Eating the South – Thoughts on food and drink from Chicago to New Orleans – Part I

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Turning 40 is a decent occasion to celebrate health and sobriety these days.

Knowing, as I do, many who’ve opted to run marathons, tough mudders and triathlons instead of imbibing on craft beer and bourbon and eating enough fried food to kill Elvis several times over.

But that is what I did.

I know there is good food in Indiana. I will not pretend otherwise, but we left Chicago at 4:30 p.m. with plans to be in Nashville by midnight, so we ate dried fruit and almonds and drank enough green tea to support the entire Zhejiang Province.

By the time we got to Kentucky, I gave in to a ridiculous notion – the thought that perhaps eating Kentucky Fried Chicken while in Kentucky was a thing.

It’s not. Not even close. My wife reminded me of this as she reiterated that I would not be able to eat salt again for four months if I gave in to that desire.

By 10:30 p.m., we had passed south of the KFC zone into the Waffle House zone, and I was no longer tempted by the foul temptress that makes my blood pressure equivalent to a highly gifted IQ score.

We arrived in Nashville about an hour later than we hoped, but I have a bad habit of always taking the wrong exit and spending a half hour driving around looking for food or gas.

An old friend from Alaska and fellow foodie met us at No. 308, a bar on the east side of town.

The bar is known for making its own mixers like ginger and tonic, and the cocktails come fresh and fairly strong, the way I’ve become used to them in Chicago.

Cheryl ordered a vodka tonic, and I ordered a bourbon and ginger.

I asked, perhaps a bit too nervously, if they still served food, and the waiter nodded happily, which told me that they take food service seriously, unlike some restaurants where the cooks would throw a steak in a microwave just to get you out the door.

I ordered sliders, and Cheryl ordered tacos.

The tacos were dry but tasty, and the beef sliders were delightfully fat and beefy with a thick slice of cheese draped largely over the hunk of meat with a light bun that mashed down perfectly to the size required for a clean bite.

Sliders, small renditions of burgers with fancy meats, cheeses or toppings, have never intrigued me much.

I prefer a big, juicy burger to three small, often dry meat sources with too much breading.

But these were among the best I’ve ever had. Perfectly cooked, tall and yet manageable, they had no pretense. Just perfect little burger bites without feeling like you just consumed half a cow.

Cheryl and I retired to a futon at Jason’s apartment after 2 a.m. and slept until nearly 9 a.m., when we all drove over to the west side of town to have breakfast at the Pancake Pantry.

Pancakes, like sliders, are often too bready for me. As a Slavic man, I prefer a little savory, as a man just a day shy of 40, I need a little protein to keep me going between meals.

But I compromised with myself and ordered bacon, two eggs sunny side up and three buttermilk pancakes.

I haven’t had pancakes in years. I’ve made a lot of them, more than I can count, but I don’t usually eat them. These three pancakes, light, fluffy and perfectly receptive to maple syrup yet with enough resilience to soak up a little egg yolk and bacon grease, went down like butter.

The rest of Tennessee thawed in the morning sun, the icicles dripping faster with each mile and degree gained.

The South didn’t fair well in the Polar Vortex of 2014, with friends in Nashville reporting temperatures well below zero. Just a week later, the cold was only now releasing its relentless grip.

It wasn’t until Alabama that the car’s thermometer registered 40 degrees, and we nearly made the Mississippi state line before the icicles disappeared from limestone ledges along the roadway.

We stopped in Tuscaloosa for lunch, and lacking any knowledge of Dreamland, we opted for fast food, gas and a car wash, as my salt-encrusted vehicle didn’t match up well to the well-heeled southerners in their black sedans and pickups polished to a fine sheen.

We made New Orleans around 7:30 p.m.hungry and tired.

The kindly owner of the Bergundy Bed & Breakfast in the Marigny advised us to dine at the Schiro’s Cafe and Bar, so we walked the three blocks or so after depositing our belongings and ordered a seafood platter and a cold bottle of Sauvignon Blanc.

