Virginia Willis is a longtime friend of Alabama Chanin, as we both share a love of Southern food and culture, locally sourced ingredients and sustainability, the Southern Foodways Alliance, and real, honest storytelling. The Georgia-born chef has thrived both on television and in the cookbook industry, appearing on shows like the Food Network’s “Chopped” and “Martha Stewart Living”; she writes a popular column, “Cooking with Virginia” for Southern Kitchen, is editor-at-large for Southern Living, and her cookbooks include, Bon Appetit, Y’all, Basic to Brilliant, Y’all, and the just-published Secrets of the Southern Table: A Food Lover’s Tour of the Global South.
Willis was born in Augusta, Georgia, and she spent a great deal of time there with her grandparents, before moving to Louisiana with her family. She has strong memories of time in the kitchen with her grandmother. “There are photos of me as a towheaded youngster standing on the kitchen chair making biscuits with my grandmother. She would punch out the biscuits, then we’d roll out the scraps of dough and she’d let me make a handprint. It was my form of modeling clay or Play-Doh.” Time with her grandparents also fostered her love of growing things—though she claims she “can’t keep a houseplant alive.”
Traveling throughout the South as a girl, she realized that Southern food was more than the stereotypical fare as seen by the rest of the country. There are food cultures that many may consider non-traditional but are just as integral to Southern foodways as fried chicken. Secrets of the Southern Table includes some of what most consider “traditional” Southern food but also includes stories and recipes that might seem unexpected. She studies the farmers who grow and harvest ingredients across the South, African influences on ingredients and technique, the Florida seafood fishermen who both farm and seek to sustain their bountiful sea life, the largely-unrecognized Vietnamese shrimpers in Texas, the “Appalachicanos”—Mexican Americans living in Appalachia, and many others whose histories and ethnic backgrounds have always influenced Southern fare. “The lines of ownership of Southern food aren’t clearly marked on a map. There is a rich narrative that lies beneath, a tangled and compelling web of race, politics, and social history that is served up alongside our beloved biscuits and gravy.”
Natalie and Alabama Chanin are honored to be featured in a small part of the book, where Willis talks about our focus on the “living arts”, sustainability, our supply chain, and slow fashion. She also showcases our café and its simple menu filled with complex flavors. “Each bite is full-flavored and delicious,” Virginia writes. “Ingredients are thoughtfully sourced in a similar fashion to Natalie’s fabric. The fruits, vegetables, pastured poultry, grass-fed beef, and eggs for the café come exclusively from local farms in the community.” As part of her visit, we were able to bring Willis to Bluewater Creek Farm, one of our most reliable sources for sustainable ingredients.
Virginia readily speaks to the idea that the South is a complicated place, especially when it comes to race, and Southern food is a complicated cuisine. “Southern foodways are integral to the American culinary tradition. Southern cooking is seen as seen one of the true American cuisines, a cookery that can simmer alongside the elevated and exalted cuisine of France, the cast-iron skillet toe-to-toe against a French black steel sauté pan.”
Secrets of the Southern Table, featuring photographs from longtime Alabama Chanin friend and collaborator Angie Mosier, attempts to welcome all influences to the kitchen and highlight diverse and seldom-recognized food narratives and delicious recipes. As chef Sean Brock writes in the book’s foreword, “there is a misconception around the world that Southern food is a singular cuisine.” Willis’ book seeks to feature some of the untold stories of our complex food culture.