Posts Tagged With: chef

Lunch with Mashama, Again!

(It’s time for the 2019 Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium.  Here’s another look at a tale told through lunch from the 2018 event.)

There are always new people at the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium.  I was one of those new people once, and a few years later The Wife was a new people.  This year the event was opened up to the public (usually it’s limited to members), so there were lots of new people.  

Whenever we sit down for a meal at this eating-meeting we have a choice to make: we can try to sit with folks we already know, which is fun because we often only see them once a year, or we can go potluck (food pun intended) and sit with complete strangers.  The great thing about potlucking with strangers is that they are not strangers very long.  Then you have new friends to sit with next year.  

A few years ago, at a lunch early in the weekend, we sat down and began making conversation with a couple of nice ladies from Savannah, Georgia.  And as we conversed The Wife and I discovered that one of them was Mashama Bailey, Chef at The Grey.  Not only was she a chef, she was also the chef that would be making lunch for us the next day.  I’ve seen a little behind-the-scenes video of what it takes to pull off one of these lunches, so in hindsight I’m wondering how she wasn’t already in a kitchen prepping to feed 300-plus people, but hey – chefs gotta’ eat, too, right?  And they don’t want to miss any of these meals, either.  

Fast forward to this year.  Since the day we sat with Mashama she has become a finalist for a James Beard Award (Best Chef Southeast), and The Grey was Eater.com’s 2017 Restaurant of the Year.  (Now all the chefs want to sit with us…)  Not a bad resume, considering she had already worked for years with Gabrielle Hamilton at Prune in NYC, and was hand-picked through that relationship to open up The Grey in 2014.  And we are grateful that she was also hand-picked to cook lunch for us again.  

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The theme for the SFA’s 2018 programming was the link between food and literature, in a vast number of forms.  This lunch was inspired by Zora Neale Hurston, a writer known for the novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” published in 1937, along with more novels, an autobiography, short stories, essays, plays and more.  Hurston was not a cookbook author, but as her biographer, Valerie Boyd (who spoke to us at the Symposium), noted, food was an integral part of her personality.  To research, Chef Mashama worked with Boyd, and read a lot of Hurston’s works for inspiration.  Here’s what she came up with.  

On the table as we arrived were what she called “Jook Snacks,” foods that people from her small-town Georgia roots (and Hurston’s in rural Florida) would have eaten simply because they were around.  There were hot buns with preserves, bread and butter pickles, and a platter of pulled rabbit with Tabasco sauce.  How old were you when you first sat down to a platter of pulled rabbit?  On the day we had it, I was that day old.  

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The second course was Savannah Red Rice with Shrimp, and Stewed Okra.  According to Mashama, chicken and rice was Hurston’s dish, so the translation to Savannah was simple.  Over the last few years I’ve eaten less rice than I used to (you know, carbs and all), but I didn’t hesitate to dive into this.  I’ve even made a version of it before, a baked rice dish flavored (and colored red) by tomatoes, accentuated with onion and bell pepper, and studded with bacon or sausage – or, in this case, shrimp, which was absolutely appropriate for a port city dish.  Stewed okra, of course, is not just okra – it’s got tomatoes and onions going on, too.  

The third course took us to the juke joints Hurston wrote about.  Mashama said, “Fish is the ultimate juke-joint food.”  So instead of shrimp and grits, she made fish and grits.  Not like your mama’s fish and grits, though.  (I’m just kidding – if your mama made fish and grits, please let me know.)  These were mostly-whole whiting atop grit cakes so carefully put together they almost looked like thick slices of potato.  So now I have another way to love grits.  Alongside were Tabasco Sauce-braised collards with smoked pig tails.  (By the way, did I mention that this was the 2018 Tabasco Luncheon?)  Again, did your mama put pig tails in the collards?  If mine did, she didn’t tell me – I wasn’t always as adventurous as I am now, so her silence would have been a good idea.  And it was a good idea, indeed – the pig tails, I mean.  Ash-roasting sweet potatoes was also a good idea, served on a bed of thick, red sauce that I meant to ask about…but didn’t.  

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Let’s talk about dessert.  This is the part where I’ve already confessed in previous writings that I like to hang around and partake of leftovers.  This time was no different.  Tea cakes made with cornmeal and buttermilk were the centerpiece, because Tea Cake is a main character in Hurston’s first novel, and according to Boyd’s biography, cornbread and buttermilk was Zora’s favorite childhood breakfast.  I had a few of these, but not a few too many.  To accompany the tea cakes were candied pears – I love pear preserves and these were an interesting twist – and peanut brittle that was kinda’ fancy.  

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Not only did this lunch make me want to go to Savannah, it also made me want to read some Zora Neale Hurston.  Eating and reading – two of my favorite things to do. 

