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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

RSJ’s Top 10 Summer Foods

July 10, 2017

Now that we have almost reached August, it seems a perfect time to stop and appreciate the culinary bounty available to us as residents of the Deep South during summer.

The following are my top 10 summer foods

10. Peas

I almost put fresh mint in this category, but that’s an herb and not a food. Though memories of summer lunches at my grandmother’s house always included a mint sprig in the iced tea. I chose peas instead. It doesn’t matter what type. Pink-eye purple hull peas, lady peas, they’re all good. I even like the smell that comes from the hull when shelling peas. I always make a pork stock using ham hocks and a little shaved onion, and cook the peas in that liquid. The stock holds well in the freezer and can also be used with greens and/or beans.

9. Tomatoes

This should probably be higher on the list. But I am not a big fan of eating raw, sliced tomatoes, and this is my list so tomatoes end up at #9 on the strength of tomato sandwiches, alone. Give me some white bread, homemade mayonnaise, freshly sliced tomatoes straight out of the garden, a little crumbled bacon (I actually add a small amount of the bacon grease back into the mayonnaise— a trick Barbara Jane Foote taught me), and a sprinkling of salt and pepper and you have the quintessential summer sandwich.

8. Grilled Burgers and Steaks

This was an easy one. Grilling hits its peak during the summer months. Demand drives beef prices up to their highest point around the Fourth of July. If you love “cooking out” summer is the season. Steaks, burgers, chicken, ribs, and brisket are all made better when cooked outside.

7. Blueberries

Mississippi is ground zero for blueberries in the South. Our soil and climate are as perfect for that fruit as the Napa and Sonoma land and weather is for grapes. An ancillary benefit is that blueberries always make the “healthiest foods” lists. My favorite use for fresh blueberries— as a topping for oatmeal.

6. Homemade Ice Cream

This should probably be higher up on the list, too, but when it got to the top five, the balloting was tight. There is something about the consistency of homemade ice cream— specifically homemade peach ice cream— that appeals to me. It is smoother and creamier than store-bought ice cream. I assign emotions to food. I have always believed that pancakes are “love.” It’s true. When have you ever eaten pancakes outside of a restaurant that weren’t made by someone who loves you. If pancakes are “love,” then homemade ice cream is “happiness.” Seriously, can you think of one time in your life that you weren’t happy while eating homemade ice cream? 

5. Shrimp

I consider myself blessed for many reasons. High on that list is living my entire life one hour north of the Gulf of Mexico. My childhood summers were spent in the salt waters of the Mississippi Sound and the brackish water of the Pascagoula River and its tributaries. We used to pull up next to shrimp boats on their way back into the docks and trade them beer and sandwiches for shrimp. I always knew that we ended up on the better end of that trade.

4. Sweet Corn

Garrison Keillor once said, “Sex is good, but not as good as fresh sweet corn.” One day I might agree with that ranking. I love sweet corn, though. I can eat good, fresh sweet corn raw off the stalk while standing in the garden. The best way to cook it is roasted in the husk. In the summer when the corn is at its peak, we buy it by the bushel, shuck it, sauté it in butter with salt and pepper, and freeze it. When I pull a bag of last summer’s frozen corn out of the freezer in January, it takes me straight back to July.

3. Watermelon

Many would consider watermelon to be the ultimate food of summer. I agree that it’s important, that’s why it made it into the top three. Mississippi is also a perfect climate for growing watermelons. They are so good that I spent an entire column on the subject last week. No need to rehash the love this soon.

2. Crabmeat

This was tough. I really could have had a 1A and a 1B. August is the best month for crabmeat. I can remember being a kid and spending my days on Pine Island up Bluff Creek off of the Pascagoula River in South Mississippi. In August, the saltwater came all of the way upriver and we could scoop crabs up with hand nets on the shoreline. We also set out crab traps and checked them twice a day. In the evenings, my family would boil and pick crabs. My mother always made West Indies Salad (recipe below) with the freshly picked crabmeat. It seems like our refrigerator was always filled with West Indies Salad in the summertime. If pancakes are love and homemade ice cream is happiness, Jumbo Lump Crabmeat is sheer joy.

1. Peaches

Nothing tastes like summer as much as peaches. I always know that summer has truly arrived when the Chilton County, Alabama peaches start coming in around the first of June. They hit the markets before all other southern varieties. In July, the Georgia and South Carolina peaches are everywhere. During that two-month window, I like to keep a bowl of freshly sliced peaches in the refrigerator. Freshly sliced peaches are the perfect finish to a meal. You can have your chocolate and coffee. Just give me a bowl of fresh peaches a sprinkling of sugar, and a spoon, and I am as happy as a Southern boy can be. More joy.

View today’s recipe: West Indies Salad


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