On Being a Cook in the 21st Century South

December 4, 2011

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Virginia Willis

According to chef Virginia Willis, one of the South’s grandest culinary belles, Southern "exceptionalism" is the notion that the South is a place unique and distinct from the rest of the world. Is this an invention of the "New South," Chef Willis asks, or is the notion based upon a history of economic, social, and moral differences? As a poor, agrarian society, the early American South differed from its urban, industrial Northern counterpart.

In the 19th century, as the upper and lower souths united in secession, the idea of Southern distinctiveness was born. Much of modern Southern culture, particularly relative to foodways, grabs onto and perpetuates this distinction. "Southern" is not only a geographical marker that can be exported (as seen in the migration of Southern blacks into the North in the 60s), but also—and more poetically—a frame of mind.

Through personal stories and recollections of her own Southern heritage, Chef Willis explains what it means to be a cook in the 21st century South. Virginia Willis has cooked Lapin Normandie with Julia Child, prepared lunch for President Clinton, and catered a bowling party for Jane Fonda. She began her culinary career tossing pizzas in college and has since foraged for wild herbs in the Alps, made mustard in Dijon, crushed olives in California, and harvested capers in the shadow of a smoldering volcano in Sicily. Her first job in a professional kitchen was as an apprentice for Nathalie Dupree’s TV cooking show on PBS. Willis has subsequently produced over 1000 TV episodes, working for Martha Stewart, Bobby Flay, and Epicurious on The Discovery Channel.

She was an editor for The All-New Joy of Cooking, author of Pasta Dinners 1,2,3, and an editorial assistant to Anne Willan for Cook It Right. Her articles have appeared in Country Living, Family Fun, and Eating Well. Her critically acclaimed cookbook Bon Appétit, Y'all: Recipes and Stories from Three Generations of Southern Cooking was rated the #1 comfort food book of 2008 by the Chicago Tribune. Her latest book, Basic to Brilliant, Y’all: 150 Refined Southern Recipes and Ways to Dress Them Up for Company, is the lead book for Ten Speed Press for fall of 2011. She is also the founder and owner of My Southern Pantry™, a specialty artisan food line featuring heirloom organic cornmeal, grits, salts, and spices.

Recorded December 3, 2011 at the Chicago History Museum.