LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. The following words may make your mouth water: buttermilk biscuits, baby back ribs, friend chicken, sweet potato spoon bread, pork chops, pecan pie. These dishes appear on the table regularly at family dinners, reunions and holidays. But Southern style cooking when done well is an art form. Barbara Smith, better known as B. Smith, helped transform down home cooking into cuisine.
Her restaurants, called B. Smith's, feature a variety of Southern dishes. And now some of her recipes can be found in her new book, "B. Smith Cooks Southern Style." One of her restaurants is located in Washington, D.C.'s Union Station, not far from NPR. We were invited over and B. Smith gave us a tour of the restaurant's historic dining room.
This is beautiful.
Ms. BARBARA SMITH (Chef): Thank you.
HANSEN: I've never been in here.
Ms. SMITH: Let me give you a little history. This is the former president suite when the president's traveled by rail. This is the main dining room. Back there is the president's signing room. We have an official, as you can see, our seal up here and back there. It was a special place where he might do some signing before or be greeted and sign something when he came in.
This was the president's private room. It was a dressing room. It had a, you know, all the facilities back there. And over on the other side was the first lady's dressing room. And I now call this the first lady's room, because I like the entrance out here to the colonnade.
HANSEN: Well, it's your property now, so you can do what you want. Well, let's go sit and talk about the food.
Ms. SMITH: Ok.
(Soundbite of footsteps)
HANSEN: Tell us a little bit about your new cookbook. It's called "B. Smith Cooks Southern Style." I know Southern food is the specialty of the restaurant, but you're not from the South.
Ms. SMITH: I'm not from the south and I always tell people, though, I'm from southwestern Pennsylvania. But if you're of African-American descent, somewhere along the line in your heritage you have family that's lived in the South. So a lot of my family lived in North Carolina. So when we were young my dad would drive us only as far as the family in North Carolina south, but the foods that my mother cooked in western Pennsylvania were Southern foods.
HANSEN: Do you remember a picture in your mind of like your first time in a kitchen and having something to do with food that wasn't just eating it?
Ms. SMITH: Yes, canning. We had a garden and we canned tomatoes and beans and all kinds of things. And then much later we froze them, because early on when I was very young - so I'm telling my age - there weren't the big freezers that we eventually had. But what I really loved at home was homemade root beer.
Ms. SMITH: Yes. And we had the amber bottles, the capper. I mean, so food and beverage has always been a part of my life.
HANSEN: And always came, it seems, from someplace not too far from where you were living.
Ms. SMITH: Exactly.
HANSEN: And comfort food.
Ms. SMITH: Right.
HANSEN: Which has this connotation of having as much cheese, butter, fat, even with the stuff that's good for you - the collards. I mean, some people still make them with a ham hock and…
Ms. SMITH: And I have a recipe in here with a ham hock. But I tell people how to de-fat the ham hock.
HANSEN: Oh, tell us how to do that.
Ms. SMITH: And what you do is, you know, you boil the ham hocks like you normally would with whatever spices you wanted to put in them. And after you boil them and they're falling off the bone, you let them cool down to room temperature. And then I put them back in the refrigerator overnight. And what happens is the fat rises to the top. So then I can skim it off and then proceed with the recipe.
HANSEN: That's a great way to make that healthy.
Ms. SMITH: And I don't feel guilty.
HANSEN: Yeah. Yeah.
Ms. SMITH: It's healthy.
HANSEN: But you admit that you like to cook with one special ingredient - fat.
Ms. SMITH: Well, I love fat. I mean, I love it. And I say it, that I love it, in the book, because it adds such great flavor. But in moderation these days, because I really think that all of us should be conscious of that fat intake because it's just not, you know, not the healthiest thing.
I even have now olive oil. And I am introducing olive oil to the folks in my restaurant. Eventually, and particularly like in a city like D.C. that's a Southern city, most people are used to butter. But I'm offering the alternative and just try it with the bread and see if you like it.
HANSEN: We find the people responsible for implementing those healthier changes in the kitchen.
