The Southern Agenda: August/September 2019

Goings-on in the South and beyond

Tim Bower


Savannah, Georgia
Here’s the Scoop

Don’t ignore vanilla, says the renowned Savannah ice cream maker Stratton Leopold. “I like vanilla a lot because that’s how you tell quality,” he says, explaining how a plain-flavored scoop reveals much about the craftsmanship and ingredient integrity of the rest of a shop’s flavors. Leopold’s Ice Cream, celebrating its one hundredth birthday this year (Leopold’s father and uncles opened the shop in 1919), sells plenty of its creamy, classic vanilla. That beloved basic recipe has been the foundation for Leopold’s expansion over the decades, from the “probably ten or twelve flavors we had when I was a child,” Leopold says. Now, more than a hundred rotating flavors are all made in-house—many with ingredients from the Peach State. The songwriter Johnny Mercer loved Tutti Frutti, a rum-based treat studded with candied fruit and roasted Georgia pecans, and other fan favorites include honey almond and cream (made with Savannah Bee Company honey) and chocolate Chewies and cream (incorporating cookies baked with the local Gottlieb’s Bakery recipe). To mark the milestone, a Birthday Block Party (August 17) will take over downtown’s Broughton Street with a marching band, perhaps a celebrity or two (Leopold, in his spare time, is a movie producer, with such credits as Mission: Impossible III and The Sum of All Fears), and plenty of one-dollar ice cream scoops. What will you find Leopold himself enjoying that day? “It depends,” he says. “I like caramel swirl. I like butter pecan. I just like ice cream—and I eat it all.” leopoldsicecream.com


Root of the Loom

Care is sewn into every shirt, dress, and scarf Natalie Chanin designs. The founder of the Florence clothing company Alabama Chanin employs locals to hand stitch each item—and she has recently been making a place for thoughtfully produced Southern food, too. Three to five times a year, Alabama Chanin hosts the Friends of the Café dinner series at the factory’s café and invites Southern chefs to showcase their hometowns’ cuisines. The dinners, which have been prepared by the likes of Chapel Hill’s Bill Smith, Atlanta’s Steven Satterfield, and New Orleans’ Rebecca Wilcomb, benefit the Southern Foodways Alliance, the inspiration behind Chanin’s own nonprofit, Project Threadways, which compiles oral histories from Southern textile-industry workers. “We’re striving to elevate both textiles and food,” she says. “These are living arts.” On August 22, chef Cheetie Kumar steps up to the plate, feeding guests the Southern-tinged Indian food she serves at her Raleigh restaurant, Garland—tandoori chicken kabobs, lemongrass steak ssäm, and corn cakes with long-simmered greens. alabamachanin.com


Dinner for a Song

If your experience of music-festival food hasn’t gotten much further than corn dogs and chicken fingers, the Fayetteville Roots Festival (August 22–25) wants to expand your tastes. Yes, the musical lineup is spectacular—Mavis Staples, St. Paul & the Broken Bones, and Rhiannon Giddens—but the culinary roster deserves a spotlight of its own. Start with a dinner at the Hive, the realm of chef Matthew McClure, James Beard Award semifinalist and local dining darling; chase it with a fifty-chef tasting spectacular that includes Atlanta’s Asha Gomez where lamb prosciutto, black garlic salami, ’nduja, and other locally raised meats will be served alongside best-of-the-Ozarks produce. “It’s so cool bringing in people like Asha Gomez and showing how she does Southern food with a Southern Indian palate,” says Jerrmy Gawthrop, the festival’s culinary director. “We’re treating chefs like rock stars. We give them a culinary stage and let them perform.” therootsfest.org

Tim Bower


Best of all Worlds

It might surprise Southerners to know that the most magical place on earth can also sprinkle fairy dust on libations and haute cuisine. Walt Disney World’s Epcot International Food & Wine Festival draws big-name culinary talent to Orlando each year, including Carla Hall, the Nashville native and television personality; Andrew Zimmern of Bizarre Foods; and the Food Network’s first female Iron Chef, Cat Cora, who hails from Jackson, Mississippi. Specialty events based on the theme park’s international pavilions include a six-course Tuscan wine luncheon at the Tutto Gusto Wine Cellar and a French Family Meal at Monsieur Paul, the celebrated French chef Paul Bocuse’s Epcot restaurant. Hall will play host at the Sunday Brunch with a Chef series on September 8, when she’ll serve butter croissant bread pudding with apples and salted citrus honey while answering questions about how to make the dish. Interacting with diners is her favorite part. “It lets me take the intimidation out of a recipe,” she says. “I can focus on the guests and walk them through what they are enjoying.” Eat, drink, and stick around for the Southern music—on September 16 and 17, the Eat to the Beat Concert Series features the Allman Betts Banddisneyworld.disney.go.com


