A little digging in grandma’s recipe books goes a long way.
In the South, BBQ is its own religion, and Southerners will be the first to tell you that sides are just as important as the meat itself. The demand is high for baked beans, coleslaw, potato salad, green beans from a can and cornbread with brisket and pulled pork, but there’s a new guy in town that’s shaking up the classics.
In Garland, North Carolina, population of around 700, Matt Register is creating unconventional sides at Southern Smoke BBQ—taking inspiration from vintage cookbooks from the early 1900s and his grandmother’s recipes. Blink and you might miss the town entirely, but folks travel far and wide for Register’s whole hog barbecue and finger-licking sides. (It should be noted that I organized a rental car to drive an hour and a half from my hometown to see for myself, and the venture was worth every mile driven).
“When we open, we have a line,” he says, of his popular, teal green BBQ joint that’s only open Thursdays and Fridays from 11:30 a.m. until everything’s sold out. Ribs usually sell out within the hour, and mac and cheese day (Friday) is a popular one amongst locals. “We have people that come in and get two pieces of cornbread and a big container of mac and cheese for lunch,” he adds. Unlike the thick and creamy cheese sauce version expected alongside salty slabs of meat, Register crafts his rendition with a béchamel sauce of five different cheeses and penne pasta.
When I arrive, Register dusts off a few cookbooks, including The Women’s Institute Library of Cookery (1918), Monsignor’s Kitchen (1950s) and A Taste of Central New York (a nod to his wife’s Italian heritage), and he brings out a plastic basket containing hundreds of his grandmother’s recipes. “You can tell she liked a recipe if she wrote ‘good’ or ‘great’ on the recipe card,” he says. At the end of the day, his goal is to continuously feed hungry customers good food. “I am a Lowcountry nut,” he says. “It’s kind of my wheelhouse.”
“We always have baked beans and potato salad because we have to,” he says. Otherwise, the sides are ever-changing based on Register modifying interesting recipes found in vintage cookbooks and what’s readily available from local farmers. In fact, a neighboring farmer recently had a surplus of green onions. “I said, ‘Yeah, just bring them to me, and I’ll figure something out,’ and ended up making a mouthwatering Thai green onion side that day,” he says. “My dad was standing right there and said, ‘You’re not going to sell any of those, but they sold out in half an hour.’”
Here, a few of Register’s sought-after sides, and how they came about:
“It’s forgotten,” he says, as we spoon succotash out of the pot. “I’m not trying to do anything funky and weird to it because you really want the vegetables to shine through in this dish. It tastes like summertime.”
He continues, “The reason succotash came about is because of people like my grandmother—people who bring you a lot of butterbeans and corn at once.” Plus, it’s simple to make. Register sometimes adds parmesan cheese to take it to the next level. “We do one without bacon grease that we serve cold in the summertime,” he says, also adding green tomatoes.
Squash and rice pudding
Squash and rice pudding is Register’s newest side. I was lucky enough to sample it at Euphoria, a food festival in Greenville, South Carolina, and I will be real honest—the side was one of the top reasons I decided to hop in a car and drive to Garland in the first place.
The texture, perfectly fitting for a side, stemmed about by way of an old rice pudding recipe he stumbled upon in an old cookbook. Squash was readily available at the time, so he thought to marry squash into a savory rice pudding dish. “Instead of draining the juices, we keep the juice and cook the squash to death—and add sour cream, salt, fresh herbs,” he says. “It just kind of worked. It’s a great alternative to mac and cheese, especially if you have people that are vegan or health-conscious because we can take sour cream out of it and add soy milk to get that same gelatinous texture.”
Register’s version of creamed corn is quite different from his grandmother’s. Hers was really sweet, just like every other grandmother’s recipe, he says. Modified with brown butter, garlic and fresh basil, the dish is a little sweet, a little salty and full of flavor. “Basil, especially in the summertime with fresh vegetables and salt, is perfect,” he says. Husks are boiled in the pot with cream and cooked for half an hour, as the husks contain milk. “My grandmother would have never done that,” he says. It’s all about taking her recipes and adding new flavors. “She was always like, it’s good, but it’s not mine,” he adds, noting that it’s “just a different creamed corn.”
Okra stew is not that common, but after indulging in a bowl, I decide that it damn well should be. “We were going through books, and I looked at an okra stew recipe,” he says. “It’s kind of like stew with okras and tomatoes but has more of a base.” Register starts out with bacon and onions, giving it an updated burst of flavor. “The bacon cooks through the entire process, giving it a bacon-y, chewy texture,” he adds. “This is something we haven’t done a lot in the restaurant, so this is going to be a hearty side offering for winter.”