Ciao'd with a vodka and Jack Rudy tonic.
At once invigorating (college football) and calming (bourbon on the rocks), the South captivates. I grew up in the Northeast and my husband heralds from Southern California. East coast. Left coast. Opposite ends of the spectrum.
Our son gathered our wool and said, “I want to look at colleges in the South.” Cut to last week in South Carolina touring schools. Like most kids who are privileged enough to skate on their parents' indulgence, our son has had the opportunity to work with various college coaches – ACT prep, college prep, and tutors. You would think he would be good to go. The pressure on our kids is so intense, though. Good to go isn’t good enough.
When I was a kid in Connecticut, we took the SAT prep class during high school. We signed up for a test day, we went, we received our scores, and that’s all she wrote. We visited schools, we applied to them, we were accepted, denied, or waitlisted. Life went on. Everybody was happy. “Best four years of our lives” we sing as we wade through middle age. Regardless of where my son lands, I am sure he’ll be singing the same tune.
It turns out the South just may offer what our son desires. For those of you new to a progeny’s college exploration, as I am, you will be astounded at what our kids’ brains hoarded in the years they loitered in our houses. Our family life centers on a love for sports, a house filled with friends, food, and laughter, and a belief in working hard to achieve goals and enjoy the result. Because the 'rents are “creative” (writer/designer), we’re big on aesthetics, too. For our son, the family mores translated into this checklist for schools: big-time college football, not only for the game but also for the ribald camaraderie it fuels; a fraternity, for the brotherhood that will enrich the deep friendships he cultivated from nursery school through high school; sports (in this case, lacrosse), for the joy of contributing to a team and the sustained expression of skills honed from second grade “bobblehead” games through the next 10 years of his life. And yeah, a beautiful campus. No block concrete buildings for him. Manicured lawns a plus.
Academics are a given. I’m looking forward to my son exploring his interests and talents on a deeper, more competitive level. But there's a more visceral consideration and it’s a powerful one. Let’s call it the vibe. The vibe riffs off the cultural microcosm of place and people. It plays out like this: walking onto campus and absorbing the energy, or lack thereof. Perusing the students and thinking, “Yes, these are my people (or not).” It’s a similar vibe to the one that’s infused in the town where you feel welcomed when you’re house hunting. It's the moment when you're standing on the kindergarten playground and you lock eyes with the woman who becomes your best friend. It vibrates through the group of people at a dinner party when you don’t know the whole bunch yet you connect with someone. Life is a mirror. It reflects the discrimination and judgment when we encounter a person or an idea that's unfamiliar or uncomfortable. It shines on the “welcome home” frisson when we find our tribe.
The Southern culture complements the place my family inhabits. The weather is warm but heavier. The people are polite and, truth be told, even more so than where I live. Laughter and lightness ripple through the days. The food (and drink) is intoxicating, grounded in history and diverse ethnicity. Yes, grits. Yes, sausage and gravy. Yes, okra. And yes, yes, yes, wonderful, modern interpretations of these dishes by forward-thinking chefs and restaurateurs like Sean Brock and Brooks Reitz. They honor local ingredients and celebrate historic recipes while modernizing them for today’s palates. I defy anyone to visit Charleston and stick to a diet.
The South exemplifies la dolce vita. Each day is a gift. Life is fun. That’s why I will deviate from the Italian recipes I usually offer and instead, share with you this recipe for Tomato Pudding from the Hominy Grill in Charleston. At once simple and complex, the recipe will charm you, just like the South.
And p.s. for those of you who are wondering, Clemson won the college tour. Go Tigers!
HOMINY GRILL TOMATO PUDDING
When you order the vegetable plate in the south, you will not be served bird food. At the Hominy Grill in Charleston, the spring vegetable plate consists of stewed snap peas with ham, cheese grits, and a rich yet sprightly tomato pudding. It's down home and satisfying. As Hominy Grill says, "Beware of tarting up the dish with fresh herbs or fresh tomatoes. It is what is is." I couldn't get enough.
One 28-ounce can whole tomatoes
4 slices brioche or white bread, cut into small cubes
1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted + more for greasing the baking pan
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Brush a medium baking pan with butter.
In a medium bowl, coarsely crush the tomatoes with the back of a spoon. Add the bread and drizzle with the butter. Add the sugar, salt, and pepper. Gently stir to combine.
Bake until bubbly and golden brown, 35 to 40 minutes. Recipe courtesy of Hominy Grill, Charleston.