Here in the South, food is never just food. It’s love, joy, and sustenance, wrapped up in a memory and served with a healthy helping of tradition; it’s something you can tap into on those chilly evenings when you’re all alone—the memory of a warm kitchen, a sleepy-eyed basset hound, or a familiar face, smiling red-cheeked over a steaming pot. The fact that it also fills the stomach is almost secondary to the point.
As with many of us Southerners, some of Jackie Garvin’s earliest memories are tied to food. “It all started with blackberries,” she’ll tell you with a laugh, and the sound will seem to bubble up so unexpectedly that you won’t be able to help but laugh too. She’ll tell you about long summer afternoons in Geneva, Alabama, when her grandmother would dole out a pail and a warning to “Be particular of snakes, shug,” then send her off to the railroad tracks, where—in a phenomena that is utterly inexplicable through science, but that every good Southerner knows to be true nonetheless—the best blackberries grow. She’ll tell you about the hours spent plucking the warm, dark fruit from the tangle of sticker and vine, about the buzz of anticipation that grew with each soft-hollow plunk of a berry in her bucket, and how, as soon as she returned, her granny would roll up her sleeves and set to work, the air in the modest kitchen growing thick and warm with the juicy-sweet tang of baking blackberries as she magically transformed her granddaughter’s quarry into jams, jellies, and—Jackie’s favorite—blackberry cobbler.
It is not hard to imagine that it was the intensity of this memory—and the wash of sights, smells, and emotions that arrive unbidden at the mere mention of blackberry cobbler—that provided the seed for Jackie’s future endeavors. As early as twelve, she could be found poring through the pages of her mother’s tellingly pristine Betty Furness Westinghouse cookbook (culinary enthusiasm appeared to have skipped a generation between Jackie and her grandmother) and whipping up family meals with the self-possessed and guileless enthusiasm of the young. Despite the occasional mishap—bacon drippings, for instance, were not a suitable substitute for shortening in peanut butter cookies—she developed a love for creating and sharing recipes that only grew with time.
When Jackie began a family of her own, she moved to Florida—a place where, paradoxically, she points out, one must go north to get back to the South—yet she was determined not to let something as simple as geography get in the way of raising good Southern children. When this desire was compounded with her ascension into of the role of family matriarch (a weighty title in the South, if ever there was one), Jackie knew that she needed a way to pass on the recipes and stories of her family to the next generation. Enter then “Syrup and Biscuits,” a web-based goldmine of tried-and-true Southern recipes, charming anecdotes, and innumerable tips, tricks, and suggestions for harnessing the warmth and welcome of Southern living, including the Ten Commandments of Grits (numbers 1, 7, 8, and 9: “Thou Shalt Not put syrup on thy grits”) and a dictionary of over 100 words and phrases to help those not acquainted with the Southern vernacular navigate the difference between pert, fetchin’, and fahn. The website is utterly stuffed with charm, and each recipe and story is relayed with such warmth and unaffected candor that it reads more like a handwritten letter from a long-lost friend than a food blog.
What began as a way for Jackie to share stories and recipes with her family soon grew into a veritable phenomenon, and on Thanksgiving Eve (yes, cooks celebrate such a thing) in 2011, Jackie opened her email to find a message from a representative of Skyhorse Publishing. According to the email, Northeasterners had just “discovered” biscuits, and they were desperately in need of a Southern spirit-guide to help school them in the art. Jackie, they thought, was just the woman for the job. After reading the message a dozen times (and recovering from the absurd notion that Northerners could “discover” something that had been a staple of three square Southern meals a day for hundreds of years), Jackie accepted their offer.
The fruit of this endeavor, Biscuits: Sweet and Savory Southern Recipes for the All-American Kitchen, is a masterpiece of Southern cookery. Due out in May, the book is packed with sweet Southern memories, mouthwatering photographs and more than seventy ways to turn out a biscuit. Tucked among the pages, you’ll find recipes ranging from the humble ham biscuit to an exotic raspberry biscuit pudding with vanilla ice cream sauce, and, of course—in a nod to those warm Alabama afternoons in her Grannie’s kitchen—the recipe for Blackberry Cobbler.
Comeback Sauce (from Jackie Garvin’s food blog “Syrup and Biscuits”)
Yield: one pint
1 cup Duke’s mayonnaise (one of my favorites)
1/4 cup Heinz ketchup
1/4 cup chili sauce (I prefer Heinz or Del Monte. Do not substitute Thai Chili Sauce)
1 heaping teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon onion powder
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
1/4 cup light olive oil
Juice of one lemon
Mix all ingredients well and store in refrigerator overnight. It needs to sit to let the flavors become “acquainted.” They shouldn’t rush into marriage.