Posts Tagged With: new orleans

Working Lunches

(Most of us take a break from work to eat lunch. To do that, someone else has to work to make our lunch, bring it to us, or grow the ingredients that compose it. We need to remember that. In this post, I remember the lunches from the 2019 Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium, as we work towards getting back to Oxford for the long-awaited 2021 event.)

I say this every year, but some things are just so true that they bear repeating: lunches at the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium are a big deal.  In years past we’ve eaten fantastic multi-course meals at the noon hour prepared by the likes of Sean Brock, Mashama Bailey, and Vivian Howard.  (If you don’t know these chefs, feel free to pause and Google – you’ll be impressed.)  This year was no different when it came to the culinary skills of the chefs, but there was a slightly different vibe.  The theme of the symposium was Food is Work, and we were encouraged to consider and appreciate all the steps that it took to get that food on the plate, and all the people that had a hand in it.    

On our first full day the plan was to enjoy lunch outside in The Grove.  Rain made that virtually impossible, so the fine folks at the SFA improvised, made easier because lunch that day was served on a cardboard tray and the focus was on po-boy sandwiches, which by nature and design are portable.  

Most food has a story, though not all lunches are given a title – unless you’re eating with SFA. “Food to Sustain a Strike,” was based on the 1929 New Orleans streetcar strike.  Two brothers, Bennie and Clovis Martin, were former streetcar conductors who opened Martin Brothers Coffee Stand and Restaurant in 1922.  To support the men in the union, they offered free food to any of the strikers in Division 194.  When they saw one coming, they’d say, “Here comes another poor boy.”  Whether or not that was the first time these half-loaves of French bread stuffed with fillings were called Poor-Boys is debated, but the Martin brothers’ offer to feed those workers is definitely a part of the story.  

I make no claims to be a po-boy expert.  But I know what I like, and these sandwiches and what came alongside kinda’ blew my mind.  One was simply called a Ham and Cheese Po-boy, which at first glance doesn’t sound terribly exciting, but glances are not what count in such cases.  There was indeed ham, cheese, mustard and pickles.  No fancy stuff.  Just basic fixins’ that somehow became a sandwich I would very much like to be eating again. Right now. The other “half” of the loaf, while still not fancy, wasn’t something I see on menus that often, and it’s unfortunate: French Fry Po-Boy with Tomato Gravy.  Also on the tray was a little container of gumbo z’herbs over potato salad, plus a sweet potato fried pie to finish it off. The chefs behind this lunch were Kristen Essig and Michael Stoltzfus of Coquette in New Orleans.  I didn’t see any po-boys on their restaurant menu, but if they can make me crave ham and cheese, they are definitely on the list for my next NOLA visit. 

The next day featured a Working Woman’s Lunch, headlined by Maneet Chauhan of Chaatable (Indian Street Food) and several other restaurants in Nashville.  You may also have seen her judging Chopped on Food Network.  But before we get to the Indian food, let’s talk about the other folks who helped fill our Tiffin tin lunch box.  

Elizabeth Scott’s family of Scott’s Hot Tamales of Greenville (MS) provided – guess what?  A tamale.  Their recipe includes beef brisket and cornmeal, and of course, secret spices.  Delta tamales have a history that is closely connected to both Mexican and African-American field workers, thus their logical inclusion in a lunch connecting food and work.  

Chef William Dissen (Haymaker, Charlotte, NC), who has roots in Appalachia, brought us pepperoni rolls, the state food of West Virginia.  The lunch link here comes from Giuseppe “Joseph” Argiro, who is credited with inventing this roll baked with pepperoni inside back in 1927 to sell to coal miners. 

The roll was in the top layer of our Tiffin box.  If you haven’t seen one of these (and I hadn’t since our days on the other side of the world), it is essentially a stack of interlocking tins that can hold different foods.  They’re great for people on the go who don’t like their food to touch, or just don’t want dessert merging with the salad.  I was thankful because it kept the coconut contained.

Chef Chauhan’s top layer of the Tiffin was a collard green and black-eyed pea curry, with tomato, caramelized onion, curry leaves and … coconut.  I make no bones about my aversion to those white flakes, but in this case I was able to parcel out one safe coconut-free bite to confirm The Wife’s opinion of the deliciousness of the overall dish.  Meanwhile, I focused on the next layer, a roasted sweet potato chaat made with pear, tamarind chutney, mint-mango chutney, spiced garbanzo and corn trail mix.  Somewhere between side dish and snack mix, this was probably my favorite layer.  The bottom tin held the sweetest bites: pumpkin cheesecake gulab jamun with chickpea pearl laddoo crumble over saffron cardamom rabri.  That’s a lot of words I don’t know, but I did look up gulab jamun, which is traditionally a ball of fried milk-based dough soaked in a sugar syrup, often infused with rosewater.  In this dessert the balls seemed to be incorporated into the cheesecake, almost like the ladyfingers in tiramisu.  India meets Tennessee in Mississippi.  I like it.  

I am as much an expert on Indian food as I am po-boys, which is to say…not at all. But Chaatable or another of Chauhan’s places in Nashville also goes on the “must-find-on-next-visit” list.  I depart inspired to make tamales again, to try my hand at a pepperoni roll, and to eat more things with French fries inside.  And maybe drive a streetcar.  

