Writer and culinary historian Robert F. Moss knows a thing or two about Southern foodways.
As contributing barbecue editor for Southern Living, a regular dining contributor to Charleston City Paper and the Southern correspondent for Serious Eats, Moss spends most of his days eating and drinking his way through the South.
Moss has written several books on the South’s culinary traditions, including “Barbecue: The History of an American Institution,” “Going Lardcore: Adventures in New Southern Dining” and “The Barbecue Lover’s Carolinas.”
He will be discussing his latest work, “Southern Spirits: Four Hundred Years of Drinking in the American South,”at the AJC Decatur Book Festival on Saturday, September 3. Along with whiskey historian Fred Minnick, Moss will look at the region’s drinking traditions, cocktails and Southern sipping habits from Jamestown to the present day.
“I wrote this book to answer my own questions about Southern cocktails,” Moss said. “We have this thin, mythic view of drinking in the South. It’s all about bourbon, mint juleps and tied into this idyllic view of the old South with moonlight and magnolias. It’s very one-dimensional and full of half-truths.”
Among those half-truths is bourbon. Bourbon wasn’t the predominant spirit in the South until after Prohibition, when a clever marketing ploy and good storytelling elevated this relatively obscure regional spirit to legendary heights and then hijacked a mainly Virginia-based cocktail, the mint julep, in order to bring it “back” to its old Kentucky home.
Up until the Civil War, rum, Madeira, rye whiskey, and homemade brandies and corn liquor were the preferred drinks found on Southern porches.
“Understanding our Southern foodways, which includes our drinking culture, gives us the ability to break apart stereotypes which have come to symbolize the South, but certainly don’t define us,” Moss explained. “It then leaves the door open to discover the truth and fully embrace those roots in our present day culinary practices.”
As he does in his book, Moss will delve into a few of those stereotypes during his talk Saturday, as well as discussing subjects such as medicinal and recreational drinking, why the transition from cognac to rye-based cocktails occurred, and how spirits like rum and Madeira became articles of commerce in the South.
He said he also hopes to explore the South’s feast-loving ancestry and the links between Southern hospitality and drink.
“Many of the first people who colonized the Southern regions of the United States came from parts of England where feasting was part of their culinary heritage. This includes drinking punches and the art of hospitality,” he said.
“We want to explore the notion of myth versus reality in Southern cocktails with people, as well as give a few of those classics new context,” Moss said. “I’m finding there’s a great flourishing variety in the drinks of the present day South. Bartenders and craft distillers are embracing the spirits and techniques that make their particular region special.”
This includes rum made from sugar cane, watermelon brandy, multiple grain whiskies and even Southern amaro.
“We are in the second wave of the cocktail movement in America, and the South is helping to lead the charge.”
“Uniquely Southern Cocktails” with Robert Moss and Fred Minnick, September 3, 1:45 p.m., food and cooking stage.