Posts Tagged With: Symposium

Chitlin’ Time

(All meals at the SFA Symposium are memorable. This one from 2019 holds a special place in the bucket list arena. As this posts – Lord willin’ and the WiFi works – we’ll be heading towards Day 2 of the 2021 event and I really couldn’t be more ready.)

In my recent review of notable food memories from the past year, I left one extremely significant dish off the list.  In fact, it may have been the most memorable of all, and thus, deserved a longer treatment.  The Year of Our Lord, 2019, is the year Jay ate his first chitterlings.  

It took me 52 years to get to that moment.  And now my life will be divided into two eras: pre-chitterlings, and post-chitterlings. Prior to that moment, I knew about them, I knew people who ate them, I occasionally would see buckets of them in the grocery store.  I didn’t seek them out, nor did I avoid them. In fact, I don’t know where I would have looked to find them, aside from the aforementioned meat department.  I never saw them on a restaurant menu.  No food event or festival I’ve ever attended has included them, until just a few months ago, when a platter full was set before me, and I knew it was time to face the music. 

Before I go into a lot of detail, however, let’s establish the basics.  Most readers probably know what chitterlings are, unless the spelling is throwing you.  Perhaps you’ve heard the word pronounced as “chitlins” and because you, too, have never seen them on a restaurant menu, you never thought to explore the etymology of the word.  For that reason, for the rest of this column, we’ll just go with chitlins.  (Oddly enough, my word processor doesn’t flag that as a misspelled word, so maybe we’re good either way.)   

When it comes to the definition, it’s pretty simple.  Chitlins are pig entrails.  Small intestines of the swine.  Hog guts.  You get the picture.  When it comes to grammar, I confess I’m not entirely sure about singular and plural here.  I mostly hear about chitlins – I’m not sure I’ve ever heard someone talk about one chitlin.  I’ll just wait until I run into one of my former English teachers around town and they can weigh in on the matter.  

Let me set the scene.  We were at the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium last October.  When something special is coming, word usually gets out.  So we already had an idea that chitlins were on the horizon.  And when we arrived at the Powerhouse in Oxford on the last night, ready to share this last meal together, the chef and crew were wearing sweatshirts with “CHITLINS” spelled out in sewn-on letters.  There was no hiding it now.  

The chef was Eduardo Jordan, originally from Florida, now a chef-owner of several establishments in Seattle, including Junebaby, Salare, and Lucinda Grain Bar.  Whether or not you are headed to Seattle anytime soon, I encourage you to check out the websites and menus of each of these places; there’s even an encyclopedia of culinary terminology on the Junebaby website that’s a fun read.

Junebaby is an outpost of Southern food in the great Northwest.  In fact, some of the dishes we enjoyed that night are on the Junebaby menu.  Some are not.  (See the aforementioned and soon-to-be-mentioned again chitlins.)  The menu that night, for the Maggie Jordan Memorial Supper (named after the chef’s grandmother), a Tabasco Celebration, was extensive.  

To begin, there were boiled peanuts, buttermilk biscuits with cane syrup, fried smelt, and pickled pigs feet.  Not a lot of surprises here.  Loved the biscuits, of course.  I have learned to appreciate boiled peanuts.  A friend seasoned his baked beans with pigs feet once.  Many fried fish have met their end because of me, though these may have been the smallest I’ve eaten.  

In the Vegetables and Grains portion of the menu, we had steamed okra with sorghum Tabasco chili vinaigrette, and thinking back, this may have been my first encounter with steamed okra – I’ve had it just about every other possible way.  We also had peas, beans and grains salad with preserved lemon – I really liked this take.  My favorite was the smoked carrots, collards and Anson Mills benne seeds.  The smoked carrots really made it work.  

To represent seafood, we had shrimp gumbo, which he described as more akin to okra and tomato stew, “studded with some of my favorite Florida seafood.”  Very tasty.  Poultry came to the table as chicken purloo, a rice-based dish.  Rib-stickin’ good.  The beef offering, however, was my favorite: neckbones with Tabasco cabbage, potatoes and carrots.  The meat in the crevices of the curvy vertebrae was incredibly flavorful – I’ve been missing out.  

For dessert, a slice of sweet potato pie with a bit less sweet than I’m accustomed to, a bit more spice, and a ball of meringue on top.  For the road, a “parting gift”: a slice of lemon pound cake from his grandmother’s recipe, subbing his creme fraiche for her sour cream.  

