Monday, February 10, 2020

In Appreciation - Wagner's Pharmacy - Louisville

Calamity.  There was no other word for it.  Because hurtling down Interstate 65 north, in that great middle distance between Nashville and Louisville, with my wife next to me in our Subaru, the car hydroplaning at eight-three miles-per-hour, and headed headlong through a Kentucky cloudburst of biblical proportions, that was calamity.  It was to find ourselves balls-deep, so to speak, in a rising waterscape of likely disaster with nary a raft of hope which to cling.  So I gripped the wheel of our car, leaned forward, and squinted out the windshield.  My wife cowered in her seat and covered her eyes.  I might as well have done the same because I couldn’t see a thing.  Nothing.  Nada.  Zero.  Zilch.  I drove on, utterly blind to what might lay before us in the road.  Day had turned to night.  The sea had been called from the sky.  And the highway on which we traveled was suddenly submerged under a sluice of never-ending water.  Cars spun off the road.  Ditches filled.  And waterfalls boomed around us where only moments before cliffs of dry, blue limestone had simply just loomed.  It was the kind of water-and-lightening show that turns the irreligious suddenly devout, and which calls into one’s own mouth prayers learned in childhood, which beg to petition God—one god, any god—for escape from certain doom.  The only thing to do was keep on driving.  And try not to die.

We lived.  Obviously.

Because the storm ended as quickly as it came.  The rain stopped.  The low ceiling of clouds lifted.  And a tiny sliver of blue sky appeared on the horizon as if to suggest that one need only reach that far edge of the world to never again be harried by clouds and rain.  So we soldiered on, my wife and I, with the adrenalin in our veins suddenly thickening to maple syrup, and both of us feeling now sluggish and scraped out and in desperate need of a break.  We prayed for something else now; we prayed for something to eat—something truly delicious—and decided to pull off the highway the second we smelled food on the Southern wind.

It turns out there is a god, after all.  At least a god of gastronomy.  Because what we found the minute we breached the city limits of Louisville was an answer to our culinary prayers:  Wagner’s Pharmacy and Restaurant.  

Wagner’s stands at the very epicenter of Kentucky horse country.  Established in 1922 by Leo Wagner from the bones of the erstwhile Hagen’s Pharmacy (where Leo had worked since the age of 14), the eponymous Wagner’s sits, then as now, directly across the very street from the back gate of Churchill Downs.  The site of the Kentucky Derby, yo.  But more than just a sentimental relic of nostalgic curiosity, the still-vital Wagner’s remains that rarest and quickly-vanishing kind of American luncheonette; a time capsule of our collective, culinary past, and just the kind of place you or me might purchase race horse liniment, a tube of Tiger Balm, and a pack of Winston lights to go with our racing form and our patty melt lunch.  

We arrived two hours after lunch and precisely at the moment the restaurant was closing for the day.  The dining room and lunch counter were empty of customers, and the grill cook was all but finished in restoring the flattop to a state of gleaming immaculacy with the business end of a putty knife when we wandered in.  Conversation among the staff—two servers, a dishwasher, and our cook—stopped.  They blinked up at us, though not unkindly, as if to divine the stuttering confusion of two lost travelers in need of directions back to the main road.  But with one quick read of our faces, they understood we had come for something more than just food.  We had come for comfort.  For shelter and solace.  For a respite from the wearying road.  So we were seated in a booth and offered plastic-covered menus and told not to worry about the lateness of our arrival; they would be more than happy to feed us.

And feed us they did.

For me, it was a simple fried bologna sandwich on rye with chips and a pickle.  My wife went with vegetable soup and a grilled cheese.  A Doctor Pepper in a tall plastic cup—two straws—would wash it all down.  And while most certainly quotidian in its workaday ambitions, I found my fried bologna sandwich at Wagner’s to be one of my greatest sandwiches of my life.  Not because there was anything inherently magical about the food beyond that deeply familiar Southern savor resultant from the coupling of utility lunch meat and a flat top grill (though there be great magic in that culinary tango, friend-o), but because our food was exactly what we needed when we most needed it, with the service itself—the way we were received and continually cared for throughout our quick meal—being deeply paradigmatic of Southern hospitality in its purest form.  We felt cared for.  We felt nourished.  We felt protected.  And after the storm we had just weathered, the food before us, and the warmth emanating from the humans making and serving it, was nothing short of astonishing.  It was true culinary love.

Thank you, Wagner’s, for treating us so very well.  There are certain meals in our lives—few as they are—that color and contour the very shape of what—and how—we see the waking world around us.  Experiences like ours at Wagner’s affirm for the eater—my wife and me especially—that inside chest of every server and cook, there beats the heart of a savior and saint. 

Especially in Kentucky. 

Amazing what a guy can glean of life from a stop in Louisville and a fried bologna sandwich. 

Go to Wagner’s.  Eat.  And give them my love.

Your link:  Wagner's


Tuesday, January 28, 2020

On the Side of the Angels - Brown's Fried Chicken

Let’s start with an idea.  It’s a simple one.  Let’s float the notion that what Americans embrace as the most American of foods invariably find their respective origins in the wildly and most disparately un-American of culinary antecedents.  Take the all-American hot dog:  references to meat-in-tube-form abound in Homer’s Odyssey (that’s 9th Century B.C. Greece for you kids keeping score at home), though most food historians cite Frankfurter, Germany, 1487, as the birthplace of our own dirty water dog’s first proud progenitor.  As for the mighty and ever-ubiquitous American hamburger:  Romans enjoyed patties of spiced, ground meat called isicia omentata, though it’s 19th century cousin, the Hamburg steak, hailing from the eponymous port city in Germany, and which now gives its name to the pucks of ground beef that Americans consume, on average, at the rate of 222 pounds per year.  That’s the equivalent of 800 burgers per person, per year. 

