Over the past five years, Charleston chef Sean Brock has come to epitomize a particular subculture of American chefdom. Much like Momofuku's David Chang brings to mind pork buns and loud music and ramen and sparse decor, Brock's name evokes Pappy Van Winkle bourbon and South Carolina rice and tattooed forearms and Billy Reid ballcaps that say "Make Cornbread Not War." Brock is larger than life, a pied piper to an army of chef bros across America who aspire to open Southern-flavored farm-to-table restaurants and pal around on the international chef conference circuit.
Brock's cult following is not unearned: he is a spectacularly accomplished cook. He is chef at McCrady's, Husk, and the newly-opened taco shop Minero in Charleston, as well as a second location of Husk in Nashville. He won the James Beard Award for Best Chef Southeast in 2010, and Bon Appétit named Husk the Best New Restaurant in America in 2011. He starred in season two of the Emmy-winning PBS show Mind of a Chef. He participated in two Cook It Raw international cooking events, one of which he hosted on his home turf of South Carolina.
Brock is a cookbook fiend: the man respects the art form, and has a huge collection.
For all of these reasons, Brock's first cookbook Heritage, published last month, was heavily anticipated. And adding to the massive expectations surrounding its publication is the fact that Brock himself is a cookbook fiend: the man respects the art form, and has a huge collection. In 2011, while he was working on the Heritage manuscript, Brock explained his cookbook fascination to Eater: "I just love gathering knowledge and learning and seeing what other people are doing."
Perhaps because of all this pressure, both external and internal, Heritage took a long time to come to fruition. Brock's book deal was first announced in 2011, but the volume has changed concept since then. It was originally going to be a book on "the cuisine of Charleston and the Lowcountry." What Heritage actually turned out to be is a little bit of that idea, but also Brock's family and personal recipes, as well as recipes from his restaurants Husk and McCrady's. It has profiles of ingredient purveyors and many short essays from Brock himself on his cooking ethos and kitchen practices. There are big splashy photos of the restaurants, of Charleston, and more. It was clearly a massive undertaking.
A Beauty of a Book
First, the good news. This is a stunning cookbook. Peter Frank Edwards, a Charleston-based photographer who has shot for pretty much every food publication out there, does exemplary work capturing moody piles of heirloom beans and country hams, intricately composed restaurant-style plates, and cast iron skillets full of chicken wings. The book is big and grand and glossy and satisfying to flip through. As an object, it is worthy of a chef of Brock's stature.
Also good: Most of the recipes I tried turned out really well. The Husk cornbread recipe tastes exactly like I remember the cornbread tasting at the restaurant (and it was almost worth the hassle of acquiring Brock's recommended Anson Mills cornmeal). The pan-roasted chicken with a parsley lemon sauce is also great, although not particularly exciting. The confit potatoes — slow-cooked in a lethal concoction of lard, bacon fat, olive oil, and butter — are showstoppers, and something I will make again.
Something For Everyone
Heritage is big, it's beautiful, and its heart is in the right place. I just wanted to like it so much more than I did.
Brock's explains in Heritage that he wants the book to "inspire as many people as possible to cook with care and passion," but in trying to reach such a broad audience with such a broad goal, the book ends up losing its focus. It contains both complex, plated recipes built around modern techniques, and super simple Southern staples, all tossed haphazardly together. It wants to teach home cooking and restaurant cooking and traditional Southern cooking all at the same time, and while it's occasionally successful at all three, Heritage has a bit of an identity crisis.
Anson Mills grains, Benton's ham and bacon, Charleston-specific fish, produce, and more.
The most obvious example of this issue is in the choice of ingredients. Brock is notoriously obsessed with local foods, and the recipes call for his favorites: Anson Mills grains, Benton's ham and bacon, Coast Brewing Company beer, Bourbon Barrel soy sauce, and Charleston-specific fish, produce, and more.
As invested as he is in these products, however, it's also against his philosophy to ask you to use them unless you live in the Lowcountry. Brock acknowledges that these ingredients might be tricky for some to acquire, and addresses both that and his philosophical sourcing conundrum by asking the reader to "find and gather ingredients in your own region and make these recipes your own." So he simultaneously encourages us to use the bounty that surrounds us — wherever that may be — while calling for foods and products incredibly specific to his Charleston terroir. Go to the farmers' market and explore your region's produce, and figure out for yourself how to substitute local items for the regionally specific ingredient list that took Brock decades to put together.
Not that there's anything inherently wrong with giving the reader this kind of task, it's just not a self-explanatory process. It asks a lot. If you don't live in the Lowcountry, you'd need additional books that explain your region's ingredients in order to substitute them in. It's a taller order than Brock lets on.
