by Tejal Rao
When Scott Peacock took the chef position at the Georgia’s Governor Mansion, he wasn’t cooking the regional classics he puts out today at Watershed. In the Greek Revival home, behind the redwood Doric columns of Paces Ferry Road, Peacock stuck to a classic French repertoire. It wasn’t just that nobody wanted Southern food (and nobody wanted Southern food) – Peacock had grown up watching Julia Child on TV and fallen for her cooking. Born and raised in Alabama, Peacock took his first industry job as pastry chef at The Golden Pheasant in Tallahassee, Florida, where he sailed an ocean of mother sauces on a swan-shaped boat of puff pastry. From there, Peacock moved to Atlanta to cook for the governor. » more
*Pimento Cheese * Shrimp and Grits * Roasted Pork Sandwich * Salmon Croquette
When his grandmother died, Peacock went back to Alabama for the funeral to spend time with relatives and friends – all of whom brought homemade pies and roasts to the family home. A bite of lemon chess pie and Peacock felt something – the dessert held its own next to mousse au chocolate et citron, basically.
Close to the end of his four year stay at the Governor Mansion, where he was still cooking Franco-centric dishes, a national magazine called. They wanted to feature one of his mansion dinners. Peacock visited Edna Lewis in New York for advice. Lewis had built a serious reputation at Café Nicholson, drawing Southerners like Truman Capote, William Falkner, and Tennessee Williams to East 57th Street back in the 50s. Lewis knew what they were looking for. She had left Virginia for New York at 17 and spent a lifetime recreating the food of her childhood, finally retiring from Brooklyn relic Gage and Tollner when she was 76.
Peacock met Lewis in the late 80s at a Southern food festival where she was cooking and they bonded. She could remember when pigs were let loose after the peanut harvest; when pigs tasted like pigs. And they called her The Grande Dame of Southern Cuisine, The Doyenne of the South, The Soul of Soul Food.
What should he cook for the article? Peacock asked.
Southern, Lewis answered, something Southern.
He was skeptical. But before the dinner, Peacock had an epiphany in the shape of Alice Waters, a chef who’d practiced and studied French cooking and then gone on to define Northern Californian cuisine. Why not show okra and corn, which he’d grown up picking and eating the same day, the same respect?
Pimento cheese. What it lacks in nutritional value, it makes up for in its exquisite color: a danger-cone orange that’s slick and silky as an exotic bird’s mating plumage. Peacock explains that while white cheddar is better for the job – sharper – pimento cheese isn’t pimento cheese unless it plugs into the simple equation: cheese + mayonnaise + pimento = 1970s Americana orange. So he uses a palette of hand-grated orange and white cheddar to mix the right shade, uses homemade mayo rather bought, and replaces the jarred pimentos with sweet, roasted red peppers. He makes a batch several times a week so that, just like in a Southern home, the restaurant’s p-cheese can stand in for several parts: lunchtime snack, cheese toast at Sunday brunch, and as an appetizer with celery. As Peacock instructs, when building the celery sticks at the table, the cheese should fill the celery groove, piled well over its last rib. The celery is just transportation – cold, functional texture.
Peacock’s Shrimp and Grits are 1 part shrimp paste to 2 parts grits. Shrimp paste is misleading (it sounds gross) and accurate (it’s a pound of shrimp turned into a buttery paste). Unlike French crustacean pastes and oils, with their hyper-concentrated fishiness and reduced brown flavors, Peacock’s paste is sharp and fresh. The shrimp are sautéed until they start to blush, then pureed with reduced sherry vinegar and lemon juice. Shrimp melts into stone-ground grits like a Waffle House on the I-285.
Peacock co-founded The Society for the Revival and Preservation of Southern Cooking with Lewis, and with a few partners, opened Watershed in Decatur, Georgia in 1999. Here, he has fried chicken Tuesdays and biscuit-fueled Sunday brunches, drawing people looking to taste their p-cheese childhoods again. And there are no architectural anachronisms; in fact, there’s no confusion of any kind at Watershed. The converted petrol station, with its exposed ductwork and intact garage doors, is barely decorated with blue glass vases and flowers. While Atlanta makes its mark for Modern American cuisine, Peacock makes Southern food Southern, without a fuss. After berating me for my stingy application of pimento cheese to celery, Peacock excused himself – he was off to make biscuits with Atlanta news anchor Monica Kaufman on TV. He’s putting biscuits on the news.
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