Monthly Archives: November 2015

What’s in your lunchbox?

One of the many cultural tidbits we picked up in our years overseas was the significance of lunch.  With a few exceptions, Americans tend to steer towards light lunches and big dinners.  But in the Middle East it is flipped.  Weddings are celebrated with big lunches.  Agreements are sealed with big lunches.  Lunches are the big deal.  That has very little to do with the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium except for this: lunches are a big deal there, too.

Truth be told, all the meals at an SFA function are a big deal.  Not only that, there are themes that are pretty consistent year to year.  The first lunch, for example, is usually in a box.  This year was no exception, save the fact that the box looked like a suitcase.  A suitcase full of food – now that’s my kind of trip.

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During dinner the night before, we sat across from Chef Mashama Bailey and her colleague, Max, from The Grey in Savannah, Georgia,. Chef Mashama was responsible for packing the suitcase, called the Carry On/Throw Away Lunch.  She doesn’t like to throw food away, we learned, and this lunch was all about finding taste in the parts that many of us may toss in the trash or the compost bin.

We started with a collard green stem salad with ham hock vinaigrette.  Stems do get soft and tasty if you cook them long enough.  Alongside the salad was a Harris Neck Oyster hand pie – I’m not even a big oyster guy and I ate every crumb.  I don’t know the whole story, but I read enough to know that we were lucky to have any oysters from the Georgia coast; sounds like they are coming back.  Middlin’s, also known as rice grits, are the little bits leftover from the rice milling process.  Mashama transformed them into red rice, a Savannah standard.  To wash everything down, it was just tea – but the sweetener was a bottle of simple syrup infused with herb stems.  We may or may not have brought a bottle of that home with us.  For dessert, we enjoyed one of the silkiest vanilla custards ever to coat my tongue, topped with another throwaway: watermelon rind brittle.  Wish I had a suitcase full of that.

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The next day was the Tabasco Appalachian Groaning Table Luncheon, prepared by James Beard Award-winning Chef Sean Brock – and his mama.  There were, oh, about 20 courses to this one, so I’ll hit the highlights.  Awaiting us on the table were mixed pickles, pone bread, sour corn (a first), cucumber slices, banana peppers, green onions, pickled ramps, and kraut balls.  I had only read of ramps before this day, and they turned out to be one of my favorite plates – very strong flavor, no doubt, but the pickling balanced everything, especially with a little piece of pone bread.  I’m not certain what all was in the kraut balls, either, but I ate my fair share of those, for sure.

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The next course was killed lettuce and onions, fried apples, dandelion-cornmeal fritters, soup beans and diced onion with Tabasco, and fried potatoes.  My favorites in this group were probably the fritters, chock full of dandelion greens and topped with some sort of pickled relish.   And those beans – not the least bit fancy, but crazy creamy.

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The second round was a skillet of good cornbread, creamed corn, and a plateful of fried bluegill with tomato gravy.  I recently learned that bluegill and bream were the same fish, and I grew up catching and eating bream – but no doubt this was the first time I’ve ever had tomato gravy on fish.  It was a very pretty plate.  Next up were greasy beans (called that because of their non-fuzzy coat, not necessarily because they are cooked in bacon grease), chicken and dumplings (self-explanatory), and leather britches (green beans preserved by drying, rather than canning.)  I got a real bean education at this table.  Finally, we got a box of desserts: paw-paw and banana pudding, hillbilly fudge (made with Velveeta, but you’d never know) and My Sister’s Chocolate Eclair Cake, which was a great way to end the meal.  And after all I ate, the table wasn’t the only thing groaning at the end.

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The final lunch, at the close of the Symposium, was something of a departure from the norm.  They called it a Pappy Meal.  It was served in a box with a handle, much like the other take-out meals that go by another name that rhymes with Pappy.  But this one was for adults, supplied with a little bottle of Pappy Van Winkle Strategic Reserve.  I don’t partake, but I heard William Faulkner was a fan, so I gave most of mine to him.

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As for the eating, at least seven different chefs contributed to the bounty.  Fried Chicken Green Tabasco Potato Salad Pushups from Oxford’s John Currence.  Remember the orange ice cream pushups from childhood?  Same vehicle, same method, except we were pushing up a very unique potato salad.  The Wife named this her favorite. Roasted Sweet Potato and Smashed Cucumber Salad from Chef Rob Newton (a Southern chef in Brooklyn).  More people should make potato salad from sweet potatoes.  Spicy Pickled Vegetable Slaw from Justin Devillier (New Orleans).  Interesting tweak on slaw, and a serious kick.  Pickled and Jarred Okra by Katie Button (One of Food and Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs for 2015).  I don’t always eat pickled okra, but when I do, I want more of hers.  Fried Pork Chop with Greens, Onions and Comeback from Drew Robinson (Birmingham) and Friends, served on a Benne Seed roll from Lisa Donovan (Nashville).  No one could call this “just a sandwich.”  The sweet finish was a big but not big enough piece of Spiced Pecan and Peanut Brittle from Dwayne Ingraham (recent winner of Cutthroat Kitchen).

