Posts Tagged With: rowan oak

Oyster Night at Bill’s Place

(As the 2021 Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium approaches, I find myself looking ahead to the list of chefs, mixologists, speakers, and attendees, and wishing I was already there. A little like Christmas. But I also like to look back and remember those same aspects – every year it’s a part of getting ready. Even after skipping a year of live events, looking back at 2019’s gathering makes me hungry. For all of it.)

People who know oysters know oysters.  I realize that sounds redundant, but here’s what I mean.   I would expect that someone who eats a lot of oysters could tell differences between different batches.  They have their own terroir, except it’s water instead of soil.  Oysters from Apalachicola, Florida, have a flavor that’s distinct compared to oysters from the coast of Virginia.  I have to assume that’s the case, because good oyster bars always have a list of where their oysters hail from, and if there wasn’t a difference, why buy the chalkboard?  

As you can probably tell, I don’t know oysters.  I might know something about them, but I don’t know them.  Many years ago, however, I had a brief relationship with oysters.  Shoney’s had great fried oysters back in the day, at least in the mind and on the palate of an uncultured pre-teen.  Until one day they didn’t.  I had one that didn’t taste quite right, or perhaps it was that dark green substance that appeared in the middle of a bite, and that was the end of that.  

At some point along the journey into grown-up-hood, I was talked into trying some raw oysters – rather, a raw oyster, singular –  and I did it just to say I’d done it.  Bucket list checked.  Then a few years ago at a Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium, I had another chance to try them.  This time I was introduced to mignonette sauce – a mix of vinegar, shallots and pepper – which went a long way towards improving my oyster experience.  

Then we were back in Oxford at the 2019 SFA Symposium.  For the second year in a row we began the weekend in the company of William Faulkner, or at least it felt like it since we were on the grounds of his home, Rowan Oak.  The evening began with multiple tables filled with raw oysters from various locales, brought to us by Bryan Rackley (Kimball House and Watchman’s of Atlanta) and Oyster South.  I did try one, doused with mignonette, of course.  And that was that.  I’m sure they were amazing to people who know oysters, and I wish I was one of those people.  But the night was not over – I would soon give them another chance.  

Meanwhile, as we wandered around visiting old friends and meeting new ones, trays of smoked Simmons farm-raised catfish dip on house-made crackers were being passed around.  This was a seafood dish I could get into.  Rarely did a tray pass without my partaking of a bite.  

When it comes to seafood salads/dips I am most familiar with tuna.  These days I average eating tuna salad about once a week.  A few years back I had dip made from smoked mullet at Ted Peter’s Smoked Fish restaurant in St Petersburg, Florida, thanks to their appearance on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.  And I’ve had catfish dip at least once before.  This night’s version, from Chef Bill Briand (Fisher’s, Orange Beach) was excellent, and to take the time to make the crackers was an extra nice touch.  I only quit stopping servers to take another when I realized I might be full before the main event.  

Dinner (also from Chef Briand) was once again focused on the oyster.  Yes, there was a very nice spinach salad with red onion and a creole mustard vinaigrette.  Yes, there was a big bowl of root beer-roasted sweet potatoes.  (Sweet potatoes enhanced by more sweetness; a little more subtle than a brown sugar topping, but a sweet infusion nonetheless.)  But the centerpiece of the family-style dinner tables that night was the Back of the House Oyster Stew.  

Chef Briand used to work with Donald Link in New Orleans, and it was there that they came up with the idea of this stew, with herbsaint and fennel as the defining flavors.  As someone who doesn’t know oysters, I therefore don’t know much about oyster stew.  But even if I’d had ten varieties of stew in the month before this night, I still think I would have ranked this one near the top. 

It was a cool night, and a big bowl of this creamy, steaming stew was the perfect dish to warm us up.  There were big chunks of potato to help offset the rich cream stock, and the herbs were evident.  And of course, there were fresh oysters that had been added just before we sat down to eat.  It was the kind of dish that was so satisfying, bowl-scraping or sopping up the dregs with bread would have been completely appropriate.  Instead, I went back for another bowl.  Part of a bowl, at least – I tried to be gracious.  

I don’t know if I’ll ever become an oyster aficionado.  It would be nice to have the kind of trained palate that could taste one on the half-shell and be able to pinpoint the body of water in which it was born.  It’s unlikely…but stranger things have happened.  In the meantime, I feel like my relationship with oysters is back on the right track. 

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Faulkner and the Oxford Curry

(As this posts, I’ll be getting ready for breakfast at the 2019 Symposium of the Southern Foodways Alliance.  Meanwhile, my appetite is already jump-started by looking back at another of the meals from the 2018 event.)

It was an auspicious beginning.  The Wife and I had just stepped down from the top level of Oxford’s double decker bus, after a tour of literary landmarks around town.  We walked a short distance down a sidewalk, then onto a well worn path that eventually led to perhaps the most auspicious of those literary landmarks: Rowan Oak, the home of William Faulkner.  

