Wednesday, July 30, 2008

North vs South Weddings

While reading the July 27th edition of the New York Times I came across this wedding announcement:

"Coleen Mary Jennings and Bethany Ann Mills affirmed their partnership on Wednesday night at Full Moon, a resort in Big Indian, N.Y. Tim Hughes, a friend from San Francisco, and Randy Schwartz, a friend from Manhattan, led the commitment ceremony, which included a neo-pagan ritual called handfasting, where the couple's hands were bound together with ribbons."
Today's column is not about Coleen and Bethany. I wish them all of the best things in life. It's also not about a commitment ceremony presided over by Randy from Manhattan. It's not even about a neo-pagan ritual.

This column is about the difference between the North and the South. I keep hearing reports of the homogenization of our country and how "alike" we are all becoming. "There's not a dime's bit of difference between the North and the South," they'll say.

Let's contrast the Northern commitment ceremony with a recent Georgia wedding as reported in the Gwinnett Daily Post on July, 5th. The headline read: "Couple Marries at Waffle House."

The Post stated, "The lucky couple, George "Bubba" Mathis and Pamela Christian - both 23 and employees at the Dacula diner (Waffle House) located at the Ga. Highway 316/U.S. Highway 29 interchange... For years, the couple tried to marry on their Independence Day anniversary. But the bride was always scheduled to work. Instead of waiting any longer - she got the day off at the last minute; Mathis had to report for the morning shift - the couple of nine years decided to seal the deal at work."

The Post continued, "The result was what a NASCAR tailgate might be like if Hank Jr. himself stopped by with all his rowdy friends: Loud and proud - country music, storytelling and plenty of Dale Earnhardt paraphernalia"

A Waffle House wedding makes one long for a neo-pagan ritual of handfasting.
I happened upon the Waffle House news story on the Internet the same morning I was reading the New York Times. There was no formal announcement in the Georgia newspaper, but had there been one, I imagine it would have read something like this:

George "Bubba" Mathis and Pamela Christian were married at the Waffle House on Highway 29 in Dacula, Georgia between the breakfast and lunch shifts last Saturday. The couple exchanged their vows on the asphalt just beside the handicapped parking spot near the new entrance. The bride wore a flowing white gown which she had just changed into in the ladies room after working the graveyard shift. The groom wore his standard-issue Waffle House uniform, resplendent with black apron, non-slip shoes, and paper cap, as he was scheduled to man the flat-top griddle during the reception.

Guests were entertained by the Waffle House jukebox while waiting for the bride to walk down the aisle (sidewalk). The processional, Honky Tonk Badonkadonk, by Trace Adkins, played loudly over cries of, "Patty melt plate on two, scattered, covered, and diced," and "Someone needs to clean the coffee spoons," coming from inside the diner.

The bridesmaids were all sisters of the bride who also served waffles and patty sausages at the reception. The groomsmen were fellow employees who were busy covering the groom's shift inside the diner while the couple exchanged vows.

A quick reception was held at booths six, seven, and three as Bubba finished his scheduled shift. The couple then drove to Gatlinburg with their three children for the honeymoon.

In the end, I guess it's all about love. Whether one is having their hands wrapped in ribbon, or saying "I do" while eating a scrambled egg sandwich. Just don't ever let anyone tell you that there's no difference between the North and South.

Of course, this is all coming from a guy who was re-married by an Elvis impersonator at the Graceland Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas the day after his church wedding. Love knows no bounds (of taste, that is).

Breakfast Casserole Number 1

1 lb Spicy breakfast sausage
3 /4 cup Onion, diced
1 /4 cup Green bell pepper, sliced
1 /4 cup Red bell pepper, sliced
1 tsp Garlic
1 tsp Creole Seasoning (recipe page xxx)
1 tsp Cayenne pepper
10 Eggs, beaten
1 cup Half and Half
1 tsp Dry mustard
6 pieces White bread, crusts removed
6 pieces Wheat bread, crusts removed
1 /4 cup Soft butter
1 cup Sharp cheddar, shredded
1 cup Monterey jack cheese, shredded
1 tsp. Hot Sauce

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Brown sausage in a large skillet and drain most of the fat. Add vegetables, garlic and seasoning and cook five minutes. Set aside.