So if we then follow this path of bivalent logic to the sunny, blue-skied clearing of its inevitable truth—that the Americanness of our most national foods are inversely proportional to ratio of their identity as “American” when juxtaposed to its pedigree in extraterritorial otherness—then I would suggest that fried chicken is this country’s most American of dishes.  That’s right, folks:  yard bird is even more American than apple pie and Chevrolet.

Because unlike the hot dog and the hamburger, the origins of fried chicken are hotly in dispute.  One school of food historian will have you believe that fried chicken was first developed in west Africa, where it was battered and seasoned, then fried in palm oil for maximum deliciousness.  Another faction of culinary historian argues, however, that fried chicken was invented by the Scots, who later shared their chicken fried-in-fat technique with populations of enslaved west Africans across the antebellum American South.  No matter which camp in this great chicken debate stands on the right side of history (though I, for one, believe fried chicken is a uniquely African culinary invention), what’s not in dispute is fried chicken’s extraordinary yin-yang function within American foodways, simultaneously expressing both the historical ugliness of American racial hostility and stereotypes associated with the dish, while also functioning as a force of good by playing the part of great American culinary cross-pollinator and unifier, enriching the quotidian cuisine of any ethnicity—black, white, Korean—willing to gather under the mighty banner of its eminence.  A most American dish through and through.

And despite the seemingly impenetrable fog of history surrounding fried chicken’s inception, there is one thing I know with absolute certainty:  fried chicken is my favorite food.  Like, ever.  My death row meal.  My desert island dish.  For this eater, no other food comes close in besting fried chicken in succulence and savor, and I will seek it out no matter how difficult proves its procurance or how sketchy seems its source.  Which brings me to Brown’s Fried Chicken, easily among the most ethereal—if unlikely—of fried chicken experiences in a lifetime spent as an ardent devotee in constant pursuit of the stuff.  Because Brown’s Fried Chicken is located inside a gas station, set in a somnolent, out-of-the-way corner of Charlottesville, Virginia.  And because my encounter with its greatness—like so many of life’s truly great meals—was entirely accidental.  

To wit:  my teenage daughter was hungry.  I needed gas.  We had just spent the morning at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and needed fuel for body and machine before making the two-hour return trip to our home in Washington, D.C.  So we left the third president’s hilltop estate and drove around residential Charlottesville, slowly, aimlessly, without any real idea of destination, until we saw it:  a yard sign shoved in fallow, late-winter grass, the kind of sign nascent relators use, which advertised a free piece of fried chicken for every ten-gallons of gas.  I looked at my daughter and smiled.  She rolled her eyes, a gesture of teenage acquiescence if ever there was one.

We parked and went in.  What we discovered inside Brown’s was a high temple of gastronomy posing as an everyday gas station, stocked with the obligatory Slim Jim’s and Yoohoo and bags of commercial pork rinds, but smelling, just under the whiff of diesel, like my mother’s very own rural Missouri kitchen on days she would fry chicken.  It was magic.  Behind the counter the day of our visit was none other than the proprietor himself, Mike Brown, or as I had yet to formally meet Mr. Brown, an effusively friendly man of robust middle age, who happily rang us up for two bottles of Cheerwine and a single, five-piece box.  After receiving our food and a promise from Mr. Brown that our chicken would no doubt please, my daughter and I returned to the front seat of our car to eat (Brown’s is takeaway only; seating is available in the comfort of your own vehicle, should you choose).  So eat we did.  We went at our food like the famished and underfed, wordlessly gnashing at our chicken until the thigh bones rang against our teeth like castanets.  With the chicken quickly dispatched, we looked over at each other, father and daughter, dazed and full of chicken-fried wonder, scarcely able to comprehend the deliciousness of what we had just eaten.

We were also slathered in chicken grease.  Our faces glistened with the stuff.

So we went back in.  We returned to Brown’s and asked the attending fry-cook to speak with Mr. Brown so we might praise his mind-bendingly wonderful chicken in person.  But we were kindly informed that Mr. Brown was now elsewhere in the building, attending to other business.  Crestfallen, we asked instead for a restroom in which to wash our hands.  The cook informed us Brown’s had no public restroom, but after reading the pleading look on my daughter’s face, offered us use of the handwashing station in Brown’s kitchen.  

Even as an industry professional twenty years in, it’s always a bit strange to first enter the kitchen of a fellow cook whom you’ve only just met, with the ticket of admittance being as much about trust and professional intimacy as any transactional traffic or dietary concern.  But we were invited, so enter we did.  We walked through a lone swinging door and found the sink.  And as my daughter scrubbed away, I crept around Mr. Brown’s kitchen, peering into the fry grease, then bending to nose the flour-and-spice mix, all with the kind of open-mouthed awe a visitor to Oz might evince upon first peering behind the curtain.  This place, I thought, this is where the magic happens.

It was also the place that Mr. and Mrs. Brown suddenly reappeared to find my daughter and me in their kitchen, still wet to the elbows with soapy water, looking very much like two people caught with their hands in the proverbial cookie jar of culinary secrets.  We looked guilty.  Or I did, at least.  The flour on the tip on my nose was a dead giveaway.  Mr. Brown said nothing.  He didn’t have to.  The expression on his face said it all:  I’m sure there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for you being in my kitchen with my flour on your face.
I smiled and laughed and tried to play it cool.  But then I blew it.  Big time.  Because I let my own curiosity get the best of me.  I asked Mr. Brown if it was Old Bay I had just tasted, secreted somewhere deep inside the crust of his chicken, that so beautifully imparted an extraordinary depth of flavor in the skin, and an almost miraculous umami pop inside the meat.  Mr. Brown looked at me, then looked at the mound of his secret spice rub just behind me, then back at me again as if were a dimwitted child who had just stuck his finger in wall socket for fun.  A look crossed Mr. Brown’s face much the way a sudden cloud will pass across the face of the moon.  He shook his head and held open the kitchen door as if to invite my daughter and me to take our leave.  But when, in a last, desperate, Hail Mary attempt to stave off eviction, I asked Mr. Brown about how he had come to be in the business of frying chicken, Mr. Brown seemed to brighten.  He grinned and let go of the door and began to speak in a low, sonorous voice full of the kind of music you hear only in the South.  A sotto voce of pure beauty.  

