Southern Food

maters

These are fried green tomatoes.  Intrigued?  They are exactly what their name implies, and are a perfectly healthy-yet-not-healthy appetizer.  The dip you see in the picture above is a tangy mayonnaise that isn’t spicy persay, but has just that right amount of zip to really make the meal.

Fried green tomatoes are a real thing, not just a Kathy Bates-Jessica Tandy movie from 1991.  I was first acquainted with these “‘maters” (actual Tennessee pronunciation) on My (Not Quite) Coast-to-Coast Road Trip of 2014, when I stopped off in Nashville to meet my friend Chris for lunch.

We ate at Puckett’s Grocery, a way-cool diner in downtown Nashville that often hosts live bands.  I followed up the ‘maters with a catfish sandwich, and was quite stuffed by meal’s end.  The ‘maters pictured above were consumed by yours truly at the Green Tomato Grill, a wonderful place strangely located in the middle of nowhere – Mooresburg, TN to be specific.  Check it out if you’re ever in the area; in addition to regional fare, its full menu includes steaks and seafood dishes.

Fried pickles - from cell phone

I recently posted the above pic to my Facebook page and asked friends and followers to identify what it was that I was eating.  Three people guessed correctly.  If you’re not sure, the answer is fried pickles!  These vegetable relatives of the aforementioned fried green tomatoes are another regional specialty.  Take a sweet dill pickle, bread it with Cajun spices, slice it into small wedges, and deep fry it to your liking.  The result: a slightly-sweet, slightly-spicy taste sensation.  A side of medium-grade hot sauce was the perfect complement!

It wasn’t until just six weeks ago that I had experienced the goodness that is fried pickles.  I was on my way to Memphis when I stopped off for lunch at a nondescript, hole-in-the-wall fast food establishment in some similarly nondescript, hole-in-the-water town.  I had my usual Southern food standby, fried catfish, but the fish was clearly lying around on the hot plate for too long, so I yearned for something fresher to wash it down.  “We sell fried pickles,” a sign below the register said.  When I learned that they are typically prepared fresh, I gambled that it would therefore be tastier than my fish and placed my order.   A wise choice.

Fried pickles are available seasonally, usually during the spring and summer months.  The casual dining chain Zaxby’s sells fried pickles on a seasonal basis, and these tasty snacks are leagues better than anything else on their menu.

As you may have guessed by now, fried food is a staple of the Southern diet.  With the cooking oil being 10W-30 in grade and anything on a grill being marinated in back fat or bacon grease, cardiologists are no doubt in high demand.  It so often seems that if the food isn’t fried, then it is grilled Cajun-style, with a mixture of cayenne pepper and other spices seared into the meat or fish.  The picture below covers all the bases – fried, breaded, and Cajun-grilled:

Olde Town Pancake House

You are looking at catfish, okra, hushpuppies, French fries, and sweet tea.  Catfish, another staple of the south courtesy of the mighty Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, Chattahoochee, and Cumberland Rivers that ply these lands, is served one of two ways: fried and Cajun-grilled.  The latter is perhaps better for your health than the former, but with so much other fried food on the plate in this picture, we really are talking six of one, half-a-dozen of the other.

The vaguely-green, jalapeño popper-looking morsels are fried okra.  This hearty green vegetable thrives in southern fields, and what better way to augment it than breading it and dropping it in the deep fryer?  Yes, that was sarcasm, but it’s hard to deny the simple truth: for all but the snobbiest of palates, fried okra tastes better than steamed okra any day of the week and twice on Sundays.  There, I said it.  🙂

Hushpuppies.  How I love thee.  That being said, these fritters of goodness are actually quite hard to describe.  Picture baked or deep fried corn meal batter rolled into a ball and sometimes flavored with any combination of the following: sugar, onions, garlic, and peppers.  I have heard that hushpuppies-as-food date back to the heyday of the Cherokee Indians.

I won’t comment on the French fries in the photo above but I will give a shout out to sweet tea.  As American in the South as apple pie is in the Midwest, sweet tea is a staple of every family meal.  And when I say “sweet,” I mean sweet, with liberal doses of sugar added to original iced, strawberry, or raspberry varieties.

Incidentally, the meal pictured above was eaten at the Olde Town Pancake House in Jonesborough, Tennessee’s oldest community.  You can read more about my July day trip to Jonesborough here.

Any blog about Southern food would be remiss without making at least cursory mention of barbecue.    Indeed, barbecue (or “BBQ,” as it is spelled here) is one of the four seasons in and around Tennessee (the others being NASCAR, college football, and “winter”).

Memphis is the reigning king of southern BBQ, and it is here that you can find BBQ eateries to fit any budget.  Corky’s is a fast food chain specializing in BBQ sandwiches, usually pulled pork – shredded and marinated in mild BBQ sauce.  Further east, I only just discovered Buddy’s, a similar BBQ chain with low prices and reasonable portions.  Try the green beans.    But back to Memphis.  When it comes to ribs, you can often choose from “wet” ribs, with moist sauce slathered across the meat with a brush, or “dry rub” ribs, with a jerk-like seasoning sprinkled over the meat as it cooks.

Although I am by no means an expert, my tastes lean towards “dry rub” and Rendezvous, which specializes in just that.  Here is a picture of my rib/chicken dinner from Rendezvous, circa December 2013.

Rendezvous 2

Someone once said that a picture tells a thousand words.  The photo above tells us that Rendezous is one of the best restaurants in America.  The place has been around since 1948, and entry is via a dark alley off of a downtown back street.  This entryway lends the place a sort of “speakeasy” vibe, and the old school, wood-paneled décor is something of a throwback to Prohibition days as well.  Waiters here are career servers who earn a living wage and treat customers like human beings, not like soulless tipping machines.  They will set you right.  Incidentally, Rendezvous also sells Ghost River, a smooth, Memphis-brewed pale ale that I’ve never seen anywhere else.

Are you hungry yet?

Author: gringopotpourri

Gringo - aka Scott - was born outside of Chicago and has lived most of his life in or around big cities. He spent two years of his adult life in Mexico City (talk about big cities!) and fell in love with Mexican food, history, and women, all while weathering the culture shock. Life's journey has since brought him to rural Tennessee, perhaps the biggest culture shock of them all. Scott also enjoys movies, hiking, and travel in general.

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