Monthly Archives: September 2013

Eat Drink Meridian, Part the Second

There was a roomful of food at the Eat Drink Meridian event.  And as a judge, I was expected to eat some of everything.  Well, twist my arm right off.   I’ll have to admit, it was kind of fun to go up to a table and hear all the choices, then respond, “I’ll have a little of everything.”  I wish I could do that more often in real life at restaurants other than Pap’s.

Last week I told the tale of only one side of the room, though I could have easily made a meal there.  Alas, it was a square room with food lining each wall – some moderation was required.  I did my best.

A legend in Meridian – Mississippi’s oldest restaurant, in fact – is Weidmann’s.  Since they opened in 1870 I guess they have had time to develop a new dish or ninety-nine: that’s about the number of different options I counted on the menu they were passing out.  For that reason I appreciate the fact that they just brought one thing, their gumbo.  I confess that I was a bit skeptical at first.  There was no indication that Weidmann’s was known as a Cajun restaurant, and though that is not necessarily a requirement for good gumbo, it usually helps.  In this case, however, my expectations were exceeded.  It was thick, dark, and chunky with shrimp and sausage, with enough kick to let you know it had some, but not enough to ruin your tongue for later.  If I hadn’t had nine more tables to get to, I would have gone back for seconds.

Oldest Restaurant in Mississippi (1870)

Oldest Restaurant in Mississippi (1870)

Cane’s was there to represent the chicken tender community, but to this event all they brought was their house made drink specialties, iced tea and lemonade.  Not one to discriminate, I got a big cup of a fifty-fifty mix and used it as an Arnold Palmer-esque palate cleanser between all the remaining dishes.

Down the row was Ward’s Seasonings and Rubs, who brought pulled pork sandwiches and an array of dips made from their dry mixes.  In this case I didn’t try every dip on the table (they were legion) but I got a couple of favorites.  And by favorites I mean Harriet’s Favorite and Mama’s Favorite.  Those were the names.  And apparently the nice lady doing the serving was neither Harriet nor Mama, and she would like to know why there wasn’t a dip named after her – after all, she was there doing the work!  To be quite honest, I think Mama and Harriet might be sisters, given the similarities in dip flavor, but I would be very happy to find either one in a big bowl at the next party I attend.

The big winner of the night was at the next table.  Best of the Best of Eat Drink Meridian went to Oak: A Southern Experience.  Oak is located in Forest, Miss., because where else would you find an oak?  As best I can tell from their literature and social media, they don’t just have a restaurant; they also do catering, wedding planning, interior design, and gifts.  Sounds like a one-stop Oak.  The appetizer that night was marinated cheese – three layers of thinly sliced cheese, marinated in something delicious (I forgot to ask), topped with a little sliver of red pepper, and served with crackers.  I know it just sounds like cheese and crackers, but it may be the only time in my life I wanted to go back for more cheese and crackers.   The soup (this table was a four-course meal of sorts) was a smooth crawfish bisque which had great flavor on its own – the bits of crawfish were just a bonus.  The main course (also a winner, along with best presentation) was a honey-glazed Caribbean jerk chicken.  The jerk seasonings gave it spice and the honey gave it a sweet balance.  Alongside the chicken was perhaps my favorite side dish of the night, grits and greens.  It could not have been simpler: grits cooked with bits of greens (turnip, I think, but doggone it I forgot to ask that, too).  The secret ingredient that made them so creamy?  Buttermilk.  I would never have guessed that, but you can bet I’ll be trying it when greens start showing up for sale on the side of the road again.

If an Oak makes grits in the Forest, you should eat them.

If an Oak makes grits in the Forest, you should eat them.