This is what he said:

“We started Brown’s on April 4, 1984 is Esmont, Virginia, about twenty minutes south of Charlottesville.  We started selling chicken sandwiches, which my father pan-fried in the store.  The sandwiches were a hit.  So in 1989, we remodeled the Esmont store and installed a new system that allowed us to fry chicken in bulk.  We began to sell meals and chicken dinners in larger quantities and build a credible reputation until we sold that location in 2006.”

Warming to his subject, Mr. Brown continued:

“In early 2011—I think it was the month of April again—we got the opportunity to purchase this 1218 Avon Street location, where we are currently taking fried chicken and trying to build gas volume.  About a year and a half ago, we started giving a free piece of chicken with a fill up.  If a customer fillers his or her vehicle with a ten-gallon gas minimum, they get a free piece of chicken of his or her choice.  To our knowledge, we don’t think anyone has ever done anything like that.  Once we do some renovations, we plan to advertise on TV and radio and get church groups and schools involved.”

At this point, Mr. Brown grew almost wistful:

“Kim and I can’t cook each and every piece of chicken, nor can we serve each and every customer, but we hope and pray our employees take as much pride as we do when we’re present.  We are a Christian organization and try to lead by example in greeting, thanking, and treating all of our customers with respect, which is much more important than anything else we do.”

Having spent my entire food career in an industry run on cynicism and fueled by snark, I hardly knew how to respond.  I was dumbfounded.  I was nonplussed.  Witnessing Mike Brown’s heart-felt earnestness was, for me, like staring into the sun.  I blinked dumbly, dazedly, at Mr. Brown, who seemed to understand.  He looked at me and nodded as if in benediction.  We shook hands then, the Browns with my daughter and me, and said our goodbyes.

My daughter and I spoke very little on the ride home.  It wasn’t as if we had nothing to say.  Neither of us spoke because neither of us wanted to break the spell.  Something had happened to us in Charlottesville. Something special.  Between father and daughter.  Between the Browns and us.  Was it the miraculous fried chicken?  Was it our conversation with Mr. and Mrs. Brown?  Or was it the palpable inscrutability of their kitchen and the culinary magic therein?  If either of us knew the answer, neither of us gave it voice.  Instead, we rode on silently with the smell of fried chicken still heavy in the car, with greasy paper napkins still on the floorboards yet around our feet, and with the absolute certainty between us that we’d return to Brown’s one day soon for a few gallons of gas and their wondrous fried chicken.  

Thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Brown.  Your food is exquisite, and you both are clearly on the side of the angels.

Go there, people.  Tell the Browns I sent you.  And please, whatever you do, order the five-piece box.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Biscuits in Boomtown - Three Meals in Nashville

Imagine London in 1946.  Imagine Dresden that same year.  Imagine a city razed to rubble only to rebuild itself after the smoked has cleared, one brick at a time, as the bigger, better conurbation it always wanted to be.  Imagine all of that, and you will have successfully imagined Nashville of 2020.  That’s right, boy-o, Music City is brand new all over again.  See the dozens of tower cranes etched like the calligraphy of promise across the new city skyline.  See the throngs of white people flocking to restaurants where they can Instagram pix of their hipster eats.  See, too, the neighborhoods of south Nashville—the same hood where country music legend Steve Earle once claimed that his pistol and a hundred-dollar bill was all he needed to get himself killed—choked with freshly minted houses and newly paved driveways crowded with BMWs and Audis still possessing that new car smell.  See all of this and wonder:  where did the old Nashville go?  The Nashville of Ernest Tubb and Kris Kristofferson and Earl Gaines and Freddie Waters.  And wonder, too: why did it have to go away as quickly as it did?  Because Nashville now seems wounded—to this outsider anyway—with injuries almost entirely self-inflicted and recklessly incurred through a kind of wanton urban self-immolation wherein the sins of being once-poor and “backward” have been purged through the act of pure erasure.  Entire sections of the city—and the poorer populations who once lived there—have been razed and simply carted away to make room for Starbucks and Orange Theory and dog parks where Golden Retrievers can shit comfortably on grass made from short-pile polyethylene while their Lululemon-wearing owners sun themselves on yoga mats and scroll through digital subscriptions of the New York Times.

Change, we know, is the inevitable derivative of modernity, with stasis as its enemy and nostalgia its false god.  To resist change is—in the parlance of the South—an exercise in pissing up a rope.  It’s futile.  But change whose rapidity disallows any backward glance at, or rectitude for, the past seems a fool’s errand in the vanquishment of the very things that made you who you are.  The Nashville of year 2020 now sits at the confluence of old and new and in the middle distance of its future and past which, as I’ve just discovered on a recent visit, has made for some very brackish cultural waters through which its citizenry must now swim.  