Mix together eggs, half and half, and dry mustard in a mixing bowl. Using the softened butter, butter both sides of each slice of bread. Cut the bread into small cubes. Fold the bread, cheeses and sausage mixture into the eggs. Mix well and place in a buttered two-quart baking dish.

Bake for 40-50 minutes. Allow to rest for 15 minutes before serving. Yield: eight servings

Monday, July 21, 2008

We’re Number One! (Again)

In junior high school pep rallies were mandatory. I never minded them because they were a legitimate excuse to get out of class and hang out in the gymnasium. I never became too lathered up during these proceedings; call it lack of school spirit, absence of general enthusiasm about which grade could yell louder than the other, or uncooperative spirit fingers.

Various cheers came and went during my school years. Some were funny, “U-G-L-Y, you ain’t got no alibi, you’re ugly.” Others were dull such as “push ‘em back,” some were obvious, “defense,” still others made no sense, “Two bits, four bits…” you know the drill.

The only cheer that is universal to every school, cheerleading squad, and professional sports team is the ubiquitous, “We’re number one!”

Everyone does the “We’re number one,” cheer, no matter where they are ranked or listed among the competition. A team can be in the cellar, forever dwelling in last place in their division or conference, but eek out one win against a better opponent, and suddenly all of the fans and players are screaming, “We’re number one.” It’s the American way.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has once again released their annual national obesity statistics, and my home state, Mississippi, is number one, again. We’ve been number one since 2004. In the sports world that’s two more than a threepeat. We’re a dynasty!

Mississippi was followed closely by Alabama, Tennessee, and Louisiana. Could it be that our food is better? It’s no coincidence that the survey was released around the same time that Chilton County, Ala. peaches were coming in. Tennessee has great barbeque, Louisiana is the most culinarily diverse state in the nation, and Mississippi is the world capital of fried catfish.

Instead of a telephone-interview poll to decide which state is fatter, the CDC needs to rent the Georgia Dome and host an Olympic-style competition of all 50 states. We might not win the 400-meter relay every time, but we could kick butt in the shot put, dead lift, and pie-eating contest.

We’ll dust off all of the old high school cheers. When competing with Colorado— the nation’s skinniest state— we can chant from the sidelines, “Two bits, four bits, gumbo roux, you better look out or we’ll sit on you!”

We probably wouldn’t have much of a chance in the pole vault, but when it comes to skeet shooting and archery, we’ll place a few South Mississippi deer hunters on the roster and annihilate the competition.

While researching this column I came across a piece written by Los Angeles Times Health editor, Tami Dennis, with the headline: “Yeah we’re fat. But not as fat as Southerners.” In a post on her newspaper’s Health blog, Dennis states, “Poor Mississippi. I’m sure it tries. Really, I’m sure it does. But have you had Southern food?”

Yes, Tami, we have “had” Southern food. It tastes great. That’s why we’re so fat.

Various readers commented on the newspaper’s blog ( One reader stated: “I don’t buy the excuse about diet or weather… My family spends every summer in Italy or France eating like crazy and not working out all that much— we always come back slimmer and trimmer.” Yes, but they don’t serve jambalaya or etouffee in France or Italy, do they?

A man named Rick posted, “I now live in Ohio, but grew up in Mississippi and still go back 4-5 times every year. These ‘fat’ surveys always surprise me because I see many more grossly obese people in Ohio than in Mississippi. Many.”

Note to self: Slip a mickey to the Ohio competitors at the CDC Olympics the evening before the pie-eating contest.

The California bloggers continued to pile on in post after post. A poster named Mike stated, “Along with poor performing schools and lackluster economies Southerners are a fat bunch to boot.”

To Mike I say: U-G-L-Y, you ain’t got not alibi. We may be fat, but weight can be lost. Ugly (manners, that is) last a lifetime. And, by the way, we’re still number one!

