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Nathalie Dupree Reveals Real Southern Cuisine

The cookbook author melds traditions with innovation to define fare below the Mason-Dixon line

NATHALIE DUPREE'S sparkling kitchen with white cabinets and a large square island looks like it could belong in any attractive home. Until you open a drawer or cabinet, that is. Then you realize this kitchen doesn't belong to your average cook.

One drawer holds about 25 measuring cups. A peek inside the packed refrigerator reveals eight packages of cream cheese and even more packages of butter. Cans of just about every popular bean and legume imaginable are stacked on the shelf of a closet, and containers of flour, sugar, and other staples line a wall cabinet.

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For Ms. Dupree, a well-known Southern cooking authority who has written five cookbooks and is the only woman since Julia Child to have taped more than 100 cooking shows for public television, a well-stocked kitchen is essential. It is in this airy space in her Atlanta home where she and a team of helpers spend days testing, re-testing, and refining recipes.

During an informal dinner one evening, Dupree talked about trends in Southern cuisine. One of her goals has been to dispel many people's myths that Southern food is greasy and consists of little more than a heavy dose of turnip greens, grits, and fried chicken.

Southern cuisine is misrepresented, she says, while wrapping slivers of prosciutto around cantaloupe slices. "I'm tired of the South's food being written about by people who don't live here anymore. I see it a lot," she says, adding that many people either define the region's food as redneck, soul, or from the antebellum period.

Several of Dupree's cookbooks, including her most popular book, "New Southern Cooking" (Alfred A. Knopf, 1986), aim to set the record straight.

Today's Southern cuisine, she says, blends tradition with innovation. That means that legendary favorites such as poke sallet, a "mess" of pokeweed greens, and Hopping John, a dish that uses black-eyed peas, are found alongside newer creations such as turkey breasts with pecan butter and grapes, or grits with yogurt and herbs.

"I want to show a melding of food," she says, explaining that Southern cooking is basically home cooking that uses the region's abundant produce and products, such as okra, eggplant, squash, peas, peaches, seafood, pecans, and peanuts. "I don't use anything that's not readily available," she says.

Dupree has a gentle accent and wide warm smile and exudes the kind of gracious hospitality that is known throughout the South. Her entrance into the world of cooking was something of a fluke. While in London during the late 1960s she met a woman who was enrolled in a class at the Cordon Bleu. "I thought, well that's interesting," she says, and signed up. Her first assignment was to make puff pastry wrapped around lambchops. "I made a terrible mess, and it made me furious. I had never been able to not do things," she says, laughing. "I went back and signed up for cooking classes."

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Her career since then included a stint as chef at a restaurant in Spain, chef at her own restaurant in Social Circle, Ga. and founder of Rich's Cooking School in Atlanta.

"When she started she made people realize that there was an honest-to-God Southern kind of cooking, and I think everybody always suspected that, but to have it documented like she did was great," says Paul Prudhomme, famous chef of K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen in New Orleans. "She presents it extraordinarily well and with a lot of feeling because she has lots of emotion in it. Across the South people think she's wonderful."

Dupree says another misconception about Southern cuisine is that it is meat-based. "People don't understand we didn't eat a lot of meat," except during Martha Washington's time, Dupree says. For many years, especially during hard economic times, "the meat you got was a condiment ... you would have pork fat in vegetables, but it might be the only meat you'd have all day." It's not uncommon to have four or five vegetables during one meal, she says.

When asked if Southern food is getting lighter, Dupree replies that many cooks are trying to do more sensible things, such as cooking turnip greens with chicken stock or a bouillon cube instead of animal fat, for example. But, she adds, "I don't believe in all those rules" about cholesterol and health foods. "I eat balanced meals; I'm not afraid of my food." She therefore doesn't shy away from using butter, cream, cheese, and eggs in some of the mouth-watering recipes in her cookbooks.

Dupree sees more restaurants in the Atlanta area trying to "work a little something Southern in their cuisine," she says. "They see that I've been successful and think they should do something. I think that's good."

Food and how it is linked with moods and memories has always been important to this chef. Southern food, she says, exudes warmth, comfort, and security, qualities the South struggled to hold on to during the difficult years of the Civil War and later, the Great Depression.

On a coffee table in her livingroom is a galley proof of her next cookbook, "Southern Memories," due out in September. A glance through the pages shows beautiful photographs of food, text about Southern lifestyles and luscious-looking recipes. Chapter titles such as "Ladies Luncheon" and "Comfort Foods" evoke images of the South. "I think it will be my favorite book," Dupree says.

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