And now the pork.  We’re back to the chitlins.  At the table, to my left, was a chef who’d spent some time in Amory as a boy, and had been signing his cookbook that afternoon at Square Books.  (I grabbed one the next day.)  Directly across from me was a Hollywood writer/producer who grew up in Virginia.  Next to him was the admissions director from my days at the Ole Alma Mater – I hadn’t seen him since.  The Wife was to my right.  Opinions varied, but it was Hollywood who was the most familiar and relaxed about them.  Apparently he had eaten them relatively often in Virginia.  The Wife said they weren’t as bad as she thought they’d be.  I thought the texture was interesting, but the taste?  Naw. (No reflection on chef. If I go to Seattle, I’ll be looking for another Chef Jordan meal.)  I will add, should someone offer me a seriously crispy fried version somewhere down the line, I might try them again.  Otherwise, with my one bite I have vigorously checked chitlins off the bucket list and am now firmly established in the post-chitlins era.  

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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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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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Fish and Biscuits, Two Beginnings

(My tradition has been to post memories of the previous year’s Southern Foodways Symposium as the next one approaches. Like most everything, the virus-that-shall-not-be-named put a dent in that practice last year. There was a symposium in 2020, but it was online, I had to cook my own meals, and I didn’t post the 2019 ponderings. Thankfully, we will meet again in Oxford just over a week from now, so it’s time to get back to business. Let’s remember the good old days of fall, 2019, before…you know.)

October is one of my favorite months of the year.  Usually we’ve had a few cold days by then – nights, at least.  I don’t have to mow any more.  (I probably need to give it another cut … but I probably won’t.)  Football is in full swing.  Leaves are beginning to turn red, cotton fields are turning white.  And The Wife and I head to Oxford for the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium.  

This year the theme was Food is Work.  As described on the SFA event page, we heard “stories of the domestic and public labor that powers growing, cooking, and serving food.”  We can all say we have a modicum of knowledge about this when it comes to the personal connections we have with our food.  We interact with servers in restaurants and might know the chefs.  We happen to know a few folks who sell food to restaurants.  If we go to the farmer’s market or participate in a CSA, we’re getting close to where the food begins it’s journey.  Once or twice a week, we exchange money with someone in the checkout line at the grocery store.  

But undoubtedly, as we look at our overflowing grocery cart or even one meal on a plate, a lot of work has been done between the source of the food and the final product.  We don’t know much about the day-to-day work life of the tomato picker in Florida that helps make our Caprese salad, or the risky work of the undocumented immigrant in the poultry plant that allows those chicken nuggets to be so inexpensive.  

Some of the talks were hard to hear; at minimum, eye-opening.  We were on a college campus, and we got educated. In particular, we left with a deeper understanding and appreciation of the folks that made our amazing meals possible.  

Over the years I’ve picked up on the fact that the chefs tasked with creating meals for the 350 plus guests at the symposium put in a lot of work.  And that, I’m sure, is a serious understatement.  They test recipes long before they arrive, and often do prep work before they get to Oxford.  Once they arrive, hours upon hours are spent in the kitchen getting ready.  

I happened to be on the bus on the way to dinner at Rowan Oak the first night and recognized Bryan Furman of B’s Cracklin’ Barbecue, who would be doing dinner the next night.  I introduced myself, and asked if he’d be prepping all the next day.  He looked at the nice lady who was sitting behind me and they just laughed.  Apparently the nice lady had just learned that she would be making the cornbread to go with his whole hog barbecue.  What I didn’t realize at the moment was that the nice lady was Erika Council, the force behind the Southern Souffle blog and Bomb Biscuits pop-ups in the Atlanta area.  Nor did I realize that she’d be making those biscuits for breakfast the very next morning.  The next 24 hours would be a little busy.  And as always, the attendees got a blessing.

Two Anson Mills bomb biscuits awaited us in our brown bags at the breakfast hour: one black pepper/ricotta, one sausage.  The black pepper ricotta was something entirely new, but when I Googled it to look at recipes, it seems lots of folks are making these.  So, entirely new…to me.  A little apple butter made it even better.  The sausage biscuit, however, was my fave.  It featured Jake’s Fresh Country Sausage, made in vast quantities (because it sells in vast quantities) at the 150 Quick Stop in Bardstown, Kentucky.  In the SEC Network food and culture program, True South, C.P. Smith tells host John T. Edge, “Not too many biscuits make it out of the parking lot.”  Thankfully, some of the sausage did.  

