05 Aug Eating Dixie: What I’ve learned about Southern Food
As I wrote in an apologetic statement a month or so ago, I’ve been taking a bit of a break from blogging (well, from just near everything, really) to go on what I considered some much-needed vacation.
To be a little more specific, I’ve been spending three weeks road tripping through the entire South-Eastern United States with Zascha; a bestest friend of ten years. Together, we’ve plowed 5,000 kilometers through the states of North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina, and have seen everything from the peaks of the Appalachian Mountains over the dreadfully poor flatlands of the Mississippi Delta to the gator-infested swamps of Louisiana.
Putting it quite simply and surprisingly shortly, it’s been one hell of a ride! A ride that has taught us a lot about differences, local pride, culture, music, ourselves and, inevitably, food! See, part of the experience for us was to submerge ourselves in the local culture and in order to do that, well, you need to, at the very least, touch upon three basic things: history, music and food. And touch we did, this guy especially on the subject of food. I’ve come home with a ton of thoughts, ideas, cookbooks and ingredients. I ate a ton of really weird things and a few downright incredible ones. I saw ingredients and dishes I never thought existed, along with a few I wish didn’t. And I came home with a ton of inspiration and stuff to blog about once my mind gets over the onslaught of input.
For now, as a bit of an appetizer, allow me to share with you a few simple things that made my trip special and helped define for me the lovely culinary mess that is good, old-fashioned Southern cooking. Here, now, are a few of the most important lessons I learned touring and eating Dixie:
1. They mean well: Portion size is king!
Lets be honest here, world! We all know Americans have issues when it comes to portion size control. Right? It’s been a well-known fact for ages that servings are ridiculously large over there. But as this correspondent has now uncovered, in no places are they larger than in the South. And I should know! In the immortal words of Johnny Cash, when it comes to America, “I’ve been everywhere, man!”
Granted, California has some pretty big burritos, New York City has thrown sandwiches at me almost larger than I could handle and the Mid-west helped me gain a few pounds (or twenty), but Dixie… We need to talk, man. This is ridiculous!
And you charge next nothing for it! What gives? It’s like you’re deliberately trying to fatten me up! I’ll be honest here, I’m a boy with a pretty healthy appetite. I have what you would probably call an enviable metabolism. In New York City two years ago, I’d happily put away my own portion and help finish those of my two female travel companions. On this trip, I was bested on several occasions by my own portions… And frankly I’m not okay with that!
Oh, alright, I’m just being pissed off because I got bested here. But really, America, if I can’t finish the damn thing, anyone I know will tell you that your serving sizes are just too ridiculously large!
So here’s a travel tip to my fellow Danes: If you want two days worth of dinner for about half of what a meal would cost you back home, hop on a flight to the Deep South! Really, even the employes down here will tell you that their serving sizes are too ridiculously large!
2. Don’t want a doggie bag? You’re not our friend!
Speaking of portion size, it should come as no surprise that doggie bags are pretty popular in the South. So popular, actually, that the reactions when Zascha politely declined such offers ranged from disbelief over downright shock to mutterings of “I… Huh… Wait… What?” followed by head shaking and walking away on the part of the waitress… Seriously!
Maybe it’s a Southern thing. Given the reactions I fear we may have broken some sort of written or unwritten law here, and to the fine people of Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and Florida: I apologize! But really, massive amounts of easily perishable food never comes in handy at a Super 8 motel room during the heat spell that is a Dixie summer night, just saying.
For the record, we did however accept a couple of neatly wrapped chocolate desserts at the decadent Commander’s Palace Restaurant in New Orleans – partly because bringing home leftovers from a should-be Michelin star restaurant seemed hilarious, partly because we actually had a fridge in our room in NOLA. Unfortunately, we also managed to forget all about them upon departure. So, to the housekeeping staff at Hotel St. Pierre, I hope you enjoyed the bleeding heart chocolate cakes in the Charlie Parker room fridge, they came from the best restaurant in town and they’re totally on me!
3. BBQ is not a sport, it’s not even a lifestyle, it’s a religion!
Driving through the South, you’ll see an abundance of a couple of things in the front yards of every town, big or small, you cruise through: Pickup trucks, flags (both Yankee and Confederate), propane tanks… and smokers!
Barbecue – the ancient and beautiful art of turning tough cuts of meat into succulent, mouth-watering eats through lengthy applications of hardwood smoke – is more than a lifestyle down here. It’s a religion. And it’s one that everybody practices, zealously. Insults, heated arguments and even blows, I’m sure of it, have been traded on the subject of BBQ and in particular about what constitutes good BBQ. Everybody and their mother will have an opinion on the matter and they’re about ready to defend it with their lives.
The air is literally thick with hardwood smoke in small-town Dixie, and it’s a beautiful thing! Pit masters will spend years, decades – heck make that entire lives – trying to perfect dry rubs, sauces, cooking temperatures, amount of smoke and the composition of the wood or woods from whence it came… And when they succeed, the rumor will spread like wildfire as hordes upon hordes descend upon their establishments.
See, finding truly great BBQ is rare, but when you do, it is truly one of the most rewarding moments of your life. It’s only when you sit down and tear into that mouth-watering combination of smoky meatiness, sweet and vinegary sauciness and a side of spice and, well, BAM! That you truly understand…
You understand why that Nashville waiter’s eyes glossed over as he spoke of his home-town Memphis BBQ. You understand why they refer to the BBQ of the next town over as “f’ing poser BBQ”. You understand why competitive BBQ’ing is a multi-million dollar business and, more than anything, you understand why, second only to church, BBQ is the most important thing on Sundays.
Dixie is big on BBQ, and we were lucky to have some of the absolute best (and worst) she had to offer, that’s just one more experience I can’t wait to share with you in another post.
