What happens when Southern culinary traditions meet the flair of the Fourth? Pure fireworks.
Story by Barry Kaufman + Photography by Lisa Staff
You name any holiday, and you can bet the South has its own spin on it. Christmas? Keep your figgy pudding, we have oyster roasts. Halloween? Sit a spell under the boughs of a live oak, and you’ll hear a few ghost stories that’ll turn your hair white.
And the Fourth of July? Well, there’s no question that the South just does the Fourth better than anywhere else. And it’s not just because all the best fireworks stands are down here (but they are). No, in this case it’s the Fourth of July picnic that puts us head and shoulders above the rest. At the peak of summer when we’re waving that red, white and blue, the fields of the South are rife with the most mouth-watering fruits and vegetables on earth, just waiting to infuse your Independence Day soiree with color and flavor.
To help us prove that nobody holds a candle to a good old-fashioned Southern Fourth of July, we enlisted the help of great Southern chef and catering whiz Geist Ussery of Signature Catering & Events by SERG. And to truly showcase the South at its finest, we set him loose on the stately grounds of Pineland Club. Comprised of some 13,000 acres of pure Southern elegance, this beautifully historic quintessential Lowcountry plantation has served as a backdrop for everything from weddings to corporate events to private parties.
With our cameras snapping away, Ussery prepared a Southern culinary tour de force for an appreciative group of lucky guests.
The refreshing cocktails that started off the evening spoke to Ussery’s driving philosophy for a perfect summer spread: seasonality. “For me, I kind of pull what’s going on at that time of year, produce-wise, and go with that,” he said. “And all of these are easy cocktails. Fresh mint, lime, muddled or pureed fruit; none of it’s fussy.”
Summer Sangria This crisp, refreshing summer drink infuses rose wine with white cranberry, strawberry juice and a generous shot of white rum to give it a kick. The real hook of this drink is to draw from whatever berries the season throws your way.
Peach Bourbon Smash “You tend to think of bourbon as a fall or winter spirit, but you add in some peach and it’s perfect for summer,” he said. Ussery notes that you can make the puree ahead of time and then add the toppings before serving for easier mixology.
Watermelon Margarita When it came time to finding seasonal fruits to lend some summer flair to his drink list, Ussery says watermelon was a “no brainer.” The margarita is another drink that can largely be made ahead of time, so the drinks keep on flowing. “It’s always easier to make large batches ahead of time and pitcher them away.”
While there are a million ways to celebrate the flavors of summer, at its heart a Fourth of July picnic is a celebration of American tradition. Essentially, we’re telling you that even if you’re ramping up the Southern flair, don’t forget the hamburgers, hot dogs and bratwurst. You can’t go wrong with the classics, but you can definitely use them as base for some seriously tasty side dishes. “When I was planning this menu for the Fourth of July, I was thinking of fireworks,” said Ussery. That meant culinary pyrotechnics in the form of bright colors and bold flavors. “It’s not hard to do with all the fruits and veggies that are abundant this time of year.”
Firecracker Salad Not only does this eye-catching blend of colors from tomatoes, hot house cucumbers, pickled onion and crumbled feta resemble the burst of a firework, there’s a Southern tie-in when it comes to the arugula at its base. “Growing up in the South, I always heard it called ‘rocket,'” said Ussery. “The first time someone called it arugula around me, I was like, ‘Arugula? What’s that?’”
Pickled Shrimp When you think of a Southern picnic, you think of shrimp. Ussery stuck to the Lowcountry stand-by, infusing it with summer flavors like sweet Vidalia onions and sliced lemons. “It’s very simple and very easy to make,” he said. “And pickled shrimp is such a Southern staple.”
Pepper Bar Add some color and zest to those hot dogs and sausages by giving guests a slew of colorful options for toppings. “It looks beautiful, and it represents the colors of everything going on in spring and summer,” said Ussery. “People go nuts adding all these things to their sausage. It really brings the flavors to a new level.”
The Slaw If you’re not serving fresh slaw at your picnic, it isn’t Southern. It’s that simple. For his slaw, Ussery blended red and green cabbage, Granny Smith apple, red pickled onion, vinegar and of course Duke’s mayo. “I’m a Duke’s purist, what can I say?”
Grilled Summer Squash Sometimes a picnic means planning ahead. But when the right opportunity comes, you improvise. “They came out of the garden on property that day,” he said. He was particularly intrigued by the patty pan squash that the folks at Pineland Club Plantation had produced. “I’d never cooked with it before, and it was delicious. Me and patty pan are going to become friends.”
Banana Pudding Even something so time-tested as a standard banana pudding offers a wealth of ways to put your own spin on it. For his version, Ussery used Biscoff cookies and drizzles of chocolate and caramel for a fitting grand finale to his picnic. “With all these flavors going on, as you’re digging into that trifle, it’s heaven,” he said. “You’re supposed to feel a little bit guilty eating it. If you ain’t feeling guilty, it ain’t a good dessert.”