People tend to love or hate Sandra Lee of "Semi-Homemade" fame because she uses so many pre-packaged products in her recipes. Some of those people might even put quotation marks around the word "recipes."
Food blogger Christy Jordan, author of Southern Plate (William Morrow, $27.50), is bound to create some of the same feelings. Jordan is an unabashed alchemist of whipped topping, Hidden Valley Ranch dressing mix, baby carrots, and boxed cake mix. She makes doughnuts from canned biscuits and French toast from stale hot dog buns. If you've already stopped reading, I'd bet you're no fan of Sandra Lee.
Perhaps it is Jordan's ample servings of self-deprecation, generosity and gratitude that make her endearing in a way that Lee is not. Kitschy as they may be, Jordan's stories of her large, tightly knit Southern family feel heartfelt. Jordan frequently invokes her sharecropper ancestors and other frugal folks to emphasize how much can be done with little, especially when it is made with love. I liked reading her stories even if they sometimes culminated in recipes that didn't sound particularly appealing. I offer "chocolate gravy" as an example. I admire people who don't waste food, but it doesn't make me want to eat leftover biscuits soaked in chocolate sauce.
There are still plenty of enticing recipes. There's no cake to rival a Southerner's cake, and Jordan has some good ones -- coconut cake, apple skillet cake, and chocolate velvet cake, to name a few. Desserts are generally a strong suit of the book, which is organized by season (of which "Christmas" is one). Candies and bars and cobblers abound.
Southerners share with Midwesterners a casserole fetish, which is properly documented here. There are a few varieties of corn casserole, two hash brown casseroles, crunchy beef (the crunch comes from French-fried onions), sweet potato, country casserole (again with the French-fried onions), and squash casserole. The book continues in the stick-to-your-ribs vein with a roundup of stews, meatloaf, and chili. The "lighter" dishes tend to have a dressing based on mayonnaise and/or other dairy. Remember, Jordan's sharecropper ancestors ate this food with a heaping helping of farm labor, so you may want to balance these dishes with either some high-impact cardio or several days of picking at lettuce.
Jordan makes no bones about her lack of professional kitchen experience. Her qualifications are a degree in home economics and a lot of time spent cooking, which I think is great. I always like to learn from a successful, independent amateur. (My most eagerly awaited cookbook, coming out in 2012, is Deb Perelman's, the blogger behind Smitten Kitchen.)
I don't think Jordan's emphatically "down home" writing is likely to win any awards, but that's okay. The audience who will appreciate this book the most is one that is fine with decent writing, pre-made ingredients, and a belt-tightening budget. This includes some of my own family members whose cooking I love to eat. For myself, I'm likely to pick and choose from the recipes in this book -- the baked macaroni and cheese looks great, as does the lemon meringue pie -- rather than leaning on it.