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Are you wondering how we managed to eat dinner after all these?  Moderation, determination, and the fact that they removed the serving dishes between courses.

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Good Morning, SFA – Symposium 2015

 

It’s fall in Mississippi, and it’s one of my favorite times of the year. Football is in full swing, which tends to cause great havoc to my heart rate, and due to my loyalties to the hometown rival, can create a hostile work environment on the occasional Monday. It’s also the season for freaky weather. On a recent weekend I arrived in Oxford, Mississippi, one of my top three American cities, only to be greeted by a ninety-plus degree afternoon. The next evening I was wearing a heavy coat. (Huh?) Fall may also be the best season for Sunday drives. As I typed this, The Wife was at the wheel (she not only edits, she chauffeurs when I have a deadline). Fall colors are beginning to creep into the treeline, cotton fields are snowy white, and the ruddy orange of the sweet potato crop is beginning to emerge from the soil. For me, however, the pinnacle of autumn is the Symposium of the Southern Foodways Alliance.

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The Symposium has many layers. It is in part an academic conference. The SFA is housed within the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the Ole Alma Mater, and among other staff there is a professor devoted to the study of Southern foodways. Some of the lectures we hear are condensed versions of dissertations and scholarly articles presented by Ph.D.’s. Peel away another layer, and you find a family reunion. Chefs, restaurateurs, food writers, grocery store owners, and folks who are simply fascinated by all things culinary, all get together for this long weekend because – well, we just like being around each other.
It’s also very much about the meals. Even the most celebrated, James Beard Award-winning chefs are equally thrilled and filled with dread at the prospect of feeding this crowd. There are nine meals that fill the weekend, and each has its own story. We shall commence with breakfast.

Day One: Wildflour Pastries

Day One: WildFlour Pastries

Breakfasts at the Symposium are usually standup, casual and often served in brown bags, but that doesn’t mean any less work goes into them. On the first morning of the conference we arrived at the historic Lyric Theater to a bevy of brown breakfast boxes filled with the creative baking of Lauren Mitterer from WildFlour Pastry in Savannah, Georgia. The eye-catcher was a caramelized pecan sticky bun with cream cheese frosting. This was no wimpy little hint of glaze, like one might smear on a canned cinnamon roll. It was a thick swirl of white, crowning crunchy pecan halves, with the sticky bun serving as a solid foundation. Though I generally maintain a take-it-or-leave-it opinion when it comes to pecans, these were crunchy enough to provide a nice textural contrast between the copious icing and the sticky sweet roll. Slightly more savory was the fig, bacon, and goat cheese mini-quiche in another corner of the box. My relationship to goat cheese is off-again, on-again – it tends to be a stronger flavor than I can generally embrace. But in this pastry, the sweet fig and briny bacon worked well with the hint of sour-umami that the goat cheese delivered.

Day Two: Revival Kolaches!

Day Two: Revival Kolaches!

The second morning found us break-feasting outside on a campus lawn, with the early morning temps re-assuring us that fall might actually be coming. A table full of brown bags awaited the crowd, this time filled with kolaches. I occasionally see kolaches advertised in our area, but my first taste was in Central Texas, where Czech settlers likely introduced them many years ago. In my brief acquaintance with kolaches, I’ve seen them in basically two forms. They may look like a buns or rolls filled with breakfast meats of some sort, similar to a pig in a blanket. The other iteration has a bite similar to a cinnamon roll with a dollop of fruit or cheese filling on top. Our bags had one of each, brought to us by Ryan Pera and Morgan Weber of Revival Market in Houston, TX. The meat-filled kolache was laden with spicy boudin sausage (boudin in a blanket?) saving me the need for the saltine crackers I normally use as a vessel for breakfast boudin. They called the other one a Satsuma kolache, which had a cream-cheesy filling flecked with bits of Satsuma mandarin. The Wife went back for another one of those, and I did my part to help her make it disappear.
One of the speakers on Saturday talked about Cracker Barrel. The theme of the weekend was “Pop Culture: Who’s selling, who’s buying, and at what price?” and there is a lot of pop culture at Cracker Barrel. According to her research, the fine folks at the Barrel essentially invented the Hash Brown Casserole. For breakfast on the final morning, Chef Corbin Evans of the Oxford Canteen reinvented it. He called it Skillet Hashbrown Breakfast Taco Casserole with Salsa Verde and Crema (not in a brown bag or box, but on recyclable brown plates). I am not what you would call a frequent flier at Cracker Barrel. But if they had any part in the inspiration of this Latino version, then I am at least deeply thankful.

Day Three: Canteen Casserole

Day Three: Canteen Casserole

The food may change every morning, but there is one consistent factor: Royal Cup Coffee. In our home kitchen we have a collection of coffee tumblers that the Royal Cup folks provide for Symposium attendees each year. We pretty much wear them out. Over the years they have added the option of pour-overs, and an espresso-fueled truck. (Okay, that’s an embellishment – but you can get espresso drinks from the truck.) This year they also added a nitrogen-infused cold brew. I usually prefer my coffee sweet and creamy, but this cold brew didn’t need any add-ons. I was astounded and amazed. And after two of them, very much awake.