The next morning, we were treated to a tour of the Barnard Observatory on the Ole Miss campus, home of the Center of the Study of Southern Culture, and the offices of the SFA.  We also had a chance to see Angie Mosier’s photography exhibit, Dish Pit Panorama – another view of the work done to make meals happen.  While wandering about the observatory, we dined on fish and grits. 

 

If that seems odd to you for breakfast, I would guess you didn’t grow up near the ocean.  I didn’t either, so I don’t have it for breakfast very often, but if I could have it this way, I’d have it once a week.  Chef Bill Briand from Fisher’s and Playa restaurants in Orange Beach, took Simmons delacata catfish, blackened it, placed it atop Anson Mills grits, then added Creole-style pork gravy on top of everything.   

These grits were some of the creamiest I’ve ever had.  Pillow soft, yet just enough texture to let you know grits were involved.  The catfish was perfectly cooked and seasoned.  And the gravy – I think that’s what took me over the edge.  Caramelized onions, bits of ham, big slices of garlic, herbs, and maybe some magic.  Or love.  Probably both.  It was rich and decadent, and the composed dish was one of my favorite breakfasts in recent memory.  

I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank Royal Cup Coffee for anchoring both mornings.  I was particularly fond of the lightly flavored cold brew they served on biscuit day – caramel bourbon, as I recall.  They are always there to take care of us, and never fail to properly caffeinate the masses for the day ahead.  There was much to ponder on these days, and we needed to be attentive. 

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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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Tex-Mex and Tortas

(This post tells of the beginning and the ending of last year’s Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium.  Appropriate, as the 2018 Symposium begins the day this posts to end this series of throwback thoughts.)

I’ve done a bit of traveling in my half a century.  Perhaps I’ve mentioned it once or thrice.  And it should be a surprise to no-one that as we travel, we find food traditions that are different than our own.  You don’t even have to go out of the country to see it.  Take barbecue for instance.  Eastern vs Western North Carolina styles.  Mustard sauce in South Carolina, white sauce in northern Alabama.  Beef brisket in Texas, mutton in Kentucky.  I could go on and on.  But if you take a minute to see past these differences, you might just see the common thread: people everywhere like barbecue of some sort.  Each style, flavor, meat and source of fire has its own team of loyal advocates, but ultimately they are champions of cooking proteins low and slow.

On the first night of the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium, we were treated to a dinner that crossed some of those style boundaries.  There is Mexican food, and there is Tex-Mex.  Though there is certainly some overlap between the two, Tex-Mex is a cuisine all it’s own.  Miguel and Modesty Vidal were our guest chefs, from Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ in Austin, Texas.  Already another boundary crossed: not just Tex Mex, but Tex Mex BBQ.  These are some of my favorite food groups; I was feeling pretty good about this meal already.  

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We began with a ceviche that featured shrimp, fish and avocado.  If I’m not mistaken, it was at another SFA Symposium that I had my first experience with ceviche, and it was a good introduction.  This one was also a good introduction to the evening.    

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The sides came out family style, in large bowls that encouraged seconds.  First was a cole slaw made from purple cabbage.  Following closely behind was a bowl of smoked corn, reminiscent of Mexican street corn but freed from the cob.  Finally, we were brought a bowl of charro beans, creamy and peppery.  My favorite way to eat these was to get a little bit of each in one bite – crunchy slaw, smoky corn, and savory beans, all in one delicious mouthful.  I kept going back to that, even with the dishes that came next.  

The carnitas tacos were classic, no-frills street tacos – the best kind.  Tortillas, shredded pork, cilantro, and onions caramelized to the ultimate sweetness.  No other accoutrements needed.  Then came the smoked brisket.  It had a dark bark and was served with a bit of tangy sauce on the side.  Our table had one empty place as I recall, which meant there was more brisket and tacos for the rest of us, and that was a very good thing.   

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I was happy enough, but dessert was still to come: smoked bread pudding.  Fascinating.  It was typical in many ways in its construction, not too far off the traditional bread pudding path.  But the hint of smoke was unmistakable, just enough to let you know it was there.  

