Pairings: A Southern Thanksgiving

Pairings: A Southern Thanksgiving

“We’ve tried to change, but it just doesn’t work,” says Lillian Kroustalis, a West Virginian by birth, and now co-owner with her husband, Jack, of Westbend Vineyards in Lewisville, North Carolina. I know exactly what she means. As a native of Dixie who chose to leave the South more years ago than I’m willing to confess, there are still some Southern traditions I can’t shake off—and I, too, have stopped trying. Especially at Thanksgiving. “We always have a roast turkey,” Kroustalis goes on. “And mashed sweet potatoes with a candied topping. And there’s a congealed cranberry salad I make—I got the recipe from a neighbor years ago.” In the Deep South, a festive meal would not be complete without a colorful molded salad.

Handing down holiday recipes, repeating them year after year without regard to fashion or trend, is as fixed in Southern lifestyle as is the single-minded dedication to college football. (In the South, the hour for sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner is always dictated by what time the games are broadcast.) I always make my mom’s light and creamy refrigerator pumpkin pie—she can’t remember its origins, just that she first made it as a newlywed in Savannah, Georgia, in the late 1940s when she had an electric roaster to cook the turkey. Year after year Kroustalis makes her mother’s stuffing with rice, giblets, chestnuts and raisins.

The late-20th-century revival of American regional cooking has raised our appreciation for homespun meals and, to some extent, our awareness that generic one-size-fits-all regional labels don’t always fit, at least not historically. Low Country cooking, as it developed along the Atlantic coast, primarily around Savannah and Charleston, South Carolina, shared little with, say, the food of field farmers in North Carolina or Kentucky. Besides a wealth of fresh seafood—oysters and shrimp, especially—coastal cooks relied on rice (never potatoes).

They spiced many dishes with tangy sauces such as Worcestershire and developed others with “exotic” ingredients such as apples, nuts, Madeira, and Sherry. Rice pilau (or pilaf, pilaw, perleau) encapsulates the essence of the Low Country style—onions fried with bacon (animal fat for flavor), chopped garden vegetables tossed in, a little shrimp, a bit of chicken, a few drops of hot sauce, homemade broth and, finally, long-grain rice—all steamed together. Any good cook has her own version (but don’t ask for the recipe—it’s either a family secret, intuitive, not possible to decipher, or all three). My own favorite is Savannah red rice (bacon drippings, tomatoes and sausage). But for Thanksgiving I prefer to keep it simple, usually just chopped onions and vegetables cooked with rice.

Corn escapes regional identity, but not cornmeal (never mind that other corn product, grits)—for corn bread, corn cakes, corn pone, corn pudding (sweet or savory), corn muffins, corn sticks, corn fritters and cornmeal-battered oysters, okra and green tomatoes. And, no, it is not redundant to have several corn dishes at one meal. Todd Rogers, executive chef at The Cloister on Sea Island, Georgia, makes oyster dressing with cornbread (very Low Country, similar to my grandmother’s) and a vegetarian version, both baked until the tops are crunchy. I learned the secret of moist corn muffins (add a small can of creamed corn to the batter; I now use it for corn sticks and fritters, too) from a cook at The Gastonian, a Savannah inn. Rogers puts cheese (cheddar and Jack) in his muffins and serves corn sticks with collard greens, to “sop up the pot likker” (cooking liquid). Originally from a farm family in West Virginia, with professional experience at restaurants throughout the South, he worries about presentation: “Our guests do love collards, and they expect us to have them on the menu. But eye appeal is important, so I’m going to try to make them in timbales or a soufflé.” Hmmm … most Southerners would call that a “fancy vegetable.”

And on holidays, greens—usually spinach or broccoli—might well show up disguised, swirled into a creamy casserole. Not, however, the sweet potatoes. I allow at least one medium potato per person, bake them whole, peel and mash them into a casserole, and then top them with marshmallows, browned just before serving. Others whip up a candied glaze with corn syrup, butter, and brown sugar (nuts and fruit juice optional) to drizzle over before broiling briefly.

Chances are, no matter where you celebrate Thanksgiving, you will enjoy a Southern turkey. That is because North Carolina leads the U.S. in turkey production—and in sweet potatoes too—according to Wayne Miller, marketing director of the state’s agriculture department. Miller also mentions a new trend, something chef Rogers said he saw a lot of in Texas (which is not technically part of the South)—frying turkeys whole. “It’s supposed to keep the inside moist while the outside gets crisp.”

