As a boy raised on the prairie plains of a Midwestern border state eating fried chicken and barbecue, I like to think that I have a particularly close kinship to Southerners. Whether it’s true or not, there is something about my Missouri upbringing that makes me feel more Southern than my friends in Kansas, or Illinois, or Ohio. Because Southerness, just like Midwesterness, is defined by culture, not geography.
Food, family, politics, and religion certainly have something to do with it. And so does our shared understanding of some of the darker moments of our nation’s past. Missouri, after all, is the only Midwestern state (and the only state outside of the recognized South – other than Texas and Florida, depending on who you are) that was a slave state. You’ll remember that the eponymous compromise that brought Missouri and Maine into the Union on opposite sides of the slave divide later gave rise to the famous Dred Scott case.
But maybe some of my Southerness is more accurately attributable to my Asian upbringing (both of my parents are Chinese immigrants). The similarities between the two cultures – the American South and Asia – are striking. We mind our mamas and our elders, and never dare sass back. Guests of the house and home are considered family. Strangers become aunts and uncles. And food and drink are always available.
So, Southern culture comes naturally to me as an adult. It comforts me with its familiarity and charms me with its timelessness.
Yet, there are aspects of the South – mostly superficial ones – that remain foreign and mysterious to me.
Country music, for example, challenges me. Those who know me well, know that I keep a pretty diverse playlist. But, the only country music songs that appear, are, like me, borderline, watered-down crossovers at best.
While I admire Southerners’ sense of fashion, I cannot pull off Southernwear. I just can’t. Here, perhaps, my Asianness is a road block, as it is to my ability to booze the way Southerners booze. I look silly in cowboy boots, and even sillier in whiskey boots. How they do it, I do not know.
And the hair. Especially the hair. I still have yet to figure out how Southern men manage to maintain a part without product. Whether in winter or summer, be it dry or humid, their hair keeps a floppy but not sloppy look that is at once carefree and collected. To an Asian with thick, coarse, hair that wants to go every way but down, this is maddening.
What started as a one-restaurant trip to Nashville grew into a four-day tour of the South, stacked with lunches, dinners, and in-betweens full of bourbon and barbecue, and fraught with all the hijinks of a good road trip with friends.
Initially, Christopher Kostow, the Michelin three-starred chef of the Restaurant at Meadowood, and I had only planned on meeting at The Catbird Seat in Nashville for dinner. The restaurant’s chefs, Josh Habiger and Erik Anderson, will be two of the guest chefs at the Twelve Days of Christmas dinner series that Kostow will be hosting, and that I will be attending, in December. So, a visit was in order.
But Memphis was a short car ride away, and Kelly English’s Iris was on my bucket list. And, as it turned out, Kostow and English were in the same Food & Wine Best New Chef class, and English was a guest chef at last year’s Twelve Days of Christmas. So, we extended our stay by one night.
Then the Southern Foodways Alliance annual symposium in Oxford, Mississippi popped up on the calendar. By chance, it happened to be the weekend of our Tennessee trip. By every account, the symposium was unmissable. Also, Oxford was barely an hour and a half from Memphis, and Mississippi was one of the three U.S. states I had left to visit. So, when Eater National asked me to cover the event for them, it became an easy add-on. The hardest part was getting a ticket. This year, tickets to the SFA Symposium, which were $595 apiece, sold out online in twelve minutes.
You know you’re having a serious week of eating when you and your camera have to undergo wipe-downs every few hours.
Right off the plane in Nashville, Heidi Eats A Lot and I headed for Prince’s Hot Chicken. As the restaurant’s name suggests, it specializes in fried chicken that’s smothered in hot sauce, a Tennessee specialty. At Prince’s, they batter and fry their chickens to order, which results in an unusually long wait for a counter-order type operation (the clothing shop next to Prince’s has a sign on its door that states: “If you are waiting for your fried chicken, do not wait in my store.”). But it also ensures that every order is piping hot.
The crust on the fried chicken at Prince’s is thick and crisp. It’s more of a shell. At “mild,” you’ll feel the heat. At “hot,” you might break a sweat, as I did. But packets of ranch dressing will cool you down, as will their slaw, which, if I am not mistaken, is dressed in that same ranch dressing, and nothing more. I have to admit, it was a bit cloying. I need some acid in my slaw.