George Jones & Me
Whether the changes that Nashville’s gentrification has engendered are for better or worse is not for me, a thirty-six-hour visitor from Chicago, to decide (though I am now old enough to suspect the answer—it pains me to admit—is both).  I’ve got no skin in this game beyond a sentimentalist’s hope that the pomade-wearing, Jim Beam-swilling, bloody-knuckled faction of underdogs will win (they won’t).  Today, this one day in late November, I’m just a visitor to Nashville, a tourist, lacking any real insight into the machinations of what city planners now hope to achieve though their head-long blitzkrieg across Nashville and the eradication of its country-fried past.  But what’s most palpable to anyone paying attention to this cultural dust-up is best evidenced on the plate—Nashville is currently in the throes of a culinary renaissance born from this very tension between old Music City and new.  This fight over food ways has made Nashville—if by accident—a gastronomic wonderland and easily one of the finest food destinations in the American South.

Three meals in a single day across Nashville.  That’s all you’ll need to grasp Nashville’s gastronomic renown.  Three meals representing Nashville both new and old.  Because that’s all it took me to understand the city’s quiet culinary greatness.

Breakfast  - Eating with the Arriviste – Holler & Dash

It could have been a Chipotle.  It could have been a Panera.  This fast-casual walk-up biscuit shop with its clean floors and its bright lighting and its fresh-faced helper ready to take my order.  I wanted to hate this place the way the pious hate heretics—with a fervency immaculate and pure.  But one look at the menu behind the counter gave me pause.  It made me think.  There were tried-and-true favorites of Southern cooking up there:  grits and sorghum and fried green tomatoes.  Everything you’d want and expect in a Southern eatery.  But something else was afoot here.  Something entirely new to the biscuit business:  guacamole and goat cheese and kale, all there with nary a whiff of irony; just progressive flavor combinations that sounded, well, delicious and sensical to the southern palate.  So I ordered the Hollerback Club: a biscuit topped with fried goat cheese, kale, lemon Dijon vinaigrette and tomato jam (I added an egg for a mere dollar).  My wife (who’s appeared for the last five years in this blog as the enigmatic X, and yeah, I married her boys) opted for the Avocado Smash Toast—that cornerstone of millennial gastronomic identity—and topped with watermelon radish, lemon Dijon, and paprika (for the record: my wife is most emphatically a card-carrying member of Generation X).  None of what was on my plate should have worked.  It was too…ambitious for the American South.  But work it did.  And gloriously.  In my astonishment, I pounded on the table.  I stomped on the floor.  I was gob smacked.  The food of Holler and Dash was nothing short of extraordinary.  And so I ate on until nothing was left on my plate save a few biscuit crumbs and the ruins of my self-esteem and culinary pride.

Under the steady hands of Chef de Cuisine, Jason McConnell, and Director of Culinary, Brandon Frohne, Holler and Dash seems to be doing everything just right.  Forget the fact they cook and serve in the fast-casual format.  Forget the fact they have locations outside Nashville in Florida, North Carolina, and Alabama.  Forget the fact that they’re part of that mercenary force of regional investors who have invaded (and helped gentrify) south Nashville.  Consider, instead, what’s on the plate:  a deeply delicious and wholly sincere attempt to honor the staples and traditions of Southern cooking while looking beyond the confines of culinary orthodoxy to better embrace flavors that enhance traditional ingredients.  And that’s the point of this whole exercise, is it not:  to move forward while honoring what’s come before?

Holler and Dash are doing just that, and as good—if not better—than anyone else is the business of biscuits.


Breakfast Redux – Enter the Neo-Traditionalists – The Nashville Jam Cafe

…unless I’m getting this all wrong.  Not the part about the deliciousness of Holler & Dash’s food, mind you. That’s not in dispute.  What I’m likely getting wrong here is the assumed ease with which Nashvillians will willingly tuck into a plate of biscuits made by fast-casual carpetbaggers from parts unknown. 

Because maybe, just maybe, the idea of breakfasting at what many in Nashville surely perceive as the gastronomic garrison of an invading army of culinary financiers runs heterodox to everything locavores in Nashville hold as sacrosanct in their collective mission to support the home team of local restauranteurs.

If that’s you—because it’s almost always me—then I strongly encourage you to breakfast at the insistently indigenous Nashville Jam Cafe.  Because eating in Nashville doesn’t get any more local than this.  Located in a converted mid-century house in the mostly-residential Berry Hill neighborhood of south Nashville, the Nashville Jam Café is a brick-and-mortar offshoot of the fabulous Nashville Jam Company, culinary love child of Cortney and Gary Baron, the married makers of some of the finest jams I’ve ever had the pleasure of shoving into my mouth.

My wife and I sat at a picnic table under a tent in the front yard of the erstwhile house and feasted on the quintessence of Southern breakfast making:  four wonderfully delicious biscuits for my wife (served with a veritable flight of Nashville Jam Company’s best offerings, some of which—Garlic & Onion, Raspberry, and the truly transcendental Smokey Tomato—we’ve since ordered online), while I made short work of the gloriously homespun pimento cheese and bacon omelet with attendant riced (and amazingly risotto-like) potatoes, paired with an optimistic tomato slice—exactly the kind of breakfast you should be eating on a bright, hickory-scented Nashville morning.  And exactly how you should be eating it—at a wooden table, in a front yard, with Tennessee fescue under your feet.

Lunch – Eating Old School  - Jack Cawthon's Bar-B-Q

In the Paleozoic Era of barbeque purveyance—that culinary epoch of the 1980s and 1990s, and well before the advent of our present period of Bespoke Barbeque, with its resultant bros in beards and boots and flannel shirts and choking miasma of hipness—the prevailing business model of the time presented a singular path, albeit narrow, to selling smoked meats to a hungry public and, with any luck, achieving a modest modicum of monetary success.  That plan:  offer one or two really, really good signature proteins, add the requisite steam table of bleh-to-meh sides, pipe in some insipid blues music, and promote the entire endeavor with jars of house-made barbeque sauce, bottled and branded with silhouetted cowboys or smiling, cartoon pigs, all for guests to purchase on their way out to waiting pickup trucks.