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The final evening meal of the weekend also represented a universal food.  In Starkville alone we have oodles of places to get a sandwich.  You can hardly throw a rock here and not hit a sandwich.  I have wondered sometimes if it was just us, but if I take a moment to stop and think, it’s actually a worldwide phenomenon.  Even in our house we regularly cross sandwich borders.  One of our favorite meals is a sandwich made simply with boiled eggs and feta cheese, best served on a crusty baguette.  We learned this one in our corner of the Middle East, the same region where I had a bean sandwich for the first time.  Last week we made paninis with our seriously under-used George Foreman grill and some Hawaiian chicken.  (That may be a stretch for a cross-cultural sandwich example, but it’s a start.)

In Mexico, the sandwich is called a torta.  Sounds like a tortilla, yes, but there’s no illa.  According to one source, the bread for a torta is usually round, and may have originated from French influence when France occupied Mexico back in the 1860’s.  That’s a border-crossing influence I never would have guessed.  

Our SFA meal was a Tale of Three Tortas, or as the menu said, Lodge Cast Iron Tortas del Munda (sandwiches of the world).  All had Latin influence, but each had its own flag planted firmly in the bread.  (Seriously.  There were little flags staked in the bread.) 

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Alex Raij is a New York City chef with Argentinian roots, serving foods from the Basque region of Spain in her restaurants.  Her sandwich featured bondiola (thin sliced pork shoulder, Argentinian style), charred eggplant mayo, and tximitxurri (also known as chimichurri), with shaved red cabbage slaw.  Another way to eat shoulder – score!

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Rodolfo Montero of El Molino in Charlotte made a Torta de Chorizo Espanol, with a side of black pealla (very black) with shrimp and cuttlefish. Sources say a similar Montero-made sandwich in it’s natural habitat (inside Sav/Way Foods) is magic.  Thank goodness Younger Brother lives in Charlotte.  I think it’s about time for a visit.  

Jonathan Magallanes, from Las Tortugas Deli Mexicana in Memphis, did his part with a Gulf Shrimp Torta, and more of that corn I love: Elotes (street corn) with Cotija (the Mexican version of Parmesan cheese) and Chile Pequin (a hot pepper).  Also from Memphis, La Michoacana (a Mexican ice cream parlor that seems to have much more than desserts) sent down some paletas (aka ice pops.)  I think it’s safe to say that ice pops span the world in one form or another as well, so these final bites certainly fit the theme.  Though we were sad that the Symposium was ending, it was a terrific taste on which to end.

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County Corn Expert

[The 20th Symposium of the Southern Foodways Alliance is coming soon.  To prepare for that auspicious weekend, I’m sharing my throwback recollections from last year’s Symposium, the theme of which was “Corn as Symbol, Sustenance, and Syrupy Problem.”  Before I got into the details of the meeting, I was compelled to establish my authority…]

I am now my county’s foremost expert on corn. I know what you may be thinking: “I thought he was a Pharmacist, not a Farm…Assist.” Perhaps if you are in my immediate family or a close friend, you are recalling something I said that might have been “corny”- but hilarious nonetheless. (See play on words in previous sentence.) Perhaps you are a county extension agent whose specialty is corn, and you might be wondering if I have a degree in Zea Mays farming methods that I’ve never mentioned before. As it happens, I do not have such a degree, but I have recently been in four days of meetings about corn, and in between discussions have eaten ten corn-based meals. I think that ought to do it, don’t you? You do realize how many people on the world-wide interweb claim to be experts with much less experience than that? They are legion.
But before I ruminate aloud on all that new knowledge, I’m going to offer a prelude, with some of my favorite corn memories that have prepared me for this season of life.
My most vivid memory is the summer that I worked in the research cornfields of Mississippi State University’s North Farm. I’m not sure I’ve ever worked as hard as I did that summer. And I’m certain I was in the best physical shape of my life by the time it was over. We hoed corn. We sprayed stuff on corn. We hoed corn again. We cross-pollinated corn. And … that’s where my corn career ended. Apparently I was allergic to corn pollen. And when you start shaking the stalks to facilitate the separation of the pollen from the thingamawhich that produces the pollen (remember I wasn’t an expert then), it will rain down on your head and turn someone like me into a giant, sneezing, itchy, red minefield of whelps. But it was fun while it lasted, and I had a rockin’ tan.
Growing up, Mama made two kinds of cornbread: regular and Kentucky. Both were baked in a cast iron skillet, as the good Lord intended, but the recipes were different. Regular cornbread was pretty much made of corn meal, and I preferred that version for the times I slathered it with butter prior to covering it with Blackburn’s syrup for dessert. Kentucky cornbread had a can of actual corn mixed in it, and it was my favorite for eating alongside beans and greens and such. In college I moved into an apartment and found a new recipe for Kentucky cornbread left in a drawer by a former resident. This one had chopped onions and sour cream added to it, and was kind of an antithesis to “regular cornbread” – in other words, it was very moist. It’s still my favorite one to make, so shout-out to that mystery former apartment dweller.