We had a second lunch at Arnold’s Country Kitchen, a meat-and-three cafeteria. There, the meats and sides rotate daily, as do the desserts, to some degree. That day, they offered cornmeal-fried catfish and roast beef, both of which we ordered. We crowded our plates with stewed okra, black-eyed peas, dressing in chicken gravy, macaroni and cheese, collards, and sweet squash gratin (with a nice, golden-brown breaded crust). For dessert, there was a sweet, sweet banana pudding, and a spicy, spicy chile and chocolate pie. Everything was delicious. I needed a wipe-down and a nap.
The Catbird Seat is cleverly named.
Not only will you perch at a counter on an upper floor of an old building, but having a reservation at this thirty-two seater will make you the envy of your friends. Rarely do chefs jump out of the gate with the kind of fawning press that Habiger and Anderson have enjoyed in their restaurant’s first year (the restaurant just celebrated its first birthday). They had barely opened The Catbird Seat when the two were named Best New Chefs by Food & Wine Magazine. In the subsequent months, their restaurant was repeatedly named among the best to open in its year, by GQ, Bon Appetit, and others.
There are only four people in the open kitchen, a small space hemmed in by a U-shaped counter: two chefs and two cooks. When Habiger and Anderson aren’t in the restaurant, the restaurant isn’t open.
After ten courses at The Catbird Seat, I can tell you the one thing I liked the most about Habiger and Anderson’s cooking is that it’s incredibly precise – cod, barely cooked, was silky and soft; squab was rosy and juicy, incredibly tender. Their flavors are bold, concentrated, and fairly rich. A custard in an egg cup, with maple syrup, thyme, and bacon, was incredibly delicious. But, coming in at course number nine, I couldn’t finish it. Yet, I had no problem polishing off either of the desserts. One put pears and black walnuts together with Fernet and cardamom. The other gathered vanilla, bourbon, cherry, and pineapple together on a wedge of oak barrel, pretty in pink. Those two were great.
I look forward to experiencing Habiger’s and Anderson’s collaboration with Kostow later this year.
The crust on the hot chicken at Gus’s World Famous Hot & Spicy Chicken in Memphis is less crusty than Prince’s. It’s thinner and more pliable (I was told that Gus’s uses a wet batter), and seems to carry more of the flavor. There is no sauce at Gus’s. I liked the chicken here better, particularly because the meat was so moist and light (I note, like at Prince’s, I ordered dark meat only at Gus’s). I liked Gus’s slaw better too; there’s acid to cut the creaminess.
The last time I was in the great Volunteer State, Sean Brock cooked dinner for me at the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville. That’s how long it had been since I had visited Tennessee. And, so it was only appropriate that we bumped into each other at Gus’s, where it seemed half of the SFA had showed up for a pre-symposium lunch. Upon hearing that we were on our way to Graceland, Brock insisted that I reserved time to see The King’s cars and airplanes. And so we did, in addition to touring Presley’s house, famous for the “Jungle Room,” which, in addition to being Presley’s living room, was just about as close to my worst nightmare as you can get: a cave lined – floor, walls, and ceiling – with moss-green shag carpeting. I know it was the seventies, and Elvis was a stud. But the horror. The horror.
We had a round of drinks in the lobby of the famous Peabody Hotel (sadly, the ducks only parade at noon), before a lovely dinner at Iris, located in an 1907 boarding house. English cooked for us lusty dishes out of his New Orleans upbringing. There were plump shrimp in a dark and rich sauce of oyster liquor and Worcestershire, sopped up with some fluffy white bread bound in a thin, blond crust – just like Lendenheimer’s. There was pickled okra, stuffed with pimiento cheese, battered and fried, a delicious, oozy bomb of flavor. And for dessert, I couldn’t keep my spoon out of English’s grandmother’s bread pudding, which was cobbled over with candied pecans and topped with vanilla ice cream.
The Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) Symposium bested my wildest expectations.
In my last blog post, I lamented that chef-driven congresses – in my experience – tend to be high on style, low on substance.
The SFA Symposium is, if nothing else, substantive. You can read my recap of the event on Eater National. But, I’ll offer a few, personal thoughts here – in some cases, elaborating on ones that I have already shared – that wouldn’t fit into the Eater piece.