Those halcyon days are over, friend-o.  In their place:  our present age of couture meats, sauced with simulated “authenticity” and served, often, with a side of charlatanism.  Which is not to say that the vast majority barbeque purveyance in this country isn’t performed by truly integral, hardworking culinarians hellbent on providing the very best smoked meats possible.  Anyone who’s eaten a forkful of brisket in the last five years knows that commercial barbeque is now, on balance, demonstrably way, way better than it’s ever been; side dishes have been lovingly—if exponentially—improved.  But it’s this very shift in paradigm, this change in gastronomic guards from old to new, that has ushered in a new age of barbeque, an age that has enabled easy admittance to a new generation of bullshit artist who now collectively take up cleavers with the deeply misguided notion that a fancy knife and healthy doses of self-delusion makes them a pitmaster.  Hence the arrival of our own era of Bespoke Barbeque.

Nashville knows this better than any city in the South.  Fake barbeque abounds here.

Because now the importance of sourcing has supplanted technique.  Now, the “narrative” of the so-called pitmaster supersedes the quality of his food.  The once-great meritocracy of barbeque, wherein the great pitmasters succeeded on merit and sheer talent, has now been deposed by the mob-think of “woke” eaters who collectively demand that the pigs they eat once enjoyed games of lawn tennis and the right to vote.

In barbeque, more than in any other subsect of gastronomy, bullshit reigns. 
But not at Jack Cawthon’s Bar-B-Que.  Not here.  Jack’s is different.  It’s old school.  It’s a throwback to a bygone era of barbeque restauranteurism when the act of feeding the masses truly excellent food bested the need to be fashionably “food forward.”  Walk into any Jack’s (there are three locations at present; we visited the Charlotte Avenue location) and what you’ll find is a no-bullshit zone of food purveyance deeply resistant to today’s smoke-and-mirrors culture of “barbeque chic.”

Founded in 1989 by caterer-turned-restauranteur Jack Cawthon, the eponymous Jack’s has been feeding Nashvillians for a couple generations.  And that clearly means everything to many in Music City.  Brisket.  Pork shoulder.  Chicken.  Ribs.  Jack’s is a maximalist’s approach to the craft of smoked meats.  And yet, it’s an approach that’s won him legions of long-ardent devotees.  

For my own meal at Jack’s, I chose brisket with two sides:  collards and greens beans.  My wife zigged where I had just zagged.  She went with the pork shoulder sandwich. Her sides:  greens, yeah, but with mac-and-cheese.  Both meals were served on plates of white styrofoam with small cups of Jack’s (deservedly) legendary sauce, dispensed, still-hot, from heated containers located next to the serve-yourself twin towers of Luzianne iced tea.  We ate without speaking.  Because both meals were utterly soul-affirming in their unctuousness and deeply Southern savor.  Every meal I had ever eaten as child at rural Missouri church socials on these self-same styrofoam plates came back to me with perfect, Proust-like synesthesia.  Jack’s hot-hot sauce kickstarted my endorphins.  Beef fat flooded my frontal lobe.  My eyes rolled back in my head.  I felt ebullient eating Jack’s Barbeque.  I felt like a kid again.  I felt reborn.

So go ahead.  Call Jack’s fare quotidian if you’d like.  Call it workaday if you must.  But know that Jack’s barbeque represents the very acme of proletarian culinary excellence in Tennessee barbeque.  It isn’t fancy food, to be sure; it’s family food, and it’s fucking delicious.  Because Jack’s Barbeque is, as ever, insistently and irrevocably itself.  It’s old school.  Nashville loves Jack’s for that very reason.  So do I.  And so will you. 

Dinner – The Crossroads of Fore & Aft – Hattie B's Chicken

Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are.

We in the food industry say that a lot.  Because secreted within that tidy little maxim is a hermeneutic presupposition of Gordian knot-like complexity that tacitly expresses the fact that every aspect of food—its cultivation, preparation, and consumption—is inherently political.  

And nowhere in Nashville are the politics of food purveyance more manifest than in the hot chicken of Hattie B’s.  The controversy is not about the fact that Hattie B’s sells fried chicken.  Plenty of people do that here.  It’s about the fact Hattie B’s sells hot chicken, and in Nashville, hot chicken is deeply conflated with race, class, and cultural appropriation—the story of America itself.  For many in Nashville, the arrival of Hattie B’s is also about the idea of white people taking something that’s not theirs and making money on that thing without giving credit to that progenitor or source from whom they’ve stolen.  American culture is predicated on white people pillaging black culture without acknowledging the theft, then appropriating that same purloined thing as their own.  It’s like the story of the banjo, that sonic cornerstone to American roots music being a wholly African invention.  But you knew that already, didn’t you? 

To better understand the controversy surrounding the hot chicken of Hattie B’s, it helps to know the history of hot chicken itself and its importance to the culinary identity of Music City’s African-American community.  Hot chicken is so important to black Nashville that its genesis comes with a creation myth rooted in that time-honored vendetta-gone-wrong of narrative architypes:  in the Nashville of the 1930s, a scorned girlfriend of Thornton Prince III decides to fix his philandering ways by slipping incendiary levels of spice into his fried chicken as recompense for big Thornton’s alleged inability to keep little Thornton rightly sequestered in his pants.  Not only does Thornton love the added spice in the chicken his lover has made him, he later decides to open the BBQ Chicken Shack café with his fellow Prince brothers, selling his now-former girlfriend’s recipe to a ravenous public.

Hot chicken is a hit.  It’s huge.