4. Yes, this is actually a thing!
…. And it’s all over deli counters in the South, along with other obscure jarred stuff!
5. They’ll deep fry ANYTHING for you in the South!
“I know a guy from the South,” my lovely, bacon-loving friend Ana told me with a smirk when I was just setting out on this trip, “he used to tell me that if we can find a way to deep-fry water, we will!”
My reaction at the time, as I sat out to put the theory to the test, was probably something along the lines of “heck, it can’t be that bad!” – then a basket of deep-fried dill pickles landed in front of Zascha and I, and boy did I ever start to wonder that maybe there was some truth to her words!
The list of things Southerners will deep-fry includes, but is in no way limited to: Potatoes, sweet potatoes, battered potatoes, beef, chicken, lamb, pork, steak, chicken fried steak, okra, onions, pickles, dill pickles, oysters, sausage, bacon wrapped shrimp, artichokes, oysters, Mars bars, ice cream, alligator, risotto, snake, catfish, redfish, any kind of fish and a host of things probably better left forgotten!
I’m happy to report that in the interest of culinary and cultural understanding, I had most of the above at least once, and while it’s all fun and games until your arteries start hurting and your skin breaks out after twenty days of non-stop deep-fried goodness – most of them were delicious and not at all horrible, soggy and fatty. Southerners have a proud tradition of frying and they do so incredibly well, turning the battered shell crisp and crunchy while maintaining a soft, moist, and most importantly flavorful center.
What’s the best deep-friend foods we had, you ask? Well, the deep-fried oysters were wonderful and decadent, but for my money, deep-fried pickles, in particular, are to die for – believe it or not!
6. You CAN apply nacho logic to pickles!
… If they’re stuck together, they count as one pickle!
What? They count as ONE pickle! Photo credit: @zwatz on instagram.com
7. Alligator does NOT taste like chicken!
One mission among many I had on the trip was to eat an alligator (or at least parts of an alligator) before an alligator ate me! Well, luckily for the nerves of my travel companion Zascha and a few others reading my reports of local wildlife and bug life, this is about as close as I (knowingly) got to a live specimen:
Yet, luckily for me, by the time we hit Baton Rouge, LA, I got this close (and closer) to a properly skinned, well-seasoned and well-cooked specimen.
And let me tell you this, my friends: they lie to you! Alligator tastes nothing like chicken! Unless of course Louisiana chicken tastes like a well-seasoned, slightly gamy cross between pork loin and turkey thighs. It does taste very nice, though, especially when liberally covered in creole seasonings and fried in plenty of oil. The texture is somewhere between pork and well-cooked turkey or chicken thigh meat, the flavor is mild, yet ever so slightly gamy and very, very interesting.
Oh, and another quick travel tip: If you offer alligator as a starter, they’ll serve you about half a pound, because God forbid you starved to death waiting for your burger!
8. The best eats are in the most unlikely of places
One thing we learned quickly on this trip is that if you want to eat exceedingly well at comparatively affordable prices, you’ve gotta throw away the guidebooks and the tourist magazines and turn to local recommendations. If you’re unsure about how to do that, the crowd-sourced reviews of services such as Tripadvisor rarely lie. Except perhaps in memorable cases where the top-rated Mexican restaurant has turned into a BBQ shack – at which point you should be happy that you’re in the South where BBQ Nachos is not only a thing, but also a basic human right!
But better yet, open your mouth and talk to locals. We did whenever we could and it landed us some really unique eating experiences off the beaten path. Like when our waiter in Nashville bestowed upon us his hand-written shortlist of favorite Memphis BBQ haunts, including a claustrophobic little shotgun shack placed
on next to a railroad track frequented by the Union Pacific.
Or when the world’s most awesome tour guide Bryan M. Dupree from Laura Plantation shared with us a few decidedly non-tourist spots in New Orleans, including the magnificent Elizabeth’s Restaurant which combined flying pigs, voodoo paraphernalia and mojo with laid-back, pretty waitresses and bold, top-class gourmet food with emphasis on creole flavors and spice.
Neither of these places, or several others for that matter, would we have been able to locate on our own. And had we, without prior recommendation, we would have probably left again, shaking our heads thinking that nothing good could ever come from this. But good things did come from this, and we owe a huge thanks to the good Southern folks who helped us find good eats in the most unlikely of places.
9. You can get tipsy off of ONE beer!
Mainly because serving sizes for beers seem to follow those of the food. Here, for example, is my bottle of Southern Julep next to the pint glass it was served with. God bless America!
And this particular delivery vessel is called a schooner. I wonder why:
Oh, and who said Americans weren’t smart?
10. YES I CAN! Gain weight, that is!
Two years ago, I spent two weeks in New York City with Zascha and another friend Emelie. During the trip a lot of good eats were had, especially by me… And when we got home, a minor diplomatic crisis ensued when it came to the attention of my beautiful travel companions that I had actually managed to shed a good seven pounds of weight on the trip.
In the interest of living to tell the tale of my trip to Dixie, I swore to my friends that I would do ANYTHING within my power to gain weight on this trip of the South. And boy, would you look at the pictures below! Beside the obvious damage done to my white sneakers, they clearly show a whopping weight gain of 5oo grams! That’s more than a pound! Go team me!
Hey, there you go, I just accidentally created my first top ten list! That officially makes me a real blogger! And now my little blog will drown in hits! No? Oh well, thanks for stopping by anyway! And do stick around, we’ll have a lot more Dixie to talk about in the coming weeks, both in terms of reviews, recollections, recommendations and plain far out crazy ideas for my own cooking that I picked up while touring this wonderful place.
Y’all come back now, ya’ hear?