Anchoring the last corner before I turned to find the final row of tables was Kelli’s Specialty Cakes.  I’d seen a preview of the cupcakes she was bringing on the Eat Drink Meridian Facebook page the day before.  Expectations were high.  There were several good-looking creations, but the one I had my eye on was called Gourmet Caramel Apple.  I was almost afraid to bite into it.  Did you ever see a cupcake (especially in these last few years as their popularity has soared) piled high with buttercream icing and adorned with nuts or candy, only to bite into it and wonder why you just paid so much for a pretty design?  This one had a caramel cake base, caramel buttercream icing, drizzles of dark chocolate, white chocolate, and caramel, chopped pecans, and a little slice of green apple for garnish: loaded with potential.  Expectations were surpassed!  The instant it hit my tongue I was smitten.   No way was I going to leave a crumb of it on the table, no matter how full it might make me.  And Kelli won the award for best dessert, which was well-deserved.

Gourmet Caramel Apple Cupcake from Kelli's

Gourmet Caramel Apple Cupcake from Kelli’s

By this time I was reaching capacity.  Apparently no matter how small the bites are, if you eat a lot of them, you still fill up.  (Mental note.)  But there was one wall of tables yet to visit.  Hot wings, sassy sauces, barbecue and banana pudding were still waiting on me – time to loosen the old belt and answer the call.  Stay tuned.

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Eat Drink Meridian, Part the First

As a youngster Meridian, Mississippi was very much on my radar.  My father, a professor of mathematics at The School Across Town (aka Vallagret University), taught a weekly night class down there for many, many years.  I never went with him, but the name at least was very familiar.  We must have passed through there on the way to Dauphin Island, but I don’t remember stopping much – Daddy liked to forge ahead.  For a couple of years in high school the band competed against Meridian (the football team came with us, too, for support), which meant we were bussed to the stadium and right back home after the battle of the bands.  Still not seeing much of the town.

Culinarily speaking, I had heard of the historic Weidmann’s restaurant, most likely from my father.  A few years ago I heard an interview of the owner of Squealer’s Barbecue, and I was intrigued.  Not only does she espouse the same philosophy of barbecue as I do (it’s about the meat, not the sauce), she is also not afraid to deep fry a Twinkie.  Still, though, it was only head knowledge until this week.

A few months ago I received an invitation to be a judge at the very first Eat, Drink, Meridian.  The event was the brainchild of Becky Childress, the events manager at the Northeast Conference Center and Hilton Garden Inn.  Her idea was to bring together food purveyors from the Meridian area, then let attendees try everything and vote for the best.   All of a sudden Meridian became a destination, and I ate well – very well – to boot.

There was no real rhyme or reason to how I chose my first taste.  I just wandered until I hit the Spoonfudge table.  Their store is in Sebastopol, another place I have heard of but never seemed to get to.  But I have over a hundred reasons to go now. The Spoonfudge ladies, Tarah Boykin and Aleisa Johnson told me it was not the place for what you need – it’s the place for what you want.  I like.

Made me happy, too...

Made me happy, too…

Spoonfudge is essentially like it sounds: spoonable fudge in a jar.  There is actually a spoon attached to the jar for easy spreading on something like, say, your tongue.  (And the jars are small enough to keep to yourself – freedom to double dip!)  That night they were featuring Fudgey Fudge and Salted Caramel flavors, and had smaller tasting jars of The King’s P-B Nana, Yo Mama’s Blueberry Pancakes, and Spunky Pretzel.  Oh, yes – I tried them all.  On the website there are about 60 flavors available now and I’m pretty sure the nice fudge ladies told me there were upwards of 120 total flavors that they rotate through their inventory.  That’s a different flavor every three days year- round if I’ve done my math right.

On my first trip to the Spoonfudge table I limited myself to reasonable portion sizes, just enough to taste. When I returned at the end of the night, I hit their s’mores bar.  A sterno flame set up in a clay pot full of charcoal briquettes (for effect – this was an indoor event) provided the toasting apparatus for a variety of marshmallow flavors.  I spooned Fudgey Fudge (a traditional chocolate flavor) on a graham cracker and toasted a plain marshmallow to establish a s’mores baseline.  Then I toasted a pumpkin spice-flavored marshmallow and spread Salted Caramel onto the cracker.  Yummy. And thankfully I did not set off the smoke alarm.

