When deciding which ingredients to pick for each chapter of my first cookbook, The New Southern Table: Classic Ingredients Revisited, I knew I’d choose unmistakably (but not exclusively) Southern ingredients whose names immediately bring classic Southern cooking to mind. Okra and collard greens were shoo-ins, and so were sweet potatoes. But despite a passion for classic Southern cooking, I was also inspired by how those Southern ingredients were cooked all over the world.
As a boy growing up in Alabama, I intimately experienced the sweet potato’s connection to the diverse history of the South, without fully appreciating it at the time. At Sunday dinners at my grandparents house in Birmingham, skilled African-American cooks showed me how to make hot water cornbread and served us platters of buttermilk fried chicken, steamy white rice with gravy, fresh-shucked corn on the cob, vinegary stewed collards, sweet potato casserole, field peas, fried okra, sweet rolls, and coffee.
These deeply traditional Southern dishes were not only made with ingredients that were local but also had worldly histories of their own to explore. Those meals were a blend of soul and country, a legacy of travel, slavery, and settlement, and they imbued me with a feel for the fundamental roots of Southern cooking.
Over time, the more I cooked and learned about food and lived in different cities, I saw that ingredients like our beloved sweet potato had an inspiring parallel history of culinary use in Caribbean, South American, Mediterranean, and Asian cuisines, among others, which could be fun to draw on in everyday Southern cooking at home. Traveling, I saw sweet potatoes folded into dumplings in Jamaica, cut into rounds and fried tempura style in Tokyo, roasted when small and served alongside boiled quail eggs in Ho Chi Minh City, and saw sweet potato leaves rolled up in succulent shrimp spring rolls on the Mekong Delta.
With that combination of influences in mind, this Sweet Potato, Sorghum, and Rum Flan is a nod to both the history of the South, an exploration of the Spanish influence on Southern cooking, and an inclusion of two ingredients – rum, and sorghum — along with the sweet potatoes that were closely tied to the history of planting and economic development in the Caribbean and the South in Colonial years. Charleston’s first planters came from Barbados, and this dessert might have graced one of their tables, conceived of in the kitchen, no doubt, by the culinary artistry of African-American cooks.
To get this recipe and more, look for The New Southern Table at your local bookstore or buy it here.