The past couple of days, we’ve used our time off work to make some spur-of-the-minute road trips for good Southern food. Those trips have had me thinking about how those of us of a certain age grew up when the center aisles of the grocery stores weren’t just full of processed food, when most things were still made from scratch, when microwaves were the new thing for rich people. Food was simpler then, and to an extent, our road trips this weekend celebrated that.
First up was a spontaneous drive in the rain to Lambert’s in Sikeston, MO. Yes, it really was spontaneous. Yes, there is a level of insanity associated with that. Yes, we were hungry when we left home. But it was ok – we took Groovy Foods granola from Uele along to keep us from starving.
Lambert’s is an experience. Huge trays of piping hot yeast rolls make their way around the dining room, thrown to those who want to catch them, handed to the less intrepid. Also making their way around the dining room were pass-arounds: black-eye peas, fried potatoes and onions, fried okra, macaroni & tomatoes, apple butter, and molasses. You could easily make a meal just from that. But there are entrees as well. Chicken fried steak, chicken and dumplins, BBQ ribs, roast beef, meatloaf, and even pork jowl are part of a menu of traditional Southern foods.
I like Lambert’s. It started out a family business. It grew because it was good. They do keep Southern foods on the menu. BUT… The portions are so large as to be wasteful (seriously, who really needs to eat a chicken fried steak the size of a dinner plate?). They’ve gotten so big and so busy that they don’t really feel like a family business anymore. While they certainly pull huge amounts of people into their restaurant, and by association, their town, there’s no real sense of connection to the town or the region. While it’s Southern food, once you’re inside the restaurant, it could be Southern food served anywhere.
Today, we went on a spontaneous drive to Jackson, TN, to the Old Country Store. Again, this is great Southern food and a great experience. The food here is a buffet, which has so much potential to go badly. But somehow, the Old Country Store does it right. There’s nothing mediocre about it. You can make a total glutton of yourself, but you can be sensible about it if you prefer. Their cracklin’ cornbread is legendary. You can choose from collard, turnip, or mustard greens. They have the crispiest fried chicken I’ve had anywhere.
And here’s the real difference. The Old Country Store is connected to the community. Those greens? They’re from local farmers since they’re in season. Inside and out are all things Tennessee. The family could have turned the restaurant into a chain, but they kept it just the way it was instead. You’re in a unique place when you’re there, and you know it.
So how did that get me thinking about simple food? Well, there was nothing fancy at either place. The dishes they prepare are made with ingredients that you can count on your fingers. The spice racks in the kitchens are small. The techniques for cooking this type of food are simple, too. These are foods that were around a long time before microwaves and high fructose corn syrup. People who lived here 100 years ago would recognize most of them.
They’re not just home-style food, they really are the same foods I grew up on, the same foods I can prepare today for my family. But I don’t very often. I enjoy making fancy dishes that take hours to prepare. I enjoy experimenting with different flavors from all over the world. There was a time when I thought these simple foods were a waste of time to make, that they were too tied to the past to be relevant today, too particularly Southern.
I guess nostalgia only comes with age. I remember coming into the house to the smell of rising dough for bread or rolls. I remember shelling beans on the porch. I wouldn’t eat hominy when I was little, but I remember hiding it on my plate fondly. Now I eat hominy and like it. But when I eat it I also taste masa and tortillas and all the things that come from hominy. I guess a Southern girl can still be a girl of the world.