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How can I bake thee, cornbread? Let me count the ways.

A thesis on corn in my family wouldn’t be complete without another shout-out to Dawn, Hair Stylist to the Stars, who introduced us to her Corn Casserole. You might call it corn pudding, the staple dish of church potlucks, and that’s okay – they are at least close cousins. Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix, butter, sour cream, whole kernel corn and cream corn. Mix and bake. It’s easy, and it’s delicious. I have tried add-ons like cheese and Tony Chachere’s, but they don’t improve it. I’m not even sure bacon would make it better, and that’s near blasphemy.
Corn salad, the picnic dish made properly with white shoepeg corn, is also a family favorite, though I was probably a grown-up before I really began to crave it. We don’t have an heirloom recipe for this one, however – we just get it from The Little Dooey. Why mess up a good thing?
Here’s another question. Why don’t we see more corn in Mexican restaurants? That is, besides the ground up version that morphs into tortillas, tamales, or baskets of chips. I seriously dig what is often simply described as Mexican street corn. I don’t know how authentic the term is, as the only Mexican street I’ve ever walked down was in Cozumel on a cruise excursion, and I don’t think that counts. But I know it’s awesome. Grilled corn, slathered in a mix of mayo and sour cream, rolled in crumbled Cotija cheese, and sprinkled with chili powder and a squeeze of fresh lime. Delicioso. Let’s encourage our local restaurateur amigos to andale and arriba that onto their menus, okay? (My apologies to actual Spanish speakers. I’m a corn expert, not a linguist. My Spanish tutor was Speedy Gonzales.)
Long time readers may remember the corn-centric birthday I had a few years ago. I decided to make my own birthday cake and ice cream, and both were corn-flavored. The cake was sweet, but had a high percentage of corn meal in the recipe, giving it a texture somewhere between cornbread and standard cake. What made this particular cake even more unique was it’s color. I had a little bit of blue cornmeal in the pantry at the time, which I mixed in with the yellow cornmeal the recipe called for. You know what blue and yellow make, right? Yes, they make a green cake. Mold green, to be precise. Tasted great. Looked spoiled. Lesson learned. And the corn ice cream – well, it was certainly successful in the sense that it tasted like corn ice cream. I worked hard making that custard, and it was a smooth, rich result. But a couple of bowls and my curiosity was satisfied.

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Can I get you another bowl of corn?

A man corn cob walks into a hipster coffee shop, sits next to a lady corn cob and says, “Come ear often?”
Yep, I’m an expert.

