Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Tasty Travels

            I’m not a food writer but I often travel with some.  We’re lucky recipients of lavish meals meant to impress. Sometimes they’re delectable and sometimes you have to wonder what they were thinking like a dinner recently at a sprawling golf resort in Georgia.  The tuna tartare was grandly displayed on a gilded platter like a huge cow patty.  That should have been my first clue.  As the servers began to distribute dozens of artfully arranged plates with three appetizers, the chef rhapsodized about the pigs we were about to eat and what they’d eaten… local this and that…but the words that caught our attention were “fromage de tête”.  You don’t have to speak much French to know that means head cheese.  “This is dog food!” the writer next to me said (a little too loudly I thought).  Meanwhile the chef went on, “It’s something that you’ll never see.”  Well let’s hope not! 

            At Fire on the Dock, a reality-show type cooking contest in North Carolina, chefs are given secret ingredients and have to quickly include them in a three course meal for about one hundred voting diners.  The night I attended the secret ingredients were buttermilk and chocolate.  A remarkable praline crusted quail with buttermilk biscuits and tartufo sauce had diners rushing to their ballot sheets.  And then there was the do-I-really-have-to-taste-it dessert of sturgeon chocolate cake.  Points off for that one. 

            Cities try to impress us with honey tastings, moonshine cocktails, flaming absinthe and garnishes like popcorn shoots.  They lay out hors d’oeuvres on the lawn of the governor’s mansion, serve breakfasts in farm’s barns and give us the password to speakeasies.  But what impresses me is a good story about people and their food.  I found one at the 75 year old Sea View Inn on Pawley’s Island.  It’s really more of a boarding house on a beautiful beach.  Family style meals are the epitome of Southern hospitality.  Their Palmetto Cheese was developed by proprietor Sassy Henry with Vertrella Brown, the inn’s cook.  This version of pimento cheese became so popular that it has spawned a much larger business than the inn and is now sold nationwide. 

              On Eagle Island Andy Hill cooked us up a story in the scenic outdoor kitchen of his private island.  “This is not a five star resort, it’s a five-moon one,” he said as he poured a conch shell of bourbon into the steaming oysters before adding cheese, diced scallions, crumbled bacon and jalapeno peppers for a Five Moon Oyster dish that rivaled any Rockefeller.  Watching him cook on the lantern-lit patio surrounded by sea oats, the smell of the oysters and salt marsh…the food became more than a recipe. 

            Stories come from what inspired the food.  Chef Peter Pollay developed the menu at Posana’s Café in Asheville for his wife who follows a gluten free diet: creative dishes like lobster mac and cheese made from ricotta gnocchi and zucchini “noodles” standing in for pasta.  “This is my version of the Taj Mahal,” he said referring to how the palace was built as a tribute to the king’s wife.  Without that story, the menu was just a delicious but forgettable meal. 

            Foods that symbolize their locale intrigue me.  On St. Simon’s Island which our guide Captain Fendig described as “an eat-stroll-eat-stop-stroll” sort of place,  we were instructed in the proper way to poach shrimp by the chef at Halyard’s Restaurant:  immerse them in very hot but not simmering water with onions, lemons, Old Bay, carrots and letting them sit just a moment.  On the other end of the culinary spectrum Palmer’s Café served us reinvented pancakes: Buddy’s Banana Pudding Cakes, along with poached eggs over collared greens.  That’s local flavor. 

            Hikers who spend the night at Len Foote Hike Inn near Dawsonville Georgia come away with a new appreciation of food.  After the five mile trek up the mountain, the hearty dinner is a welcome amenity but it’s what happens afterwards that is the story:  they weigh the uneaten food from the dinner plates.  The goal is zero waste, just one part of their sustainability goal.

            Occasionally I stumble upon something so good I have to have the recipe as I did at Smokin’ Gold BBQ, a trophy encrusted hole-in- the-wall in Dahlonega, Georgia.  “Most everyone orders the award winning corn casserole,” the waitress told me.  So I did or course. Laurie Dieterle, the owner, was kind enough to share the recipe with me and tell me how it developed from a “failed” attempt to make cornbread that she quickly repurposed.  I premiered it at a pot luck shortly afterwards.  Now my friends want the recipe too.  

            On the other hand, I could do without another swig of kombucha or one of the highly touted Britt’s Donuts from Carolina Beach.  I know more than I ever wondered about peaches from Georgia, Muscadine wine and Vidalia onions.  The long winded descriptions and the photo-ready plates that the food writers are seeking are wasted on me.  What I hunger for are the stories behind the food.   

                                                      Corn Casserole from Smokin'Gold BBQ
2 cups corn 
2 cups creamed corn
2 sticks melted butter
2 cups sour cream
2 boxes Jiffy Corn bread mix
Mix all together and pour into buttered shallow casserole dish.  Bake at 375 degrees for 45 minutes.

                                                     Five-Moon Oysters
1 bushel of oysters
1 conch shell-cleaned and sanitized to use as a measuring cp
4 ounce bags of shredded Mexican mix cheese
4 bundles of scallions, chopped
10 jalapeno peppers, sliced
2 pounds of bacon, cooked and crumbled
1 box of saltine crackers
3 cups of favorite bourbon
Steam the oysters with water and bourbon, measured in the conch shell.  Shuck them and put them on the half shell in a cast iron skillet.  Cover each oyster with cheese, scallions, bacon and a jalapeno pepper slice.  Cover and cook until the cheese is melted.  Turn off the heat and keep covered for another 2-3 minutes.  Spoon each oyster onto a cracker to eat. 



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