Royal Cup Brew-Mobile

Royal Cup Brew-Mobile

Stay tuned; lunch is coming.

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Taco Tuesday

Taco Tuesday. It just has a nice ring to it, don’t you think? According to Gustavo Arellano, author of the book Taco USA, How Mexican Food Conquered America, a number of restaurants claim the original idea – one even copyrighted the term. No matter who thought of it first, I think it’s a great idea. And not long ago I had an inadvertent (but delicious) Taco Tuesday I won’t soon forget.

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A book you should read

The scene was Jackson, the capital of our fine state. For the purposes of my day job, which is medical in nature, I found myself spending the day at the Medical Mall. Until 24 hours before my trip, I didn’t even know there was a Medical Mall. For others unfamiliar, it’s an old shopping mall, retrofitted with clinics, pharmacies, health education and the like. Not necessarily the sort of place you’d think would harbor a great lunch spot. But pharmacists gotta’ eat, right?
When lunchtime came, my colleague gave me a quick tour of what served as an extended food court: Subway of course, because the next closest Subway must have been at least a half mile away. (I’m convinced they have the same expansion plan as Dollar General.) Chick-Fil-A in miniature (not a full-size restaurant – more like a stall with sack lunches.) And Picadilly Cafeteria, an apparent holdover from mall days, I’m betting. There were a few other places scattered about, but the one that caught my attention was a little kiosk halfway between Subway and Picadilly.
The sign said, “Sameerah’s Healthy Kiosk.” A bigger sign listed five or six varieties of grits: grits with bacon, grits with ham, grits with sausage, etc. The idea of grits for lunch brought me back, but when I looked at the menu – abbreviated but intriguing – it was a taco that sealed the deal.
It’s always tough to make a decision when:
1)I’m at a new place,
2)so many things look good,
3)I don’t know if I’ll ever get the chance to go back.
The struggle is real. Thankfully, there was another customer waiting for his order that was happy to help. I didn’t get his name, but I did get that he worked in the building. I also got that he had eaten with Ms. Sameerah every day, Monday through Friday, since something like January. He also revealed that she made everything fresh daily – if she ran out, she ran out. She even cut her veggies right there in front of us. I watched her shave slices of carrot right into our wraps. In the end, though, he wasn’t as much help as I had hoped: he had tried everything on the menu, and it was all good. I was right back where I started.
I finally settled on the black bean taco – it was a healthy kiosk, after all. She cut the veggies fresh, after all. Plus it was after 2 o’clock and I knew I’d be eating dinner in a few hours, so something lighter seemed the right thing to do. She started with one of her homemade wraps. I didn’t get details on how she made it, but I could see that it was special – chances are it was a secret, anyway. The next layer was something she called Sameerah Sauce – no secrets divulged on that one, either. Next she added black beans heated on the electric griddle, then fresh-cut carrots, tomatoes, lettuce, avocado, and more. Another squirt of Sameerah Sauce and it was done. Simple and delicious. On the side were grilled veggies unlike any I’ve ever had. Thin-sliced cabbage, green pepper, tomato, onion, and zucchini – heated up on the griddle with a blend of herbs that I assumed she wouldn’t share. (And she wouldn’t share.) I’ll just have to experiment and figure it out, because those veggies were ten times better than any side of fries. And healthy to boot.

Sameerah's Black Bean Taco and Grilled Veggies

Sameerah’s Black Bean Taco and Grilled Veggies

Lunch was a lucky surprise, but dinner had already been decided. I left the Mall after work and went a few minutes down the road to Fondren for my first visit to the Pig & Pint. As I approached the entrance, I was enthusiastically welcomed by one of the P&P servers. I told him I’d never been there before and requested his recommendation. Ribs were his first thought – apparently they’d won an award for being the best in Jackson. Next on his list was the taco sampler. Now he had my attention.
I think it’s ironic that a dish most old-school pit masters would never have offered in a roadside barbecue joint is now de rigueur in the newer places. And despite the purist streak in me, I dig ‘em. But I did take the time to peruse the menu. I had already heard about the pork belly corn dog. I was intrigued by the pimento cheese served with house made pork rinds. Boudin burger? Ordinarily I would have gone for it (I’m odd like that) or at least persuaded someone with me to order something different. That allows me to pretend to be a real food critic and try as many dishes as possible. But alas, I was alone and not quite starving, so I went with my gut and got the tacos.

Taco Trio @ Pig &Pint

Taco Trio @ Pig &Pint

The trio included one each with pulled chicken, pulled pork, and brisket. All had pico de gallo and mango jicama slaw, the slaw another rendition you are unlikely to find at a typical joint – yet it fit right in at the Pig and Pint. I think the brisket was my fave, but I didn’t leave a crumb from any of them. And despite my state of satiation, I geared up for the ride home with a decadent chunk of Parker House Bread Pudding, infused with cranberry jelly and covered in white chocolate sauce.

Decadence in a paper tray

Decadence in a paper tray

A long workday transformed into an unforeseen Taco Tuesday. That’s the kind of day I like.

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