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Well, we just returned last night from a week and a half of traveling all over the great state of Mississippi. I didn’t do any blogging from the road simply because I forgot the cable to upload pictures, and as we all know, a food blog is nothing without its pictures. When we arrived in Jackson my mom told me that she’d bought a smoked Boston Butt from a co-worker raising money for charity. For $20 she bought an entire pork shoulder that’d been slow smoked for many many hours. It was a delicious welcoming meal and the beginning of a week-long effort to clog all of my arteries. While there were many interesting Southern cultural moments I could write about, I will of course, focus only on the “eating” part of the trip.

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It didn’t take long for me to remember that Mississippi is a state whose food is without pretenses. This is a place where a gas station might serve some of the best food around, or maybe homemade cakes and pies are offered alongside bottled water right next to a fried burrito or pizza stick. It’s not about the presentation so much as the taste.

dsc02626It is an unfortunate fact that Southern food is not typically healthy fare. You can walk into a restaurant and see a buffet composed entirely of fried things and a salad bar that is only iceberg lettuce, pink tomatoes, cucumbers, and ranch. I’m not joking. While I do appreciate fried food, this is not the kind of restaurant I was looking for. If I’m going to eat fried food I don’t want everything else in the kitchen to share the grease. No, I wanted something more satisfying and, dare I say wholesome?

dsc02628Something like a meat and two veggies. Fortunately there are plenty of “plate lunch” places to choose from. The day after we arrived my folks took us to Binke’s, a restaurant in a metal building hidden in a neighborhood near downtown. Three people ate enough to last a week for something like $20; a meal comes with a meat, two sides, bread (or cornbread), tea, and dessert. I opted for the fried pork chop with gravy, collard greens, and black eyed peas. I finished it off with chocolate pie and washed all of it down with sweet tea. While the atmosphere left something to be desired, people don’t come here for the atmosphere; they come for the food, and I don’t blame them. It’s delicious. My dad got the oxtails, which I’d never had before. They were very tender and flavorful, and I’d definitely order them next time, although it’s hard to beat gravy on a pork chop

dsc02646Believe it or not, that same night we went to the fish camp. Although there are some chains that claim to be fish camps, the real deal is not much different from a clam shack in New England, only instead of clams, the main attraction is the catfish. It’s locally owned, and usually in a very small town.

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Long’s Fish Camp is in Enterprise, MS and is only open a few nights a week. The restaurant, in a cinder block building, is pristine and brightly lit. Deer heads, stuffed birds, and other animals line the walls as families sit at benches and enjoy fried catfish (although they do offer non-fried food it’s hardly worth mentioning).

After you order your drinks (the sweet tea is very good; sweet but not overly so), the waitress brings a bowl of cole slaw, a sliced onion, lemons, and some crackers to your table. This is what passes for vegetables, and is a tradition at fish camps in East Mississippi, and maybe other places as well (the cole slaw was actually really good on saltines). The drinks arrived, and so did three pitchers for each of us to fill our own drinks. I ordered the whole catfish platter, as opposed to the fillets I usually order. Although the menu didn’t specify, I ended up with four fish on my plate. They weren’t huge, but let me tell you, that’s a lot of fish. I could only eat one and a half, on top of all that cole slaw and onion. As you might expect, everyone was very nice, and the owner let me take his picture, even when he found out I live in New England.

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Next installment: The best cakes in Calhoun City, and tailgating in the Grove…

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My husband Dru and I just got back from a terrific trip to San Francisco. I had to go for a business conference and I decided early on that I would take him and make the trip half business, half pleasure. I grew up in Mississippi, lived in North Carolina for a stint and then moved to Massachusetts. Aside from a four-week roadtrip when I was in college and a trip or two to Washington state, I’d never really explored the West coast too much. The Bay Area is so vastly different than what I’m used to; the landscape reminded me a lot of the Mediterranean, the weather was fantastic (I know that we lucked out on this one), people were laid back, and there were bookstores everywhere. It’s really ridiculous how many books we bought while we were there. I’d been on the lookout for some M.F.K. Fisher for a while now and haven’t been able to find any of her books here in the environs of Boston. But, we went to City Lights and of course they had everything she’d ever written (not really, but close). I got Serve it Forth and How to Cook a Wolf. I also got Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient by Jennifer McLagan; a great cookbook which has inspired me to render my own lard. A topic for another post.

Scott Peacock

Slow Food '08 Victory Garden

Coincidentally we were there during Slow Food Nation ’08. We didn’t get to participate too much due to our flight arrangements, but we did go to the marketplace at the Civic Center Plaza. It was like I’d died and gone to heaven. It was a huge farmer’s market with amazing produce, rice, nuts, cheese, olive oil, and on and on. All of it grown locally and most of it grown organically. I bought some peaches and plums for us to eat right then and there, some almonds, rice, wheat berries, and pistachios. I wanted to buy everything in sight but knew I couldn’t fit it all in my luggage. Right in the middle of the plaza they’d installed a “victory garden” which they will harvest for the San Francisco food bank. It was an amazing garden and I was totally jealous. On the other side of the garden were vendors selling small meals. I was pleasantly surprised to find my favorite chef Scott Peacock cooking ham biscuits with jam. I stood there like a fool and watched him make biscuits. He clearly used lard and cut it right into the flour with his hands. He was making way more than I usually make, of course, but I think I’ll try that next time instead of the pastry cutter; they are biscuits after all and not a delicate flaky pie crust. There was a line, but once I got some of those biscuits I ate them pretty fast. I have to say it was incredible being surrounded by people who were as excited about local food as I am. I get a small taste of that when I go to the farmer’s market around here, but that’s not on such a grand scale.