Pesto Pasta with Roasted Portobello Mushroom Strips and Asparagus

For the Mushrooms:

1 cup creamy balsamic dressing
2 tsp minced garlic
1/2 cup vegetable broth
2 tsp creole mustard
1 tsp hot sauce
2 tsp creole seasoning
1 tsp fresh ground black pepper
2 tsp Worcestershire sauce

5-6 fresh portobello mushrooms, stems and gills removed*

Combine the first 8 ingredients in a mixing bowl. Dip each portobello mushroom in the mixture to coat them completely. Refrigerate for 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

After the mushroom have marinated, place them on a baking sheet with the top side down. Cover the baking sheet completely with aluminum foil and bake for 7 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for 5 more minutes. Allow the mushrooms to cool, then cut them into 3/4 inch wide strips.

* the gills are on the under side of the mushroom and become tough and bitter when cooked. They are easily removed by gently scraping the underside of the mushroom with a teaspoon.

For the asparagus:

1 lbs Asparagus, fresh
2 Tbl Olive oil
1 tsp Salt
1/2 tsp Pepper
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Toss the asparagus with olive oil, salt and pepper. Place on baking sheet lined with wax paper. Bake 12 minutes. Remove from oven and sprinkle the almonds over the asparagus.


3 cups loosely packed basil leaves, washed and dried very well
1/3 cup pinenuts
1/4 cup parmesan cheese, freshly grated
1 Tbl garlic, minced
1 tsp kosher salt1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

In a food processor, combine the basil, pine nuts, cheese, garlic and salt and puree. With the processor still running, slowly drizzle in the olive oil. Remove the lid and scrape down the sides of the processor to make sure there are no large pieces of basil, puree for another 30-40 seconds. Use immediately or refrigerate covered with plastic for up to 4 days. The plastic wrap should be placed directly on the surface of the pesto to prevent discoloration. Pesto make also be frozen in an airtight container and held for one month.

For the pasta:

1 pound Bowtie pasta

2 Tbl olive oil
1/4 cup chicken or vegetable broth
3/4 cup fresh pesto
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tspfresh ground pepper
3/4 cup Romano cheese, coarsely grated

Cook the pasta according to the directions on the package, drain and rinse with hot water.
In a large sauté pan, melt the olive oil over medium heat. Place the cooked mushrooms in the pan and heat for 3-4 minutes. Add in the broth, pesto, salt and pepper. Add the cooked pasta to the pan and mix well so that the pasta is evenly coated with the pesto.

Divide the pasta onto serving dishes, and sprinkle the pasta with the shredded Romano cheese. Divide the asparagus among the serving dishes and serve immediately.

Monday, July 14, 2008

A Tale of Two Heavens

Blackberry Farm is the most civilized 4,200 acres on the planet.

I spent my 10th anniversary at Blackberry Farm a few years ago. I wrote about the visit at length, and continue to talk about it, today. Earlier this month, my wife and I dropped our kids off at summer camp in Arkansas and headed east to Blackberry Farm— summer camp for adults.

Located in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, just outside of Maryville, TN, Blackberry Farm is truly a slice of heaven on earth. This is how I described the property on my original visit:

“The owners of Blackberry Farm, Kreis and Sandy Beall have fostered a corporate environment in which the organization’s sole purpose is to cater to guest’s every whim. Nothing goes unnoticed at Blackberry Farm.”

“Blackberry Farm has the refined and civilized quaintness of the Little Nell, the personal-service standards of Windsor Court, foodservice to rival The Mansion on Turtle Creek or any Ritz Carlton, the majesty of the Plaza and a uniqueness all its own. Throw in the Smoky Mountains and tastefully decorated cottages nestled among Tennessee hardwoods and you have one of the premiere resort experiences in America.”

Much has changed since my original visit. Today, Blackberry Farm has morphed into two resorts, each a reflection of its leader.

Kreis Beall, the resort's founder, created a lush, highly decorated environment with a tasteful English-country feeling. Sam, the son who took over the reins several years ago, has only improved on the theme. His focus has been on the food and wine experience and sustainable agriculture.

The difference can be seen in the dining rooms each created. The main house is Old-South formal, the new dining room— housed in a building designed to look like a barn— is state of the art, with a massive 8,000-square foot, 160,000-bottle wine cellar, an open kitchen, and a demonstration classroom. Both are tasteful, both are unique, and both serve world-class cuisine.

