Grits Gone Wild
A Southern States Food Tour
Like Tuscany in the 1980s and California in the late 1990s, the American South is in the grips of an epic culinary boom. Adam Platt's plan? Start in Tennessee and slowly eat his way east until, like General Sherman, he reached the sea
I'd been on the road for a day or two, tacking to and fro among the nouveau food snob destinations of backwoods Tennessee, before I met the man gourmet chefs in tony Yankee-style restaurants call the Rock Star of Country Ham. During the course of my travels, I'd already tasted "hand-wrapped" artisanal chocolates touched with barrel-aged bourbon and discussed the merits of the corn bread madeleine with several loquacious self-proclaimed food snobs from Nashville. I'd stood in line for a taste of that city’s famously addictive Prince’s "hot" fried chicken and paid one hundred dollars for an elaborate eleven-course tasting menu that included a strange, intoxicating substance called Wonder Bread Purée. I'd visited with an artisanal "seed saver" who travels the mountain valleys looking for ancient beans and strains of corn, and sat at the bar of a little barbecue joint in Nolensville, Tennessee, contemplating the Big Momma Sampler, an impressive local specialty that includes a pile of barbecued pork products roughly the size of my head.
The Rock Star of Country Ham received me in his smoke-tinged office, which contains a desk cluttered with papers and old ballpoint pens, an ancient push-button telephone, and weathered laminate walls the color of tobacco. "I tell people I operate out of a cigar box, and that's not far from the truth," said Allan Benton, with a friendly grin. Benton grew up on a backwoods farm in the Appalachians of southern Virginia and moved to Tennessee to be a teacher. After deciding that he couldn't subsist on his meager salary, he bought a small smokehouse and began curing hams in a mixture of salt and brown sugar, the way his parents did on their mountain farm. He flavored them for days in clouds of hickory smoke. "For years my customers were a few local hillbillies and a couple of greasy spoon restaurants up in the mountains," said Benton, who has operated out of the same cinder block building off Highway 411, near Madisonville, Tennessee, for the last thirty years.
The barn at Blackberry Farm is no cowshed: Multi-course farm-to-table extravaganzas are served in the majestic setting with wines from its 8,000-square-foot wine cellar.
Benton's fortunes changed a decade ago, when the chef at a nearby resort called Blackberry Farm began serving hickory-smoked Benton ham and bacon to his guests for breakfast. The future Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio tasted it there and began serving plates of Benton's country ham at his influential New York restaurant Craft. To his amazement, Benton now ships his hams and slabs of smoked country bacon to all fifty states. He entertains food pilgrims from far-off places like Munich, Puerto Rico, and New York City. "We get the food people coming from all over," he said as we wandered toward the belching smoker, which he tends himself seven days a week. "I never in a million years thought high rollers in white-tablecloth restaurants would want a taste of my hillbilly ham. Now I like to eat it with a little bit of cantaloupe, like Italian prosciutto. Sometimes I'll buy myself a bottle of hundred-dollar wine. You could even say I'm a bit of a foodie myself."
travel the back roads of the carolInas, Georgia, and Tennessee these days and you will find food icons like Allan Benton in all sorts of unlikely places. Like Tuscany in the '80s and California a decade ago, the American South is in the grips of what one cultured gastronome in the food-obsessed city of Charleston described to me as "a culinary boom of epic proportions." Young chefs in former gourmet backwaters like Charleston and Athens, Georgia, are penning glossy coffee-table cookbooks and demonstrating their recipes for corn bread to adoring audiences on national TV. In the great gastronomic capitals up north, fancy food snobs who once preoccupied themselves with dishes like foie gras and puffy French soufflés are exchanging recipes for fried chicken and quibbling over the merits of various increasingly pricey Kentucky bourbons.
"There's a deep and profound interest in the Southern food culture right now, and it's because in these overprocessed times, people are hungry for anything that's real," said John T. Edge when I met him over fancy sixteen-dollar bourbon cocktails in one of Manhattan's snootiest Michelin-starred restaurants. Edge is the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, in Oxford, Mississippi, and for more than a decade now he's traveled the country, writing and preaching about the Great Southern Food Revival. Like his mentor, John Egerton, who co-founded the organization, Edge considers old-fashioned Southern cuisine to be the closest American equivalent to the Slow Food traditions of Europe. Once upon a time, ambitious cooks fled the South to make their reputation up north. But these days, with the help of local farmers and producers, they are reviving these techniques, the way French chefs from Lyon did for New Yorkers and Parisians generations ago, and turning them into something fresh and new.
In a region once known for whole-hog eating contests and a fondness for lard, you can now find master bakers, ambitious vintners, and discreet gourmet destination restaurants where the wait-ing list for a reservation is more than a month long. There are rice snobs in the newly food-conscious Red States of America, barbecue snobs, pimento cheese snobs, grits snobs, and pork snobs who specialize in making delicate strips of prosciutto out of antique breeds of feral pig. In the last few years, discerning gourmets from up north have been canceling their reservations to passé food destinations like Napa Valley and Provence and making pilgrimages down South to attend fancy food festivals, nibble delicately on regional specialties like fried green tomatoes, and deconstruct recipes for that Charleston New Year's specialty, Hoppin' John.
