One invention transformed the course of Southern cooking.
No, not the deep fryer or the cast-iron skillet. It was a lot more recent and decidedly cooler.
"Air conditioning," remarked Nathalie Dupree, the grand dame of Southern cuisine. "So much has changed since air conditioning."
Dupree and co-author Cynthia Graubart are in Sacramento this week to promote their new book, "Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking" (Gibbs Smith, 722 pages, $45). They're demonstrating biscuit-making this afternoon at American River College. Friday, they'll sign books and greet fans at The Porch restaurant.
Recently nominated for a James Beard Award as best American cookbook, their new work traces the evolution of Southern cooking with 750 recipes and hundreds of variations.
"We may not have your grandmother's recipe," Dupree said, "but we tried to do the important things and let (cooks) puzzle out their own family variations."
As a cooking teacher, PBS host and author, Dupree has long championed New South cuisine, a culinary movement built on fresh and flavorful ingredients that's still going strong.
But when did Southern cooking turn "new"? And how does it differ from old favorites?
The dividing lines boil down to air conditioning, Dupree said. Turning down the heat in the kitchen and the whole house allowed cooks to work with ingredients that past generations wouldn't touch.
"Take peach pie," Dupree said. "No cook before air conditioning would make peach pie in Mississippi in August when the peaches ripen it was just too hot."
Central air cooled the kitchen and fanned a peach pie tradition.
Same goes for chocolate.
"Chocolate melts without air conditioning," Dupree said. "So it's really only become fashionable since the 1960s on a regional basis for cooks to have it in their homes.
"Today, every Southern restaurant has something chocolate on their menu," she added. "They have to; people expect it."
Perspective changes with generations.
"If you were born in 1970, you're more than 40 years old," said Dupree, noting that generation has never known life before chocolate. "Things have changed so much from 1986 (when she started writing cookbooks) to 2013; I have to rewrite my own recipes. So many young people can't cook at all. I just saw (this book) as something that was needed."
Graubart said Southern cooking "is an unwieldy subject to put your arms around. There's such a large body of work already with tons of recipes so beloved in our region."
That recipe list goes back to 1824 when Mary Randolph wrote "The Virginia Housewife," considered the original regional cookbook. Thousands more books have been published since.
"It was a lot of fun," Graubart added, "but also extremely daunting."
Said Dupree, "We did a lot of historical research. At a certain point, you wonder: What is Southern? How far back did it go? Do you start with the earliest people who came to the South, to Charleston and Savannah? On the other end, do you include the 1950s, '60s and '70s?"
The authors did both, tracing the connections between the centuries.
"Different things come into fashion or get recycled," Dupree said.
Like "The Virginia Housewife," they included okra, gumbo and curries (such as the wonderful Country Captain chicken curry) in "Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking." But don't expect blackened redfish (or anything else); that was more fad than foundation.
They also offer their own personal favorites, such as "lazy girl" cobbler.
"It's a long-standing, super-easy recipe," Graubart said. "I'm not a baker, but I feel like some kind of magician when I pull it out of the oven. It's a soothing, buttery, homey dessert and my secret weapon for years."
Meet Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart
Where: Culinary Lab (Room 505), American River College, 4700 College Oak Blvd., Sacramento
When: 3 p.m. today
Details: (916) 484-8526
Highlight: Dupree and Graubart will demonstrate biscuit-making and answer questions in the culinary lab during a free presentation.
Where: The Porch, 1815 K St., Sacramento
When: 11:30 a.m. Friday
Details: www.theporchsacramento.com, (916) 444-2423
Highlight: The authors will sign their new book, "Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking." In addition, the Porch will offer a special lunch featuring recipes from the book; call for reservations.
Call The Bee's Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.