Well, yes, that’s usually the goal. But Rogers has a better idea—slow roasting. “First, defrost in the refrigerator and don’t discard the natural juices. Set the oven at 275°F. Don’t worry about browning the skin until the very end or else you’ll burn it,” he says. “My mom taught me to stuff the cavities of the bird with onions and herbs for moisture and flavor. Sometimes she would halve an orange and put it inside. And you do need to baste, but start with some liquid in the roasting pan.” Toward the end of roasting, when the juices run clear, the chef turns the oven up to 375°F and rubs on a mixture of Kahlua and honey.

When Lillian Kroustalis roasts her turkey, there is one little change she’s made to tradition. She bastes with about two cups of her own Seyval Blanc, a fruity, medium-dry wine, starting after the first hour of roasting. The first Westbend vintage was 1988, from vines planted in 1973, with agricultural experts predicting failure. “They thought all you could do here was Muscadine,” she says, amused. “We started with hybrids like Seyval Blanc and then quickly added Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and other vinifera which had never been tried here. Virginia wineries bought tons of our grapes and that encouraged us [to start vinifying and open a winery]. Ours is a rolling terrain with a long, full growing season. Now a lot of ex-tobacco farmers are looking to put their acreage into vineyards.”

Indeed, the North Carolina wine industry, now with 17 wineries, including the much-visited one at the storybook Biltmore Estate in Ashville, is fast following the success of wine producers in Virginia.

In that state, properties such as Horton Vineyards near Gordonville and Williamsburg Vineyards led the way in experimenting with plantings and blending, looking for varieties that would thrive in Virginia’s humid climate and make worthy wines. Dennis Horton, whose much-praised signature Viognier is now on wine lists from Washington to New York City to Los Angeles, says, “I just thought it would be right for Virginia. This was one of those cases where it was better to be lucky than smart. It’s rot-resistant, with high acids. It’s not a pseudo-Chardonnay, and the style is not that big alcoholic goop that some people think of as Viognier.” That’s his pick to pair with a “tough food schedule—cranberries, sweet potatoes, turkey, dressing and all the rest.” Mine, too.

Speaking of schedules, it’s cocktail-and-appetizer time in a Southern household that competes with football. The idea of sitting down to a bowl of she-crab or corn chowder or Virginia peanut soup invariably loses, big time. To turn it into a win-win, executive chef Stephen Adams at the Biltmore suggests serving finger foods around the television, such as trout cakes (more seasonal than crab cakes), slivers of rich country ham with biscuits, and crackers topped with pepper jelly. And for holiday cheer, trade up from good-ol’-boy beer to an American méthode champenoise brut. Here’s to new traditions in the old South.

Finger Foods
Slow-roasted Turkey, basted with Seyval Blanc Oyster Dressing* Cornbread Dressing*
Rice Pilau
Candied Sweet Potatoes
Collard Greens
Molded Cranberry Salad
Corn Sticks and Buttermilk Biscuits
Refrigerator Pumpkin Pie
Pecan-Bourbon Pie*

To see all of our Thanksgiving recipes, please see the November issue of the Wine Enthusiast Magazine.

Dressings—Oyster and Cornbread

From executive chef Todd Rogers, The Cloister, Sea Island, Georgia.

For the basic cornbread:

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups cornmeal
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 11/4 teaspoons salt
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 11/2 cups milk
  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted

Preheat oven to 425°F. In a mixing bowl, sift together dry ingredients. In another bowl, beat 3 eggs lightly and beat in milk and melted butter. Pour this liquid mixture over dry ingredients, stirring just to moisten evenly. Spread batter into a shallow 9-inch by 13-inch casserole (or 2 smaller casseroles) that has been generously buttered. Bake at 425°F for about 20 minutes, until edges are brown and top springs back when pressed. Divide the cornbread in two, and proceed to make each dressing separately. (Note: Even better, make this cornbread a day ahead, cube or crumble as indicated by the recipes below, and leave uncovered, to dry out.) Makes enough cornbread for 12 servings of dressing.

For the cornbread dressing:

  • 1/2 cornbread recipe (above)
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 1 cup chopped celery (or reduce to 1/2 cup and add 1/2 cup chopped pepper) 1 cup diced carrots (or chopped apples)
  • 2 tablespoons raisins or dried currants or other dried fruit (or 1 tablespoon dried fruit and 1 tablespoon nuts)
  • 1 tablespoon chopped chestnuts (optional)
  • 1/2 teaspoon each salt and ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • 3 tablespoons bacon or sausage drippings (or unsalted butter, melted)
  • 1/2-1 cup crumbled cooked sausage (optional)

Crumble the cornbread in a large bowl and mix with chopped onion, celery (or celery and bell pepper), carrots (or apples) and dried fruit (or fruit and nuts, as desired). Stir in salt, pepper and parsley, adjusting to taste. In a separate bowl, lightly beat together eggs and chicken stock and stir into cornbread mixture, squeezing with hands to moisten well. Pour drippings over this mixture and squeeze in. Add sausage, if using. Spoon into 8-inch casserole dish that has been buttered, and bake at 350°F for about an hour, until edges are brown and top is quite dry. Makes 6 servings.

