Food & Drink

Good Eats 2012

Here are John T. Edge’s top ten dishes of the year––from lardo-wrapped fish to one hell of a tomato sandwich

Photo: Peter Frank Edwards

Early this summer, I ate dinner 
at the James Beard House, the high temple of American gastronomy, set on the fringe of Greenwich Village in New York City. From the basement kitchen of the late, great man’s brownstone, guest chef Ashley Christensen of Poole’s Diner in Raleigh let fly deviled eggs, shot through with pickled collard stems. And soft-shell crabs with malted ramp slaw. And a mosaic of lamb carpaccio, dressed with yogurt vinaigrette. Followed by slices of cornmeal cake, puddled with buttermilk custard and haloed with fat blueberries.

Flush with camaraderie and whiskey, my companions and I winged a few berries across the dining room. As they bounced off the heads of unsuspecting diners, I screwed my face into a facade of inscrutability and steered our table conversation toward the state of Southern culinary enterprise. All agreed that, in this American moment, Southern food folk are getting the accolades due to them. Pit master Rodney Scott on CBS Sunday Morning! Baker and bon vivant Martha Foose on Good Morning America! The rest of the country is finally recognizing what we already know: Southern food is America’s most vital and vibrant.

As our discussions meandered, and the blueberries scattered, we didn’t talk specifically about the dishes Christensen cooked. (Okay, I did obsess over the crab.) No matter. Her stellar dinner served as the intellectual and social lubricant that set those conversations in motion.

Based on my time at table in 2012, I believe the following dishes, from both steam-table cafés and white-tablecloth bistros, will catalyze conversations in the coming year. I can’t promise all will inspire postprandial fruit tossing. But I can tell you that all, even the seeming interloper from the North, celebrate the best of Southern senses and sensibilities, histories and futures.

Nota bene: Great eats are ephemeral. Here last night. Gone this afternoon. If the dish I love is not in the rotation when you arrive, call an audible, for none that emerge from these kitchens will be duds.

Listed in no particular order

Creamed Rice with Clams and Ham
Chef: Steven Satterfield
Restaurant: Miller Union
 in Atlanta, Georgia

It’s like a risotto. But without the Sophia Loren accent. Carolina Gold rice, coaxed to creaminess, threaded with turnip greens and Allan Benton’s beloved country ham, studded with alabaster turnip roots, and pocked with delicate Capers Inlet clams—harvested just off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina—this dish is an exemplar of understated luxury.

Steven Satterfield takes his cues from his family, as any great chef does. Born in the Georgia Lowcountry, raised on a diet of rice and seafood, he developed a devotion to ham and fresh vegetables on Piedmont vacations. Taste the way he plays sweet clams off sharp turnips, and you’ll soon affirm the virtues of cross-regional pollination. Also on the menu: grit fritters with Thomasville Tomme, a cow’s milk cheese from Sweet Grass Dairy in Georgia.

Drunken Hog
Chef: Joshua Gentry
Restaurant: Little Donkey
  in Birmingham, Alabama

Mark my words: Tortas are the next Mexican crossover food—tiled with slices of avocado, piled with long-simmered pintos, shellacked with melted queso blanco, embellished with crema, and tucked in flat-top-toasted rolls.

That’s how they’ve long done it in Mexico. And that’s how they now do it at bodegas scattered throughout the South. Little Donkey folk know the torta form well enough to reinvent it by laying on pork, pulled from the hickory-stoked pit, and dishing this baroque tribute to south-of-the-border street food with a bowl of warm tomato gravy that recalls a more resonant and viscous barbecue sauce.

A reflection of new immigration and its positive impact on the American South, the Drunken Hog is the next step in the evolution of the traditional barbecue sandwich. Also on the menu: sweet and spicy chicken, dipped in chile-spiked buttermilk and fried to a hard crisp.

Fried Cornbread

Chef: Robert Bailey
Restaurant: Bailey & Cato Family Restaurant in 
Nashville, Tennessee

Tuesday is baked neck bones. Thursday is beef liver with onions. Saturday is pigs’ feet and fried chicken. But every day is fried cornbread day
at this workhorse of a meat-and-three café, set in a dusty pink bungalow in the decidedly unhip Inglewood district of decidedly hip East Nashville.

Robert Bailey and his family cook the most elemental cornbread imaginable: cornmeal, water, salt, and a pinch of sugar. Fried hard, that cornbread emerges from the roiling oil with a sandpaper crust and a creamy core.

