This week a buddy asked me where I liked to eat in New Orleans. I had to think for a minute because my last visit was pre-Katrina. It’s not because I don’t love to eat there, I just haven’t been able to arrange a trip in a while. What’s even worse? Since I really began paying attention to the food world a few years ago, I have come to learn so much about so many iconic New Orleans restaurants that I feel like I know them – I’ve just never tasted the food. That’s a little bit like how I felt about Meridian until I went to the Eat Drink Meridian event a few weeks ago.
Before I set foot in the Northeast Conference Center and began salivating at the sights and smells before me, I had already heard of several of the vendors from the metro area. Spoonfudge!, which was included in my first report of the event, had been featured in one of my favorite culinary magazines. Weidmann’s, from part two in this series, is a place almost always mentioned when Meridian’s culture is discussed. Now I had everybody in the same room. Cha-ching!
The other Meridian establishment I had been trying to get to for a long time was Squealer’s Bar-B-Que. Not so many months ago I was still traveling to work a good bit and passed the time listening to podcasts. The Southern Foodways Alliance has a vast library of oral histories that can be downloaded, and the owner of Squealer’s Bar-B-Que had been featured in one of them. In the interview, she expounded on her philosophy of barbecue which in a nutshell is: it’s about the meat. Sauce is served on the side to enhance the smoky flavor of the meat, not to cover it up. They also had my heart (in more ways than one) on the dessert selections offered at the restaurant: fried Twinkies with all kinds of toppings and a fried banana pudding.
Of course, when I got to that table I had to know: are you going to have the fried banana pudding? Even I knew that would be a tough thing to manage in a conference room, but remember my motto: you have not because you ask not. They did, however, have their regular un-fried-but-still-tasty-in-its-natural-state banana pudding, and it wasn’t difficult to settle. Remember, though, that it’s ultimately about the meat, and they did have some un-sauced pulled pork which I enjoyed very much. They also did a barbecue quesadilla. You may be thinking, “The barbecue purist in Jay surely scoffed at that.” And you’d have good reason to think so. The truth is, I actually encourage variations such as quesadillas simply because they provide opportunities (or excuses) to eat more barbecue. (By the way, I did go by the restaurant – even in my inflated state – on the way out of town and tried the fried banana pudding, but I’ll save that story for another day.)
O’Charley’s was there pushing pie. Peach, apple and pecan were our options. The peach was pretty good, but the most popular (per my query of Mr. O’Charley’s representatives) – Ooey Gooey Caramel – was left at home that night due to lack of refrigeration. I might need to find one of those later. Also representing the chain restaurants was Olive Garden, with a sausage and peppers sandwich. I confess I wasn’t expecting much out of this sandwich, but the worst thing about it was the size: too big to finish. It was like a pizza sandwich with power – all the flavor and elements of a sausage supreme pizza on good bread. A bit messy, but worth it.
In the appetizer category the ladies from Sarabella’s Southern Sauces came to show off their “sinfully delicious, sassy, and divinely Southern” concoctions. They offer Wicked Sweet Chutney (a pineapple based recipe with mustard and horseradish), Sassy Raspberry and Magnolia Basil-Mint. My favorite was the Wicked Sweet, which they suggest serving with ham and biscuits, as a dipping sauce for all kinds of meats, or just poured over a block of cream cheese. Versatile in use and an interesting variety of flavors. Fun stuff.
Last but not least was the Hilton Garden Inn of Meridian (which happened to share the same parking lot as the conference center) with pulled pork sliders and hot wings. What I found particularly interesting about these dishes was the presentation. The sliders had a baby whole pickle speared to the top bun and the hot wing appeared to be sitting precariously (save its own spear) on top of a divided cup with ranch dressing in one side, celery and carrots in the other. On the plus side, the hot wing was flavorful, but not too hot – just the way I like them.
There are a lot of perks to attending events like this. The food is a gimme’. When there are bragging rights on the line, everybody puts their best food forward. Having it all in one contained space practically within reaching distance just makes life better.
Along those same lines is the opportunity to experience a new normal of sorts. I love the fact that my hometown is evermore booming with a continually expanding variety of eat-out options. I also appreciate that I can drive just a ways down the highway (or stop there on the way to somewhere else) and open up my world to a completely different set of culinary surprises.
The best part, however, may be the people I meet along the way. Before I went to Eat Drink Meridian I could say with certainty that I knew one family living there. Now I know lots of folks from Meridian on down I-20 to Forest, up Highway 21 to Sebastopol, and back. They were fascinating to visit with and by golly, they can cook.