The Gourmet Highway: Searching for Sources

Food origins can be just as fascinating as family genealogy. Barbecue is a subject that can rival  college football with heated discussions as to which is best, and why. North Carolina cooks from backyard grillers or restauranteurs swear theirs is superior, but that all changes when you cross state lines. Styles seem to be more constant than sauces-Tar Heels prefer vinegary slather while Georgia and Tennessee gravitate to the more tomato based. And Texas doesn’t cotton to pork, preferring delicious beef brisket over almost everything.

Because the Deep South has been my primary interest area (but I LOVE New York), specialties like Brunswick Stew are almost second nature. Virginians swear they were the birthplace, while I and thousands of others claim Georgia. The Peach State even has a monument to prove it. The great American author and denizen of Florida’s Cross Creek, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, assigned Germany as the origin.

Who can argue with a Pulitzer Prize recipient?

The late humorist Lewis Grizzard would weigh in about food and I know of restaurants he turned into food shrines with words of praise. One syndicated column was about fried green tomatoes, a side dish I had been enjoying since baby days. When Lewis proclaimed the Blue Willow Inn, a beautiful old mansion in Social Circle, Georgia as having the best anywhere, tour busses packed with travelers suddenly began making regular stops at the Inn to enjoy a spread of traditional southern food, particularly the battered and fried delights.

Blue Willow Inn
Blue Willow Inn near Athens, Georgia wins praise for its legendary fried green tomatoes.

Permit me to observe that few beyond immediate family ever had the opportunity of eating Grandma Stella’s pound cake (she confided that it had a pound of butter and a dozen eggs and was as heavy as gold bullion). Comfortable in the kitchen, she could prepare more mundane things like baked squash casserole while working crossword puzzles.

I’ve plunged into Cracker cuisine with the same zeal that led me to Julia Child and her culinary progeny. I concluded with not much authority that the Spanish influence in Florida’s food is profound. Why wouldn’t it be? Cracker cattle, pigs, chickens and even the incredible Datil pepper made it to Florida from Europe thanks to the conquistadors.

Treat yourself to a genuine Florida Bloody Mary during football season. This Cracker-inspired cocktail must be made with Datil Pepper Sauce, easily obtained online from outlets in St. Augustine, the only place I know in the country where these almost lethal red hots are grown. Caveat: a little goes a long way.

Datil Pepper Bloody Mary
Bloody Mary’s made with St. Augustine’s Datil pepper sauce are an all-Florida delight.

Florida’s food culture mirrors the rich multicultural demographics. Tallahassee, the state’s charming capital city, claims to be the birthplace of the hushpuppy, an almost obligatory accompaniment with Gulf seafood. While Conch Chowder didn’t originate in Key West, the island paradise popularized it, making it a mainstream menu item in tropical Florida.

Conch
Conch chowder and conch fritters are culinary mainstays in Key West restaurants.

She-crab soup, a Charleston specialty, is an amazing blend of crab roe and sherry. Legend has it that the delicious concoction was served at George Washington’s presidential inaugural dinner. The best Frogmore Stew I’ve enjoyed has been in coastal South Carolina.

There are as many variations of shrimp and grits as there are gumbo. Chef Marvin Woods who has owned several heralded restaurants throughout the Southeast and performs magic on a TV cooking set agrees with James Beard that there aren’t any “first” recipes. Like people, they are derivative, connected to hereditary roots.

Nashville began showcasing its “Hot Chicken” some years ago. It’s made by drenching the each piece in hot sauce, battering it and then skillet frying. Music City native, the late Frank Spence, had legendary insight into Southern food and college football. He recalled his first experience with this regional fare was tantamount to biting into a raw habernero pepper.

Food preferences are fickle. Jonathan Swift said it was a brave man who ate the first oyster.

Louisville, home of the Kentuck Derby, has a food culture that pays homage to Southern culinary traditions with noticeable Midwest influences. The charming river town with perhaps the best sidewalks in America, offers the “Hot Brown” an open-faced turkey sandwich made famous at the Brown Hotel, a luxury landmark where Muhammed Ali often stayed when he returned to his childhood hometown. For Louisville visitors, “The Truman Breakfast” is obligatory. It’s served every morning at Dish on Market restaurant where the colorful President enjoyed eggs, toast, skim milk and a glass of Kentucky Bourbon “to get the engine running.”

Truman Breakfast
The Truman Breakfast is served each morning at Louisville’s Dish on Main restaurant.

In New Orleans, good food is equal to jazz, football, cocktails and those intangibles that make up the joi de vivres lifestyle. When I can’t physically be there, I simple read those spellbinding stories behind the recipes in my treasured New Orleans cookbooks. Memories stimulate the appetite.

Late summer and early fall still beat us down with heat. Cool air and unspoiled natural treasures await travelers in Clarkesville, a gateway to the mountains of North Georgia. Abby Jackson embodies the gourmet lifestyle. Her family owned Blackhawk Fly Fishing allows guests to match wits with trophy trout in the crystal waters of Georgia’s Soque River. Whether or not you land a magnificent fish is unimportant. It’s the thrill of the catch and the release back into the clear water that counts. The reward: dinner will be served soon.

Blackhawk
Al fresco dining at Blackhawk features Abby Jackson’s signature gourmet dishes.

The Blackhawk itinerary includes meals from Abby’s kitchen wizardry. An acclaimed cookbook author whose gourmet products are mainstays in Southern markets, the experience has the feel of a Rocky Mountain resort. It’s a simple drive from Atlanta but feels so far away from the big city.

Abby Fly Fishing
Fly fishing for trophy trout is a popular amenity at Blackhawk.

Days still get hot, but autumn gradually comes closer. Preferences, whether food, wine or travel will change ever so gently. It’s an exciting time to immerse ourselves in the abundance of what is near and to venture out and meet new people and experience their food. That’s a benefit from the joy of daily living and it’s so American.

 

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.winesdownsouth.com | editors@docsnews.com

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