Winner, winner, chicken dinner! That’s what I felt like shouting after all three dinners at the 2015 Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium. But I didn’t. That would have been slightly inappropriate and surely would have embarrassed The Wife. Wouldn’t have surprised her, but would have embarrassed her. And come to think of it, there was hardly a chicken to be found.
On the first night, after the always fantastic foodways-focused taping of Thacker Mountain Radio, we sat down for a six-course dinner from Rob Newton, a Brooklyn, NY chef with Arkansas roots. At this dinner (as he does at his restaurant Nightingale 9) he took Southern standards and gave them an Asian spin.
A few things recognizable to most Southerners were waiting for us on the table: boiled peanuts in a Mason jar, slices of country ham, pickles. On the same plate: spiced duck breast and rolled rice sticks. This sort of snack would be served along with bia hois, a unique Vietnamese beer – much like bowls of pretzels and nuts at a local bar.
The next course was a little cup of pho bo, aka the national dish of Vietnam. This soup can be really simple, as was ours (rich beef broth with herbs), or it might have rice noodles, beef strips, chicken, vegetables, etc. In Vietnam it is often a breakfast dish, but I don’t think anybody was worried.
Post-pho we received a little take-out container full of grits congee. Congee, in the simplest terms, is a rice porridge; our version was Southernized with grits standing in for the rice. Field peas gave a little texture, butternut squash provided some sweet bites, chicken and chanterelles provided the umami – and the crispy chicken skin was the perfect garnish.
Then the salad, unlike any salad I’ve ever seen. When it was brought to the table, all we could see was a plate-sized piece of grilled rice paper covering a hidden bounty underneath. We shattered the rice paper to find pumpkin seeds, green papaya, herbs, fried shallots, and sorghum grains. Sorghum: that’s molasses, right? Yes, but wait! There’s more! In Asia it can be used as the base for spirits and aged vinegars or cooked, as it was in this salad.
The main course was grilled quail stuffed with a Vietnamese-style boudin sausage, served with duck hearts, peanuts and baby collards over shaved slices of green tomato. Duck hearts I had only seen on Chopped; they reminded me of liver, perhaps a little more dense. The green tomato gave just enough brightness to offset the rich, dark flavor of the grilled quail. I could have eaten at least another serving of this. (Quail are small, remember. Quail are small.)
Dessert was street style pineapple: fresh chunks of pineapple on a stick, with a sour coconut milk for dipping (The Wife represented on that one), plus Vietnamese chocolate, and a little tiny bag of spicy salt to sprinkle on the fruit. This was not my first time to combine chocolate with pineapple, but the spicy salt was a nice diversion from the norm.
The following night we were back, as usual, to a Taylor Grocery catfish feast. No big changes to the fare Taylor provides – and that’s the way I like it. What differs from year to year are the catfish samplings outside – aka the Degustation. Chef Katie Button (Asheville, NC, our home away from home) took the Simmons Delacata cut and came up with a Chow-Chow Delacata Ceviche, served in crunchy little cones. Chef Justin Devillier (New Orleans) made Delacata Andouille Dogs with Turtle Chili. I think I’ve had ceviche twice in my life, and both times were at these meetings – any other place I may have passed it by, but I try most everything here. On the other hand, I’ve had lots of hot dogs, made with a myriad of meats. Never had a catfish dog. Never had turtle chili – only soup. It was a good night for firsts and seconds.
The final dinner was certainly right up my alley: the Lodge Cast Iron “Blank and Grits” Feed. I love grits in every form; this was grits heaven. Chef David Carrier (St.Simon’s Island, Georgia) started us with Deviled Shrimp and Grits Eggs. The yolks were “infused” with grits and the eggs were topped with a tasso and shrimp remoulade. My shrimp and grits world was turned upside down. The next world-turner was the Krill and Grits Tart from Kim Floresca (Chapel Hill, North Carolina). I confess: I didn’t know what a krill was until I saw the movie Finding Nemo, and here I was eating crispy fried krill in (and on) a quiche-like grits tart. Slightly more familiar was the Crab Cream Grits (Ricky Moore, Durham, North Carolina) and the Yellow Corn Grits with Squash and Grit Crumbs. One of my favorite bites was the Crispy Rice Grits with a side of Greens: think hush puppy sized, super crispy on the outside, tender inside. Think yum.
Dessert that night was not grits-related, but it was served out of cast-iron skillets, so it still fit the theme. Seersucker Candy of Nashville sent three of their handmade candy spheres: Muzzle Loaders (salted bourbon caramel), Cherry Bombs (pickled cherry cordials), and Lemon Drops (lemon drop-ish crunchy outside, lemon curd-ish creamy inside). I was sitting way too close to that table. It’s a good thing grits are filling and I didn’t have bigger pockets. These should definitely be on your bucket list; in fact, I suggest ordering a bucketful.
From duck hearts to Delecata, congee to Cherry Bombs, and oh my goodness that black pepper pastry filled with spicy green tomato jam, my taste buds have once again made memories. Thanks, SFA.