The best thing about Southern food, besides of course how delicious it is, is that it’s so richly textured with stories. If you’ve been by the restaurant the last few weeks, you’ve seen our revamped menus and hopefully offered your feedback on them. The change had a lot to do with our desire to tell more stories than our old, straight-line format would allow. The new, tabloid-sized layout is definitely a more dramatic presentation and allows for more design work, but most importantly it allowed us to do some things we’ve wanted to do for a long time: put the stories behind our dishes right there on the menu.
We’ve also incorporated a family-style meal into both the lunch and dinner menus, and may yet do so with brunch. This is very important to me personally because it not only allows you the opportunity to eat some special food we create just for those family-style menus, but to experience a different aesthetic than is common in restaurants nowadays – the idea of breaking bread together, sharing, eating together as a family. Especially as the definition of “family” in America seems so different today than it has in the past, with fewer and fewer people living in “traditional” nuclear families, I wanted friends, neighbors, and all manner of dining companions to have the opportunity to choose to eat like my family did growing up – by passing food we all shared. More on these in a bit.
As far as the stories go, many have commented on the new tag line “Heirloom Southern Receipts.” It’s obvious to most what Southern means and most have a definition in mind for heirloom, but there’s often a question mark over the word “receipts.” Being in the hospitality business, I recognize the importance of having the 15-second answer to even the most complicated questions, so we’ve agonized over how to compress this little story but settled on the principal of what it is. If you want the short, elevator-speech definition, come in and ask a server. Since you’re reading this blog, I’ll go a little deeper.
The concept a recipe as we know it today didn’t exist until the late 19th century. In fact, through most of American history colonial to the 20th century, what we had were called receipts and they didn’t have specific measurements and standardized units of measure. They were more like narratives, or general instructions, for how to execute a household task – whether it was baking bread or making paint. These “receipts” were records kept by households so they knew how to repeat a success each time they tried. Many folks published books of these receipts over the years. The most recent book I can think of that uses the word receipts rather than recipes is Charleston Receipts, from 1950. It probably used that word in a nod to the heritage of the Southern kitchen because the book contains what we would definitely call recipes today.
The concept of the modern recipe is often attributed to Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking School Cookbook (1896,) which is often cited as the book that standardized units of measure for the kitchen. This may be true in the academic sense, but African American Abby Fisher in her 1871 book What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking (love how they called Southern cooking “old” even then) was using specific measurements 25 years earlier. I’m not sure if this was the first American book to do so, but it’s the earliest I’ve seen. Fanny Farmer took it a little further in standardizing what “tablespoon” and “teaspoon” meant, for instance.
Anyhoo, as an example for how a receipt would read, let’s look at one from The Virginia Housewife (1836):
“To Make Polenta”
“Put a large spoonful of butter in a quart of water, wet your cornmeal with water in a bowl, add some salt, and make it quite smooth, then put it in the buttered water while it is hot, let it boil, stirring it continually until it is done; as soon as you can handle it, make it into a ball, and let it stand till quite cold – then cut it in thin slices, lay them in the bottom of a deep dish so as to cover it, put on it slices of cheese, and on that a few bits of butter; then mush, cheese, and butter, until the dish is full; put on the top thin slices of cheese and butter, put the dish in a quick oven; twenty or thirty minutes will bake it.”
This is how cooks read instructions until very late in the 19th century. Since Southern cooking goes back to the late 17th century, it represents over two centuries of culinary documentation in the South. With our increasing focus on historic Southern dishes and foodways, “receipts” seemed like the best word to describe what we’re doing. The short explanation of a receipt is a loose narrative on how to prepare a dish, leaving much of the execution up to interpretation, feeling, and instinct on part of the cook. To cook from a receipt requires sensitivity, feeling, soul.
For a few examples of the historic reference on our new menus, I’ll use a couple of brunch dishes, Eugene’s Breakfast in Mobile, ca. 1930, and Chicken Fried Sweetbreads, ca. 1870. One uses a text for reference, the other a receipt from an actual book.
Eugene’s Breakfast in Mobile, ca. 1930 – I had the idea for this very simple yet elegant dish while reading the oral memoirs of Eugene Walter, “Milking the Moon,” and finding myself enthralled with the foodways he experienced growing up in Mobile, Alabama between the wars. I tried to be as authentic my the treatment as I could, and believe we have something like would have been served on the Walter family table at the time – fried trout with plantains, black beans, aromatic rice, and green tomato chutney. There’s no actual recipe or receipt I can cite, just the stories he told and meals he described. All the while, his memoirs are truly wonderful as are everything he put pen to, so look him up if you’re looking to learn about what it means to be Southern.
Chicken Fried Sweetbreads, ca. 1867 – I first had the idea to combine oysters and sweetbreads when I read Mrs. Hill’s New Cook Book, an 1867 treatise on managing the domestic affairs of a plantation written to address the state of crisis Southern kitchens were in after the Civil War. In the book, she describes a spot-on method for cooking sweetbreads just like you’d learn in a high-end kitchen today. At the end of the receipt, she suggests oyster sauce, which sounded great to me. We’ve done a few variations of that combination but this is my favorite – biscuits and gravy. Biscuits made with house-rendered leaf lard, spicy voodoo greens, an oyster gravy similar to Mrs. Hill’s, and chicken-fried sweetbreads.
The most exciting parts of the new menus are, to me at least – the offer of family-style dining based upon historic Southern foodways.
For lunch, I tapped the grand tradition of boarding house hospitality and wedded it with our acclaimed fried chicken. The rest of our lunch menu has been streamlined for quick, efficient service, but I wanted one stand aside element for those who wanted a hearty, leisurely lunch. Fried chicken, biscuits, cornbread, hoppin’ john, mashed potatoes, greens, pie, and ice cream. Traditionally, boarding house food was homey and comforting, as tenants were traveling or between homes, and it was invariably served family-style, or often just food left out in the dining room people could munch on as time permitted. I wanted a meal that would invoke this kind of simple hospitality and I wanted it to be affordable. It’s your for sixteen dollars a person, and while you can take as much time as you like, it’s been set up so you can be in and out within an hour, probably with enough food for dinner!
The boarding house lunch will be fairly stable year-round, with the sides and dessert changing seasonally, however our Family Meal at dinner will change regularly, weekly, monthly, depending on whim and the time of year. Looking to express the unique joys of autumn, I opted to do a Carolina Hunting Season Dinner, ca. 1870. The date refers to an approximation of the dates to which I can reference the various dishes in texts and cookbooks, the centerpiece being a rabbit bog (somewhere between a risotto and a classic pilau) with other items including fried oysters and shrimp, wild huckleberry jelly roll, baked sweet potatoes, and cracklin’ spoonbread. The hardest story to keep telling over and over is how we do all of this in our kitchen – we make it all. Before we can make jelly roll, we have to get wild foraged huckleberries to make the jelly. We start the rabbit bog when you order it. There’s no reheating. Restaurants love talking about *fresh* food and with 27 years in the business, I can tell you it’s usually BS. We mean it, and that’s one of the things that makes us different.
More on all of this to come soon, and more really cool changes on the way!