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Whether you live above the Mason-Dixon line or below, answer me this now:

 Just what IS it about Southerners and their cookery?  And why is it that no cookbooks I’ve heard tell of are called Northern Cooking?

Until three months ago I spent my considerable years eating mighty well up North. The farm-to-table trend that has gastronomes salivating into their Brunswick stew makes me grin. When you’re raised like crops on an Illinois farm that’s all you know, folks. We’d have sweet corn and green beans in the pot that were on the stalk or the vine moments before, and the meat we ate came from our own pens or that of a neighbor.

In New England lobster was a rare treat but always fresh, never frozen, and pure maple syrup was liquid gold in our veins. Our church had clam chowdah cookouts on the beach, with bragging rights going to the winner.

I’ve eaten well all my life and have the extra pounds to prove it.

But there is just some special somethin’ about Southern cooking, and I don’t mean the bacon fat. I fancied one or two special restaurants up North, but in a town of fewer than 10,000 souls here in western North Carolina we have five favorites already, and we don’t even eat out all that much.

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There’s the Blackened Catfish, Shrimp & Grits and Southern Fried Chicken Strips at Sweet Onion. The Pimento Grilled Cheese with Apple-Cured Bacon and the Honey Pecan Dusted Sunburst Trout at Firefly’s. And once I got past the name, I found that Fat Buddies is the place to go for finger-lickin’ ribs and the best darn sweet potato fries I ever laid eyes on. 

But no decent Southern cook worth her sea salt admires others’ culinary skills without frying up a few of her own.

So here the other day I pulled out the flour bin, grated up some cheese, pinched in the cayenne and made my own Cheese Straws, a delicacy I discovered when my friend Charlene’s Mississippi mama used to bring a batch to her daughter on Cape Cod.

Last week I adapted the recipe from one I found in Garden and Gun, and figured that’s about as authentically Southern as you can get.There aren’t quite as good as Mother Wright’s, but for a first try they were pretty tasty.

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Cheese Straws

1 stick butter, softened (You want to live here? Stock up on butter)

6 oz extra-sharp grated Cheddar (I used shredded Cheddar from a bag. Do not employ these northern short-cuts. Grate it yourself, girl.)

2 oz. grated Parmesan (finely grated, see above)

1/2 tsp salt

1/4 tsp cayenne pepper (now one of my true GRITS friends would double that cayenne so pick your poison)

1 1/2 cups sifted flour (and I do mean sift that white manna)

Mix all ingredients by hand, knead into dough as smooth as a baby’s bottom. Take out that cookie press you store with the Christmas decor and fill it right up with the mixture. Use a tip that looks like the one below and draw short straws on your cookie sheet (no greasing needed). Be sure to hold the press at an angle to create those nice lines so your straws don’t look like an amateur’s.  Bake at 350 until nice and golden, 15-20 minutes or so. Lift from the pan using a metal spatula, let cool on a wire rack, store in airtight container if you’ve got any left.

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Vivian Howard is one of the best-known chefs in North Carolina. I haven’t tried any of her recipes yet but I’m not the only cook down South with her bestseller on my counter.

Cheese straws are just the thing with your favorite soup on one of those days the wind is rattling the pines.

Next up? I need to learn to fry buttermilk chicken right proper in a cast iron skillet. Got any tips for me?

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