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The Taste of Magnolia

I do my level best to go to the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium every fall for a plethora of reasons.  The post-symposium tales I tell usually involve detailed descriptions of the food, which never fails to be stupendous.  But in between meals there are speakers, one of whom was author and chef Eddie Huang.  His topic was barbecue, but what I remember most from the talk was his spice story.
I think it is fair to say that knowledge of spices is essential to a chef worth his or her…salt.  Salt and pepper may be the Mama and Papa of the seasoning world, but they are really just the tip of the spice-berg.  Chef Eddie’s method of study was simple: he tasted them.  One by one.  By themselves. The picture in my mind’s eye is of him sitting at a table with a row of spice jars lined up from left to right – a “flight” of spices, if you will – tasting them individually in order to understand the true flavor of each.
Since that talk I’ve been fascinated by this idea.  And though I haven’t yet dragged out my entire seasoning collection for a full-on tasting (it is even more vast than my collection of barbecue sauces), I have certainly taken multiple opportunities to pour little bits into my palm for a lick.  (Clean hands, of course.)  Daughter likes to eat plain salt; I prefer blends.
About a year ago I had to buy a bigger spice rack.  A gentleman I had never met before stopped by my office and told me a story about his company – Magnolia Seasoning. It’s a hop and a skip from my house – not even a jump – practically under my nose.  And just like that, I was fascinated by spices again.
If you followed Mississippi food news in the last decade or so, you’ll know about Bryan Foods in West Point.  You may also know that somewhere along the way, Bryan was purchased by Sara Lee.  In the mix at Sara Lee was a division that created many of the seasoning blends used by the company for its food products.  Then, when Sara Lee closed its operations in West Point, Mr. Z (the aforementioned gentleman, who oversaw that division) opened Magnolia Seasoning.
Today, Magnolia Seasoning is still growing after almost ten years in the spice business.  In fact, they are the only company in the South who will make custom spice blends.  Primarily, they sell in bulk to restaurants and grocery stores, but if you look hard enough, you might just find some of their offerings in your own neighborhood grocery.

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Recently I had the rare opportunity to tour the Magnolia Seasoning operation.  I saw a giant mixer where Mr. K was blending up what appeared to be a fresh batch of lemon pepper.  Other mixers were so big I could have laid down inside them.  (I didn’t.)  Elsewhere on the production floor, bottles were being filled with a barbecue blend of some sort.  And somewhere in the building is a computer that guides the measurement of each individual ingredient, maintaining consistency from batch to batch.
One of my biggest questions had to do with recipe development.  How did they decide something tastes like it’s supposed to?  As it turns out, they have a taster: Mr. G.  In his own little laboratory, he develops each formula using a scale and what must be an exceptionally sensitive set of taste buds.  For example, if a chef wants a certain blend similar to an expensive national brand, but a little hotter, a little more salty, or a little less garlicky, Mr. G can match it.
I had been playing at home with Magnolia Seasoning blends for a while, but some of the things I learned on this visit inspired me to take greater steps towards my spice education.  For example, one of the best ways to taste spices is to put them on foods that have little flavor of their own, like chicken or cottage cheese.  I haven’t tried the cottage cheese test yet (though I bought some for that purpose), but I did have some fun with chicken.
I had a dozen wings that I planned to cook using my wing rack on the grill, so I picked six different blends and got to shaking: 3 Gunslinger’s Old West Steak Dust, Kickin’ Chicken, Redneck Bob’s BBQ, Orange You Glad, My Smokey Butt, and Lemon Pepper.  The Wife got the first bite when they came off the grill, and she was sold – lock, stock and gun barrel – on the Old West Steak Dust.  (I know it wasn’t a steak, but this blend was so tasty in my palm that I figured it was worth a try.)  My favorite was the Lemon Pepper, which Mr. Z told me had never lost a blind taste test versus lemon peppers from other companies.

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Over Labor Day Weekend I used the same method, but with riblets.  For these I used Gunpowder (which gets its name from the color), Steak & Rib, Smoky Steak & Rib, Barbeque, Memphis Baby Back BBQ, Whiskey Creek Bourbon BBQ, Hickory Smoked BBQ, and Buttery Mesquite BBQ .  Have you noticed the names?  Sometimes the name begets the mix, and sometimes the mix begets the name.  Some blends require certain names, while others end up with something wild.  Either way, they are having fun.  And if there is an unofficial motto of Magnolia Seasonings, it’s this: “If it’s not fun, why mess with it?”
My tastebuds are also having fun with the Greens and Vegetable seasoning that I picked up at Vowell’s (a locally owned market) a few months back.  Most recently I have sprinkled it on oven-roasted vegetables, as well as grilled mushrooms with a dash of Gunpowder to boot. (Son just about wiped out the shrooms before I could try them).  Mr. Z suggests sprinkling it on eggs – pizza, too! This bottle has earned a prominent spot on my rack.
Tailgate time is here, and the holidays are coming.  You need seasoning.  And you know it’s better to eat local.  Magnolia Seasoning covers it all.  Taste and see.

(Disclosure: As mentioned above, Mr. Z did bring me some sample seasonings to try.  However, I later discovered that I had experienced – and enjoyed – some of their products sold under a local store label.  So I think it’s safe to say that my opinions, though broadened by the generosity of Mr. Z, are my own. JR.)

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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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