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Nathalie Dupree: Stirring the Pot in Charleston and Beyond

Gwen Fowler Gwen Fowler
Discover writers share all of the places, activities and adventure that South Carolina has to offer. Read more from some of South Carolina’s locals and discover what’s happening in the Palmetto State.
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From making biscuits to the perfect pie crust, from frying chicken to cooking greens, cookbook author and teacher Nathalie Dupree knows just about everything there is to know about Southern cooking.

She has, after all, written the books on Southern cooking, including the acclaimed "Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking," co-written with Cynthia Graubart and winner of the 2013 James Beard Foundation American Cooking award.

Dupree has become a fixture in the Charleston food scene in the 12 years she's lived there, but she's been involved for years with Southern food movements - from running the cooking school at Rich's Department Store in Atlanta for years, hosting 300 cooking shows, beginning an organic farm in Georgia, and working to begin the Southern Foodways Alliance and the Charleston Wine and Food Festival.

She and her husband, author and professor Jack Bass, moved to Charleston in 2002 and settled in a comfortable home downtown, filled with mementoes from their lives. When they arrived, the Charleston food scene was not what it is today.

"It's just evolved so much since I first came here," she said. "I knew when we moved here, we were on the cusp. When we were starting the Wine and Food Festival, we knew it could change Charleston and make it a culinary hub."

Charleston becomes a food destination

The city's rise in the food world was spurred by Johnson and Wales University being in the city, with the school furnishing "a pack of free labor" to the restaurants. Mayor Joseph Riley's leadership in revitalizing downtown, including the opening of Charleston Place, also played an important role, she said.

So did Hurricane Hugo, which heavily damaged an area along East Bay Street. That resulted in developers and restaurateurs buying and restoring those buildings and starting a "restaurant row." What Dupree calls the "pork chop theory" worked for these restaurants. If you cook one pork chop in a pan by itself, it goes dry. But put two or more pork chops in that pan, those pork chops are better because they share the fat. One restaurant on the street might struggle, but having several means they all help each other: "The more you get, the more you get," she said.

And then the Wine and Food Festival came along in 2006, and that was just the right time, she said.

As one of the founders, her idea had been to have cookbook authors at the center of the festival as a way to draw media attention.

"By that time, chefs were king, and so they wanted to bring in chefs," she said.

Still, cookbook authors are always part of the festival.

Dupree didn't attend as many events as usual during the 2014 festival because she was recovering from serving breakfast for 60 people at her house

"It was not my idea," she said. "It was John T.'s idea."

The fellow she's referring to is John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance. The group she helped found named two $10,000 fellowships for Dupree, and so she served an early feast of overnight biscuit casseroles, asparagus, salmon "because of the eat-no-meaters," homemade yeast bread coffee cakes, and shrimp and grits.

"What John T. said was I had my finger in every cooking pot throughout the South when anything was started," she said. "That's what my role has been - as a catalyst. I'm not as good at maintaining. I move on to the next thing."

Building a career

Still, everything she's done has revolved around Southern cooking. When she and her first husband moved to London, England, she attended the Cordon Bleu cooking school. Because Dupree was the only American in her class, she was introduced to Julia Child when the famous chef was touring the school, Dupree wrote in "Mastering the Art."

She later ran into Child again and asked her advice on what to do next. "Teach cooking. Open a cooking school. We need cooking schools in America."

So after a short stint as a chef in Majorca, Spain, and then at her own restaurant in Social Circle, Ga.

Rich's Department Store asked her to start a cooking school in its Atlanta store, and over 10 years, she taught more than 10,000 students.

She has hosted more than 300 cooking shows, which have been shown on PBS, the Food Network and the Learning Channel.

She's also written 13 cookbooks. In addition to "Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking," two of her other cookbooks have won James Beard awards. She won the Americana award in 1994 for "Nathalie Dupree's Southern Memories" and the Entertaining award in 1999 for "Nathalie Dupree's Comfortable Entertaining."

When she attended the James Beard gala in New York to accept her national award in 2013, she said, "It was great fun telling them that Southern food was the new Italian food. That's been nice."

Filled with about 750 Southern recipes, it also includes detailed instructions for some techniques, such as making a pie crust or baking biscuits. And because it weighs about 10 pounds, Dupree jokes that it is a dual-purpose book. "You can lie in bed in the morning and use it to do your arm exercises."

Southern food history

Southern cooking is the only American cuisine that is intact, she said, but all Southern foods aren't the same.

"People think of the South as a monolith," she said, but various regions have developed different cuisines. For example, Louisiana's food was influenced by the French Acadians, and Nashville's food has been influenced by the music industry.

She's also interested in the African contributions to Southern cooking, the foods of the Great Depression and how air conditioning changed the way Southerners ate.

"You are not going to make a peach pie in August or July, are you? I mean, how early in the morning would you have to get up if you were fixing a meal for a big family that was about to go out to the fields or to go out to work in the cooler part of the morning and then go home and have dinner. You couldn't get it made before you fed them breakfast because you had to light up the kitchen, get the biscuits made, get the breakfast made, and by then your kitchen would be too hot.

"I think the lack of air conditioning really changed some of the emphasis here. That's why cake baking became more of a fall and winter thing. You did see cakes put on tables at barbecues where women would bring them. But that really started with stack cakes, with every woman bringing a layer of biscuits and everybody putting it together and they made a big cake of it."

Her current projects include writing her memoir and writing a cookbook that will be an expanded version of the vegetable chapter of "Mastering the Art."

Bass stays busy with writing also, and the two often edit each other's work.

"I just enjoy what I do, and Jack does, too," she said. "We both think we're lazy slugs sometime, but we get a lot done."

Gwen Fowler
Discover writers share all of the places, activities and adventure that South Carolina has to offer. Read more from some of South Carolina’s locals and discover what’s happening in the Palmetto State.