City Grocery, Bouré, Big Bad Breakfast, Snackbar; Oxford, MS
Give anybody a good rack of lamb, and even a half-ass can drizzle some sweet stuff on it and make it taste good. But a plain stalk of celery is daunting to a lot of cooks, even though it’s insanely easy to make something delicious out of it. Five or six years ago, I was throwing together a dish as part of a cooking competition. I was given crabmeat and celery, but not much more. Now, I’ve always been the guy who eats celery leaves instead of throwing them away. That’s a snack for me. I mean, as a kid, I’d gnaw on cabbage cores while my mom made coleslaw. So I thought, Why not use the leaves? I made a salad with crab, olive oil, apple, and celery leaves. And I won. And that was the moment I realized, Holy s**t, we’ve been throwing celery leaves away forever and they make a great flavor enhancer. Or a garnish. Or a bite in a salad. I love turning other people’s garbage into delicious food.
WHITE ACRE PEAS
Poole’s Downtown Diner, Beasley’s Chicken + Honey, Fox Liquor Bar, Chuck’s; Raleigh, NC
One of my most transcendent vegetable memories to date is the discovery of our beloved White Acre pea, which grows here in North Carolina. It’s a delicate creamer pea, both sweet and buttery in flavor. It’s traditional in the South to cook beans and peas with bacon, ham hock, or some expression of salted pork. While this flavor is lovely and quite complementary, it has a tendency to cover up some of the subtler notes that I love most in peas, and specifically in the liquor they produce. The cooking liquid from the White Acre pea is sweet and earthy and has inspired me to never cook my peas with meat. I find them best at room temperature with minced shallot, lemon zest, olive oil, and cracked pepper. My love for this little pea is so great that I purchased two full-size freezers for my garage that are dedicated to storing about five hundred pounds of these delicious fresh peas so that we don’t have to spend the cold months without them.
Hot and Hot Fish Club; Birmingham, AL
My love for tomatoes started early. My father was an avid gardener, and my mother, who was a great cook, insisted on a vegetable garden, where she grew the most beautiful tomatoes. I was enamored with them. Unlike most other fruits and vegetables, tomatoes have their own unique smell, right down to the plant itself. When you touch it or bump into it, you pick it up. I have visceral memories of the smell of the plant on my hands from picking cherry tomatoes right off the vine. My mother cooked them all kinds of ways, but my favorite preparation was her succotash—onions, tomatoes, okra, lots of vegetables, all stewed together. The ritual of picking tomatoes and then hanging out around her apron strings while she cooked them was very special to me. The one thing I didn’t like about the dish, though, was that it was hot, a bit of a gut bomb really. It weighed heavy and wasn’t a comfortable meal (even though I ate plenty of it). So later, as a chef, I wanted to find a way to preserve the flavors of the dish I loved and that held such great memories for me, but to do it at room temperature. And that’s how the Hot and Hot Tomato Salad came to be. It’s a dish that defines our summertime thinking at the restaurant, and it’s amazing to see it resonating with people the way that succotash did with me. That’s the magic and hope of great food.
Blackberry Farm; Walland, TN
My mother’s fried okra is still my favorite. When I was growing up, we would go to this little produce market in Knoxville called Horn of Plenty. My mom would pick out the tenderest pieces of okra and take them home in a paper sack. She’d cut the okra into one-inch pieces with a paring knife, crack an egg over them, and stir it all together. Then she would dredge the okra in White Lily cornmeal mix, which was made there in Knoxville at the time, and skillet-fry it. The batter came out clumpy, but the okra inside fried, too. When I tasted her fried okra, I knew it was summertime. And today, at Blackberry Farm, I still fry it that way. People love it, and I tell them that I’m just making it the way my mother did.
Lantern; Chapel Hill, NC
I never cared about leeks until this past winter when Bill Dow died. Bill founded the Carrboro Farmers’ Market in 1978 and mentored so many people—you can almost create a genealogy of farms here through him. Likewise, everything he grew at Ayrshire Farm felt full of life. He grew lettuce, fennel, old Southern apples, amazingly ripe late-season peppers. But I’m pretty sure his favorite thing to grow was leeks, which he always priced by the piece regardless of their size. We would buy ten or twenty at a time to use in fried rice, but I could tell Bill thought we weren’t giving his favorite their due. After he died, as his partner Daryl harvested his last crop, leeks took on a different meaning for me because, well, they were his last crop. We bought as many as we could and cooked them all winter. Now I’ll go out of my way to eat leeks. It’s kind of shocking to realize how subjective our taste is—and life-affirming to realize that it can change instantly.
SILVER QUEEN CORN
Miller Union; Atlanta, GA
When I was younger, I was a picky eater. I did not appreciate my grandmother Ducky’s cooking, but as I matured, I craved her simple, vegetable-centric food. I remember sitting down to meals in her dining room; the table was filled with plates, platters, and bowls of fresh summer produce, all prepared in special ways, and often there would be no meat on the table. These were not vegetarian meals, mind you. Her cornbread always started with a little bacon grease in the cast-iron skillet. The Silver Queen corn, her favorite variety, was so fresh, straight from her neighbor’s garden. We would shuck it with her, at her direction, of course. I remember her showing us how to rub the corn silk off with a damp towel, and watching as she scraped the cut cobs to get the milk out for her creamed corn. And I remember all of us on the porch, during the day, under the canopy of the awning, shelling field peas and hearing stories about cousins, aunts, uncles, and great ancestors and the weekly neighborhood gossip. To me it was all about the anticipation of the meal.