(Soundbite of chopping)
HANSEN: But not everything can be perfectly healthy.
What are you making?
Unidentified Woman: (Unintelligible)
Unidentified Woman: I'm making roux.
HANSEN: That's butter, flour, a little stock or did…
Unidentified Woman: Just butter and flour.
HANSEN: Just butter and flour. Getting that ready?
Unidentified Woman: (Unintelligible)
HANSEN: For (unintelligible). Man, roux is like the cornerstone of everything.
I'm a northerner. I come from New England. I come from the land of, you know, clam bakes and New England boiled dinners. Do you think I could learn how to cook Southern style?
Ms. SMITH: Absolutely. This is a Frogmore stew on the cover.
HANSEN: Ok. So there's shrimp, corn…
Ms. SMITH: Corn - shrimp, corn on the cob. It's got some sausage in it. And, again, you can get lighter sausage. But it's got - it's very flavorful and it's fresh. And so you could do your twist on it and you might want to add a little lobster. You might want to add, you know, but give it its New England flair.
But that's what I like about recipe books. Mine is a map, and then you take that map and you go where you want to go with it. Books, cookbooks in particular, are very challenging. But they give back a lot.
HANSEN: They sure do. Do you read them?
Ms. SMITH: I do.
HANSEN: I do, too.
Ms. SMITH: Love to read them.
HANSEN: I think they're great nighttime reading.
Ms. SMITH: I do, too. I mean, I just - I mean, magazines that are food magazines I love to read, too.
HANSEN: Let me ask you about food magazines. Gourmet, November issue, last one.
Ms. SMITH: Right.
HANSEN: What do you think about that? I mean, that's something that's been around since 1941.
Ms. SMITH: You know, I'm saddened that the magazine is being discontinued, but there are a lot of food magazines that give recipes in a more modern way for the way the person cooks today.
HANSEN: Right. Right. We don't have all day to make a dish.
Ms. SMITH: We don't. We don't.
I mean, this is a hearty book, but yet in the promo of the book I talk about, you know, the alternatives for many different recipes from, you know, appetizers to desserts that are healthier.
But I still have very soulful dishes and, you know, heartwarming soups that are very important in the stews. But I have a rabbit stew. Rabbit is coming back again. Of course, my husband is like not wanting to eat the little critter. But I also have…
HANSEN: You have a roast turkey. I mean, you've got Thanksgiving coming. Cornbread oyster dressing.
Ms. SMITH: Yes.
HANSEN: How do you make that?
Ms. SMITH: You know what? You make it almost like you make a regular dressing, but you're just adding oysters chopped up and you could add some of that nice - the juice…
HANSEN: It's a juice - jus.
Ms. SMITH: Jus. And I, you know, I like dressing up cornbread. And for the holidays you just have a little something extra, like the Turducken. Did you see that?
HANSEN: Oh, no. Yes. With the turkey stuffed with a duck which has been stuffed with a chicken.
Ms. SMITH: Right. With three different dressings in between. So I took liberties on mine. Mine is a roulade. And I do it in steps. So it's a real - it has its own chapter.
(Soundbite of laughter)
HANSEN: So it's a herculean effort, but you've broken it down into steps.
Ms. SMITH: Right. And it might be something one wants to do with a sister, a pal, where maybe they do all the dressings and you do, you know, you make sure you have the turkey and the duck and the chicken.
HANSEN: Oh my goodness.
Ms. SMITH: And I think that would be fun. If you have people staying over and people who love - someone who loves to cook, then you can - you have it right in front of you and you can tell people what to do -exactly what to do.
HANSEN: Yeah. Barbara Smith is the author of the new cookbook "B. Smith Cooks Southern Style."
Thanks so much.
Ms. SMITH: Oh, my pleasure.
HANSEN: Hungry for more? You'll find Barbara Smith's recipes for Southern-Style Collard Greens and Braise of Black-Eyed Peas and Greens Soup on our Web site, Npr.org. Yum.
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