For the oyster dressing:

  • 1/2 cornbread recipe (above)
  • 8 cups (about 1/2 pound) stale white bread cubes
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter
  • 11/2 cups diced Vidalia or other sweet onions
  • 1 cup diced celery
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon poultry seasoning
  • 3 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 pint raw oysters, shucked and dreained
  • 11/2 cups hot chicken stock

Cube cornbread, combine with cubed bread in a mixing bowl and set aside.
In a skillet, melt about 1/4 cup butter over medium heat and sauté onions and celery for a minute, just to soften. (Do not brown.) Stir in kosher salt, pepper and poultry seasoning and add to bread mixture. Pour hot stock over, moistening evenly, and set aside. In skillet melt remaining butter, sauté oysters for 1-2 minutes, then fold them into the bread mixture and let cool slightly. Fold in eggs (if the mixture is too hot the eggs will curdle) and adjust seasoning as desired. Spoon into 8-inch or larger casserole dish that has been buttered, and bake at 350°F for 30-60 minutes, until firm and top is dry. Makes 6 servings.

Beverage recommendation: Elijah Craig 18-year-old Bourbon, or Wild Turkey 101.

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 3/4 cup dark corn syrup
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • 1/4 cup Bourbon
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Pinch salt
  • 13/4 cups pecan halves
  • 1 (9-inch) pie crust, partially baked

Preheat oven to 375°F. In a mixing bowl, stir together sugar and syrup and then add eggs and butter. Blend in Bourbon, vanilla and salt, and fold in pecans. Pour mixture into pie crust and bake for about 30 minutes, until filling looks firm when pie is tilted gently from side to side. Serve warm with whipped cream if desired. Serves 8-10.
New York writer Margaret Shakespeare, a native of coastal Georgia, still enjoys traveling and eating there.




Pecan-Bourban Pie


Southern Wine Connections
Every state in the Southeast has a foothold in grape growing and wine production, some more fledgling and experimental than others. Most line-ups include wines made from French-American hybrid grapes as well as vinifera; some also produce fruit and berry wines. Virginia, with winemaking roots that actually go back to Thomas Jefferson, leads in depth of experience and number of wineries. For consumers, sampling the wines without embarking on a long (but seductively picturesque) road trip can be frustrating. Few are distributed outside the region, although that is fast changing.

At Thanksgiving, turkey aside, unabashed food flavors range from intense sweetness (cranberry salad, sweet potatoes) to tangy and sharp (collard greens) and lightly spiced (pumpkin pie). I thought wine-pairing might be impossible. I was wrong. John Capobianco, sommelier at The Cloister in Sea Island, Georgia, notes that Southerners raised on sweetened iced tea and Coca-Cola usually venture into wine-drinking with sweet white Zinfandels. He tries to steer them gradually forward toward drier-style Rieslings. North Carolina’s Biltmore Estate produces Rieslings that work very well with most of this menu. If you can’t find Biltmore offerings in your area, the widely available Mirassou Riesling from California is a capable stand-in.

As much as I love Riesling on its own and for its flexibility with food, if I were serving only one wine with turkey and these particular trimmings I would choose a Viognier from Virginia’s Horton Vineyards or California’s R.H. Phillips. Both of these wines are nothing short of magical in bringing together the far-flung flavors and textures of this meal. These very different wines, both made from the same remarkably food-friendly Rhône grape, can be drunk throughout this meal. The steely, firm-bodied Horton stands up particularly well to the vinegary collards, while the R.H. Phillips EXP has a rounder quality and more floral notes that meld with the sweet foods.

If you go with the thought that turkey is game and prefer to pair it with a red, Kempton Clark’s MAD Zinfandel is soft and fruity enough to serve as a great foil for sweetness, or try one from Kenwood (a medium-weight Zin with a modicum of elegance) or St. Francis (a full-throttle oak and fruit experience). If you’re not partial to Zinfandel, Biltmore makes a Claret that would maintain the regional theme, or substitute the Claret from Francis Coppola’s Diamond Series.

Desperate wine lovers aching to try Southern wines can find some through the following channels: Williamsburg Vineyards’ wines can be ordered through; Westbend will ship directly to consumers (336/945-5032), as will Horton (800/877-5533), although it is in limited national distribution; Biltmore wines are available widely in the Southeast. —M.S.

Published on November 1, 2000
Topics: Recipes, Thanksgiving

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