandparents’ farms in rural Mississippi, where she would spend her summers. She recalls her grandmother going to town once a week to buy a twenty-five-pound sack of flour and a ten- or fifteen-pound sack of sugar. “Those were the only two things she actually purchased. Everything else, they grew or made themselves,” she says.
“Succotash is a standard in the South. It’s on every Sunday table,” she says. Every family has their own iteration, but it all starts with corn and lima beans. Her family’s version, packed with okra, bell pepper, tomatoes, and onion, stems from the Mississippi farm and her grandmother’s garden, which she recalls was about the size of a city block. “It almost replaces a salad. The vegetables should be light and crisp so it’s refreshing, not a mushy thing.”
By continuing to make and pass along the recipes she learned and honed at the elbow of the generations before her, Smith-Sullivan is crafting a legacy for the rest of her family. “That’s how we showed in our family that we love each other.”
COOKING UP SMITH-SULLIVAN’S FAMILY FAVORITES
“This Southern classic is a staple in most Southern country households. Made from what would traditionally be considered throw-away parts from hogs. Nothing goes to waste on the farm! Tradition has it that the only way to serve and eat this delicacy is with saltine crackers and hot sauce.”
“Every Southern cook has their own favorite recipe and ingredients for this warm-weather classic. But all will agree that two items it must have are lima beans and corn.”
- by TLP Editors
- by Hannah Lee Leidy
- by Amber Chase