The Gourmet Highway – A Delicious Journey

“Travel as much as possible. Meet new people and enjoy new places.” The best advice I ever received came from my father.

Leaving home for college several hundred miles from home was initially uncomfortable. It was the beginning of a new life. With no car, little money, I was a stranger in a strange land,. Sticking it out changed me, and I’ve never, to paraphrase Satchel Paige, looked back.

During this time of uncertainty, I often recall those places and people who enriched my life.

As a 17 year-old flat broke college freshman, hitchhiking was my mode of travel. Georgia to Florida, to Louisiana, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, Texas and beyond. Accents changed, food preferences were markedly different and the landscape a geography lesson.

College offered breathtaking opportunities. Interesting roommates were Puerto Ricans, Greek-Americans, New Yorkers whose gift packages from their distant homes included such delicacies as pickled octopus.  Three meals were served daily at my Frat house, but when I gathered a spare buck or two, it was time for incredible Cuban black bean soup and a beer at a place named Garcia’s. Life was getting better.

I celebrated my 18th with a cocktail in the French Quarter. I got to New Orleans by joining the ROTC drill team which marched in the big Mardi Gras parade. Two days in the Big Easy. The hustlers in the bars mistook my khaki uniform for soldier’s garb and one even bought me a drink. A rite of passage.

FOOD TRIPS

Mother could cook anything. Fresh vegetables, fried chicken, broiled fish (always whole) with  desserts ranging from coconut cake to lemon meringue pie, a pièce de résistance. Homes and restaurants far from her kitchen presented new tastes and flavors. My palate was ready. Baked oysters, smoked mullet, rack of lamb, game, Matzo ball soup, Moussaka, Ceviche, Couscous and many more became familiar favorites.

One of the first lessons on the road was discovering barbecue’s different territories. Ordering a barbecue pork sandwich in Memphis surprised me. The difference-dry-rub seasoning- from my customary experience did not affect enjoyment. Likewise, North Carolina barbecue, distinguished by vinegary sauces, South Carolina’s predominant mustard-based sauces and Texas, where beef brisket was (and is) king.

During my baby days, chefs were out there, largely confined to posh hotel restaurants and country clubs. They weren’t celebrities in the South with the exception of New Orleans where they enjoyed a status reserved for physicians, lawyers and famous authors. In fact, my first dinner at an acclaimed restaurant was raw oysters and barbecued shrimp at Pascale’s Manale Restaurant in the Garden District. I arrived via the streetcar (I recall they were all named Desire) and have returned for encore feasts every time I visit my favorite American city.

Over the years, I’ve joined other writers on familiarization trips organized by private firms or state tourism agencies. They were without exception enlightening and educational. However, I  recall only a handful that introduced me to some dish, wine or cocktail I had not experienced. The exceptions were Corinth, Mississippi’s Slugburger and a tamale wine tasting. Both were very enjoyable. Also, you haven’t lived a full life until you have tasted David Hazelwood’s heritage recipe Burgoo cooked over a wood fire in a large iron pot at his farm in bucolic Normandy, Tennessee.

DISCOVERIES

There is a deep spiritual relationship between all aspects of the arts. At its core, culinary preferences in a community tend to mirror nearby architecture, artists, music, public art, museums, theater and so much more.

America’s most famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright has a permanent and exalted Florida presence. Florida Southern College in Lakeland is home to Wright’s creations he called “Child of the Sun.” Designed by the master, it was constructed largely of local materials with student labor. Only the soulless are uninspired.

The spectacular campus at Florida Southern College design by Frank Lloyd Wright

Publix’ national headquarters is nearby and local restaurants and bars blend original Florida cuisine with contemporary dishes. A classic Old Fashioned cocktail tastes mighty good after a tour of the city’s wonders.

Wright manifested again in Oklahoma when I attended the Oklahoma Mozart Festival and lodged in Wright’s Price Tower, the tallest building in Bartlesville. Classical music was favored by Wright and the juxtaposition of his architecture with symphonic music and opera arias was divine. During one of the outdoor concert venues, the audience was entertained by the symphony while enjoying fine wine and outstanding food under the gaze of curious Bison and Longhorn cattle.

Remembering Julia Child on her 90th birthday celebration.

Another memorable occasion was the Arizona Biltmore’s celebration of Julia Child’s 90th birthday. The spectacular hotel is a lasting monument to Wright’s genius and the ceremonies, cuisine and wine honoring the great Julia were in the near-perfect location. Guests included Robert Mondavi and Maxmillian Riedel who convinced me that wine was far more enjoyable when consumed from his renowned crystal stemware.

The interior of the Arizona Biltmore by Frank Lloyd Wright.

CONNECTIONS

Food, wines and cocktails are part of local culture, occasionally presenting the unexpected. My initial visit to Ernest Hemingway’s Key West home was enlightening. The Nobel Prize-winning novelist acquired refined tastes in food and wine. The home’s curator said that Papa, as he was called by intimates, had Florida’s largest private wine cellar in the limestone below the structure. Well-stocked, of course.

Hemingway loved food and wine, often writing about them

Florida writers like Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, still fascinate me. The author of “The Yearling” and “Cross Creek Cookery” became one of Hemingway’s friends. “She was well-aware of Hemingway’s legendary reputation with women,” Jim O’Kon, a Hemingway biographer told me, “but she found him to be utterly charming and maintained a close friendship.”

Ms. Rawlings home in Cross Creek, now a popular Florida park, has a few of her books on a shelf. One of Hemingway’s masterpieces, “The Sun also Rises,” is included. Among her achievements was popularizing local Cracker culture and removing the undeserved stigma attached to it by introducing the world to Cracker cuisine and folkways. One story tells of her preparation of wild Mallards for dinner guests which she paired with an exquisite French Burgundy.

NEW DINING ADVENTURES

When faced with challenges, improvements and exciting changes often emerge. One thing we can be certain of is the firm foundation of local grown products. Soon, restaurants will rebound. Where local grown might have been a marketing slogan, it will be assumed. For most Americans, particularly those of us who live in the South, local farm products are available year round. These should almost without question be fresher, healthier and less expensive. There is little need for long distance food distribution.

Local farmer markets have always been fun. Now, they are sources of living healthier and better. May they prosper like never before. For those who find boredom unbearable (include me in this group), gardening can be like having a pet with the added benefit of nutrition and learning. Mother Nature, an even-handed taskmaster, rewards love of land generously.

Poster celebrating Georgia wines in Frogtown community.

Not all fine wines come from faraway places. The Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Viognier, Riesling and Merlot from Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia are magnificent. Florida’s Blanc Dubois Reserve, a delightful sparkling white wine, is produced at Lakemont Winery near Orlando. Enjoy it chilled with seafood for a great Sunshine State experience.

Stay Safe. Eat Well. Love One Another.

Old school journalism describes the style and stories produced by Doc Lawrence. “In everything I do,” he says, “there is a beginning, middle and an end.” One of the top travel writers in the country, Doc is steeped in the heritage of the deep south. Traveling the back roads from Texas to Virginia and on down to Key West inspires stories about local food and wine preferences, community theater, folk art and music often leading to clues for a good story. Heroes include Faulkner, Hemingway, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Ralph Ellison, Dorothy Parker and Willie Morris. An Atlanta native, Doc keeps a well-stocked wine cellar and bar and two outdoor grills. He enjoys entertaining and believes that the greatest challenge for a writer is to keep searching for a higher life. www.thegourmethighway.com | doclawrence@mindspring.com

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