Posts Tagged With: Oxford MS

Fish are Friends..and Food

(Once again, I am back to the blog in anticipation of the 21st Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium, coming in just a couple of weeks.  Over those weeks I’ll be re-living the meals and mood of last year’s Symposium, El Sur Latino, by way of these written reflections.)

From toddler days through college years, much of the time I spent at my maternal grandparents’ house was on the golf course at the Redmont Country Club (in Red Bay, Alabama).  My grandfather, Pappy, was a pretty decent golfer; when it came to long drives, however, I was more interested in the cart than the club.  But my golf course memories actually have very little to do with golf, because most of that time we were fishing.  There’s no telling how many hours my brother and I spent out there with Pappy and Ma-Manie, our great-grandmother, who absolutely loved to fish.  In the early days we fished on the lakes for bream, maybe some bass. Later, they built another lake, and it was there that I first came across the catfish.  

Generally, Pappy did all the hands-on work once Younger Brother and I reeled them in – he didn’t want us to get cut by the fins, and that was perfectly fine by us.  Once they were cleaned (again, Pappy), Granny took over and handled the frying: usually whole fish coated in cornmeal and scored into finger-sized segments.  Oh, and she cooked it in the same oil every time.  (Fun fact: Granny passed away in 2013, and she had probably not fried fish since sometime shortly after Y2K.  Not long ago, after much wondering aloud about where it may have ended up, we found her cast iron pot in a corner of her outside kitchen…still full of grease.  We opted not to fry in it.)

Of course this was long before aquaculture (a fancy word for catfish farming) became one of Mississippi’s top five agricultural products (netstate.com).  And long before I was introduced to Taylor Grocery and some of the fine folks from Simmons Catfish.  Over the past few years, thanks to the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium, those introductions have turned into friendships.  

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Okay, I don’t know if you can have a friendship with a catfish joint, but I do like spending time with it.  Or in it, as the case may be.  Son even had some of his senior pictures made there.  In all the years I’ve gone to the SFA Symposium, we’ve been bussed out to Taylor for the Friday evening meal.  At first it was just a big plate of fresh-fried catfish with all the trimmings, and that was enough.  For folks like me who attended the Ole Alma Mater, it is a nostalgic trip (made even more so by the school bus style of carpooling.)  For those coming from out of town, out of state, and outside of the South, it provides a true taste of an Oxford institution.  In the past few years, however, the organizers have upped the ante, adding a couple of appetizer stations outside the restaurant.  

I’m not talking about fried cheese and wings here, people.  Not that kind of appetizer.  These are special.  The chefs who are invited to make these have essentially one guideline: they have to use the Simmons Catfish Delacata cut.  I’ve talked about this cut before, but let’s review.  The Delacata is a deep-skinned filet cut from the center, thickest part of the fish.  It’s skinless, boneless, hand-trimmed, and mild in flavor – sort of the filet mignon of the catfish.

Lis Hernandez, Chef-Owner of Arepa Mia in Atlanta, was manning the first station we came to.  Again, a quick review.  An arepa is a sandwich made from a corn cake that is split and stuffed with all kinds of deliciousness.  Chef Lis is originally from Venezuela, where she learned to make arepas from her mom.  A few years ago she served us breakfast arepas at the symposium, and I fell in love.  Just this year I was able to make it to one of her two Arepa Mia restaurants in Atlanta.  I’m a big fan.  On this night she made Delacata arepas, with a piece of the fried fish, jalapeno pico, cilantro sauce, lettuce and tomato.  Ours came right off the grill, piping hot and could have almost served as a small meal of its own.  That didn’t stop me, of course, and I didn’t leave a single crumb. 

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Arepa Mia Delacata

Up on the porch, Chef Jesus Carmona from Tacos Mariachi in Dallas, was dishing out Delacata tostadas.  I haven’t been to Dallas in a few years, but after taking a look at his menu, I think a trip may be in order.  He offers all the normal fillings like chicken, pork, steak, and tongue.  For the more daring, there are also tacos with grilled marinated octopus and huitlacoche (Mexican corn truffle, aka corn smut).  I also noted mole fries and pork chicharron-crusted cod.  I already know my order.  For Symposium attendees he grilled the Delacata and dressed it with avocado crema, a dab of pico-like relish, and a generous portion of cilantro.  It was crunchy, creamy, and salty all in one great bite. 

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I call this, “Delaca-ta-co with Halo.”

 

For those who travel, particularly those who eat while you travel – or like me, those who travel to eat – consider this column a travel guide.  East to Atlanta for arepas, West to Dallas for all manner of tacos, north to Oxford for catfish and the trimmings, and south of the border to see where El Sur Latino was born.  And please save a seat for me.  

