new Things I Ate in Cambodia: Southern Food

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Southern Food

So I'm back. A longish lecture on the foods of my origins!

I am a creature of the South, genetically and in early development, so the stuff I react to most is often from around there.

Brunswick Stew is one of those regional things I cannot seem to find anywhere but in Georgia. I recall that in Atlanta, one of the iconic barbecue places (I can't remember the name) would serve it up in styrofoam containers to accompany the pork and french fries. As I remember it, Brunswick stew tasted like vinegar and pepper, with corn and barbecued pork and a slight tinge of Worchestshire sauce running throughout the entire thing. There was barbecue sauce in my local rendition and that was probably what made it most enjoyable, giving me the ability to drink the vinegary stuff I loved so much as if it were a form of particularly unusual Coca-Cola. My mother compared it to a Southern Mulligatawny stew and she's probably right on. It is at the root of the matter a fabulous spicy soup and I dearly wish I could find it anywhere near California. It's right if its orange and makes your throat feel weird on the way down.

If I'm going to broach the sensitive topic of barbecue which I fully intend on doing here, then Ishould mention my favorite version, which is the North Carolina method. There's a vicious argument raging at all times across America about the absolute Best Way To Make Barbecue. There's chauvinists for every region, from the Memphis school to the Kansas school all the way down to Texas, and no one can agree on anything. I find the entire thing pointless. You will think the Best Way is the way that tastes good to you. What works for you won't work for the other guy and vice versa. That's why the angry letters that crop up whenever someone writes about barbecue amuse me. They're a real exercise in futility.

The North Carolina rendition I like best is found up around Winston-Salem and the areas around, where the tobacco industry reigns and urban blight remains. Every little barbecue restaurant in the area seems to have a real good smoke house and a picture of a happy pig on the sign - it's almost in the code of honor. Mustard sauce and vinegar are major players, and they give the meat that spicy funky feeling I like best. It's all pork, on pain of death, and chopped as fine as possible to allow the sauce to get through. Side dishes go all over the place, but the cole slaw tends to the regional mold - they dump in lots of mustard and barbecue sauce to make it light brown, then chop it all up. It's spicy and slightly oniony. I don't like it as much as that sickly sweet stuff you get elsewhere, but it's one of those things you get in North Carolina. Most of the restaurants serve hush puppies which I'm always up for. Some of the best I've had were at a restaurant near Winston Salem, fried up in almost-tubes, with small chunks of onion and a bright yellow interior. I dipped them in that wonderful spicy barbecue sauce and they were the Nectar of The Gods for a short period of time.

As far as Southern food goes, I'm also a big proponent of the Meat N' Three restaurant, a paragon of classical cooking and a great place for a decrepit waitress to work. The best ones all have three kinds of vegetables, cooked with a judicious amount of fat n' lard and god knows what else. I'm bigger on the collards then anything else, although they generally have the good kind of green beans - all the nutrients boiled out of them, little pieces of salt pork studding the beans and adding flavor.

I should explain the concept of collards to the Yankees among us. A collard green is a spinach like vegetable, prepared in essentially the same way - sauteed or boiled into submission, shriveling up into tiny green leaves. The preparation is different from spinach in the South. To me, it's unthinkable to consume collard greens without lots of pepper sauce and red pepper flakes. They are spicy by nature. I've never had collard greens undoctored but I imagine they wouldn't be particularly special. The magic is in the heat. The magic, for me, is always in the heat.

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