The highlight of our stay was a lengthy visit with Blackberry Farm’s master gardeners John Coykendall and Jeff Ross. The two men oversee a two-acre organic garden filled with heirloom vegetables, and a collection of over 500 heirloom seeds which they can trace to the original family who grew the vegetables, most of which date back to the mid-19th Century. They spent several informative hours with us, taking time to give us guided tours of the gardens and grounds.

Today Blackberry Farm grows its own vegetables, raises sheep, and operates a full-scale dairy and creamery. They also have a larder building for canning and drying fruit, beehives, fruit trees, and a charcuterie operation where an enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and talented chef/butcher named Michael Sullivan is working miracles with meats. Blackberry Farm is a foodie paradise.

There is a scene in the Chevy Chase film “Funny Farm” where members of the town of Redbud band together to create a Norman Rockwell-type atmosphere for the benefit of a visiting couple looking to move to the town. At one point someone hidden from sight, holding a deer in a cage, is cued to surreptitiously release the animal in view of the visiting couple. The deer goes bounding by a serene, wood-lined pond completing the feeling of “the perfect place.”

Cue the deer

As I was eating lunch on the veranda of the main house on my third day, a fawn came bounding across the back lawn, not 10 feet from my table. It was as if a Blackberry Farm employee was off camera, waiting for the precise moment to release the deer. Every visit to Blackberry Farm is filled with such events. They are not contrived. It’s just the way things happen when one is visiting the closest thing to heaven on earth.

Today, Blackberry Farm is a tale of two heavens, each unique, each refined, and each world-class. In the end, the vacation cost as much as my first car. But the memories created will last much longer than my 1978 Pontiac Sunbird.

Savory Asparagus Bread Pudding

1 cup asparagus, cut into one-inch long pieces

1 Tbl Olive Oil
1/2 cup White Onion, diced
1/2 cup Red Pepper, diced
1 tsp Salt
1 tsp Black Pepper, freshly ground
1 /2 cup Riesling Wine

12 Tbl Fresh Basil, chopped
1 tsp Dry Mustard
1 cup Sour Cream
1 cup Half and Half
1 /2 cup Whole Milk
4 Egg Yolks
2 Eggs
6 cups French bread, crust removed and small diced

Preheat oven to 325.

Place three cups of water into a small saucepot and bring to a boil. Place the asparagus pieces in the boiling water and cook for 45 seconds Strain the asparagus and run it under cold water until cooled completely. Drain and dry the asparagus pieces and set aside.

In a medium-sized sauté pan, heat the oil over medium heat. Sauté the onions and peppers for two-three minutes. Add the cooked asparagus, salt and pepper and cook for one more minute. Add the wine and allow it to reduce by half. Remove this mixture from the heat and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the basil, dry mustard, sour cream, half and half, milk and eggs. Blend them together and fold in the cooked vegetables and French bread. Cover and allow the mixture to set for one hour before baking.

Place the pudding mixture into a lightly buttered 2 quart Pyrex baking dish. Cover the pudding with a piece of parchment paper, and cover the parchment paper with a piece of aluminum foil. Bake for 35 minutes covered. Remove the foil and paper and cook for an additional 10 minutes.
Allow pudding to rest for 10 minutes before serving.
Yields: 8-10 servings

Monday, July 07, 2008

Pilgrimage Part II

In a non-descript building, on U.S. 411 outside of Madisonville Tennessee, in the foothills of the Smokey Mountains, sits a little smokehouse. Over the past few years it has become the porcine capital of the known universe. It is a place I have wanted to visit for a long time. Last week I made my pilgrimage.

Do you know the feeling of “let down” when you’ve anticipated something all of your life, or looked forward to visiting a person or place and once you finally got there, or met the person, it— or they— didn’t quite live up to your long-time romanticized expectations? A young boy worships a pro athlete during his youth and meets him later in life to find him rude and obnoxious. The idolized rock musician is nothing more than a hack in person. Dorothy and the Scarecrow met the Wizard and he’s a charlatan behind a curtain. Well, that didn’t happen, far from it.