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Ice Cream and Collards (Breakfast is Served)

(In just a few short weeks, the 2019 Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium will begin.  As has become my habit, as the day approacheth, I’ll look back at the 2018 Symposium.  Let the drooling begin.  And what better way to begin than breakfast?)

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I look forward to breakfast.  Full stop.  There are days when it’s just a banana, a single (albeit large) cup of butter coffee, or – heaven forbid – plain eggs.  But not if I can help it.  I seek adventure in the breakfast nook.  

The offerings for early morning repast at the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium never fail the thrill seekers.  Normally, there are glimpses of recognition.  Last year we had Mote Pillo, which is scrambled eggs (check) and hominy (huh?).  Now if I’d said eggs and hominy grits, nobody would have blinked an eye, but these were grits in their native form – unground, whole kernels of hominy.  

Last year’s other breakfast featured a riff on Eggs Benedict, at least for those with a big imagination.  Biscuit instead of English muffin, chorizo instead of Canadian bacon, chipotle gravy rather than hollandaise sauce – the only bridge between the two was the poached egg.  It was even served in a cup.  But I licked the cup.  (Not really – that’s figurative.  If you’ve ever tried to lick the bottom of a cup, you’d realize, like me, that it’s practically impossible.  And I never remember to pack my tiny silicone spatula like my friend carries in her purse, to scrape up every last bit of deliciousness.)

This year was no different.  Of course, we have to have our morning coffee, and Royal Cup takes good care of us.  In addition to the hot coffee that was much appreciated on those finally cool mornings, we also got to taste their new cold brew products.  But wait!  There’s more!  They also had bottled iced tea for the first time, including a peach variety.  The tea was more of a “Here is something new to try, and we are here now, so please take one and enjoy it later,” than a “Don’t you drink iced tea for breakfast?” type of situation.  I’m particularly fond of peach tea, and this one ranked high.  I described it to The Wife as a peach juice drink with some tea added, perhaps even reminiscent of what a peach Jolly Rancher would taste like if it were made from natural flavors.  Please understand – these are good things in my view.  And the sweet tea version (sans any fruit flavor) was just the level of sweetness I would want with a big barbecue sandwich.  But we were talking about breakfast, weren’t we?

Day One was completely unexpected, as expected.  I’d seen a social media post from an early riser before we got there and knew that there would be a rice waffle, smeared with clotted cream and topped with peach slices.  That alone would have been sufficient.  I’m all about waffle variations, and seriously – how many of us get up in the morning and smear clotted cream on anything?  That’s special.  But here’s the good part.  Chicken and waffles are a big thing now – it’s the new shrimp and grits for restaurants that claim Southern roots.  As Chef Cynthia Wong of Life Raft Treats (Charleston) handed me what appeared to be a chicken drumette in a clear plastic envelope, she described the dish: “Not Fried Chicken and Waffle.”  The Not Fried Chicken drumette was ice cream.  I know!  Isn’t it great to be an adult??  

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We’ve probably all had oven fried chicken at some point in our lives, coated in crushed corn flakes or the like.  Ditto here (plus caramelized white chocolate), which made everything look normal.  But after taking a bite of the drumette you could see it was white instead of the usual dark, because … it wasn’t meat at all.  It was waffle ice cream.  There was even a chocolate cookie “bone”.   Call me flabbergasted.  And allow me to be accountable: as breakfast was winding down, I noticed some Not Fried Chicken still sitting around and it’s a crime to let ice cream melt unnecessarily. (It was cool weather, but not that cool.) I’m sure you can guess what happened next.  

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The next morning was more of the same when it came to creativity, though there was no ice cream involved.  I’m told that Chef Kelly Fields of Willa Jean Bakery and Cafe is known for her biscuits.  The restaurant is in New Orleans, and I haven’t been to NOLA since Katrina, so I’ve been out of the loop.  I’m very thankful that the loop snuck up to Oxford for breakfast and brought me in.  

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Have you ever been handed a breakfast biscuit or the like, wrapped in a foil wrapper, and your first thought was, “This is heavy.”?  I saw the description on a stand at the end of the table: I knew it was a biscuit with boudin and greens.  But my usual modus operandi is to go back for a second breakfast (after a polite wait, of course), be it a fresh serving or half The Wife’s.  Due to the sheer weight of what I held in my hand, I wasn’t sure that would happen this time.  The biscuit was squarish, flaky, and golden buttery brown.  The collaborative layer of collard and mustard greens was chock full of ham chunks.  The boudin was in patty form, crisp on the outside, perhaps pan-fried.  I’ve had boudin in many iterations – perhaps even in a biscuit once – but never in a biscuit with greens.  And each biscuit came with a tiny bottle of green Tabasco sauce, for those who dig it spicy.  It served as our breakfast, but I could have one at any point of the day.  Willa Jean?  I say, Willa Genius.  

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Two great starts to two great days.  Then again, it’s hard not to have a great day when they start off with happiness and joy, or in this case, ice cream and collards.  

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