Since I ate dessert first, a savory table was appropriate for my next tastes.  Christy’s Fine Food Catering and Olde Time Sweet Shop from Stonewall, Miss., sponsored the next table.  For appetizers they had a trio of hot dips: spinach artichoke, crab, and salmon dill, served with little bitty buttery toasts that were pretty good by themselves.   I didn’t expect the salmon dill to be my favorite, but it had a mouth-warming element (from horseradish, maybe?) that really made it stand out from the pack.  Christy’s stood out, too, by winning the award for Best Appetizers.  After the dips they skewered up a chunk of brown sugar chicken and a couple of tiny just-cooked cherry tomatoes.  Sounds simple, but this was one of my favorite bites of the evening.  The sweetness of the brown sugar sauce on the chicken contrasted perfectly up against the acidity and tartness of the tomatoes.

christy's

Did I call Christy’s a savory table?  I spoke too soon.  On the other end of the table I succumbed to a vanilla-on-vanilla cupcake and a petit four.  They say a way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.  True dat.  You give me a little plate of petits fours and I’m done.  This one was round instead of the usual square, and the cake was cloud-tender.  But there was much more to try, so I stuck with petit one.

The table next door, Cater’s Market, had sweet and savory also.  Brownies, Oreo bars, lemon bars and pecan bars were all cut up into bite-sized portions and arranged in checkerboard fashion.  That was all fine and good, but I had my eyes on a big pot of shrimp and grits.  Their interpretation was a little different than I’d seen lately, which is why I keep going for this combo – nobody does it the same.  Instead of using the grits as a base and layering shrimp and whatnot on top, this was all tossed in a big soup pot together.  The grits themselves were cheesy and were studded with bits of sausage and baby shrimp – maybe a bit of green onion here and there.  I have come to realize that shrimp and grits has become comfort food for me.  I was comforted.

Doggone.  I’m not even halfway around the room yet and I’m already out of words for this week.  There is much more good eating in metro Meridian to come.  But if you are heading that way this week, I’ve given you lunch, dinner and over a hundred flavors of dessert to choose from.  You won’t go hungry.

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Dog Days on the Prairie

If ever there were “Dog Days of Summer”, I think they came last weekend.  It was almost as if August was taunting us: “You haven’t heard the last of me – I’m going to make you sweat just a little more before Labor Day kicks in. Ha!”  Temperatures bumped up to 100 degrees, with a heat index of Hades, and the humidity…oh, the humidity.  While word association with the word “summer” might bring responses like “picnic” or “grilling out”, the truth is this: unless you have some shade and a breeze, eating outside on a Mississippi summer day can be unpleasant.  But this weekend brought a couple of events where outside dining was practically unavoidable, and I managed to muddle through them without melting entirely.

Friday night was the first Starkville High home football game of the season.  I enjoy going to the old alma mater to see the games, especially now that my own kids are roaming the stands and keeping the beat just as I did a year or thirty ago.  For convenience more than anything else, we often have dinner there in the stands.  This week The Wife and I both had the hot dog combo.  It’s not too fancy – just a hot dog, chips and a drink – but the hot dogs there are nice and plump.  No little skinny dogs with an inverted bun to wiener ratio, these dogs have some girth.  The drink lost its cool pretty quickly in the heat, but it was still wet and we were thankful.

On Saturday morning, the weather hadn’t changed much.  For the last two years on this particular weekend I’ve risen early and run the Prairie Arts Festival 5k, which then justifies my consumption of whatever street food I desire at the festival.  This year I didn’t quite have my fat together and skipped the run.  But it’s still a festival, and West Point really isn’t that far, and you never know what fun food you might miss if you don’t show up.  I couldn’t convince any of my immediate family to endure the heat-and-eat session, so I hopped in the car with my own parental units and we made the short drive to the prairie.