As I wrote on Eater, what I loved most about the SFA Symposium was its smallness. Limited to only three hundred seventy attendees (the number was upped from previous years to accommodate this year’s demand), it was a relatively tight group. More importantly, I appreciated the egalitarian spirit with which the symposium was conducted. Lunches and dinners were taken in commune, and, due to the fairly strict schedule, we traveled together in school buses and in trailing parades, from venue to venue. Speakers, attendees, and chefs alike were encouraged to mix and mingle. This made the crowd less cliquish than I’ve come to expect from food conferences. That was refreshing. I met people from all over the country, with all sorts of careers. I met journalists, chefs, farmers, fishmongers, public relations managers, lawyers, doctors, designers, authors, professors, filmmakers, and philanthropists. The only tie that bound was our mutual love of barbecue (and the South), which was the theme and focus of this year’s symposium.
John T. Edge, the SFA’s director, and his staff put together an incredibly robust program. The breadth of perspectives presented was wide and exciting. The speakers were as diverse as the attendees – there was a Mexican, two Asian-Americans, Northerners and Southerners – comprised a highly literate group. But each drilled deep into their own subject, making the symposium particularly academic. I left with a beautifully woven quilt of barbecue knowledge; admittedly patchy, yet, in many ways, complete.
The SFA has made all of the symposium presentations available in podcasts. I encourage you to listen to some of the speakers. My favorites included Randall Kenan, an author who shared colorful excerpts from his fictional novels set in the South (“The Hog of Life”); Monique Truong, who delivered a hauntingly sincere and revealing love letter to her favorite barbecue restaurant (“Love Letter to Red Bridges”); Eddie Huang, a multi-faceted food personality who dropped an uproariously funny, f-bombed link between his Chinese-American childhood and barbecue (“Pick-Up Barbecue”); and John Dufresne, a Yankee in Florida who fell in love with Craig’s Barbecue in Duvall’s Bluff, Arkansas, despite – or, maybe because of – the food he ate as a child (“Love Letter to Craig’s Barbecue”).
Food and drink were plentiful at the SFA Symposium – breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, with water, coffee, and tipple, were all covered in the price of admission.
I missed the last breakfast/brunch at Bouré in the old Oxford town square, but did catch the brisket tacos (by Plantation Barbecue in Richmond, Texas) and pastrami biscuits (by Neal’s Deli in Carrboro, North Carolina) the mornings before (in addition to an early-morning run to Shipley’s, a local, Southern “do-nut” chain). I was surprised by how well pastrami biscuits tasted with coffee. Delicious.
My favorite symposium meal had to be the one Ashley Christensen, chef of Pooles Diner (Raleigh, North Carolina), ambitiously mounted on the second day of the symposium. Just when I couldn’t eat any more meat, Christensen presented a feast of vegetables. The plates came to our tables mounded high, some with kuri squash-stuffed poblano peppers, others with beets and horseradish cream. There were jars of summer put-ups, marinated field peas, and pimiento cheese. We passed everything around, family style. It was great.
One night, we had oysters, sizzling in butter, on the porch of Taylor Grocery, an old storefront eatery at the crux of two county roads. Tenney Flynn, labeled the “seafood shaman” of New Orleans, fired up oyster shells until they were glowing hot, dropped a pre-shucked oyster into each with some sauce, and handed them out with wedges of lemon. There were also cones of fried okra with peanuts, a Southern “chaat” presented by Vishwesh Bhatt of Snackbar (Oxford, Mississippi). And afterward, we lined up for fried catfish filets with slaw, fries, and hushpuppies, Taylor Grocery’s mainstay meal.
On the last night, there was a giant pit party in a field at Woodson Ridge Farm. We had Flintstone-sized short ribs with chimichurri (Tim Byres of Smoke in Dallas, Texas), and hickoried chicken with “white sauce” (it’s a mayonnaise based barbecue sauce from northern Alabama; this was presented by Patrick Martin of Martin’s Bar-B-Q Joint in Nolensville, Tennessee). There were delicious sides, like jalapeño-cheddar spoonbread, and cranberry bean gratin, provided by Drew Robinson of Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Que (based in Birmingham, Alabama). And plenty of drink.
To end the night, a few of us returned to Oxford for a nightcap at John Currence’s City Grocery on the square. And then, one last wipe-down for me, and a few hours of sleep.
