Dispatches from Atlanta

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Perhaps there is something to the mystique of Southern food. And perhaps there is not.

Typical of ethnic and regional cuisines, it has a rich and varied history, but has been since simplified for mass consumption. Southern food was heavily influenced by their hot climate.
Animals did not need to store as much fat as those in the colder north, thus it is more liberally added in the cooking process (i.e., by frying, or by the addition of gravies) to give it flavor and mouthfeel. Frying was also utilized as a preservation process for the meat underneath. Similarly, vegetables were preserved with strips of meat or lard, and the tradition continued for the purpose of flavoring greens. 

Slaves also helped shape what Southerners eat today. African foods like peanuts and okra worked their way into the diet. Native American staples like corn and pork were abundant and found their way into everyday cooking. One-pot meals and stews were much easier to prepare in the fields where the slaves worked. Every part of an animal, and every piece of a crop, was used for the sake of economy. From this history came what we now call traditional Southern cooking.

Fast-forward to Atlanta, 2015. Restaurants entice diners and tourists with “meat and three.” The food is rich and portions are massive. We may salivate at the thought of heaping plates of fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, cornbread, greens and peach cobbler. It hits all the right notes for immediate pleasure, and no one goes away hungry. But it is not always creative or inspired.

I contrast three meals I had in Atlanta. One was at Holeman & Finch’s Public House, which has made Food and Wine Magazine’s top national lists for both Southern food and bar food. One section of the menu is simply labeled “parts,” as in, “Pa shot a critter.” Yet Chef Linton Hopkins is no simpleton, recognized also for his creative presentation of vegetables.

Or so I hear, as I barely made it through pimento cheese, deviled eggs three ways, and the finest hamburger I have ever had. I repeat: the finest. Like most of you I have had probably hundreds if not thousands of burgers, from backyard grills to burger specialty restaurants. These are all laughable pretenders compared to Holeman & Finch’s impeccable beauty: two patties of grass-fed beef mixed with brisket, between bread and butter pickles and a sliver of pickled onion, topped with gooey melted American cheese and served on a glossy bun that could stand up to it. The taste blew every other burger I’ve ever had into the culinary ether. (They used to cook only 24 of these a night and when they were gone, they were gone. They succumbed to the clamor and it is now a menu mainstay.)

Then there’s the simpler side of Southern cooking: brown food. Mary Mac’s is a charming and family friendly restaurant with a rich history. Many famous people have supped here, from Justin Bieber to the Dalai Lama. To be sure, this was a fine place, with huge portions, friendly service, and perfectly good food at reasonable prices. But the chef would have been lost without a deep fryer, and it didn’t have the sublime touch that I found either at Holeman & Finch, or a third destination — Poor Calvin’s — where the Vietnamese chef has cunningly fused Southeast Asian and Southern cuisine, featuring entrees like fish and grits with Thai green curry.

Southerners may quibble with my opinions. After all, I am but a carpetbagger, passing judgment on a tradition in which I have not been immersed. But I do eat, and I know what I like. And I leave you with this koan: there is Southern food, and then there is Southern food. 

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Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht, Roumel, Salvatore, Blanchard, and Walker PC, a litigation firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment litigation. He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for “Current” magazine in Ann Arbor. He can be reached at nroumel@yahoo.com.  His blog is http://mayitpleasethepalate.blogspot.com/.

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