Once we got there, it was clear that we wouldn’t be staying long.   Thankfully, most of the food vendors at the PAF are concentrated in one or two places and it didn’t take a lot of effort to survey the scene.  I had done some investigating before we left, to see if one of my favorites – The Swine’s Behind – was going to make a repeat visit.  This is the fellow I discovered last year at PAF with what he calls Smoke Bombs and I call Nature’s Perfect Food: battered and fried balls of pulled pork.  The Bombs look something like a giant hush puppy, but inside the crunchy exterior is a wad of smoky pig goodness.  They were there, and it was worth the trip over just for that.

Fried. Smoked. Perfect.

Fried. Smoked. Perfect.

If it had been cooler, I think I would have been a little more ambitious.  Funnel cakes, corn dogs and ribbon fries coming straight out of the hot oil just don’t have the same appeal when it feels like you just walked through hot oil to get there.  So our goal was to find something unique and something to cool us down.  All things considered, we accomplished our goal.

We weren’t really in the market for crafty things, which meant we didn’t walk around and work up much of an appetite for multiple dishes.  One meal would have to suffice, but I did have the Parental Units with me to help and they are usually pretty agreeable to munch on whatever I order.  A couple of years ago I’d had a good experience at one of the Greek Food booths, so I took a pretty close look there and saw something called Greek Fries.  I don’t normally order things like chili cheese fries and the like because of the tendency for the toppings to create a soggy, starchy mess, but this was one of the more unique offerings I could find, and it won my attention.  The fries were hand-cut (or at least appeared to be) and topped with fresh tomatoes, black olives, feta cheese and tzatziki sauce.  The potatoes were hot and the tzatziki sauce was room temperature (remembering that the “room” was downtown West Point in the middle of the day in late August), but the tomatoes, olives and feta came straight out of the cooler.  That little bit of coolness actually nudged this combo slightly towards refreshing.  If I were doing the same thing at home I would only add a good shaking of Cavender’s Greek Seasoning to give it just a bit more kick.  It was a tasty combination – something I would definitely order even if I had to eat it fast to protect my fries.

Who knew fries were Greek?

Who knew fries were Greek?

On the cool side, there was lots of lemonade to choose from, and the flavors seem to expand every year.  The PU’s got original flavor (which I’m told is “lemon”) and I got the mango.  I dare to be different.  For dessert there was a homemade ice cream booth, and we got a sample (a cupful is not really a full serving in our house) of both peach and strawberry – both good, both cold.

John Deere makes pretty good ice cream

John Deere makes pretty good ice cream

The true test of dog-day misery in the form of heat and humidity is going out at night.  Dark should equal cooler, right?  After the ballgame involving the local university that makes great cheese I went Krogering.  (For those of you who are old enough to remember, let’s pause a minute to allow the “Let’s Go Krogering” jingle to get firmly stuck on your brain radio dial for the day ahead.)  It was daylight when I went in, dark when I came out, and there was a shimmering haze of heat around the streetlights.  Come on, fall!

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Birthday Season

Some birthdays require a party.  The Wife turned 40 in May: that’s a party-worthy year.   My birthday was last week.  46 just doesn’t have the same pizzazz as 40.  It did not require a party.  But that doesn’t mean we didn’t eat.  Usually birthdays in our household generate a dinner out.  I finagled two this year.  But I also view birthdays like Wal-Mart views Christmas – it’s not just a one-day event, it’s a season.

The terrible truth is that I woke up on birthday morn feeling a little less than 100%.  Talk about disappointing.  This is a day when I want to be able to eat with abandon.  That doesn’t mean I will – doesn’t mean I ought to– but I should have the freedom to make that choice.  So I started off the day with only a cup of coffee.  But it was a really good cup of coffee.  I had secured a bag of King Cotton Coffee Roasters Ethiopian Sidama coffee beans at the Community Market a few weeks ago, and like so many other good ideas that have fallen prey to procrastination, they were still sitting in my cupboard unopened and un-ground.  It was a good day to break them out.  I added a little brown sugar and some caramel creamer, and it was truly one of the best cups of coffee I have had in a while.  What makes it even more fun is that the beans were roasted right here in Starkville.  Off to a good start.

