Before the fall officially starts, we’re looking to the South to leverage the last gifts of summer. We’ve partnered with Food52 to bring you recipes, ideas, and tips inspired by the region’s cooking traditions.
My lettuce tradition doesn’t include killing—it involves as little contact as possible. Carry them at the top of your market bag. Dress lightly. Toss gently. Eat with haste. But for many, as I learned in Ronni Lundy’s tribute to the food of the Appalachians, Victuals, quite the opposite holds.
In Appalachian kitchens, the first sign of spring is often marked by wilting lettuce and scallions—somewhat gingerly—in a warm sauce of bacon grease and vinegar. They’re not cooked; they’re killed (some would say “kilt”).
Killed lettuce “stirs deep cravings in the heart” for Lundy. Crisp greens—whether iceberg, romaine, mâche, or arugula—embrace a bacon vinaigrette so much better than something like spinach: The grease slides down instead of sogging the leaves. The onion opens up and mellows from the heat of the pan. The rich, vinegary, bacon sauce pools below the lettuce, waiting for cornbread to soak it up.
There is, of course, no right way to kill the greens. Some douse raw lettuce and onions with vinegar, then spoon over bacon grease. Others temper a beaten egg in the hot grease and vinegar to thicken the dressing. Some add hard-boiled eggs and tomatoes, while others (chefs) put a soft-cooked egg on top. Some nix the bacon crumbles. Others use ramps instead of green onions.
However routine this mess of a dish might be to many in Appalachia, for a California nitpicker like myself, it’s also rebellious. When you do what you fear, and what you’ve been told not to do, anything goes. So I fussed, adding hot sauce and shallot to the sauce as well as an olive oil- or bacon grease-fried egg, so the yolk can flow into that sauce.
I know it’s not traditional. I know it’s wrong. I know I want to gobble the whole mess as fast as I can.