This story originally appeared on TASTE.
My brain froze. Scratch that: It was more like a blown fuse, and I was incapable of determining what to cook.
It was sometime in July 2015, my first summer living in New Orleans. Long before I moved to the Deep South, I had read time and again about the acute midyear heat that envelops the region. I, a Westerner and then a Yankee, had trained myself to cook by working in restaurants and at home in Boston, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and New York. I grew into the kind of person who had a few dishes I could improvise from memory. Pantry pasta. Bread crumb eggs. A dal or two. I scoffed at the idea of a kitchen so hot and sticky that using either the stove or oven was unthinkable. Then the sluggish dog days of that first New Orleans summer limped in. Stupid Yankee.
I was sweaty and languid, in a numb torpor from the gravity of the humid air. The muscle memory took over. Spaghetti with olives, garlic, and Aleppo pepper. Steam poured from a pan of boiling water. The kitchen grew hotter and damper by degree. I coiled the pasta on a plate and stared at it. It seemed like the very last thing I wanted to eat. I put a whorl in my mouth. Correct. Pasta was a terrible idea.
Defeated, I tried clearing the webs from my addled brain and fumbled for a cookbook that skewed Southern and might house an answer. Buttermilk! I snagged Angie Mosier’s reliable Buttermilk cookbook from a high shelf in my kitchen and started scanning. There it was: a recipe for cold buttermilk-and-cucumber soup.
It read like nothing I had cooked or even considered. You blitz buttermilk, peeled and seeded cucumbers, and seasoning in a blender, chill well, then garnish and serve. I shopped, made a batch, and tasted. Rich, forceful, refreshing, effortless: My listlessness receded as I instantly uncovered the backbone of Southern summer cooking.
I called Mosier recently to learn the genesis of her revelatory soup. A few years ago, she says, she ran a bakery in Serenbe, Georgia—a utopian-minded community about 45 minutes south of Atlanta built to help squelch urban sprawl by preserving the area’s rural nature. The bakery was affiliated with a farm, and come summer, the bakery was drowning in cucumbers. “I’m not a girly girl,” jokes Mosier. “But I’ve always loved tea sandwiches, especially the texture of the ones with cream cheese and cucumbers. I thought it might be interesting to make a soup that captured that.” Was it ever.
The author in his home kitchen in New Orleans
She described a similar buttermilk conversion. Mosier is a native Southerner, but she never understood the ingredient’s allure until she tried the full-fat, small-scale churned buttermilk made by Cruze Family Farm in Tennessee. “That kind of buttermilk gives the special tangy decadence of cream cheese,” she says, noting that you can still use any type of buttermilk for the soup to great results. She was right: I’ve used both fancy, local buttermilk from Mauthe’s Progress in Mississippi and industrial buttermilk from the supermarket. Each is good in its own way.
During our chat, I confessed my previous incredulity about the ferocity of Southern summers and my resulting shame and foolishness. She laughed. “Glad to hear that people like yourself from the North understand. They’ll ask me why the only thing I often want to eat in the summer in Georgia is a tomato sandwich. Now you know.”
Ah, the magic of summer tomato sandwiches in the Deep South. That’s a story for another time.
Cold Buttermilk & Cucumber Soup
Adapted from Angie Mosier’s Buttermilk Short Stack Editions book
There’s a fair amount of flexibility with this recipe. Want the color to be a purer white? Use white pepper. A Southern hot sauce such as Crystal, Louisiana or Tabasco would be ideal. Only have Cholula or Sriracha? So be it. This soup is all about ease.
3 large cucumbers (about 2 pounds)
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
¼ cup chopped Italian parsley
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
A few dashes hot sauce
3 cups buttermilk
Peel and seed the cucumbers. (A soup spoon is great for seeding.)
Finely dice one of the cucumbers and set aside about ½ cup for garnishing. Coarsely chop the other cucumbers and add them, along with any other remaining diced cucumber, to a blender. Add the garlic, parsley, black pepper, hot sauce, buttermilk and salt. Blend until smooth, then refrigerate, covered, until well-chilled, at least an hour and up to 24 hours. (In truth, it keeps for at least a few days. But the optimal window is one hour to one day.)
Right before serving, taste the soup and season with salt. Garnish with a hearty drizzle of olive oil and the reserved diced cucumbers. Serve in whatever vessel you like. As the soup’s creator says, “It’s as good taken on-the-go as it is in your good china.”