Posts Tagged With: Mashama Bailey

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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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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