The History and Future of the South
This assumption that readers will spend time researching and substituting local ingredients in the recipes is a symptom of the book's overarching problem with tone. Brock's intense earnestness can be endearing, but it can also veer toward the cloying, particularly when he asks for the reader to be as invested in food and cooking as he is himself. For example, in the section on "How to Cook Grits Like a Southerner," the last step is:
Remove the bay leaves and add salt, hot sauce, lemon juice, and butter to taste. I like to eat grits all by themselves — yup, just grits in a bowl. And I think about the history and future of the South with every bite.
Here's the thing: I actually kind of believe Brock does think about the history and future of the South every time he eats grits. It's just a lot to actually say so. It's over the top and cringingly sentimental. Heritage could use a healthy dose of context, realism, and practicality to counter its saccharine moments.
Cooking From the Hip
This wide-eyed tone means Heritage lacks a necessary sense of authority. There's a lot of hedging: "Buy the best you can afford." "Let vegetables tell you what to do." "Cooking times are just guidelines." "Cook from the hip." Which is fine, so long as you already know how to cook from the hip.
An example: one of the recipes I made was a slow-cooked pork shoulder with tomato gravy. The recipe is fairly simple. It calls for a bone-in pork shoulder, painted with mustard, and covered in a rub. And then the book tells you to cook it in an oven for fourteen hours at 250 degrees.
Fourteen hours is a pretty long time, but as the recipe made a point of the cooking length, I planned accordingly. Putting the roast in at midnight the night before I wanted to eat it, I also (perhaps?) made the mistake of posting a photo of the roast on Instagram. And tagging Brock in the picture.
So Brock, invoked by the tag, popped up in my comments section. He advised me to check it early. The roast "Could be done quicker, always try and take a pull, it'll tell you when it's done," he said. But when I review books for this column, the point is to test the recipe — not to test whether I can get social media advice from an author — so I followed the recipe exactly as written, ending up with something that was dried out and nearly burnt on the edges, albeit reasonably tasty in the middle.
This was partially my fault, I suppose. Heritage advises in the intro (although not in the pork shoulder recipe specifically) that "cooking times are just guidelines," and Brock himself did speak up and tell me to take it out early if necessary. But the thing is, that is not what I want from a cookbook. What I want from a really good cookbook is to be able to trust its instruction. If a recipe tells me to do something as intense as cook a piece of meat for fourteen hours, I want to be able to take a flying leap off a fourteen-hour cliff and have a pretty good chance the roast will turn out. If a recipe wants me to start checking the roast ten hours in, then it should spend the ink to say so.
A Brockian State of Mind
Brock seems to want this book to be a conversation between himself and the reader, but for that to happen, he needs a very specific reader, one who is both a competent cook and on board with Brock's self-seriousness. He asks the reader to do homework, to perform favors that require a level of skill and dedication I'm willing to bet most home cooks don't have. However, if you're on board with the legwork involved in finding your local region's equivalent to Carolina Gold rice and Charleston Hots chiles — and you can stomach Heritage's intense sincerity — you'll love this book.
I want cookbooks to be authoritative. I want them to teach me what the author knows.
Unfortunately, I don't love it. I like it, but I just can't help but be a little disappointed by Heritage. I want cookbooks to be authoritative. I want them to teach me what the author knows. I'm a great fan of Brock's restaurants; Husk in particular is to me a great example of what an American restaurant can become with a little effort and thoughtfulness. Had it been a straightforward restaurant book — a Husk book — a lot of my problems might have been automatically solved. Instead of insisting the reader go through a Brock-like research process to make each recipe his or her own, it could have been an account simply of how the kitchen at Husk does things.
I don't mind advanced-level cookbooks; I don't think that all cookbooks need to be universally accessible. Despite my problems with Heritage, Brock acolytes and Charleston fans will love this book. There are excellent recipes contained within, if you look for them. It's beautiful, and despite its flaws, it's 100% pure Brock. It's all a matter of what you expect from a cookbook. Me? I'm still holding out for a proper Husk book.
HERITAGE BY SEAN BROCK
STAR RATING: Two stars
SKILL LEVEL: Recipes vary; all skill levels.
WHO THIS BOOK IS FOR: People who love Sean Brock, people who live in Charleston, people who want to tattoo vegetables on their arms, people who are super into heirloom beans.
WHO THIS BOOK IS NOT FOR: People who lose patience with recipes easily, people who can't handle romanticizing foodways, people who are over Southern food, people who would rather just go to Husk and order their cheeseburger.
MORE RECIPES TO TRY: Green Garlic Bisque (page 32), Creamed Corn (49), Wild Ramp and Crab-Stuffed Hush Puppies (78), Fried Chicken and Gravy (101), Herb-Marinated Hanger Steak with Vidalia Onion Gratin and Steak Sauce (135), Seed-Crusted Snapper with Roasted Okra, Tomato Dashi and Benne (200), Pickled Peaches (213), Butter Bean Chowchow (227), Pimento Cheese (248), all of the cocktails (261 to 273), Apple-Sorghum Stack Cake (284), Hillbilly Black Walnut Fudge (305).
All photos by Paula Forbes, except where noted.