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Picking the Right College and Lunch Spot

We are way past my birthday now, but I am still getting reminders of my personal aging process. It has come to my attention that I am the father of a senior in high school. You know him as Son. All last year we knew he was a junior, and all summer long we knew he was about to be a senior, yet somehow it still feels like it snuck up on us. There are a lot of things that have to be done now, not the least of which is to find the right college. There are applications to fill out, scholarships to search for, and visits to make. And what kind of father would I be if I didn’t take Son to the Ole Alma Mater? More importantly, what kind of father would I be if I didn’t show him where to eat along the way?

There are several ways to get to Oxford from Starkville – for those maroon and white locals that fear to tread there, you’ll just have to take my word for it. As a student myself, I took the back roads to Houston, on to Pontotoc, and beyond. That’s how you go if you want to stop at Seafood Junction in Algoma. These days I usually take the wider road to Eupora and up through Bruce, and that’s the way we went on this trip.

Because of previous jobs that took me the same direction, I made friends along the way, so our breakfast stop at the service station in Bruce was intended to be a visit as well. Unfortunately, my buddy was not there; but that didn’t stop us from getting a biscuit. Son went safe and got the sausage egg and cheese – mine was thick-sliced bologna. The biscuit itself was great – nice and buttery without being too crumbly. And I enjoyed the bologna, but I would add this caveat: you really need to love bologna to love a bologna biscuit. The biscuit led to a question from Son: What is bologna, anyway? I confess I could not give him an accurate answer. Maybe some things are better left unknown.

Days before we made the trip, I knew where we would be eating lunch. That’s how I roll. I had recently been in touch with another Starkvillian who not only graduated from Hotty Toddy U., he landed there after grad school and made it home. Through our social media connections, I noted that he was raving about Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken, which had opened in Oxford not long ago. When I asked for more details, he described it as basically one thing: fried chicken. Either parts or tenders, with basic sides and great desserts. And he used the word “spicy”. I got a little nervous here, because I’ve had some ruthlessly hot fried chicken before and I wanted to know what I was getting into. I delved further, and he said it was “politely spicy.” I can adapt to politely spicy. So off we went to Gus’s.

The Oxford location is just off the Square, which usually means it’s close to everything but an open parking space. Such is life on the Oxford Square. You learn to deal with that because so many great Oxford eateries are on or around it. And a little walk when all you’re going to do is eat is not such a bad thing.

We started off with a plate of fried green tomatoes – I was proud of Son for branching out a bit, as he is admittedly wary of tomatoes in their natural state. Then we waited for a good long while, which according to the Gus’s website, is just part of the experience. We were in no hurry, and after a campus tour in the blazing heat, we were just happy to be in the air conditioning with an endless supply of sweet tea.

Son gets serious about the fried green tomato

Son gets serious about the fried green tomato

Another unique feature mentioned on the website is the variation of spiciness. To put it as they do, it might bring tears one day or it might be “like the touch of an old friend.” I have no idea what that means. The day we went it was as my friend said: politely spicy – enough pepper to make a statement, but not enough to make your nose run. The crust was a little bit crunchy, but not crumbly-all-over-my-lap crunchy. The meat was tender and juicy. It was worth the wait.

Dark Meat Special of the Day.  We shared it.  Really.

Dark Meat Special of the Day. We shared it. Really.

When it came time for dessert, we were slightly hesitant simply because I already had some dessert plans for the trip home. Then again, multiple meals have never stopped me before, and we did have a recommendation already. So what do you do in that kind of situation? Well, you get something and share it, of course.
They offered several good Southern pie options, but the one that caught my ear was chess. You just don’t see chess pie offered that often, so one must take those kinds of opportunities when they knock. The same goes for egg custard. I’d be willing to bet that many of you have never had an egg custard pie, and if you have, I’d bet you haven’t had one in a long time. Am I right? And I could probably say the same for chess. I asked Son if he’d ever had chess pie, and he could only come up with a memory of a chess square. Close, but not quite, so we ordered a piece, and it was just as good chess pie should be: insanely rich and buttery. A nice palate pleaser after politely spicy chicken.

They say that sometimes the journey is just as important as the destination. The destinations were successes, both the campus visit and the chicken. Now it was time for the journey home. Stay tuned and buckle up (but not too tightly): it’s gonna’ be a tasty ride.