Also according to this legend, the Prince family continues to sell Thornton’s hot chicken for the next the five decades, thereby immortalizing their particular style of hot chicken:  bone-in chicken with a rubbed-on paste made of lard and infused with cayenne pepper.  Then in 1980, Andre Price Jefferies assumes command of the family business, an act of ascendency that makes her the High Priestess of Nashville Hot Chicken, a title she holds to this very day.

And while other local African-American upstarts and entrepreneurs have long vied for a share of the hot chicken market—most notably Bolton’s Spicy Chicken & Fish—it’s widely accepted as culinary gospel that Prince’s remains the gold standard of Nashville hot chicken.  It’s also agreed that Nashville hot chicken was, at inception, food made by black people for black people, as white people of the day were distracted with their own culinary preoccupations and foodways. 

Until they weren’t.

Enter Hattie B’s.

Founded in August 2012 by white father and son team, Nick Bishop Sr. and Jr., Hattie B’s quickly became one of the most successful—and brand-aggressive—purveyors of hot chicken in Nashville.  At issue for many in Music City, especially those of color:  the without sufficiently crediting or honoring the people from whom they’ve allegedly pilfered.  Just how people react to the Bishop’s ever-growing empire hinges, largely, on what I like to call the Elvis Effect.  That is:  how one reacts to culture appropriation (real or perceived) often depends on how well they think Elvis Presley credited—or failed to credit—musical sources from which he borrowed (or plundered) to hone a sound of his own.  Cultural cross-pollination, we know, is at the heart of the American experience, and the very best thing about, well, being American.  I tend to think Elvis did a fairly laudable job at venerating his sources for a man of Elvis’s place and time on the American continuum of popular culture.  Chuck D. would disagree.  He’d call Elvis a thief and me an apologist for cultural larceny.  Perhaps both of us are somehow simultaneously right.  But that’s for you to decide.   
Bishops have enriched themselves on what is demonstrably the bailiwick and barony of African-American cooks and their communities

As a visitor to Nashville with no real insight into the Bishops’ hearts, I wasn’t sure of what to make of the political firestorm that surrounds the food of Hattie B’s.  So I did the only thing I knew how to do:  I went there and ate.  What I found, after waiting in line for thirty minutes, was a rowdy and raucous good time, more Sturgill Simpson concert than staid Southern restaurant, and populated with a hungry group of eaters equal parts white and black, all of them seemingly very happy.

Hattie B’s offers four spice levels:  Mild, Medium, Hot, and Damn Hot.  Always one to tickle the dragon’s tail, I ordered the Damn Hot, and for my sins, was served two pieces of chicken the color of Southern bricks and whose spice levels soon had fop sweating pouring out of the top of my head.  Food so hot I was hallucinating.  Food so hot that made me really and truly high.  

I loved every single bite.      

Coda – Holly Williams – White's Mercantile

So who’s to win the war for Nashville’s heart and soul?  That has yet to be seen.  And while the history of American entrepreneurship suggests the agents of darkness will ultimately prevail, I’m not entirely sure they’ll succeed in erasing all traces of Nashville’s former and once-glorious self.  Why my optimism?  Why my sanguinity when things look so very grim for the Music City of old?  Because I believe there might be some middle ground in all of this.  An agent of detente.  A cultural DMZ.

White’s Mercantile.  That’s right:  a store. 

Because I think the Nashville neighborhoods of tomorrow might be more crowded with buildings like White’s Mercantile than, say, those impertinent shops of the Starbucks chain.  White’s Mercantile was once a gas station serving mid-century motorists.  Now, it’s a sundry of artfully curated curios for home and hearth.  It’s old made new again.  It’s repurposed.  And it’s owned by Holly Williams.  

If you’re not familiar with Holly’s own body of recorded work, then know this:  Holly Williams is the daughter of Hank “Bocephus” Williams Jr., the granddaughter of Hank Williams, and sister to Hank III.  There is no truer pedigree in all of country music.  By birth rite alone, Holly is Nashville royalty.  So what should we make of the fact that Holly Williams, beloved blue blood and singer/songwriter extraordinaire, is also the proprietor of a store that caters to highly bourgeois tastes?  After all, is it wrong that Holly leveraged her family name and success as a recording artist to sell knick-knacks to people like Gwyneth Paltrow, Reese Witherspoon, and Sheryl Crow?  Should we hate her for that?  And if so, should we expect Holly to atone for such betrayal by guzzling whiskey to better keep it real like all the dead-and-damaged men in her family?  Or better, should we expect Holly to recover her Nashville street cred and bona fides with country music tourists like me by copping a heroin habit and courting death in the backseat of a long, white Cadillac the way her granddaddy did?  Is this what the preservationists of Nashville expect of Holly and the city of her birth, an all-or-nothing headlong plunge into the lethal tide of mythopoetics roiling through the very heart of country music lore?  Is that what want for Holly Williams?  Or does Holly—along with her city at large—have the right to cast herself in any fashion she most fancies and move forward in pursuit of her own happiness, in whatever forms that happiness may take?  Will it be skyscrapers or will it be dive bars in the Nashville of tomorrow?  Will it be White Claw or will it be Jim Beam?  Will it be Kenny Chesney or will it be Shooter Jennings?    

I’m betting the answer is somewhere in the middle.  A middle that looks an awful lot like White’s Mercantile and tastes like chicken fat and hickory smoke.  A middle that, like Holly Williams’ career, honors Nashville’s past while looking ahead to better, brighter (and sober) days to come.  I’m betting that the chefs of Music City will continue to thrive in the confluence of tension between new and old, black and white, rich and poor, and that Nashville will emerge—somehow—the better for it.  And I’m betting the flavor of all that struggle will be fucking great. 

[Please click on the name of any restaurant to visit their site.]