This was the opening reception for the 2018 Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium, held on the lawn at Faulkner’s home.  There were lights in the trees, twinkling as the sun set, and for those so inclined, Joe Stinchcomb, director of the bar program at Saint Leo restaurant, had cocktails waiting which included whiskey, one of the author’s favorite beverages – in this case, Maker’s Mark.  Though I was fascinated by the commemorative glasses (dipped in red wax, like the seal on the MM bottle), I was even more fascinated by what was being passed around on the plates.  

I hope the reader (as well as those involved with the hors d’oeuvres) will forgive if I get a bit of this wrong – I’m more of a storyteller than a journalist, and more of an eater than a storyteller.  In other words, I need to learn to take more notes, ask better questions, or both.  In any case, the program credited this welcome snack to Chef Dan Latham, another of the collaborators at Saint Leo.  But on the serving tables were cards describing the meats available at Pine Street Market in Avondale Estates, Georgia.  So I’m going to assume that Chef Latham put this together using meat from Pine Street Market.  Sound good?  Well, it was.  

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What I did write down was that the pork belly on these sliders was made from one of Faulkner’s own recipes, marinated in molasses for 30 days.  I wanted to know more about this, and sure enough – it didn’t take a very challenging web search to find “‘Pappy’ Faulkner’s Recipe for Curing Pork.”  And sure enough, molasses was one of the primary ingredients.  Slices of the dark, richly flavored pork belly were topped with a red cabbage slaw and served on a sweet potato roll.  Between the whiskey and the pork belly, Faulkner’s spirit was very much among us at Rowan Oak that evening.  

From there we moved en masse (this time by single decker bus) to the Powerhouse, home of the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council, where most of the SFA dining takes place.  Waiting there for us was the Oxford Curry, our first dinner of the weekend.  According to SFA Director, John T. Edge, there was a hidden joke in the name – something about the Oxford comma – but I never really got it.  Again, not an official journalist.  But definitely an eater, and a hungry one by now.  

There is a particular group of chefs, all of Indian descent, who have settled in the South.  Of late they have come together to create dinners that showcase their culinary styles and heritage, while at the same time featuring local ingredients and Southern themes – they call it the “Brown in the South Supper Series.”  Volume One focused on “masala meets meat and three”; the second dinner celebrated “Indian Summer.”  Our dinner, led by two of those chefs, Meherwan Irani and Cheetie Kumar (and friends), was all about redefining what the word “curry” represents.  

When we arrived at the table, we found dishes of Achar pickle, Raita yogurt, Kachumber salad, Papadum crackers, and Naan bread.  I won’t say that I could have made a meal out of this, but I will say that the Papadum and Naan were among my favorite bites that night.  Simple pleasures.  Similar sentiments for the Jeera Chawal (cumin-scented basmati rice): it was the anchor for all the other dishes.  Having lived on that side of the world for a season, in a place where cumin was a pantry staple, I developed a taste for the spice I first knew as “kemoon.”

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Of all the foods in the world, I am perhaps least acquainted with Indian foods, so I am relying on the menu that was provided to us that night.  Perhaps this is something I should work on in the new year.  But in the meantime, here’s a rundown:

Konkani Fish Kadi.  This was the representative seafood dish, from the southwestern coast of India, but made with Simmons Catfish from Mississippi, which happens to be near the southwestern “coast” of the state if you’ll allow the Mississippi River to be a coast of sorts. The fish was bathed in coconut milk, spiced with red chilies, garlic, black pepper, curry leaves and fresh lime.  My horizons are expanding.

Goan Pork Vindaloo.  The spicy one, from the Portuguese colony of Goa, and did you know the Portuguese brought the chili pepper from the Americas?  What goes around comes around, it seems.

Punjabi Butter Chicken.  This one I knew a little something about.  I’ve actually made a version of this from scratch, and have tried several bottled sauces as well.  It’s my fave, my Indian comfort food if you will.  The chefs used charred bell peppers to add a smokiness and jaggery sugar took the place of the refined stuff.  The color red was played by Kashmiri chilies.  

Maharashtan Aloo Gobi.  Such a fun name for a vegetarian dish.  Potatoes, cauliflower, onion, garlic and chilies.  And finally…

Kheer.  The dessert, more or less: Anson Mills Carolina Gold Rice, cooked slowly in milk and sugar, flavored with cardamom and saffron, studded with cashews and golden raisins.  

I don’t have real insider knowledge, but I’m guessing another Brown in the South dinner will pop up soon.  If it’s nearby, or you feel like a road trip, I highly recommend it, even for novices like me.  And if you’re at all literary-minded and haven’t seen Rowan Oak – it’s time, with or without a whiskey.

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