By lunchtime I was on the upswing but still not ready to tackle anything a big meal.  Back at home I wandered out to the back corner of the yard (dotted with Lowe’s 5-gallon buckets) that The Wife lets me call a garden.  I remembered seeing a couple of orange jubilee tomatoes that had pushed their way out of the blooms despite my neglect.  Much to my surprise, they were perfectly ripe – small, but enough to make a sandwich.  Oddly, these specimens were a bit tart compared to their sweet sisters that appeared earlier in the season.  But they made a great BLT birthday sandwich, hold the L.

That evening we had a lot going on at the hacienda, Son was in Noxubee County at the ballgame, and The Folks were on their way to a family reunion in Tishomingo County.  No big family dinner was in store.  But Daughter had requested waffles earlier in the week, and it seemed like a good time for breakfast for dinner.  I made normal waffles for my ladies, but for myself I added some pre-cooked Beaverdam Farms pork sausage to the batter.  I knew I liked sausage with my waffles – why not put sausage inside my waffles and skip the middle-man?  It worked.

Saturday morning I was up early and at the Community market – the last of the season.  What a bummer.  But I made the most of it.  Ms. Orene, the neighbor and secret weapon of Lancaster Farms, had posted on Facebook the night before that she’d made a chocolate cobbler.  I suggested to her that she bring some to the market the next morning.  And she did!  You have not because you ask not, people: words to live by.  Next on my agenda was a glazed chocolate chip scone from B’s Sweets and Treats, who later provided me with my last glass of mint lemonade for the summer and a loaf of cream cheese blueberry bread we nibbled on all weekend.  The culinary demo was put on by Chef Carnelle and his crew from Harvey’s: cheddar grits topped with grilled vegetables, tasso ham, bacon and a tomato cream sauce.  It was only 9 am, and I had made my own birthday breakfast buffet.

Chef Carnelle getting my breakfast together

Chef Carnelle getting my breakfast together

The fam had lots of home projects to accomplish on Saturday and I’m quite certain I worked off all the calories I had consumed in the last 36 hours.  A fresh start was in order.  Daughter had another great idea – Stromboli’s for birthday dinner.  At heart I am a pizza and ice cream guy, so I didn’t need much arm-twisting.  And since it was the heart of birthday season I was allowed to order for the table.  We started with toasted ravioli (an all-time favorite) then moved on to barbecue pork pizza, Brooklyn Stromboli, and chicken ranchero calzone.  Daughter’s meal was an order of pepperoni-and-cheese bites, but she let me have one.  And the famous cookie-dough bites closed it all out.  Still livin’ large and I fear the scale will show it because the night wasn’t over.  Bops helped us fulfill the ice cream portion of the dream dinner.  (I know, I know, it’s custard). Bop’s Favorite (a concrete with chocolate flakes and strawberries) is my go-to order there, but I had seen a Tweet earlier in the week about lemon icebox.  It was a very tasty diversion.

The Folks were back on Sunday, which meant it was time for the second dinner out.  I had satisfied my pizza cravings the night before, but now I had steak on the brain.  We went to Harvey’s and I think we had every steak on the menu.  Half our party got the special, the gourmet hamburger steak, Son got the prime rib, and I got my long-time favorite, the marinated ribeye.  Daughter got the filet mignon.  Yes, “Picky Chick” has moved from the kids menu to the fancy steak in a single bound.  Of course I had some of everybody’s.  I’m the birthday boy, see?? Dessert was provided by the one who birthed me – a giant decorated cookie, which we shared with the server.

Someone asked me Saturday why I was not one thousand pounds (which is twice the usual five hundred that accompanies that question, by the way).   I guess it’s because it’s not birthday season every week.

 

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