The art, soul, and science of quintessential Southern cooking.
James Villas is the author of 15 cookbooks and the recipient of two James Beard awards for journalism and cookbook writing. So you could say he’s a well-seasoned veteran. Raised and reared in Charlotte, North Carolina, James speaks with the authority of more than 40 years in the industry and an accent dredged in Southern sophistication. The cookbook we’ve always wanted and never realized we didn’t have already, Southern Fried bubbles with colorful histories, masterful
techniques, and more than 200 gloriously fried dishes.
Why write a completely fried cookbook, and why write it now?
Because it’s never been done before, which is a disgrace. My Lord, the food that we love the most, that we’ve been raised on—fried food—there wasn’t a cookbook about it. This is quintessential Southern food. There’s nothing we love better than fried shrimp or fried catfish, fried pickles or grits—you name it. So I said why don’t I just write a cookbook about it.
In what ways do fried foods speak to the greater Southern food culture?
It goes back 300 years. I assume that originally frying gained popularity because it was cheap and easy. We didn’t have ovens to bake in, but we could easily cook just about anything in an iron skillet with some oil over an open fire. In a way it symbolizes our survival…the South’s survival. And it is certainly the very foundation of black soul food. We can’t imagine soul food without the frying technique.
What are some of the nuances of fried foods that are often missed?
There are a lot of greasy buckets of chicken, especially on the commercial market, and even in homes where food isn’t fried correctly. There is nothing Southerners in general, people like me who were taught by their mother how to fry food, hate worse than heavy, greasy, soggy fried food. We inherently know the art of frying that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the country. Nobody else seems to really understand what fried food is all about.
How do Southern fried foods compare to fried foods found elsewhere in the country?
There’s just no comparison. Most good Southern cooks understand the art of frying. In the North, they’ll charge you extra for your food to be fried, whereas down South, if you go to the coast of the Carolinas or Georgia and order broiled fish, they’ll charge you extra for that. Because the predominant method is frying, we have a knack for it.
Even within the South, do fried foods vary regionally?
I was exposed to it mostly on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. There, frying does seem to be most beloved when you get to foods like hush puppies and flounder and that sort of thing. But don’t kid yourself; back in the mountains in the Appalachians and in Kentucky and Texas, they’ve got their own specialties that they’re as proud of as anything else. But you will find fried green tomatoes and skillet cornbread in every state of the South.
What’s your favorite frying method?
I love shallow frying because it’s easier and less messy. Crab cakes are a good example of a fried dish that is not necessarily submerged in fat. I like them fried with just a little bit of oil and butter.
According to your book, fried food is healthy. Or at least not as villainous as it’s made out to be. How so?
The big secret that I grew up with and that the professionals know is that food fried in fat that is 365 ̊ will absorb none of that fat. None. And that’s a scientific fact. You have to know not to put chicken into a skillet with lukewarm fat. If you do that, it will absorb all the fat. You also can’t over batter. The more batter there is, the more fat will be absorbed.
What’s one piece of frying equipment everyone should own?
A cast-iron skillet. No, I take that back. Three cast-iron skillets. At home, I have 10 in different sizes that I use depending on what I want to cook. But cast iron is indispensable. Some of their sides are caked and grimy from years and years of cooking, but the bottoms of those things are as smooth as a baby’s butt. Good cast iron lasts a lifetime.
After a lifetime of eating fried food, do you have a favorite?
Hush puppies. I’ve spent my whole life trying to find and cook the perfect hush puppy. And I do love fried flounder with a pecan crust. It doesn’t get any better. And of course I couldn’t live without cornbread.
Photos reprinted with permission from Southern Fried by James Villas.