Tag Archives: Easy Bistro and Bar

Victuals

 For Americans of my generation, the word “victuals,” pronounced ‘vi-dls and sometimes spelled “vittles,” conjures up images of Granny Clampett of “The Beverly Hillbillies” cooking up something for Jed and the family. My own Grandmother Harbison occasionally used the word to refer to the scrumptious real food she was always preparing.

The word comes to us, after some alterations through French and English, from the Late Latin victualia meaning provisions for human consumption. My grandmother’s use of it probably harks to her Anglo-Saxon roots filtered through Appalachia. Those Anglo-Saxon roots are also likely the reason she sometimes still used the word “poke” to refer to a sack or bag.

These memories were conjured by the book I just read. I enjoy cookbooks that read like a narrative and few cookbooks fulfill that purpose as beautifully as Ronni Lundy’s Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, with Recipes (New York: Clarkson Potter / Publishers, 2016) with photographs by Johnny Autry.

Victuals explores and extols the foodways of the Southern Appalachians. The book has agendas: sustainable farming and environmental concerns come through loud and clear. But ultimately it is a celebration and explanation of a part of the country and a way of living that is sometimes undervalued and marginalized.

It is ironic that the trendiest chefs and food styles are discovering a way of food and living that has never gone away in the southern tangents of the great eastern mountain range. John Stehling of Asheville’s Early Girl Eatery observes, about southern Appalachia, “This place and its food have never died off, and it inspires me.” Indeed, a 2011 study declared southern and central Appalachia “the most diverse foodshed in North America.”

Lundy is among the founding members of Southern Foodways Alliance and has written extensively on Southern food, culture, and roots music over the years. With Victuals she digs deep into Appalachian roots in eight distinct, beautifully written, and well-documented sections which present stories, recipes, and individuals as well as document the threats that menace the noble and well-established way of living in the region. The sociology of Victuals is as compelling as its culinary focus in sections with titles like “Roots and Seeds,” “Apple-achia,” “Preserving,’ and “Husbandry.”

Victuals introduces the reader to a variety of farmers and butchers, chefs and cooks, purveyors, environmentalists, and food experts throughout the region. Many faces are new and others are familiar names like Chefs Sean Brock and John Fleer, and Chef Erik Neil of Chattanooga’s Easy Bistro and Main Street Meats. I was pleased to see a mention of Big Horse Creek Farm in Lansing, North Carolina, where a few years ago Suzanne and Ron Joyner were able to hook me up with some of the Hackworth apples that my mother remembered from her youth in Cullman County, Alabama.

Johnny Autry’s enticing photographs set one’s mouth to watering even before the text can be read. Soon after I received the book I casually opened it to a photo of English Pea Salad with Cream Dressing; it made me long for a taste and brought up memories of a long-forgotten dish. The recipe for Spiced Pickled Peaches makes my longing for the start of the spring Chilton County peach crop in a couple of months even stronger. There is even a mouth-watering section about chili buns and slaw dogs.

Other recipes inspire new ideas, such as “Buttermilk Cabbage Soup with Black Walnut ‘Pesto’” or “Ginger Bean Chowchow.” There is a piece on greens that is as informative as anything I’ve ever read about those Southern standards.

Lundy’s exploration of Appalachia extends from southern Ohio and West Virginia to northern Georgia. She does not include the southernmost Appalachian regions of northwest and north central Alabama but much of her reportage rings familiar to what I know and other segments, going deeper into the heart of the region, hold surprises.

Lundy is confronted with and explores the idea of “aspirational eating” – a foodways theory that suggests that the move from home-grown foods to convenience foods and commercial products was fueled not by convenience, availability, and taste but by the “aspiration” of the region to be more like the mainstream families seen in print ads and on television. This is apparently a new concept to Lundy (as it was to me) when she is first asked about it by an oral historian, but as she encounters the idea more she feels compelled to consider and address it.

Her best response comes from one of her book’s subjects, Walter Harrill, who owns Imladris Farm, near Asheville, with his wife, Wendy. Lundy says the Harrills have become the Asheville area’s premium suppliers of locally crafted jams and preserves. When asked about “aspirational eating,” Harrill muses:

“See, I think assuming ‘aspirational’ for a motivation assumes that those of us living here, in the mountains, are trying to be a part of the world ‘out there’. But the truth of it is, we look ‘out there,’ at the rest of the world, and then we kind of shake our heads and say, ‘Well, I just hate it for them’.”

Victuals is full of that kind of true and direct mountain wisdom.

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Eating around Chattanooga

IMG_1202    Chattanooga, TN. My parents honeymooned in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in the early 1950s. Knowing that from an early age has given me a sense of familiarity with Chattanooga that probably exceeds my actual knowledge and experience of the place.

When I was a very young elementary school student, I traveled with my parents from Birmingham to Chattanooga for a weekend getaway in the early ‘60s. We hit the highlights of the time which included Rock City, Ruby Falls, the Incline railway, and the Confederama.

The Confederama, unfortunately, fell victim to political correctness and now exists farther up Lookout Mountain, I hear, in an altered and watered-down form as “The Battles for Chattanooga Museum” in Point Park somewhere near Rock City. As I recall the Confederama from 50+ years ago, it was a relief diorama of the area around Chattanooga with lights and teeny soldier replicas illustrating the Civil War battles; as I recall, there was a distinct Confederate bias. I remember thrilling to the tiny red flashes of guns being fired as a somber recording gave the history lesson.

