Beyond Words - Language Blog

Lardcore: Southern Food, but Southern Style?

The holidays are often a time of overindulgence, especially when it comes to food. From Thanksgiving through New Years, Americans tend to stuff their faces with holiday mainstays. But it’s fair to say that a plate topped off North Dakota won’t look like one topped off in Alabama. Southern food has always been distinct, and it continues to claim its distinction. Slowly, a new generation is redefining the Southern food stage.

A cuisine with quite a history finally found a moniker: lardcore. Coined by Josh Ozersky in an article for TIME, "Lardcore: Southern Food with Hard-Core Attitude," the term has ripped across the internet, with leading culture and food blogs like The Huffington Post and NBC's Feast propagating the new word. NBC's blog, Feast, gives, perhaps, the most humorous take on lardcore with it's terse definition:

    Lardcore (noun)

  • Pronunciation: lärd-kôr
  • Definition: A movement in Southern cooking, melding high ideals, virtuoso technique, and hard-core attitude. [Source: Time]
  • Origin: The term was devised by Time writer Josh Ozersky in an October 2010 article to describe a modern movement among young Southern chefs.
  • See also: John Besh, Sean Brock
  • Usage: "Did you hear about that chef who spent two years trekking through fields in South Carolina to find the perfect strain of heirloom corn for his grits? Dude, that's so lardcore."

Beyond the humor of it, however, there lies a real culinary movement in America—the rendering of the traditionally unsavory into haute cuisine. At its core, lardcore is a cuisine infatuated with history, but obsessed with reinterpreting it in surprising ways.

Deemed the founder of the movement, Sean Brock of McCrady's fame in Charleston, South Carolina (another restaurant, Husk, will open in November in Charleston), is an unlikely lauded culinarian, given his age (only 32) and style (definitively Southern), but he was awarded 2010 Best Chef in the Southeast award by the James Beard committee, the Academy Awards of the food world. His success, though, is unsurprising given his passion for Southern ingredients and techniques, as evidenced through the now-defined lardcore movement.

Ozersky characterizes lardcore as featuring unapologetically low-rent proteins like pork jowls and catfish, and treats them the way Paul Bocuse treated foie gras….Their food comes in small but potent portions, and is sourced with an almost Shinto-like regard for natural integrity. So pure of heart are many of these cutting-edge restaurants that they don't even bother with fried chicken; they know that if they don't have time to do it in a cast-iron pan filled with lard, it's not worth doing. So they leave it for the meat-and-three joints that dot the Southland's strip malls.

It also, definitively focuses on cuisine and ingredients long-lost in 20th century Southern cooking: dilly beans, wild catfish, Jimmy Red Corn (the nearly-extinct strand of corn that is also prominently tattooed on Sean Brock's arm). Lardcore concerns itself with preserving—both literally in pickled vegetable and meat form and figuratively in the manner of the Old South—old Southern culture, the culture of the Civil War-era South. In doing so, "The movement bypasses the old high-low distinctions—soul food vs. gourmet food, home cooking vs. restaurant cooking, lard vs. oil and butter. It's the most purely democratic, un-status-conscious cooking to come along in a long time."

This democracy, the democracy of 21st century Southern cuisine is radical—radical enough for mainstays of the South to question the lardcore affiliates. The most vocal detractor, perhaps, is Paula Deen, the matriarch of popular Southern cooking, whose silver hair and copious makeup, in addition to her utter affinity for butter and deep-fried foods has made her the most recognizable face in the South. Declaring that chefs like Frank Stitt, whose Birmingham, Alabama, restaurants first blended Southern and French cuisine, and Sean Brock and others are "uppity" in their cooking, Deen claims that "The more humble a dish is, the more like Granny's, the better it is"—something the lardcore folks definitely work against, if only because our "grannies" had already adopted mega-agriculture's strains of vegetables, factory farming's methods. If anything, lardcore requires a strict adherence to the freshest, most local, most historical elements of cuisine. It is, effectually, an archive of Southern foodways.

In some regards it is the new cool kid on the block, but no one dares to say it is a fad. With such a rich history to work from, lardcore has a milieu of ingredients and techniques to work from, and the attitude, hardcore good food, is distinctly Southern as well. As a region typified by poverty and conflict and tough conditions, lardcore emphasizes not just the odds and ends of "poorer" cuisine—catfish, corn, lard—but also the survival attitude with which it was originally cooked. If the lardcore chefs do not fight to preserve the culture and the cuisine, then it will die away, as, unfortunately, some of it already has. Improvisation is the key, just as it was one hundred, two hundred years ago.