Out of the Gate

A “railbird” is a spectator at a horse race so enthralled that he or she hangs on the railing to get as close as possible to the hoofbeats and the flying dust. Although Thoroughbreds won’t be racing at Lexington’s Keeneland on August 10 and 11, the facility expects plenty of crazed fans at the inaugural Railbird Festival, a celebration of all things music, equestrian, bluegrass, and bourbon. While it might be hard for festivalgoers to peel themselves away from sets by Brandi Carlile, Lucinda Williams, Robert Earl Keen, and Mandolin Orange, the Rickhouse bourbon tasting event in the Keene Barn is an enticing pull. There, single-barrels from Four Roses, Old Forester, Buffalo Trace, Old Weller Antique 107, Pinhook, and Blanton’s will be served in cocktails or straight-up flights. “We’re getting exclusive releases from great Kentucky distilleries and showing them off here first,” says AJ Hochhalter, who is part of the team lining up the bourbon selection. railbirdfest.com


Kitchen Prep-School

“New Orleans has been a culinary leader for three hundred years, and we can’t stop now,” says Ti Martin, co-proprietor of Commander’s Palace and a member of one of the greatest restaurant dynasties in America. “But we were a little like a gap-toothed kid. We were missing something.” The brand-new New Orleans Culinary & Hospitality Institute (NOCHI), which she cofounded, aims to fill the void. Six years in the making, the ninety-three-thousand-square-foot facility just celebrated the graduation of its first nineteen students from a twenty-week curriculum designed to fast-track aspiring chefs and restaurateurs on the way to their food-and-bev-industry dreams. NOCHI’s abbreviated course structure awards culinary and baking and pastry arts certificates for $15,000—a more approachable tuition than that of many two-year institutes. But even for home cooks, NOCHI is a wish granted. Enthusiast Courses let wanna-be Emerils in the door. “Locals were demanding access,” Martin says. Not to mention tourists. “The number-one thing people want to do when they come to New Orleans is take a cooking class,” she adds. Upcoming laymen’s courses will cover proper seasoning techniques with Tory McPhail of Commander’s Palace; breakfast with Turkey & the Wolf’s Mason Hereford; and vegetable wisdom from Kristen Essig and Mike Stoltzfus of Coquette and the new restaurant Thalia. The best part, according to Martin: “We get to eat our homework.” nochi.org


Just Peachy

During Maryland’s peach season, from late June through September, baker Al Meckel will sell nearly a thousand rectangular “slabs” of his peach cake a week. To meet the demand, he rises at 1:00 a.m. and walks down the block to his Fenwick Bakery in Baltimore. There, he slices peaches from some of the twenty crates of fruit he uses to bake each week. By the time he pulls the first sheet pan out of the oven, customers are already waiting outside, lined up for the yeasted cake topped with quartered peaches and sprinkled with brown sugar and lemon. “If you get to the bakery after three or four in the afternoon, we’ll probably be sold out,” Meckel says. Although the exact origin of the Baltimore staple is, shall we say, fuzzy, the Bavarian-style cake is rooted in the region’s German population, and local bakeries have turned it out for more than a century—most famously Fenwick, which opened as E. Uebersax Bakery in 1913. There’s something about the peach cakes that’s both wonderfully nostalgic and still relevant, Meckel says. “I just wish you could can that sweet fruit-and-dough aroma to have as an air freshener all year long.” fenwickbakery.com


Got You Covered

The familiar sight of a Waffle House is a welcome refuge for weary travelers. From its all-day hours to the top-as-you-please hash browns, the diner chain is synonymous with reliability. Now, a new generation of Waffle Houses takes that reputation a step further. Waffle House #2314, at 618 Beach Boulevard in coastal Biloxi, was built to a hurricane-resistant code and is the first-ever Waffle House perched atop flood-ready stilts. “It’s a bit of an urban legend that we stay open during a hurricane, but we do work to reopen as quickly as possible,” says Pat Warner, the company’s director of external affairs. “If we can be there for our customers in the immediate aftermath of a storm, there’s a feeling that the community made it through and is coming back.” New structures in hurricane zones will be designed to local codes, most with elevated brick foundations and reinforced windows to withstand nature’s harshest conditions. “We have folks who tell us Waffle House was the first place they could charge their phone after Katrina, or where they got their first hot meal after Hugo,” Warner says. Regulars and out-of-town guests at the new outlet can savor their breakfasts with a bird’s-eye view of the Gulf of Mexico, knowing that if waters rise, the glowing yellow box intends to remain a calm spot in the storm. wafflehouse.com