We are entering the last month of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, an anniversary that began in 2011. When I was an elementary school student in the early 1960s, the Civil War Centennial was ubiquitous. I have been saddened – but not surprised – that the nation has seemed hesitant to discuss that defining moment of our national history for the sesquicentennial. Perhaps right now it’s just too complicated to evaluate.

The annual Spring convention of Southeastern Theatre Conference (SETC) is the largest theatre convention in the United States. I have been attending it most years since 1983 with a few gaps here and there. Because of the logistical demands of the event, a few southeastern cities seem to be on the convention’s regular rotation and Chattanooga has been the most frequent host city of the event over the past decade.

I spent hours each day at the convention; this year my main obligations were presenting a paper and attending editorial board meetings for Southern Theatre magazine. I decided that in my rare off-time I wanted to check out the current new culinary offerings of Chattanooga, a town in perpetual transition.

Even though it was my plan to adventure into some new eateries, as it turned out I only dined at Chattanooga restaurants I had enjoyed on previous visits. My desire to return speaks well for the restaurants and the fact that each managed to surprise and delight me anew speaks volumes.

IMG_1217When I arrived in Chattanooga on Wednesday evening, I realized that I hadn’t eaten all day and wandered down Broad Street toward the aquarium and the river to check out the options. Among all of the options I remembered a good SETC meal several years back at Easy Bistro and Bar (www.easybistro.com) in a space that used to house “the world’s first Coca-Cola bottling plant.” It’s a lovely space and a good respite from the abundant tourists on the street in that tourist-driven part of town. The chef is New Orleans native Erik Niel and the menu is adventurous and ever-changing and reflects the influences of New Orleans adapted for the hills, rivers, lakes, and tastes of eastern Tennessee. I decided to try a couple of small plates and had Crispy Chicken Skins 3-Ways and a lovely and filling beet salad with feta and onions. Both dishes were creative, beautifully plated, and delicious.

Thursday was a busy day full of meetings – bitterly cold and windy with sleet and rain all day – and my dining plans were limited to grabbing quick snacks at the convention and hotel.

I presented my convention paper on Friday morning and had already planned to treat myself to lunch at Public House (www.publichousechattanooga.com), a Chattanooga eatery I discovered and loved in 2012. I ordered a couple of small plates at Public House three years ago and have such fond memories of a plate of fried chicken livers with grits and a plate of pimento cheese with fried pickles that I debated eating the same things all over again. But in the interest of expanding my knowledge of the Public House menu I opted for a vegetable plate so I could sample an assortment of dishes. I ordered perfectly prepared collard greens, cheesy mashed potatoes, and a rich mac and cheese combo.

IMG_1209Public House is located in a downtown development called Warehouse Row and is one of those places that emphasizes environmental consciousness and lists many of its local and specialty purveyors on the menu. The space is full of windows and the design is simple, warm, and inviting. Many items on the menu are traditional Southern favorites as mentioned earlier but the preparation and presentation is skilled and a meal there feels uptown and special. The pimento cheese is exceptional – a member of the wait staff told me they use the same recipe that I use (Miss Verba’s from Frank Stitt’s Southern Table cookbook) – and even though I didn’t order it this visit, I found it delightfully stuffed in an olive.

My server at Easy had strongly recommended the restaurant’s weekend brunch so I made a second trip to Easy and managed to get there in time for Saturday’s brunch after my last session at the convention. For brunch I had Easy’s version of Eggs Jonathan which was Eggs Benedict with fried oysters added. Once again, it was delicious.

Before heading back to the hotel, I wandered down to the riverfront close to the aquarium and up a hill past the Hunter Museum to the Bluff View Art District (www.bluffviewartdistrict.com) with its River Gallery Sculpture Garden overlooking the Tennessee River. IMG_1206  After a rigorous convention and the ice and snow of this past February, it seemed like a good portent of Spring approaching and was a relaxing brief escape. Chattanooga’s City Center is compact and very walkable but there is also a good free shuttle that travels between the aquarium and the Choo-Choo, the town’s old train station that is now a hotel.

Over the years, it has become traditional for me to meet with a group of friends for a stress-free meal on Saturday night of the SETC convention. This is after the papers have been presented, the workshops presented and attended, the auditions are ended, and the booths are struck. Six of us decided to congregate at Porter’s Steakhouse (www.porterssteakhouse.com) on the street level of The Read House, the historic downtown hotel where I was staying. Sometimes a traditional steakhouse with good company is the perfect way to relax and this Porter’s fit the bill entirely. We enjoyed an exuberant meal, excellent and very patient service, and an evening full of anecdotes and laughter. I go back three decades with some of the people in my dining party and there is always plenty to talk about and to catch up and reminisce about. And there are always plenty of things to laugh about. IMG_1214

A perusal of websites shows a wide range of opinions about Porter’s at The Read House but this is my second time to end a Chattanooga SETC there and I was totally pleased. My steak was cooked perfectly and everybody in my group had good comments about their meals. When we were all full, a dessert cart was rolled up and we decided to order one of everything and share. The perfect way to cap the evening was when Russell, a member of our group, revealed that he had ordered a Brandy Alexander for everybody at the table. This is the sort of classic establishment where you know that a Brandy Alexander will be done correctly and ours were.

Whenever I leave an SETC convention, I am utterly exhausted and feel a need to sleep for a few days. It’s a nice thought but work always starts again bright and early on Monday morning. IMG_1199

Note on artworks pictured: The sculpture overlooking the river is “Icarus” by Russell Whiting in the River Gallery Sculpture Garden. The end photo is “Roll Wave” by Christopher Fennell, on the riverfront near the aquarium. The lead photograph is the Hunter Museum of American Art.