Gaze upon that oval of goodness before you dunk it in a bowl of collard greens. You can see the handprints of the cook who shaped it. Now crack it in two and sniff the streams of sweet corn aroma that rise ceilingward. Terms like handcrafted are employed too often these days. Here, my fellow eaters, is the real thing. Also on the menu: pork chops, girded by a sweet mantle of fat and fried in a parchment-thin batter.

Rainy Day Minestrone

Chef: Taylor Bowen Ricketts
Restaurant: Delta Bistro 
in Greenwood, Mississippi

Sweet potato greens, grown and harvested by farmer Bonita Conwell in nearby Mound Bayou, make this dish. Conjure a delicate cross between spinach, mustard, and purslane and you’re close.

As mucilaginous okra binds a great gumbo, those starchy greens, which some farmers appropriately call leaves, bind this minestrone. And there’s much to bind in Taylor Bowen Ricketts’s kitchen-sink soup of lima beans, navy beans, red beans, carrots, tomatoes, and sweet potatoes. Bobbing here and there are rounds of venison sausage, which offer a gamy counterpoint to all that natural sweetness.

Until recently, Conwell, and her collaborators at the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative, froze those greens and shipped them to an African market in Houston. Thanks to Ricketts, some now remain in Mississippi and grace Delta stew pots. With a little luck, sweet potato greens will emerge as the next starlet vegetable, the watermelon radish of 2013. Also on the menu: battered and fried hunks of alligator tail, dunked in garlicky comeback sauce.

Root Benny

Chef: Cash Ashley
Restaurant: The Root
 in LIttle Rock, Arkansas

Take a mess of chard. Cook it down with garlic and olive oil. Twirl that tangle of greens into a nest. Tuck in a rumpled slice of pan-fried ham, cured by Falling Sky Farm in nearby Marshall, and a couple of poached eggs, sourced from pastured birds. Dab with lemony hollandaise. Butter a few slices of whole-grain toast. By way of those flourishes, cooks at the Root make my favorite new eggs Benedict riff.

Set in an old dairy bar, beside a vest-pocket garden plot, the restaurant leverages a back-to-the-land sensibility rooted in free love and home canning. You order at the counter. Grab a cloth napkin from the utensil nook. And then sidestep the waitress who likes to waltz through the dining room, stirring chocolate chip batter in an oversize metal mixing bowl.

Here hippie aesthetics get their Deep South showcase, and eggs Benedict earns a welcome makeover. Also on the menu: eggs banh mi, shipwrecked with garlic mayonnaise, pickled radish, jalapeños, cilantro, hoisin, and Sriracha.

Tsutsumi Maguro

Chef: Masa Hamaya
Restaurant: Uchiko
 in Austin, Texas

I’ve eaten my share of cantaloupe slices wrapped in wisps of prosciutto. I love the way salt leaches from the ham, sharpening the sweetness of the fruit. It reminds me of eating watermelon as a boy, with a saltshaker by my side and yesterday’s newspaper as a place mat.

Masa Hamaya, the ichiban at Uchiko, a swank sushi bar in Austin, knows those synchronicities. He grew up in Japan, where ruby meat melons are beloved. And he now makes his home in a state that stages harvest festivals called watermelon thumps.

In his fever dream of a dish, an ingot of bigeye tuna plays the watermelon part. A caul of sweet-salty lardo serves as the wrap. And puffy white clouds of dehydrated olives float above. When he needs a garnish, Hamaya reaches for the herbs that grow in a Lilliputian terrarium atop the sushi bar. Two snips of shiso and he’s all done. Also on the menu: charred English pea pods in a sauce of garlic, chiles,
and tomatoes.

Smoked Sizzling Oysters
Chef: Tenney Flynn
Restaurant: GW Fins in 
New Orleans, Louisiana

For the shucked oyster, it happens so quickly. A flash of brimstone and hickory smoke, captured beneath the ceramic dome of a Big Green Egg. Followed by a sprinkle of herbs, a dunk in butter, a short berth in a superheated oyster shell, and a confetti-toss of parsley.

That oyster shell is key. Tenney Flynn scrubs dozens clean and dries them overnight in a low oven. Fail to purge a waterlogged shell, before running it under a 700-degree broiler, and it bursts open, throwing oyster shrapnel across the kitchen. Do it right, however, and that oyster reemerges from its shell berth tasting like a smoke-tinged butter-stippled better version of its former self.