Tim Bower


North Carolina
Chow Down

In traditional Appalachian cuisine, no two chowchow recipes are alike, but they all serve the same purpose: preserving summer produce in a tangy relish to brighten dishes come winter. With that Blue Ridge ritual in mind, the first Chow Chow festival (September 12–15), directed by a who’s who of beloved local chefs including Cúrate’s Katie Button and Rhubarb’s John Fleer, proudly celebrates Asheville’s burgeoning dining scene and the way it honors the Appalachian South. Standout events include a walking-and-eating tour of the historic African American neighborhood near the new Foundry Hotel, a behind-the-garden-gates frolic through the Biltmore Estate’s farm and vineyard, and Forage + Feast, a tour on which participants gather mushrooms and sassafras from the lush woods around Warren Wilson College before chefs and guests prepare the bounty. True to Asheville’s beloved arts scene, culinary excellence and craft are intertwined throughout the festival. On Saturday night, Meherwan Irani of the heralded Chai Pani and the artisans of East Fork Pottery serve a supper of dishes cooked in clay pots. “We’re passionate about supporting local makers,” says Peter Pollay, who serves on the festival’s board of directors and owns the popular downtown restaurant Posana. “We want to showcase everything it takes to get food to the table—including the table itself.” exploreasheville.com


Winner, Winner…

The sound of “Hello, chicken-fry!” shouted from the kitchen means you’re in the right place: Nelson’s Buffeteria in Tulsa, where cooks have been chicken-frying steaks for ninety years. To regulars, the phrase means one thing—a tenderized bottom round that’s seasoned, breaded, and deep-fried to perfection and will set you back all of $10.69. In Oklahoma, chicken-fried steak is an art passed down from grandfather to grandson, mother to daughter. Melissa Clanton-Patrick, the fourth-generation owner of another popular spot, Clanton’s Cafe in Vinita, learned her family’s recipe as a child. Grant “Sweet Tater” Clanton, Melissa’s great-grandfather, started the restaurant in 1927. According to family lore, Sweet Tater’s advertising campaign involved banging a pot with a spoon to announce that lunch was ready. Today “we sell fifty thousand chicken-fried steaks a year,” says Clanton-Patrick. “God knows how many cattle we’ve gone through.” They’re counting contestants, not cows, at Kendall’s Restaurant in Noble, home of the Chicken Fry Challenge. Thirty-five bucks gets you a shot at notoriety if, in less than an hour, you can down a salad, mashed potatoes, green beans, a biscuit, three chicken-fried steaks, and a pair of cinnamon rolls. In nineteen years, fifty winners have earned a free meal and a commemorative T-shirt. Losers still come out ahead, though—they get a big meal, a to-go box, and a cup that reads “Quitter.” travelok.com


South Carolina
Elevated Eats

On the last day of Greenville’s Euphoria festival (September 19–22), four aspiring cooks between the ages of eight and eighteen will make dishes onstage with visiting Michelin-starred chefs serving as their assistants. The winning team’s recipe earns a place in the Greenville County school system’s lunch-menu rotation. That’s just one of the ways Euphoria is making a lasting impression on the Piedmont town. “When Euphoria began fourteen years ago, Greenville wasn’t even close to being considered a foodie city,” says Morgan Allen, the festival’s executive director. “Now we’re finding our identity.” The four-day celebration includes a barbecue brunch, a veggies-only
dinner, a class on making ice cream, a history lesson on whiskey old-fashioneds, a rosé tasting, and even a fais-dodo (a Cajun feast and dance party) with New Orleans chef Alex Harrell. In-the-know attendees will clear their schedules for the dinners from Michelle Rodriguez of Del Posto in Chicago and Teague Moriarty of San Francisco’s Sons & Daughters. 


Three to Get Ready

Chef Ford Fry’s empire stretches over sixteen restaurants in three states, including JCT Kitchen in Atlanta, State of Grace in Houston, and four Superica spots spanning the South. And the busy chef isn’t slowing down. In September, he’ll plant his flag in Nashville’s Germantown neighborhood, inside a twenty-thousand-square-foot former hammer mill along the Cumberland River. “What attracted me initially was preserving this old building,” Fry says. “And to draw people over there, I thought having a few options would be nice.” So he dreamed up three: Le Loup, an upscale cocktail bar with “loungy, leathery, funky vibes,” Star Rover Sound, a taqueria and live-music venue designed to feel like an old recording studio, and the Optimist, a new version of his Atlanta seafood restaurant of the same name. While the Nashville Optimist will serve lobster rolls, crudo, and seafood gumbo as does the Atlanta iteration, the new space will be larger and sprawl across a dining room, a bar, and multiple patios. Fry also plans to open a fifth Superica, his Austin-style Tex-Mex restaurant, in Nashville’s Gulch neighborhood this summer. Of all the Southern cities Fry could have chosen to make his next mark, Music City was a natural pick. “I love the combination of food and music, and all the chef friends of mine in Nashville are so cool and laid-back,” he says. “I wanted any reason to go to Nashville more.” fordfry.com


