Humboldt, TN – Two days and 550 miles into this epic Southern food road trip it’s become clear that finding the time to write about it along the way is going to be the biggest challenge, (knock wood.)
This morning it’s happening at 4 am, Keurig-fueled, in the dead silence that comes from being surrounded by tall trees, in a poshly decorated countryside cottage guest house just outside Jackson, TN.
For my friends who have not yet experienced the miracle of AirBnB, it will change the way you envision road trips on a budget. I’m not sure what this small-house suite of rooms
would cost me were I to try and rent it in a commercial hotel context, but I’m pretty sure it would be many multiples of the $56 I paid just 5 hours in advance, as I was leaving Louisville. I don’t think I could have rented from a motel chain with a number in its name for that price.
Among the things I did in Louisville: interviewed erudite celeb chef Edward Lee at his restaurant 610 Magnolia, shot a Glock with a master sharpshooter in the frostbite dawn, visited Churchill Downs, toured the city’s spectacular collection of Victorian mansions and admired the original (first casting) of ‘The Thinker’, which I never would have guessed resides in Louisville, KY.
Another surprising thing about Louisville: it ranks 11th of the 50 largest U.S. cities in people who self-identify as lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgender, according to Gallup. It hosts an annual drag Olympiad, Entertainer of the Year, with competitors from all 50 states sending winners to compete.
Among the things I did not do in Louisville: wend my way down the Kentucky Bourbon Trail (though I did eye it wistfully as I passed by.) I strategically scheduled the whiskey for the return trip, with distilleries and bourbon-food pairing slated just before I head back to the big city and after most of the 1,900 miles I’m driving is in the rear view.
And of course, I also ate! At one upscale restaurant, Milkwood, and two great one-$ ethic places: heavenly hole-in-the-wall Vietnam Kitchen and El Taco Luchadora, a college-town-y taco shop with a hard-on for wrestling masks.
Among the three, only Milkwood really fits into the Southern food box, and it does so non-traditionally, with dishes “globally inspired” in part by the Korean-Brooklyn roots of co-owner Edward Lee but also other cuisines. The night I was there, with my Couchsurfing host Jori, it was Dim Sum Sunday. We each ordered three dishes that were to varying degrees, some element of Southern cuisine married with Asian ingredients or techniques. One of the things Chef Lee and I talked about during the interview that we filmed was “What is required to root a dish in the South?” We concluded that some combination of traditional ingredients, techniques and service can get it done. But how much is enough for a dish to maintain its Southern soul?
I studied Milkwood’s regular menu while we were there, and I think most of those dishes probably cleared the bar. (For example, kalbi braised short ribs with a sweet potato mash, charred sunchoke and Asian pear, or green curry boudin sausage.) But honestly, the dim sum we were served at Milkwood seemed just like other dim I’ve had with more of a cursory nod to Southern food. (These dishes change weekly it’s possible/likely they don’t get as much conceptual scrutiny.) The glazed pork belly I ordered had a delicious beet-pickled egg perched on top, for example. And our shrimp sausage was skewered by sharpened sugar cane. But was I really eating what I’d call Southern food? It is, of course, a personal question, but my answer came out no.
I am asking a variety of people as I go around what I’m calling “the Holodeck Question.” If, sometime in a distant future and completely removed from context, you had to summon up five foods or drinks that convey the essence of Southern food, what would you choose? Ed Lee’s picks were: fried chicken, pimento cheese, biscuits, ice tea and bourbon. My sharpshooter gun instructor John’s were fried chicken, fried catfish, cornbread, sweet tea and pecan pie. What are your five?
Coming up next: Memphis BBQ.