Flynn made his bones at Ruth’s Chris, the New Orleans–born steakhouse chain that popularized prime filets sizzled in butter sauce. When he opened GW Fins, a seafood-centric restaurant, just off Bourbon Street, Flynn applied the same technique to Gulf oysters. Thanks to his way with dairy solids, the world is a more delicious place. Also on the menu: beer-battered Louisiana frog legs, with a chile aioli for dipping.

Sweet Potato Cobbler

Chef: Doug Jefferson 
Restaurant: OJ’s Diner in 
Greenville, South Carolina

The word cobbler has many meanings: A person who mends shoes. The last sheep in the pen to be sheared. A fish with long dorsal and anal rays. A dish of fruit, baked with a pastry topping. Let’s go with that last one.

OJ’s serves a cobbler for the ages. Instead of laying in peaches or apples—which can be gossamer when done right—Doug Jefferson boils hunks of bright-orange sweet potatoes until soft, stirs in an unknowable combination of spices,  and drapes the whole affair in a sturdy crust.
The result is a cobbler with heft. A cobbler with oomph. A cobbler that calls to mind a decon-
structed sweet potato pie, loosed from its pastry
garters, spilling—sexily and luxuriously—all over
the plate. Also on the menu: salmon croquettes, served in a puddle of butter-gilded grits.

Tomato Sandwich

Chef: Vivian Howard 
Restaurant: Chef & the Farmer
 in Kinston, North Carolina

Out on the eastern plain of North Carolina, the summer sun menaces—and nourishes. Come July, if the rains cooperate, Cherokee purple tomatoes hang heavy on the vine. And sweet corn grows so rapidly that it threatens to burst from its husks. When the dog days loom, Vivian Howard makes tomato sandwiches. Built on a base of house-baked sweet-potato-onion bread, layered with those Cherokees, slathered with smoked corn aioli, this BLT-inspired epiphany will confirm, once and for all, that when tomatoes are at their height, bacon just gets in the way.

Howard is a fiend for local farm goods. You’ve heard this about other chefs. But Howard, the daughter of tobacco and hog farmers, practices what others merely proselytize. She also gets the best coinage of the year prize for a mix-and-match section of the menu called Pimp My Grits. Also on the menu: fried okra served with a scoop of ranch ice cream.

Salted Lime Pie

Pastry Chef: Kierin Baldwin
Restaurant: The Dutch
 in New York, New York

Harness the kilowatts of a thousand suns. Then refract those rays through a jiggly custard. Lying in repose on a white china plate, awaiting the prod of your fork, the lime pie baked by Kierin Baldwin shines goldenrod bright.

Forget key lime pies. Too many get their tone from a bottle of pasteurized juice. Persian limes do fine here. Especially when the juice in play benefits from shots of tequila and Cointreau, the crust is built on a base of crushed vanilla wafers and shredded coconut, and the custard crown gets a sprinkle of Maldon sea salt.

Baldwin is not a Southerner. But somehow she manages to bake like a Southerner, channeling our love of all things pie and our devotion to sweet and salty denouements. Also on the menu: devil’s food cake with White Russian ice cream, and—at a recently opened Miami location—salted lime pie with passionfruit sauce.

The One that Got Away—A Memorial to a Great Dish

Candied Grapefruit 
Waffles with Salted 
Caramel Ice Cream
Chef: Karen Baker
Restaurant: Magnolia Grill
 in Durham, North Carolina

Stud a bowl of waffle batter with crescents of candied grapefruit peel. Toast a pair of small waffle rounds. Top one round with salted caramel ice cream. Stack another round on top. Scoop ice cream again. Flank the assemblage with grapefruit slices. Necklace with pearls of caramel. Top with crescents of candied grapefruit peel. Eat while mumbling thanks to the genius baker who conceived the dish.

Karen Barker has long reigned as the queen of Americana desserts. Earlier this year, she and her husband, Ben Barker, closed Magnolia Grill, the Durham restaurant they founded in 1986. For eaters like you and me, it was a great loss. Talent like this comes along once in a generation.
Ditto that waffle ice cream stack. Still on the menu: Karen’s book Sweet Stuff, which includes recipes for buckles, crunches, grunts, slumps, and, yes, waffles.