Allan Benton and his smokehouse operation were everything I expected and more. The man-behind-the-curtain was the real deal. The visit was a culinary field trip of the first order.

Benton grew up poor. So poor he didn’t even know what “poor” was. His family lived in the mountains of rural Virginia without running water, electricity, or indoor plumbing. Smoking and curing meats was a way of survival. Necessity is the mother of perfection. Benton now produces the country’s best bacon, the Holy Grail of pork.

With a Mater’s Degree in psychology, Benton taught high school before becoming a master of cured meats. During our visit, he was humble and knowledgeable. I don’t know if I have ever met anyone in the food industry who is as passionate about his work as is Benton.

Benton gave my wife and I a guided tour of his operation. He cures and smokes bacon, hams, and prosciutto which he ships to fine restaurants and food lovers from New York to Napa.

Benton also makes sausage. But he can’t ship the sausage. I have wanted to try his smoked sausage and hot sausage for the last two years. While I was there, I loaded up on sausage and kept it iced down for the next six days while on the road. It currently sits in my freezer in a place of reverence waiting for the next special occasion breakfast.

Bacon and ham are what put Benton on the foodie map. He smokes and cures bacon as our ancestors did 200 years ago. The end result tastes the way bacon is supposed to taste.

Mass produced commercial bacon is injected with a chemical brine in a packing house, quick-smoked in a smoke room, and— 24 hours later— packaged and shipped. It’s quick, it’s easy, it’s profitable, and the result tastes nothing like bacon did years ago.

The Allan Benton process for curing and smoking bacon takes time— at least five weeks. Benton explained the bacon curing process as he walked us through the operation. First he mixes together a blend of salt, pepper, and brown sugar, rubs the pork bellies and stacks them in a 38-degree cooler for two weeks. The dry rub recipe is one passed down from his grandfather. Next he transfers the bellies to another cooler where they hang in a 45-degree environment for a week and a half, then to an aging room for another two weeks.

Once the bacon leaves the aging room, it is transferred to a smokehouse. The smokehouse is a simple 10-foot by 15-foot structure located behind the main building. As Benton opened the door, a thick cloud of hickory and apple-wood smoke billowed out.

I was amazed by the size of the stove that generates all of the smoke for Benton’s meats. It was about three-feet tall, one-foot wide, and well used. The smokehouse is in operation 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Even on his one day off, Benton visits the smokehouse several times a day to add a log or two to the wood-burning stove.

I loaded up on bacon, ham, prosciutto, and sausage, and as soon as I got home I put some bacon in the skillet.

Cooking cured bacon is much different than regular store-bought bacon. I overcooked the first two batches I prepared when I ordered Benton’s bacon several years ago. Curing removes moisture, so during the frying process, lower heat must be used to cook the bacon, and one must remove the bacon from the pan earlier than when cooking store-bought bacon. It might not look cooked, but it is, and it is very, very, very good.

Over the years I have travelled from coast to coast meeting and eating with some of the kings of the culinary world. Some of the meetings were good and some were let downs. This time the man behind the curtain surpassed my expectations.

Save the emails and phone calls, 423-442-5003.

Barbara Jane’s Bacon and Tomato Sandwiches

2 cups Homemade Mayonnaise (or top quality store bought)
1 /2 cup Sour Cream
2 Tablespoons Bacon grease, reserved from cooked bacon
6 Green Onions, minced
1 (12 oz.) package Bacon, cooked, chopped fine
1 package (2 loaves) Pepperidge Farms Hot & Crispy bread
5 -6 Roma Tomatoes, sliced (8-10 slices per tomato depending on size)
Salt and Pepper to taste
Fresh parsley or basil, finely chopped

Combine mayonnaise, sour cream and melted bacon grease, onion, and chopped bacon and stir well.

Slice bread into 25-30 rounds per loaf. Spread mayonnaise onto bread rounds, top with a tomato slice, sprinkle with salt and pepper.

These can be made one day ahead. Arrange sandwiches on a cookie sheet in a single layer and cover well with plastic wrap. Refrigerate. If holding, wait to season sandwiches with salt and pepper until just before serving.

Sprinkle lightly with parsley or basil just before serving.