Here's the thing about Southern food: For most of our history, it was the best food in the country, prepared in the warmest and most fertile region, where biscuits and bacon practically spring out of the earth. (The vegetables are pretty good too.) But the higher quality the ingredients, the less you have to do with them, and so Southern culinary life was, until relatively recently, a long tryptophan trance of country ham, collards simmered endlessly in pork fat, creamy pan gravies and other agents of stultifying bliss. Food that good needs little in the way of adornment, and such efforts over the years generally flopped.
But a slew of young chefs are taking modern Southern cooking to a new place, forming a movement in the crucible of high ideals, virtuoso technique and hard-core attitude. Call it lardcore. It's meticulous, it's ballsy and it doesn't care what you think of it. In that, it's very Southern.
Typically, lardcore features unapologetically low-rent proteins like pork jowls and catfish, and treats them the way Paul Bocuse treated foie gras. John Besh, of August restaurant in New Orleans, does with mudbugs, a.k.a. lowly crawfish, what Eric Ripert does with uni (sea urchin) or Dover sole; Linton Hopkins, at Restaurant Eugene in Atlanta, serves an even more amazing cured-flounder tartare. (Who ever heard of flounder tartare?) 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.
The movement's unacknowledged leader, if such a mettlesome mood can be said to have one, is surely Sean Brock, the brilliant young chef of McCrady's Restaurant in Charleston, S.C. It makes sense: Charleston was the most defiant and daring center of the Old South, the place where the Civil War began. If Southern food is going to reinvent itself for the 21st century, and it is, it should be reinvented there. Brock is almost manically devoted to rescuing old Southern flavors forgotten vegetable strains, heritage animal breeds and a canon of preserves that he worships reverently as "the Southern pantry," which includes things like dilly beans and bread-and-butter zucchini pickles. "I've dedicated my life to rebuilding and preserving this food," he says. "Every kernel of corn matters. Getting wild catfish rather than farmed matters. Hell, my preserves are more important to me than anything I'm cooking right now."
Named the 2010 Best Chef Southeast by the James Beard Foundation, Brock uses cooking techniques as exacting and postmodern as any molecular gastronomist's. His signature shrimp and grits, to take one example, starts with Jimmy Red corn, a nearly extinct strain that he actually has tattooed on his arm. Brock's staff husks and shells the corn, kernel by kernel. Because he prefers the taste of cold-milled grits, he flash-freezes them with liquid nitrogen. Then he seals them inside vacuum bags, he explains, "so I don't lose all those volatile flavor compounds to the air." He dehydrates and pulverizes shrimp, and adds them to the corn, so that the latter is the star, and, by the end, has totally revamped the dish he's paying tribute to. Lardcore, at its best, is not trying to consciously class up the classics, but to reinvent them, quite literally, from the ground up. 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.
Still, it isn't being greeted with open arms everywhere. Even Alabama chef Frank Stitt, the godfather of the movement and the man who first blended French technique with Southern flavors, got himself a tongue-lashing from Paula Deen on account of his "uppity" ways. (Deen, like so many Southern cooks, hews to that old-time religion: "The more humble a dish is, the more like Granny's, the better it is," she says.) I'm sorry, Paula, but that's a battle that is going to be lost. A chef like Sean Brock is an explosion, an evangelist for the lost glories of the South; his mere existence instantly invalidates what used to pass for fine dining in the South usually frozen steaks piled high with crabmeat or some such thing. That won't pass muster anymore. Lardcore is like locavorism on steroids; its mecca, Tennessee's Blackberry Farm, is a paradise of pork fat, wild persimmons and marigolds, where chefs from throughout the South go to meet and eat and think about food. The farm, the Southern Foodways Alliance and the Internet are bringing them together, and together they are inspiring each other.
As a result, lardcore has power, verve and the momentum of something long delayed. The movement is already spreading like the religion it is throughout the South, at places like Lantern in Chapel Hill, N.C.; Five and Ten in Athens, Ga.; Reef in Houston; and Trummer's on Main in Clifton, Va. It's so generative that it's even moving north, in small but brilliant restaurants like Seersucker in Brooklyn, Hungry Mother in Boston and the Purple Pig in Chicago. As Robert Newton, the Arkansas-born chef of Seersucker, recently told me, "There is a movement, but it's just chefs getting good stuff and making cool food but in this Southern way, you know what I mean? We interpret it through a Southern lens and from a Southern perspective. That's all it is."
Ozersky is a James Beard Awardwinning food writer and the author of The Hamburger: A History. His food video site, Ozersky.TV, is updated daily. He is currently at work on a biography of Colonel Sanders. Taste of America, Ozersky's food column for TIME.com, appears every Wednesday.