The owner attempted to chill the bottle for us in an old champagne chiller, but we washed the fried oysters, shrimp and hushpuppies down so they could close up shop on time.

I believe it was at this point that my stomach and I parted ways for the duration of my stay in New Orleans. We usually agree on most things, but a weekend long fried-food party is bound to cause some disagreements, and I do believe it knew what was coming.

Not quite ready to return to the B & B and definitely not ready for Bourbon Street, we opted for an evening of live music at Mimi’s in the Marigny.

Frenchman Street was the recommendation, but we heard the soft chords of country music from the upstairs bar after we left Schiro’s and decided to check things out.

The downstairs bar was smoke filled, but we made our way upstairs to a crowded room with three guys playing guitar and singing “King of the Road” and ordering drinks faster than the bar tender could make them.

We opted for the house white, which was on the order of a Clos Floridene’s Graves Blanc, and we watched the people and drank in the wine and music to our hearts’ content before making our way back to the B & B to retire for the evening.

Breakfast was fruit and hard-boiled eggs, but we planned on hitting Cafe Du Monde for beignets and cafe’ au laits a little later, so we ate light.

Who wants to sit in a cafe in the dark when you can sit in the January sun and watch people cruising the Quarter?

We grabbed a bag of hot beignets and found a spot near Jackson Square where we could watch the quintessential American family stroll by with their college sweatshirts and jeans in sizes I did not know are available off the shelf.

But I’m not really one to talk.

The beignets were hot, which is the best way to eat them. I hate powdered sugar though. I hate it. Hate. I used the word hate to describe something sweet and powdery. I hate powdered sugar.

The cafe’ au lait made me jittery, even though I ordered a decaf. So I tossed it and we walked off to wander down toward the end of the Quarter.

We got out and about early, and after Cafe Du Monde, there wasn’t much to do but wander aimlessly for a while, which is really pleasurable.

We worked our way up to Bourbon street, where I could smell a hint of vomit in the air and perhaps a whiff of alcohol fumes.

It wasn’t appetizing. By the end of our walk, we hit another of Lafite’s taverns or bars, so we ordered a couple of Bloody Mary’s, because it was after noon already.

We sat in the courtyard and watched a gaggle of ladies order drinks and rearrange themselves for pictures.

I was asked to take the group picture, and I managed to tell the two younger ladies that they looked hot, which was simply a declaration of the sun on their faces and the resulting blowout on the camera screen.

We worked up an appetite fleeing Bourbon Street. We walked toward the river again, seeking something fresh and delicious. Oysters sounded perfect, and I had not, up until the point, had Gulf oysters. I very much wanted to try them.

We walked and I searched online with my phone. I found Drago’s, and we made a beeline toward the hotel district.

I’m not one of hotel dining, but I’ll go where the food is, and the recommendations came in hot and heavy over the oysters at Drago’s.

We sat in the bar and ordered a dozen gulf oysters. The waiter talked us into a half dozen raw and a half dozen char broiled, the restaurant special.

We ordered a bottle of California Sauvignon Blanc, because bottles of wine are ridiculously cheap in New Orleans.

Gulf oysters are not as briny or minerally as their East and West Coast cousins. Still, they were cold and firm and delightful with a little handmade cocktail sauce.

But the char-broiled oysters won my heart and my soul.

Briefly grilled and then saddled with parmesan cheese and herbs, the meaty gulf oysters were greasy and juicy and an absolute joy going down. The only better part was the crusty French bread to sop up the leftover cheese and oyster juice collecting on the serving plate.

Somehow sopping up the juice of oysters and parmesan cheese defined some of the New Orleans food scene for me. It was decadent and simple, a marriage of sea and land, and I couldn’t get the taste of those char-broiled oysters out of my head until we reached Kentucky. And even then, I think I dreamed of them once more.

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