“You know what I really miss the most about eating nowadays?” a friend of mine asked recently. “Fatback. Sausage gravy on biscuits. Fried okra and corn fritters. Good ole food like Mama used to make.”

“Yeah, I know. But we’re eating a lot healthier these days,” I reminded him.

“Oh, healthy, smealthy. I want a plateful of pot-likker and corn bread.”

Call it what you wish: soul food, country, home cooking or the more hoity-toity “Southern cuisine,” cooking like Mama used to do has diminished in the South but come into its own in the nation over the last decade, with many big cities hosting restaurants that feature our kind of eating.

For a couple of hundred years, people in the South ate pretty much the same kinds of things. Corn and pork were predominant in the early days, for corn thrived and the natives taught us all their tricks with it, from cultivating to grits, and pigs brought over from Europe flourished, foraging food when necessary and reproducing prolifically.

Pork appeared in every possible form, fresh in hams and chops and ribs in fall and early winter, smoked, made into sausage, into bacon and side meat. Pig’s ears and feet and tails came to many a dinner table; even its brains appeared occasionally, in scrambled eggs or on toast.

You know the story of corn. There is corn bread, corn muffins, spoon bread, hush puppies, cracklin’ bread, corn fritters, cheese grits, grits with red-eye gravy, stewed corn, corn chowder, corn pudding, corn dodgers, pone, fried corn, creamed corn and, of course, everybody’s favorite, corn on the cob.

Southerners stocked up on veggies and fruit in the spring, summer and early fall in the South, and winters, though sparse with fresh foods, were better than in other climes. We had collards growing even in cold weather, and it wasn’t unusual to run across a collard patch with a hand-painted sign in the middle reading “Free greens, pick your own.”

There were sweet potatoes and a couple of bushels of pinto beans to fall back on and all those watermelon pickles and jars of blackberry jam the old folks put up last July, but oh boy, that first spring lettuce, peas and onions surely did taste good.

All over the South, a similar weekly menu prevailed. There was fried chicken every Sunday and suitable side dishes, with mashed potatoes and gravy (rice at my house), green beans and hot biscuits most often making an appearance.

Fried fish came to dinner Friday at many a household, oddly enough because most of us were Baptist or Methodist and a tad suspicious of those Roman Catholics with their “no meat on Friday” mandate. White slaw, fries and hush puppies were etched in stone as go-alongs with this entrée.

On other nights, things like stew beef, country ham, meatloaf, fried pork chops and the night before payday when money was tight or non-existent, fried side meat with cream gravy and corn bread were the featured selections.

There were regional differences appearing occasionally in the menus, of course. In the Tidewater and Low Country areas, things like crab cakes, she-crab soup and old drum stew showed up; Creole cooking in Louisiana was prevalent; Alabama loved its white barbecue sauce and Lane Cake; Florida boasted Key lime pie and cooter stew. Mountain folks ate whatever they could get their hands on, since hardscrabble farming wasn’t always productive: ramps, squirrels and possums and the like.

It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that the South began to grow up and branch out at the dinner table. Two biggies, the arrival of pizza and cooking on an outdoor grill, made the first difference. Our early pizzas were the Chef Boyardee in a box variety, until Pizza Hut discovered Dixieland.
And Dad in the backyard grilling burgers became common after George Stephan, who worked for Weber Steel, hit on the idea of making a cooker out of half of one of the buoys the company made for the Coast Guard. The Weber Grill was born, ushering in a whole new era of cookery.

We have a plethora of choices for our dinner tables in the South nowadays, with Chinese, Tex-Mex, Indian, Italian, Thai, Japanese and Greek cuisine. Bagels, English muffins and gelato are just a grocery store away. Plus Julia Child, Emeril and the gang have made inroads into most of our kitchens.

But still, like my friend, when I think of Southern cooking, I recall with nostalgia fried chicken, hush puppies and hot biscuits, sweet potato pie, mac and cheese, creamy grits and collards cooked with fatback.

But in the interest of my arteries, I think I’ll skip the pot-likker.
Page H. Onorato’s column appears in The Lexington Dispatch. Onorato is a retired teacher.