One last breakfast at Currence’s Big Bad Breakfast, before leaving Oxford, was early and hearty. My shortstack of oatmeal pancakes wasn’t so short, but it was wonderful, layered with bananas and pecans. At my table were also biscuits and eggs Benny (which appear on the menu as “Pel “Egg” Can Brief” – many of the menu items at BBB are named after local, Oxford references).
Before flying out of Memphis International, I shared a final meal at Hog & Hominy with two people I had met at the symposium. The chef-owners – Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman – had made our shoebox lunch of ribs and sides at the symposium a couple of days before. So, we dropped in for a quick lunch.
Despite the restaurant’s name, the menu at Hog & Hominy seems more Italian than Southern. The kitchen sent out sweetbreads glazed in a tangy peanut agrodolce, and brandade made of smoked catfish. We had pizzas – they sent out three of them – and for dessert, Parmesan ice cream.
I rolled on to the plane and woke up in Kansas City.
Kansas City may be hundreds of miles away from the Mississippi Delta. But, I think, in spirit, it is quite Southern.
Nearly half – if not more – of the speakers referred to Kansas City at least once in their presentations. Because, Kansas City remains one of the great, American centers of barbecue; the only one that is arguably outside of the South. And yet, to my knowledge and disappointment, I am the only person from my state (that’s another great thing about the SFA Symposium – they provide everyone with a master directory of all of the attendees and speakers, with contact information) who attended this year’s SFA Symposium. I hope I can encourage more from my region to look southward.
If you have not been to the South. Go.
If you have not been to the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium (or, one of the organization’s many other events year-round). Go.
Beyond the food and drink, hospitality and history, there is a deep soulfulness to the South you’ll not find elsewhere. Similar to what I said about Spain in my last blogpost, the American South has an identity. And, thanks to good people like John T. Edge and the folks at the Southern Foodways Alliance, and to chefs across the South who have committed themselves to reviving and promoting southern foodways, that identity is being studied and preserved for all of us to enjoy.
Here are the restaurants I visited on this trip through the South. They are all hyperlinked to the photos:
Arnold’s Country Kitchen (Nashville)
Catbird Seat, The (Nashville)
Gus’s World Famous Hot & Spicy Chicken (Memphis)
Hog & Hominy (Memphis)
Prince’s Hot Chicken (Nashville)
Big Bad Breakfast (Oxford)
Taylor Grocery (Taylor)
Photos: Kuri squash-stuffed poblano peppers, presented by Ashley Christensen at the SFA Symposium, Oxford, Mississippi; Taylor Grocery in Taylor, Mississippi; pickles at the SFA Symposium, Oxford, Mississippi; hot chicken at Prince’s Hot Chicken in Nashville, Tennessee; The Catbird Seat in Nashville, Tennessee; cornmeal-fried catfish and sides at Arnold’s Country Kitchen in Memphis, Tennessee; sizzling butter oysters at by Tenney Flynn at the SFA Symposium, Taylor, Mississippi; the graffitied interior of Taylor Grocery, Taylor Mississippi; pastrami biscuit at SFA Symposium, Oxford, Mississippi; pit party at Woodson Ridge Farm, Oxford, Mississippi; the “Red Eye” pizza at Hog & Hominy in Memphis, Tennessee; hickoried chicken and white sauce by Patrick Martin at the SFA Symposium pit party, Woodson Ridge Farm, Oxford, Mississippi; and grits in Dutch ovens on coals at the SFA Symposium pit party, Woodson Ridge Farm, Oxford, Mississippi.
3 replies on “travel: daily wipe-downs…”
This was a fantastic read. FYI it’s “Bouré” (boo-ray) on the Square in Oxford, same name as the card game; and I was holding my breath to see if you also experienced the joy of Graceland Too in Holly Springs, MS – a great pairing, if you will, to the “regular” Graceland in Memphis. Next time, drop me a line – I’d be happy to accompany you.
KJ: Thanks for the catch. I’ve corrected the Bouré misspelling. And, I’m Googling Graceland Too now.
Visited family in Kansas City/Independence a few years ago and found my life altered when I discovered Chinese BBQ wasn’t the only culture that prized “burnt ends.” I can’t wait to visit again – with less time restrictions and familial responsibilities so I can truly explore. You sir are one of the greatest food writers on the planet. Keep it up!