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Symposium Weekend Begins

Its fall, so says the calendar – that season of the year when almost all my senses are awakened in ways I look forward to for the rest of the year.  Despite what seems to be our third or fourth Indian summer in Mississippi, there have been some refreshing moments outdoors when my skin felt cool once again.  Visually, those summer rewinds may be slowing down the autumn colors on the trees in my neighborhood, but I can imagine how the reds and golds must be transforming the Blue Ridge Parkway near our second home (in spirit, not in bricks) in Asheville, North Carolina.  You know I love hearing roaring crowds and ensuing fight songs under Friday night lights and north to Vaught-Hemingway.  The crisp, cool air is somehow a purer carrier of the perfumed clouds wafting from grills and smokers which are slowly transforming the other white meat to tender perfection.  And every fall brings the Symposium of the Southern Foodways Alliance, a sensation of taste like no other that cleverly teases the other four senses as well.  It will take me weeks to tell about it, so sit back, loosen up the top button on your pants, and enjoy the meal.

Though the Symposium officially kicked off on Friday morning, there were several Thursday evening activities available for early-arrivers.  Once again, we began with a special food-themed edition of the Thacker Mountain Radio show, taped at the historic Lyric Theater.   In keeping with the theme of this year’s symposium, “Women at Work”, author Charlotte Druckman read excerpts from her book, Skirt Steak, about the experiences of women chefs.   Film-maker Joe York interviewed fashion designer Natalie Chanin from Florence, Alabama, who told about her experiences making Southern-style biscuits for the inhabitants of an island off the coast of South America.  Chef John Currence celebrated the release of his new cookbook, Pickles, Pigs, and Whiskey by telling the tale of “Punishment Soup”, which involved his mother (who was sitting on the front row).  The Yalobushwhackers, the house band, sang about cornbread and butterbeans, jambalaya and crawfish pie, featuring Starkville native Jeff Callaway on trombone.  It’s always fun to know somebody in the band.  And let’s not forget the Gee’s Bend Singers.  As the show closed, volunteers brought around little cups of yakamein, a noodle soup (this one with smoked pork) topped with bits of boiled egg, commonly found in New Orleans.  Simple but tasty, it was a nice start to the eating part of the weekend.

After the show, several local restaurants offered unique menus especially for symposium attendees.  We joined J.J. and John Carney of Eat Drink Mississippi magazine for dinner at Ravine Restaurant.  Several miles south of the square in Oxford, Ravine is in a log chalet and just far enough off the beaten path to offer something of a secluded experience.  Chef Joel Miller called the menu “Hand Me Downs” and aimed to celebrate the women (including his mother and wife) who had inspired him in the kitchen.

As we studied our course selections, we enjoyed what he called “Breads from my Youth” – little biscuits with sweetened butter and something akin to Parker House rolls.  The amuse bouche was a spoonful of beets with goat cheese.  I have yet to be converted to beet-lover, but it was a worthy attempt.  The Wife’s appetizer was a riff on Oysters Rockefeller.  I’m about as much an oyster guy as I am a beet guy, but I had never tried one of these and was terribly curious.  These were not on the half-shell as I am told they are normally served, but nevertheless ranked pretty high on my “oyster dishes I might actually order” list, which is a pretty short one.  My dish was a carefully layered arrangement of Jamaican jerk chicken, tostones and arepa.  I had to look that last one up.  Tostones I have had before and have ordered elsewhere – plantain slices, twice fried.  Arepas are essentially corn pancakes common to Venezuela or Colombia – these were new to me, but more in name than concept.

For the entrée, The Wife took a trip back to our Middle Eastern days with a mezze plate, which included a unique version of falafel (deep fried fritter of chick peas or fava beans) that I really liked.  Since the Caribbean Voodoo shellfish stew was cooked in tomato coconut broth, I was left with the slow braised lamb shank, stewed white beans and gremolata.  Lamb is not usually my favorite meat, but that may be because I have never had lamb this good.  And I had to get the dictionary out again for gremolata, a chopped herb garnish made of lemon zest, parsley and garlic.

The Wife’s dessert was pineapple cake with coconut sorbet.  I abstained from trying a bite due to the proximity of the coconut, but it looked great and she came close to licking the plate.  I was quite happy with my Chocolate Almond Napoleon, thank you very much.  Napoleons come in all shapes and sizes – they are not all short but confident French leaders.   Not to be confused with Neapolitan, the tri-flavored ice cream I favored as a youngster, this is a layered dessert made from puff pastry and cream.  Ours had a little scoop of vanilla bean ice cream as a bonus.

The Symposium is over for this year (insert sad face here), but Thacker Mountain radio is still broadcasting and Ravine will keep serving great food – you can even spend the night in the guest cabin.  Not a bad way to spend a Thursday evening in Oxford, and it was a great way to start the weekend.

 

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