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

With Montreal, It's a Menage a Trois

J’adore Montreal.  Beaucoup.  There.  I’ve said it.  And now you know.  Because with those three little words, I have done far more than simply profess my feelings for a new favorite city; I have just confessed, however obliquely, my recent infidelity to the city of New Orleans, my long-time secret sharer, keeper of all my best secrets, and my first North American love.

Yes, I’ve been unfaithful to New Orleans.  I’ve strayed.  Just please don’t tell anyone.

Of course I regret making a cuckquean of NOLA, really I do in that kinda-sorta way all philanders maintain, but my beloved Crescent City will surely understand—and better than most—that life is often a messy enterprise, a non-linear, often-myopic, and always-hopeful stumble from one relationship to another, and that each of us ultimately has precious little say in the matter of whom we love so truly and deeply—the way I now love Montreal.

My love affair with Montreal was never supposed to happen.  The divide between us seemed far too enormous ever to cross.  There was me:  a devotedly dirt-covered Americanist and student of all-things Southern (both the holy and repugnantly profane), whose bourbon-soaked soul and deep-fried gastronomic sensibilities have invariably led me to find fulfillment in some fried chicken shack at the end of a Mississippi gravel road.  And then there was Montreal:  haughty and aloof and insistently, irretractably Quebecois in mien, whose legendarily indifferent Francophone heart and long-held self-awareness of her old-world beauty has made her impervious to the envy and scorn of newer settlements across the North America cityscape.  That I should fall head-over-heels for the City of Saints was beyond unlikely.  But the moment I stepped out of my rideshare onto the Boulevard Saint-Laurent, I was smitten.  Because what I found in Montreal was a funky, perfectly-dirty, two-fisted drinking town smelling of freshly baked bread and freshly smoked marijuana, whose streets were teaming with young, well-inked, I-give-no-fucks fashionistas, who, to the person, looked to be in desperate need of a bath.  My kind of town.  But more than that, I found Montreal to be without peer in its mastery of the low-to-high gastronomic spectrum, a town where cooks and chefs operate, sans irony, in kitchens that are clearly and avowedly no-bullshit zones.

J’etais amoureux.

To say Montreal is a repository of gustatory joy would be a rhetorical understatement in the extreme; it is a gastronomic wonderland, a culinary Valhalla.  Every restaurant I visited, every dish I tried, was, in some disquieting and wholly unexpected way, a whispered revelation.  Because the food of Montreal seems utterly unfettered by an orthodoxia to any one fixed position on the low/high continuum.  Menus delight in the subversion of that hierarchal expectation by unapologetically juxtaposing perennial snout-to-tail classics against the latest and more fashionable golden boys du jourof the culinary haute monde.  What follows then is not a Homeric catalog of ships to guide hungry travelers to the many, many restaurants and drinking establishments of Montreal I found glorious and good, but the eateries that I believe best represent the quiescence of gastronomy in the City of Saints.  Three meals in one day.  The basics.  And by no means are any of these establishments “new” discoveries by any measure.  Each is a venerated Montreal institution and has, in most cases, been around for decades; each has been celebrated in food media the world over.  But despite the attention and accolades they’ve yet received, none of these eateries has, by all reports, been changed by the sparkle and wonder of sudden fame; each has stayed true to its primary mission of feeding the masses of Montreal what they’ve always served, the way they’ve always served it, the Food Network be damned.


You’ve had bagels before.  I get that.  But unless you’ve been to Montreal, you haven’t had these bagels before, boy-o.  These are different.  These, inarguably, are better than any you’ve had in New York or the contiguous lower forty-eight.  Fighting words, I know, but please hear me out; the differences between the two are produced, fundamentally, by their respective terroir:  the municipal water supply of New York City is lower in magnesium and calcium carbonate, resulting in softer gluten strands and a far more pillow-like bagel.  Bagel makers of Montreal add sugar to their dough and poach their hand-rolled bagels in honey-infused water.  The Montreal bagels are then baked in wood-burning ovens, producing bagels that are smaller, denser, and inarguably crispier than their American cousins, with a noticeably larger center whole.  To eat a Montreal bagel for the first time is to surely experience the epiphany of a Magellan or Vespucci:  a new world of hitherto unseen culinary vistas opening before your very own eyes.

Of the myriad bagel shops in Montreal, two reign supreme:  St-Viateur Bagel and Fairmount Bagel.  Located just blocks from another in the neighborhood of Mile End, both produce the kind of bagels whose savor will make your eyes roll back in your head; both are open 24/7 for the drunk and sober alike; both produce feverishly and deeply cult-like opinions among eaters as to which shop produces the superior bagel—divergent devotions that have reportedly divided families, ruined friendship, and sunk otherwise seaworthy marriages.  

Founded in 1957 by Krakow native and concentration camp survivor, Meyer Lewkowicz (now deceased), St-Viatueur is Montreal’s oldest and arguably revered bagel shop.  Down the street stands its archrival, Fairmount Bagel, who, beyond producing equally delicious bagels, boasts having sent the first bagel into space in 2008.  The good news:  as a visiting American, no one will ask you to swear allegiance to either bagel shop.  Just do what I did:  eat both.



If your breakfast needs demand fare of greater piquancy and heft, then you must, must, dear friend-o, have yourself delivered by foot, by car, to Beauty’s Luncheonette, which, happily enough for you, is just down the street.  Established in 1942 by Hymie Sckolnick to feed the hungry workers of Montreal’s long-storied Jewish garment district, Beauty’s produces an omelet that instantly, and upon my very first forkful, became a favorite.  The Mish Mash Omelet is a mélange of hot dogs, eggs, green peppers, onions, and salami.  It’s also a veritable first-class ticket for a synesthetic thrill ride back your own culinary childhood when eating hot dogs for breakfast was de rigueur.  As the Mish Mash Omelet shows us, it still should be.