A happy girl

What else did we eat you might be wondering? Well, I ate the hottest pepper I’d ever eaten in the Mission District. It was hidden in the “hot” salsa on this plate of Carne Asada:

I’ve gotten way too used to ordering the hottest thing on the menu here in New England. The hottest dish is never hot enough for me; if the menu has three chili peppers and warns in big letters “WARNING: This dish is very spicy,” I order it and find it just right. I have a friend whose head sweats when he eats something spicy; it’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen and I always take the opportunity to make fun of him. Well, that’s here in New England where people like their dinners boiled and their food bland, thank you very much. Not a Latino neighborhood where people can actually handle a little bit of spiciness in their food. WOOWEE! I tell ya, that pepper was a-spicy. An hour later I could still feel it on my lips. Luckily I’d ordered an horchata, which cut through the spice; water would have just made it worse. The food was really good; this was at La Cumbre, supposedly the oldest taqueria in San Francisco. The Mission District is so interesting; it is definitely a place of extremes, on one block I felt like we were in a rough part of Mexico City and then the next block felt a little more like a hip street in Brooklyn somewhere. It’s definitely a neighborhood on the edge of two extremes; gentrification on one side and poverty on the other.

The last day we were there we went to Berkeley and made the pilgrimage to Chez Panisse. It was an absolute necessity for me to go to this restaurant; I couldn’t be that close and not go. So, a month ago I called to make a reservation; even then they could only fit us in for 5:30, but of course we took it. Needless to say the meal was amazing. We decided to go to the cafe instead of the restaurant. In the restaurant the meal is much pricier; like $95 for prix fixe. In the cafe it is more like $23 for an entree; still pricey for us. We started with Pizzeta with Tomales Bay clams (picture above). It had a really yummy creamy sauce on it and the clams were teensy, especially compared to the Ipswich clams I’m used to. Then I had Wood oven-roasted squid and pimientos with romesco sauce and Dru had Hand-cut rosemary pasta with Devil’s Gulch Ranch rabbit ragu. We were both happy with what we ordered; I have to say I would neverĀ  have ordered the squid, but the waiter insisted it was good. Of course he was right. It wasn’t tough at all and the flavor was incredible. For desert I had Meyer lemon sorbet with fresh berries and Dru had Affogato, which apparently means warm espresso over vanilla ice cream. What a perfect way to end a perfect trip!

Meyer lemon sorbet with summer berries

Affogato

Affogato

Did you miss me?

OK, you can admit it. You didn’t even know I was gone, did you? I had to go to down South for a few days on business. Don’t worry, I did lots of eating and am prepared to tell you about all of it. Just remember, I’m not a restaurant critic so don’t expect me to critique the wine list or rate the authenticity of the confit.

The highlight of the entire trip was my dinner at Watershed. The Chef, Scott Peacock, co-wrote one of my all-time favorite cookbooks, The Gift of Southern Cooking with Edna Lewis. It’s just a great book, combining Peacock’s Alabama cooking tradition with Lewis’s Virginia upbringing. The restaurant is famous for its fried chicken and pimento cheese. Of course I got both. We also ordered a hummus plate and shrimp & grits served with a huge “plank” of buttered toast:

Although I was most excited about the pimento cheese, I have to say the shrimp & grits were outstanding. I know from his cookbook that he uses shrimp paste, which is why it doesn’t look like shrimp & grits you might find elsewhere.

The fried chicken is brined overnight and then soaked in buttermilk, which is why they only serve it once a week. It’s served with biscuits, mashed potatoes, and green beans. It was delicious. Tender, flavorful, crunchy. The biscuits were good too; I ate an extra order of those.

The next day I had lunch with my cousin and her son. They took me to the Varsity, which is legend around those parts. It’s been open for 80 years and is famous for chili dogs, onion rings and a drink called the Varsity Orange, which tastes just like a Push-Up (do they even make those anymore?). Of course, even though chili dogs aren’t my favorite, I had to order a number 1 combo: two chili dogs, with fries and a drink. My cousin got the onion rings and we shared. The “chili” was really just meat sauce, and it was pretty darn good.


I also had a couple of nice meals with friends and family that stood out more for their company than for their food (don’t get me wrong the food was good, but if it’s not fried or laden with meat sauce I’m not writing about it here). It was a great trip, and now I need to go eat some vegetables.

Here’s Scott Peacock’s recipe for pimento cheese. I haven’t made it myself but I’ve eaten it and it’s really good. Pimento cheese usually falls into two camps: sweet and savory. This is a savory recipe, which is my preference. Although his calls for roasted red bell pepper and homemade Mayonnaise, I can tell you that it’s ok to use a jar of pimentos and some store-bought Hellman’s. I need to work on my recipe a little, but once I get it tweaked I’ll post it for ya. It’s hard to find really sharp yellow cheese here in New England (I have no idea why), so mine is usually white-ish, but the kind I always had growing up was almost day-glow orange. Regardless of color, homemade pimento cheese blows the store-bought stuff out of the water. It can be served as a dip or on a sandwich; it’s great as a grilled cheese.

Scott Peacock’s Pimento Cheese
1 1/2 c. (10 oz.) grated extra-sharp cheddar cheese
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper, or to taste
salt to taste if needed
5 or 6 grinds of black pepper
3/4 c. homemade Mayonnaise
3 tbs. finely chopped roasted red bell pepper or pimento

Stir together all of the ingredients in a mixing bowl until they are well mixed and creamy. Taste carefully for seasoning and adjust as needed. Cover and store, refrigerated, until ready to use.

Enjoy!