The South's Haute Cuisine
Sure, biscuits and bacon are great, but these days Southern cooking has gone haute. Innovative chefs are redefining the region's cuisine with heirloom beans, barrel-aged bourbon, and acorn-fattened hogs.As a professional restaurant critic and card-carrying Yankee food snob, I'd dined around the world, in New York, Tokyo, and the great food capitals of Europe and Asia. But now it was my turn to experience the wonders of this unlikely gastronomic revolution. I wanted to taste the perfect Carolina oyster, to addle myself with nouveau gourmet versions of pork and beans and fried chicken, and to delve into the sophisticated pleasures of a real buttermilk biscuit. I'd prepared for my trip by going on a monthlong diet. I'd read up on the ever-expanding canon of trendy cookbooks that have been pouring out of Dixie recently the way trendy cookbooks used to come out of Paris and Rome. I'd quizzed chefs on the special places they went to eat during their foraging trips down South, and I'd even cultivated a scraggly Colonel Sanders–style goatee for the occasion.
It was my idea to pick a spot in the middle of what one of my New York gastronome friends fondly calls the Lard Belt and then eat my way slowly east until, like General Sherman, I reached the sea. I decided to begin my travels in Nashville, a town that is filled with fashionable new restaurants but that also has its own dining pedigree. From there, I'd drive to Blackberry Farm, in Walland, Tennessee, where guests pay a thousand dollars a day to taste rustic country hams and meet with chefs who come from around the world to study Slow Food ingredients and techniques. I'd travel over the Smoky Mountains to Asheville, North Carolina, and end my journey in the epicenter of the nouveau Southern food snob culture, Charleston, a place so inundated with destination restaurants and tempestuous superstar chefs that some of the more food-conscious residents have taken to calling it the Paris of the South.
"We're used to big portions in the South, so in the beginning some people were concerned they wouldn't get enough to eat," said Benjamin Goldberg, whom I met shortly before dinner on day one of my great Southern gourmet tour. I'd driven in from Nashville International Airport just hours before, in a rented Ford Ranger that had battered Georgia license plates and smelled faintly of tobacco. Already, during the course of the afternoon, I'd ingested several Southern-size portions of sour cream caramel cake, the fiendishly addictive local delicacy, and discussed the merits of the city's famous "hot" fried chicken with Nashville's former mayor Bill Purcell at Prince's Hot Chicken Shack, on the east side of town. During his time in office, Purcell used to bring visiting dignitaries to Prince's, where the crunchy, napalm-hot chicken is spiced with a secret combination of cayenne and other hot peppers, cooked to order, and served over a slice of white bread with a pickle on top. "People used to take food for granted in Nashville," said Purcell. "We don't do that anymore. This excellent fried chicken is the closest thing this city has to an indigenous food."
Okay, so it sounds like a joke about preconceptions of Southern food—the chicken skins at the Catbird Seat are served with dumpling-like Wonder Bread purée—but you won’t hear any complaints.
Ben Goldberg and his brother, Max, grew up in Nashville eating Prince's chicken and the famous local cafeteria delicacy called "meat and three." Three years ago, however, they opened the Patterson House, a popular retro-cocktail bar whose menu includes haute cuisine renditions of old Southern dishes such as salty popping pork rinds seasoned with fresh rosemary and stacks of delicately cooked "Tater Tots" served with horseradish dill cream. Their latest venture is the Catbird Seat, a discreet gourmet restaurant that opened last year above the Patterson House in a space that used to house a beauty salon. The multi-course, hundred-dollar tasting menu features newfangled gourmet combinations such as pork belly sprinkled with foraged radish flowers, and pigeon legs flavored with smoked hay, and if you want a place at the small twenty-seat dining counter, the wait for a reservation is a month long.
The only time I could get into the Catbird Seat was at 5:30 on a Saturday, and when I arrived, the room was already filling up with women in flowery sorority dresses and Nashville dandies dressed for dinner in their blazers and country club ties. The tattooed young cooks at the Catbird Seat have trained at Napa's French Laundry, among other world-renowned restaurants, and they prepare your meal in front of you like the grand chefs of Japan. The first thing they served was a tasting of oysters, flown to the landlocked Southern city from the great Yankee oyster beds of Cape Cod, followed by a gourmet version of corn bread, fried in duck fat and served on a tiny pillow of gently dissolving bacon mousse. Any concerns about not getting enough to eat disappeared around course number six—wagyu beef, I dimly recall, which the chefs infused with a sweet hint of smoke, like some strange, ethereal version of beef barbecue. Dessert, when it finally arrived, was an unusual concoction called charred oak ice cream, served with liquid bourbon balls on the stave of an old oak barrel. The Nashville dandy sitting next to me took one dainty bite of this curious dish and then another. "This is freaking excellent!" he said.
These were more or less my sentiments as I drove east out of town the next day, past suburban gun shops and great gothic mega-churches on the tops of hills, to Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint, in Nolensville, Tennessee, where the local pork aficionados were lined up at the bar on a Sunday afternoon like walruses on a rock. In a few short years, Patrick Martin has earned a reputation as a master of the delicate art of whole-hog cooking. His barbecue joint is built out of red brick, like everything in Nolensville, and unlike the stunted faux barbecue shacks I was used to back in Manhattan, it had a chimney stack forty feet high. Lunch was served on a tin plate piled with mountains of pulled pork that tasted of hickory and burnt sugar, and slabs of dry-rubbed pork ribs which fell apart delightfully in my fingers. But the dish I couldn’t stop eating was the savory white corn bread, which was flat like a pancake and cooked on the griddle. When I asked the waitress for the key to its deliciousness, she gave me a happy smile: "Pork fat."