The insider's scoop on food, travel & southern culture
Howdy, folks! Reporting to you live from small-town Washington D.C. Last week’s post got me thinking about the rise of small-town barbecue onto a national culinary scene—a trend that was compelling enough to cause seasoned, fine-dining chef Andrew Evans to make the transition from high-end restaurant to backyard BBQ joint. Last week’s example really reflects a much larger shift or movement happening in the culinary world—one in which the days are a little slower, the roads a little dustier, and the accents a little thicker.
Nowadays, small towns seem to be the inspiration for the food world. Chefs and the larger restaurant industry are beginning to recognize that they can glean valuable insight from the work of small-town bakers, local farmers and seasoned pit-masters.
Visiting with these people, and understanding their way of life, allows chefs the opportunity to share in a knowledge that is often highly specialized and perfected by generations of practice. For Andrew Evans (last post), it was the art of barbecue, practiced by the small-town experts in their hundred-year-old smokehouses. From them, he says, there is so much to be learned.
The rise of farm-to-table preparation and casual dining establishments are byproducts of the small-town movement. It’s the result of chefs, both upcoming and established, traveling to and learning the ways of small towns in order to improve the culinary experience for their city-dwelling patrons. As a result, they’re striping away the bells ‘n whistles and serving up the freshest of local ingredients.
From personal experience, I’ve learned the way in which chefs explore these towns and source ingredients is largely their own. That Harley-riding chef husband of mine, along with a few of his culinary pals—Chefs Robert Wiedmaier and Peter Smith—traverse the Eastern Coast on their Hogs to meet with local farmers/producers. Last summer, Harley Davidson followed my husband David on one of his trips to a Pennsylvanian beekeeping farm (see below) to source a special type of honey he claims is of unparalleled quality. He uses the honey in his restaurant. Visit here for the full Ride Book feature.
On the flipside, we’ve seen small-town chefs garnering national attention for using obscure ingredients and crafting dishes that embody the local culture. Chefs like Monroe, Lousiana’s Cory Bahr—a good pal of the famed Duck Dynasty boys, might I add—are quickly popularizing styles of cooking that have never before been on the map. His celebration of Northern Delta cuisine uses regional ingredients like rabbit, alligator and cane syrup—all of which you can now find on metropolitan menus.
Robert St. John is another chef (author / columnist / restaurateur) that has challenged traditional notions of Southern cuisine. He actually coined the name My South with his first book. In Hattiesburg, Mississippi, of all places, he’s built a network of restaurants, which have not only been recognized for their creativity in cuisine, but their creative concepts as well.
Branch, a new mid-century retro bar he opened this month, has a truly unique collection of bourbons and ryes; sliding scales on the menu to help patrons make educated decisions; and a collection of 1,800 vinyl albums that play on repeat—that’s the only music allowed. Check out the Hattiesburg American feature here.
With the appreciation of small-town cuisine, we’re seeing the rise of food trails, which are, well… somewhat like a culinary safari. It can be thought of as traveling around and meeting locals/experts in their “natural habitat.” To bring in another example from last post, the Southern Foodways Alliance traveled from town to town visiting some of the oldest and most-authentic barbecue pits in the Southeast on something they called The BBQ Trail. (Check out the link for an interactive map of their journey, very cool!) They were preparing for their upcoming BBQ Symposium last October. Their motivation: how else are we going to learn about barbecue, if not from the best? Although they certainly missed out on Andrews Evans in his small town of Easton, Maryland.
What we’re seeing is an appreciation for the creativity and expertise that exists in small-town USA. And chefs are recognizing the value of journeying to the source when it comes to learning and incorporating that into restaurant fare. I have only been riding twice on the back of David’s Harley trips—when wives were included, that is—but you know that’s okay, because those adventures are perhaps best left to the District Hogs. I’m not sure I could make it as far as the Mason Dixon line anyway… on that little seat that is about 6 inches in diameter. That’s some serious fanny fatigue.
I’m Simone. And this is what simone sez…