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Charting Immigrant Influence on Flavors of South

Plenty of people talk about writing a book, but when the idea struck Paul and Angela Knipple, they acted on it immediately.

The couple, known to many in the food community as staunch supporters of local restaurants and area farmers, were inspired by a passionate restaurateur.

"It was about four or five years ago, and we were at Las Tortugas, listening to Pepe's 'have you eaten with us before?' speech," Paul said.

He's referring to the speech that Pepe Magallanes, founder of Las Tortugas Deli Mexicana in Germantown, gives to newcomers explaining how fresh and authentic the food is at the restaurant.

No cheese dip!

"I looked at Angela and said, 'We should write a book about this,'" he said. "We thought there had to be other people out there like him, that passionate."

And they wanted to explore the new cuisine of the South, one heavily influenced by immigrants -- and the stories of the people.

"We knew it wouldn't be hard to find them, and it wasn't," Angela said. "In fact, we came up with about 800 of them."

So figuring out the 40 or so to include in their book, "The World in a Skillet: A Food Lover's Tour of the New American South" (University of North Carolina Press; $35), available beginning Thursday, was the challenge.

An easy way to narrow down the vast list was a timeline.

"We knew we'd have to go with first-generation immigrants, people who came over in the Vietnam War or later," Angela said.

Even that left a large group that needed to be culled, but the Knipples were excited about the book.

They talked to friends when they went to the Southern Foodways Alliance symposium in Oxford, Miss.

"First we talked to (SFA director) John T. Edge and asked what he thought," Paul said. "He liked it, and that gave us a lot of confidence to go with it."

Edge ended up writing the foreword to the book.

"I get asked to do this often, and I was glad to do it for them," Edge said. "I love the inclusiveness and their perspective of the South."

As the book tells the stories of the immigrant cooks and restaurant owners, it embraces SFA's tradition of oral and written histories. Further, Edge said, it's a clear snapshot of the changing South.

"A lot of people talk about the South in a way that is exclusionary: 'This culture is ours. This food is ours.' But to my mind, the South is truly a diverse region," he said.

"What Paul and Angela have done is document that evolution of the South."

Cookbook author and friend from SFA Martha Foose was also a big help, and she says she was only returning the favor.

When she was touring for her first book, the James Beard award-winner "Screen Doors and Sweet Tea" (Clarkson Potter, $32.50), she'd find herself among strangers in a little town, and the Knipples, researching their book, would show up.

"They have been so supportive of me, and I am so happy that their book is so great," Foose said.

She even showed them a copy of her book proposal so they'd have an idea of how to pitch their own.

Buoyed by Edge, Foose and friends within SFA, the Knipples plugged away at the book. They were both working full time in the computer industry, and took most of their trips over long weekends, burning vacation days here and there.

But there was one 10-day trip that wound through Kentucky, Virginia and even the Carolinas.

They visited all the Southern states except Florida and Texas, omitted because they're huge not only in size but also in culinary diversity; they're possible stand-alone projects for the future.

They'd done about half the work before they found a publisher.

They were at the SFA symposium when Fred Thompson (the cookbook author/food writer, not the actor/politician) introduced them to an editor at the University of North Carolina Press.

"He just grabbed me by the arms and said, 'Come here. This is Elaine Maisner from University of North Carolina Press. You two talk,' and he walked away," Paul said.

She liked the idea, the deal was inked, and the Knipples continued until the book was finished last year.

They'll sign copies of their book Tuesday at The Booksellers at Laurelwood, but officially begin their tour today in Metairie, La. New Orleans is heavily represented in the book, second only to Atlanta.

Four local restaurants -- Las Tortugas, Alcenia's, Abyssinia and Acre -- and several Memphis cooks made the cut.

B.J. Chester-Tamayo, the African-American owner of Alcenia's and a native of Meridian, Miss., isn't a first-generation immigrant. But Southern food is too heavily derived from African roots for soul food to be omitted; Paul calls it the evolution of "slave food to soul food."

In the end, the common thread is this: It's all a Southern thang.

"We went into it thinking, 'Man, look at all the diversity there is in the South," Paul said. "But by the time we finished talking to everyone, we're like, 'Man, look at all these Southerners.'"  

Father Vien's Mea Culpa Chicken

Chicken:

1 head garlic, separated into peeled cloves

4 tsp. salt

2 tbsp. vodka

1 whole fryer chicken, halved

Dipping sauce:

1 large bulb ginger (about 8 oz.)

4 shallots

4 tsp. salt

2 cups peanut or soy oil

Using a mortar and pestle or food processor, mash all of the cloves from the head of garlic into a paste with the salt. Once the paste is formed, thin it with the vodka.

Wash the chicken and pat it dry. Rub the garlic paste into the chicken on both sides. Allow the chicken to rest while you prepare the steamer.

Set up a rack in a wok and add water. The water must not touch the chicken. Bring the water to a boil over high heat.

Place the chicken on the rack, skin side up. Cover the chicken with a domed lid so that the lid holds in the steam without touching the chicken. Allow the chicken to steam for 20 minutes.

Turn off the heat and allow the chicken to rest, covered, for 5 minutes.

To prepare the dipping sauce, peel the ginger and pulse in a food processor until the ginger is in tiny chunks.

Slice the shallots as thin as possible. Place the shallots in a large heatproof bowl and coat with salt.

Heat the oil to the point of smoking in a deep skillet.

Carefully add the ginger and stir while cooking for 2 minutes or until the ginger is a dark gold.

Remove the oil from the heat and immediately pour the oil and ginger over the salted shallots. Be careful when adding the hot oil because the oil may splatter. Stir to combine.

Allow the sauce to rest for 5 minutes before serving. Serves 4.

Source: "The World In A Skillet: A Food Lover's Tour of the New American South," Paul and Angela Knipple

President Obama's Casserole

2 tbsp. olive oil

4 medium red potatoes, diced (about 1 lb.)

1/4 tsp. salt

3 ripe plantains, diced

1 large yellow onion, diced (about 1 cup)

1 red bell pepper, diced (about 1 cup)

1 lb. smoked sausage, preferably turkey, diced

6 large eggs

1 tsp. fresh Italian parsley

1 tsp. fresh thyme

1 (1/4 -inch) piece fresh ginger, peeled and grated (about 1/2 tsp.)

1/4 tsp. ground cloves

1 cup sharp cheddar cheese, shredded (about 4 oz.)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat.

Add the potatoes and salt and cook, stirring constantly, for 10 minutes. Add the plantains to the potatoes and continue cooking until the potatoes are soft, about 10 minutes more. Add the onion and pepper and continue cooking until the onion is just translucent, about 7 minutes more.

Stir in the smoked sausage and remove the skillet from the heat.

In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs lightly. Add the parsley, thyme, ginger and cloves, stirring to combine. Add the potato and sausage mixture, stirring until thoroughly blended.

Pour the mixture into a casserole dish and top with the cheddar cheese.

Bake in the oven for 30 minutes or until the eggs have set and are firm. Serves 6 to 8.

Note: Either salmon or cubed chicken would be a great replacement for the smoked sausage in this recipe. Allow the meat to cook in the skillet for 5 minutes before adding it and the vegetables to the egg mixture. You could also crumble in cooked bacon as either a replacement meat or an addition.

Source: "The World In A Skillet: A Food Lover's Tour of the New American South," Paul and Angela Knipple

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