Although the notion of “Southern food” might automatically conjure up foods like grits, peach cobbler, or pecan pie, there is depth to what the term actually constitutes. In his new cookbook, “South of Somewhere: Recipes and Stories from My Life in South Africa, South Korea, and the American South,” author Dale Gray guides you through this trip.
Gray’s incredibly inventive approach to food – along with his fascinating life – has led to a uniquely researched and compiled cookbook that brings together Southern cuisine at every level, tracing an important line of African from South to South Korea to the southern United States.
Salon Food spoke with Gray about his education, career, favorite foods, and the importance of food no matter where you’re from or where you end up.
The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Hi Dale! I was immediately struck by the ssam salmon dish when first reading the book and I made it a few months ago and it exceeded my expectations. What led you to develop a recipe like this?
The South Korean word “Ssam” means “wrapped” and refers to a dish in Korean cuisine in which, typically, leafy vegetables are used to wrap a piece of meat. During my years in South Korea, it was usually grilled pork or beef with pickled vegetable condiments or side dishes. I love those, but I’ve started serving my gochujang glazed version of a Ssam meal at dinner parties here in America because I find a side of beautifully prepared salmon to be a real showstopper! Salmon is popular and pairs well with robust flavors like gochujang, pickled cucumber, and creamy sauces. The green apple seemed to add enough sweetness to counterpoint the spiciness of the frosting. Ssam dinners are a joyful group activity here at our house and I hope readers enjoy the experience if they have never tried this style of dining before.
Your cookbook is deeply, incredibly unique. There’s really nothing else like it on library shelves right now. It merges such disparate cultural areas into something so cohesive and complete. Can you tell me a little more about this?
This took a lot of soul searching and deep diving! Before the book, I didn’t really know how to connect all of these wonderful places together, but once I started writing more about the memories that made each place special, the cohesion followed. Each “south” is very different in terms of culture and geographic location, but I always thought the values of each place aligned. Sharing the story of my de facto Korean grandmother is no different than sharing the story of my maternal grandmother, Rose, in South Africa. I get the same feeling when I talk about the former owner of our house, Miss Dixie, who taped a recipe for tomato pie to the inside of my kitchen cabinet here in Mississippi.
Your book covers cuisine “from South Africa to South Korea to the American South.” Beyond the “southern” connector, what other similarities connect these cuisines and cultures?
I experienced a strong focus on family, group identity, and very specific customs around food in each South.
Tell me a little about your professional and personal background. How does this book represent your life, culture and travels?
I consider myself a home cook and am self-taught due to the need to feed myself while studying social work at university. Initially, I had planned to work and live in South Africa, but the lure of distant countries and the recurring vision of a life elsewhere gave me the impetus I needed to travel and see the world. In South Korea, I knew I had made the right choice. I spent most of my twenties there, learning more about myself and discovering my favorite cuisine.
Although I missed South Africa at times, celebrating my heritage by remembering stories from my life there made it easier. It was really therapeutic for me and one of the main reasons I started sharing these stories online. When my editor at Simon & Schuster, Justin Schwartz, first proposed the idea of writing a cookbook, he said, “Your first book has to be special. We want you to tell the stories that matter to you. That sealed the deal for me. South of Somewhere is an incredibly personal book and it East very special. It’s a true reflection of my life as it happened and the recipes serve to anchor the stories.
Did your culinary career start when you started your blog?
He does not have. My blog is and always has been just for fun. My culinary career began a few years after I created The Daley Plate on Instagram. At first it was partnerships with brands who liked my food photos, then it became my go-to platform for sharing recipes. I started gaining traction as a recipe developer and that eventually led to “South of Somewhere.”
What are your favorite recipe(s) in the book?
The Sausage, Egg, and Cheese Farmer’s Sandwich is one of the most unique recipes in the book. It is inspired by a spicy rolled sausage from South Africa, boerewors and brings that unique flavor to an American audience in a very accessible way. Second, the Pimento Cheese Tomato Pie Galette. This is a signature recipe and one of my favorite things to make for friends.
I also love the flavors and textures of Green Tomato Cornmeal Crusted Fish with Mississippi Comeback Sauce and the comforting Korean flavors of Marry Me Chicken Soup.
What was the experience like creating such a unique cookbook?
I enjoyed the creative process so much! I found great joy in providing recipes and feeding my neighbors during this two-year process. Everyone’s valuable feedback made the final product much better. I would go to bed at night thinking about what I would cook the next morning and this thought process didn’t stop until after the manuscript was delivered.
As a first-time author, there were more questions than answers at first, but everything came together perfectly thanks to my amazing team. My co-writer, Susan Cheong, took my words and polished them and it was a great relief to be able to trust her. My very good friend, Bella Karragianidis, is a professional photographer and came to Mississippi to photograph many of the images you see in the book today. Collaborating and learning from others in the industry has been an invaluable experience.
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How does developing recipes for a cookbook differ from developing recipes for your blog?
I consider myself a very laid back home cook. The recipes I share on Instagram are usually dreamed up on the fly and quickly grabbed before my husband and I sit down for dinner. I usually don’t make them more than a few times, but I’m very confident in my ability to create something. Other home cooks appreciate the inspiration and I don’t worry too much about the little details.
But a cookbook is a whole different story! Although my goal was also to present accessible recipes, the recipes in the book had to be refined, tested and perfected several times. I had a professional recipe tester, Ann Volkwein, for a few of the ones I needed additional input on and I also relied heavily on my friends to test them. I’m very familiar with the tastes and preferences of my Instagram audience, but I had to think about what a larger group of cooks might want to see in the book.
What are the main lessons you would like readers to take away from your book?
I hope they’ll be inspired to try something new or maybe find a go-to recipe they love. My goal was to tell the stories that matter to me, with a focus on family and human connections. We live in a time where people spend less time eating around a table and I hope the book reminds readers of the importance of togetherness. Good food brings people together!
If you could only choose one, is there a cuisine that you think is closest to your heart? Or what do you like to cook the most?
I will always be a South African girl at heart, but moving away and experiencing South Korean flavors has allowed me to broaden my horizons and discover dishes that spark joy. My husband and I eat Korean food about 90% of the time here at home in Mississippi and we wake up craving sweet, savory, umami, and spicy dishes that remind us of the place we met.
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