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Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium 2014, Part Two: Arepas and Underbellies

About a year ago I went to Houston, Texas for a seminar. Not long after that I went to Oxford for the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium. Ironically (or not?) the same chef showed up in both places. This is the story of that. And a little more.
My first night on the first trip to Houston I went with friends to Underbelly restaurant, the creation of Chef Chris Shepherd. I was slightly confused later as I read in the SFA’s weekly digest that a series of audio food documentaries (aka oral histories) had recently been done, also called the Underbelly of Houston. Lots of bellies here. I wondered if there was a link, and in a way, there was.
When I was in the midst of figuring out where I wanted to eat out in Houston, two different local residents (who have no ties to each other save the fact that they know me) recommended Underbelly – the restaurant. I was intrigued by what I discovered. Chef Chris describes his cuisine as Creole, defined as “the merging of diverse cultures with local ingredients.” Naturally, this kind of thing happens often in port cities, and Houston is the largest port city in the South. But he didn’t just say, “I want to do something Sichuan tonight” and pull out a Chinese cookbook – he found Cori Xiong and Heng Chen, the couple that owns Mala Sichuan Bistro, and learned from them. I’m told he also did the same thing in a number of other ethnic restaurants, and even encourages his restaurant patrons to check out some of these places before they come back to Underbelly.

Chef Chris plating at the Powerhouse

Chef Chris plating at the Powerhouse

At the Symposium each year, there is a big lunch on Saturday with a guest chef. This year’s lunch was given the moniker “Tabasco Dim Sum Luncheon” and Chef Chris led the way. I’ve never been to a dim sum restaurant (one more for the bucket list), but I’ve seen one on TV. Often the small portions of food are brought around on a cart, and the diner can pick and choose from several different options. This is basically how it was done at the luncheon, all the way down to the extravagantly decorated grocery carts. (Yes, there was a cart parade.)

Shopping cart bling

Shopping cart bling

At Underbelly (the restaurant – try to keep up) there is a full-on butcher shop where they make their own charcuterie, but this is not your Uncle Sal from Sicily’s salami. Some of the things we tried in Oxford were pho-spiced bresaola, paneer summer sausage, Sichuan saucisson sec, Vietnamese pickled pork sausage, whipped Gochujang lardo – and that all came with lard biscuits. Sadly, the biscuits were about the only things I could readily identify.

Charcuterie and pickles...and a biscuit!

Charcuterie and pickles…and a biscuit!

The charcuterie plate was waiting for us when we sat at the table. There were also pickles: daikon, red beans, soy green beans, mustard greens and carrots. The rest came in a controlled flurry in the wildly colorful carts. Salt Snapper Fried Rice. Sweet and Spicy Tabasco-glazed Ham Ribs. Korean Goat and Dumplings. The goat dish is on the menu at Underbelly, also, and by popular demand is one of a rare few that have not rotated off. This was not my first time to eat goat, but it was certainly the version with the most flavor.

Got goat?

Got goat?

But wait. There’s more.
Fried chicken with Tabasco-spiked Gulf Coast XO sauce, the chef’s version of a Chinese seafood sauce. Also from that genre, broccoli with caramelized fish sauce. Garlic cucumbers appeared about now, then fried bologna steam buns with Tabasco-infused Mayo. This was certainly not your Uncle Bob from Big Creek’s bologna sandwich. But it was good. Along the way were cold Sichuan noodles and eggplant with fig miso.

Bologna has come a long way, baby.

Bologna has come a long way, baby.

My favorite of the dozen plus courses was the char siu buckboard bacon with shrimp chow mein. I didn’t really recognize this as bacon, to be quite honest, and there is a reason. Typical bacon is made from pork belly. Buckboard bacon is from the butt or loin. And char siu is a Cantonese method of making barbecue pork. Every bite I ate seemed to get better and better.
Are we seeing the merging of diverse cultures yet, the real underbelly? Asian cheese in the summer sausage – you won’t find that at the Hickory Farms kiosk. Mustard greens I know, but pickled? Fried bologna bao? This was the kind of meal not to be entered with any preconceived notions, other than “Whatever that is in the takeout container is bound to be good.” And who doesn’t love a parade?

Bucket o' buckboard bacon

Bucket o’ buckboard bacon

Backtrack to breakfast, same day: another international meal to prepare us for the fusion to come. An arepa is a Venezuelan sandwich – a grilled cornmeal patty, sliced in half and stuffed with goodies. I had heard of them, but not served this way, and certainly not for breakfast. Lis Hernandez is the one who brought them to us, all the way from her shop in Atlanta: Arepa Mia.
The main arepa was the one she calls the Pernil – slow-roasted pork with caramelized onions. There were squeeze bottles on the table that looked as if they contained extreme green guacamole – cilantro sauce and guasacaca sauce. The two were similar, both with lots of cilantro, but the guasacaca had oil, vinegar and garlic while the other had mayo and jalapeno. For the vegetarians and the curiously hungry (that would be me) she offered another version with roasted butternut squash, eggplant, black beans, and caramelized onion. It didn’t make me want to be a vegetarian – the other one was roasted pork, for goodness’ sake – but it certainly left the garden gate open.

Condiment Coozies?

Condiment Coozies?

As I reflect (mouth watering) on these two meals, I have a couple of questions. It’s been a year and I haven’t eaten anything from Chris Shepherd – what did I do wrong? And would it be unfair to dream of a bowl game in Atlanta just for an arepa?

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