Fry-way to Heaven

When Jimmy James suggested to his boss, Christi Erpillo, that she deep-fry peaches for the State Fair of Texas’s Big Tex Choice Awards in 2009, she had her doubts. Erpillo, the chief frying officer of the Fernie’s Funnel Cakes concession stand that her mother owns, takes this annual food fight in Dallas seriously. The contest, which sees fifty entrants test the culinary and caloric limits of fairgoers, can result in a huge windfall when runners-up and winners serve their entries for the duration of the fair, which draws 2.3 million attendees annually (this year, September 27–October 20). Winning bites and drinks such as the Gulf Coast Fish Bowl—a punch drink filled with Nerds and Swedish Fish candies—and the unforgettable fried Jell-O have been blockbuster hits in years past. So it took some convincing to get Erpillo on board with a fresh fruit concoction. “I said, ‘Jimmy, I’ve never fried a peach before, but I’ll try it,’” she recalls. Erpillo and James coated peaches in a cinnamon, ginger, and coconut tempura batter, dipped them in panko and graham cracker crumbs, fried them, and won the Best Taste award. Coincidentally, that was the same year Oprah Winfrey paid a visit to the fair. “So Jimmy got a raise,” Erpillo says, “and Jimmy got to meet Oprah.” bigtex.com

Tim Bower


Grape Timing

While her friends were spending summer days at the swimming pool, young Caitlin Horton was picking grapes and learning about vintages from her grandfather, the Virginia wine legend Dennis Horton. “It was definitely a different way to grow up,” says Horton, who, alongside her mother and grandmother, runs Horton Vineyards in Gordonsville. The winery is celebrating thirty years of business, and this spring, Horton’s 2016 Petit Manseng won the coveted Governor’s Cup, the highest honor for Virginia wine. The family’s success is built on the legacy of Dennis, who passed away last year. In the early nineties, he drew attention to Virginia wine by introducing grape varietals—Petit Manseng, Albarino, and Viognier, which went on to become the state’s official and most sought-after white grape—that are now essential to the Commonwealth’s nearly three hundred vineyards. Tucked away in the central Virginia hills, Horton is near other award-winning family-run vineyards such as Barboursville and Veritas. “The industry is growing exponentially, and we’re in a pretty cool little pocket,” Horton says. Now is the time for a tasting tour, as harvest season ramps up in early fall. “The leaves start to change, and people gravitate toward the mountains,” she says. virginiawine.org


Washington, D.C.
Smoke Scene

It looks like a hot dog, but don’t be confused—a half-smoke is an entirely original tube of meat. The work of D.C.’s Ben Ali—a Trinidadian immigrant who opened Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street in 1958—the sausage quickly became a capital city staple, and in 2004, the James Beard Foundation recognized Ben’s as an “America’s Classic” restaurant. His recipe is an American standard with a twist: a half pork, half beef smoked sausage, and it’s still the trademark dish of Washington, says Vida Ali, the wife of Ben’s son Sage (the restaurant remains a family business). A half-smoke rests in a bun and comes topped with mustard, diced onions, and Ben’s secret-recipe spicy homemade chili. And, of course, that’s the way competitors are expected to eat the franks when they vie for the chance to be named Half-Smoke Champion at the H Street Festival, in front of the second location of Ben’s, on September 21. Contestants must consume as many half-smokes as possible in two minutes—in the three years the challenge has been held, no one has inhaled more than six. benschilibowl.com


West Virginia
Pep Talk

As Spam is to Hawaii, soft yeast rolls baked around pepperoni are to West Virginia. The pepperoni roll first appeared in the early twentieth century in coal country when Italian American miners’ wives packed the calorie-loaded meal for their husbands’ lunch breaks. They are still a favorite of West Virginians and are widely celebrated enough that when a Morgantown musician named R.J. Nestor wrote a musical about the state’s history, he organized the Great Pepperoni Roll Cookoff to pay for it. “What better way to fund a show about West Virginia history than with a delicacy that’s so West Virginia?” Nestor asks. Now Golden Horseshoe tours for two weeks each fall, showcasing Mountain State history for twenty thousand students. The daylong Cookoff (August 11) at the Morgantown Farmers Market continues to support the show. Vendors serve hundreds of hungry fans and compete for People’s Choice, Most Original (one year a cook fried doughnuts with pepperoni-studded batter), Most Traditional (no sauce), and Best Overall awards. The ten-dollar entry fee covers samples from area restaurants, home cooks’ kitchens, food stands, and other local spots. “A gas station five minutes from my house has won the competition twice,” Nestor boasts. tourmorgantown.com

—Kinsey Gidick, Caroline Sanders, and Abigail Tierney