Let me be crystal clear about my feelings about Wilensky’s Light Lunch:  this is now my favorite restaurant in North America.

My.  Favorite.  Restaurant.  In.  North.  America.

Put another way:  I love Wilensky’s more than any other restaurant in which I’ve eaten.  Ever.

You dig?

So why, in a lifetime of eating, is it Wilensky’s?  Why?  Because Wilensky’s was built and 1932 and looks every year of it.  Because Wilensky’s offers a very short, very worn lunch counter over which nine—and only nine—luncheoneers may perch on nine very wobbly stools.  Because there is no flatware with which to eat; there are no plates—just the thinnest of diner-issue paper napkins comes between the decades-old Formica and your beloved Wilensky Special.  And because at Wilensky’s there are rules, each as immutable as a commandment:

Wilinsky's Special

1.      Every sandwich will come with mustard (eaters who request a sandwich sans mustard are fined 10 cents per request)
2.      No sandwich will ever be cut in half, no matter how emotional the entreaty
3.      No tipping, ever  

But it’s by the tenets of this it’s-our-way-or-you-can-fucking-leave gastronomic and aesthetic austerity that allows the good folks to focus their efforts on making the extraordinary Wilensky Special:  one slice of all-beef bologna, five slices of all-beef salami, with either Swiss or Kraft American cheese—your choice—and served on a Kaiser bun that’s been grilled on vintage, Canadian-made Serv-All sandwich presses that Moe Wilensky bought in 1932, on credit, and paid off at twenty-five cents every week.  As for the two pickles spears you’ll want to order, they come in two varieties—sour or extra sour—and are served, like your sandwich, on a paper napkin.

Paul Scheffer made my Wilensky’s Special (with Swiss and four pickles).  Paul, a long-time employee of Wilensky’s, is the Leonard Cohen of all culinarians; one senses something beatific and deeply meaningful in his most cursory gestures or observations.  We made small talk while he worked the tiny grill—when the Expos might return to Montreal, the forecast for rain—then Paul put my sandwich on a napkin and pushed it across the counter at me.  He leaned in slightly as if waiting for me to eat.  So I lifted my Wilensky Special and took a bite.  Paul arched his eyebrows and leaned in further still.
            “So?” he asked.
            And that’s when I told Paul Scheffer that the grilled bologna and salami he had just made me was the best sandwich of my entire life.


La Vieille Europe

Let’s blame the F.D.A.  Their draconian insistence that most cheese sold in America be made from pasteurized milk has made us mediocre as makers of fine cheeses.  And that’s good for Canada.  Because topping the litany of all things that Canadians do far, far better than their continental cousins of the lower forty-eight—a list of Canadian superiority that most certainly includes ice hockey, maple syrup, and the saying of soorry—is cheese.  Because in Montreal, as elsewhere in Quebec, they’ve got the good stuff:  cheese made from raw milk and sold without the 60-day age incumbrance that leaves most American cheeses—even the very few made from raw milk—toe-tagged and gastronomically dead on arrival.  Not in Montreal.  Here, cheesemogers proffer varieties of extraordinary freshness and unabashed aggressiveness that never fail to hit the eater’s pallet like an umami bomb fired from a pretty blue gun. 

So it was with my own intermezzo of two raw-milk cheeses—the sublime Le Riopelle and the dazzling Bleu D’Elizabeth—procured from Le Vieille Europe on Boulevard Saint-Laurent and eaten avec baguette atop a grassy knoll within the summery embrace of Parc La Fontaine, just as every cheese from Quebec should.  


Duck in a Can
If there is one restaurant that singularly best exemplifies the gastronomic zeitgeist of Quebec and the epitome of culinary Montreal, it’s this:  the ever-luminous Au Pied du Cochon.  Founded in 2001 by Chef Martin Picard, the current high priest of Quebecois gastronomy, Au Pied du Cochon reigns supreme as the oink-to-quack temple of all-things-meat in a food world now increasingly beset by the dogma of plant-based diets and all of its attendant finger-wagging of the cultish quinoa-and kale bowl folks.  Not here, friend-o, not in the vegetarian-free zone that is Au Pied de Cochon.  Here you’ll find the very best of the nasty bits.  Foie gras.  Head cheese.  Beef tongue.  Boudin noir.  The celebrated classics on every true carnivore’s playlist of all-time greatest hits—the same playlist with vegetables, few as they are, being relegated to occupy the obscure B-sides among the darker nether regions of Au Pied’s long-playing menu of carnivorous delights.

My companions and I all-too-happily did our own deep dive into Au Pied’s highly curated gluttonscape of blood and guts and gastropods galore.  We ate whelks.  We ate tripe and beef tendon and blood sausage and pig knuckles, each and all braised into a state of gustatory bliss.  But what really sang Au Pied’s greatness was its infamous Duck in a Can:  a duck breast seasoned with thyme, mirepoix, and venison demi-glace, cooked in a can, then opened table-side with a can opener and served over a plate of celery root puree.  It was at this moment—amid the sucking sounds of roasted duck slowly emerging like some extraterrestrial she-devil from inside its own amniotic can—that I decided my love for Montreal was immaculate and true. 

These were my people. 

This was my tribe.

But what to tell New Orleans?  How to break the news that there was a new city in my life, a favorite surmounting all others for my greatest favors, and one that excited me in gustatory, pheromonic ways I never thought possible?

Luckily for me, the French have a phrase for such polyamory:  a menage a trois.

Go to Montreal.  Eat.  And please tell her I love her. 

A Montreal Cuisinier in Repose