American Roadtrip, Part II: The South

After my first visit south of the Mason-Dixon line some 40 years ago, I joked that now I understood the reason that the South lost the Civil War. They were obviously too full from all their amazing foods to be able to fight at full effectiveness. Despite the fact that I was born a Yankee, I lived in Virginia for a couple of years and I’ve traveled through the southern states often. From the Carolinas to Texas, I find the people to be among the warmest, most welcoming and polite I’ve ever encountered.

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Magnolia Plantation outside Charleston, South Carolina

Driving across the back roads in Texas, drivers of oncoming vehicles, almost always men or women wearing cowboy hats and driving pick-up trucks, tip their hat to you as you pass. Across the South waitresses are some of the funniest you’ll find anywhere and invariably refer to their customers as Darlin’ or Hon. I remember a harried waitress in the Smokey Mountains who’d already had to stop her duties 4 times to sing “Happy Borthday” to customers. She leaned down and confided to my friend Joyce and me, “If I have to do that one more time, I’ll clap and I’ll sing, but I won’t mean it!” Country music rules the airwaves and seems to be telling the stories of the people living in the cities and towns you pass. And the food! Let’s just say that to me, “Southern Comfort” refers to biscuits, chicken and waffles, mac and cheese, and sweet potato pie.

There are so many amazing things to see and do in the south. If you are a history buff, visit some of the Civil War battlefields or head to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, or some of the historically significant cities of Charleston, South Carolina, Savannah, Georgia or New Orleans.  Check out the country music scene in Nashville or visit Elvis’ Graceland in Memphis. Hike or take scenic drives in beautiful natural settings like Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, the Great Smokies of North Carolina and Tennessee, or the Ozarks of Arkansas and Missouri. If you have time to meander, spend an afternoon driving a section of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Parkway or the Natchez Trace Parkway that snakes from Tennessee into Mississippi, both of which take you through unspoiled mountains and offer beautiful vistas along the way. And for beach lovers there’s Virginia Beach, the Outer Banks of North Carolina, or the snow white sand beaches of Florida’s panhandle. Whatever you do, be sure to get away from the truck traffic and the rat-race pace of I-40, I-95, or I-64 and follow the back roads, as that is how you will truly become acquainted with the best things the south has to offer.

If you’re heading east from Colorado plan for a meal in Kansas City, Missouri at The Beer Kitchen, 435 Westport Road or its sister restaurant, McCoy’s Public House, around the corner at 4057 Pennsylvania Avenue. Here you’ll find gourmet quality comfort food like deviled eggs with smoked salmon or prosciutto, mac and cheese with any number of amazing ingredients, generous sandwiches and killer burgers. On my last trip to the Beer Kitchen I had the southern specialty Fried Chicken and Waffle and it just blew me away! From the menu description: cornflake-crusted oven-fried chicken breast, maple-mustard marinade, cheddar-bacon-chive waffle, chicken pan gravy, and maple syrup. It may be hopeless after a meal like that, but if you can, try to save room for desserts like the Beer Kitchen’s Drunken Donuts, served warm and dunked in Grand Marnier hot chocolate. Or waddle over to McCoy’s for the Chocolate Chip Croissant Bread Pudding with Custard Sauce. You will leave Kansas City contented and fortified for a few more hours on the road.

A regional specialty in parts of Oklahoma and Arkansas are fried pies. There are several places that sell these treats, but my favorite stops are Arbuckle Mountain Original Fried Pies at 3721 NW 50th Street in Oklahoma City or The Original Fried Pie Shop at 1321 TP White Drive in Jacksonville, Arkansas not far from Little Rock. Picture an individual large turnover, often served warm if you’re lucky, and coming in a wide array of flavors (I love apricot and cherry).

Heading east you’ll roll across the Mississippi River into Memphis, home of the Blues and Barbecue. And of Graceland, Memphis is a hodgepodge of beautiful residential areas just a stone’s throw from run-down, poverty-stricken areas. Driving down some of the city’s main thoroughfares I’m struck by how many seemingly broken, down and out people, limping, walking with canes, hobbling along in crushing heat and humidity nevertheless smile broadly and wave to one another as they pass. Despite a history of racial tensions, blacks and whites can frequently be seen laughing together or talking at a restaurant or bar. People mention “the Lord” in casual conversations and say grace before a meal. I like Memphis. I like it a lot.

Perhaps my favorite place to eat in Memphis is Brother Juniper’s at 3519 Walker Avenue, Born from a single coffeehouse in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district in the 1960s which emphasized quality food and outreach to street people, numerous restaurants opened across the USA with this same philosophy, but the Memphis restaurant is the last one left. The restaurant is known for its community spirit and outreach, including an annual Christmas dinner for the homeless, I found this place years ago while searching online for “the Best Breakfast in Memphis”, and Brother Juniper’s lived up to this title. They feature wonderful egg dishes with fresh vegetables and delicious meats, homemade biscuits, pancakes and waffles, homemade granola, and good, strong coffee, On that first visit, I struck up a conversation with a family at an adjacent table, and before long they asked me to join them, treated me to my breakfast and I spent over two hours with these wonderful folks. Since then Greg and Diane, their son Daniel and his wife Sarah have become like part of my extended family. I visit them once or twice a year, and we often go to “Brother J’s”, the place that brought us all together.

To the north of Tennessee lies the rolling blue grass country of Kentucky. Louisville is a dynamic and surprisingly cosmopolitan city, and at the city’s famous Brown Hotel, you need to sample the traditional Kentucky Hot Brown, an open-face turkey and bacon sandwich topped with a creamy, cheesy Mornay sauce. Grab a breakfast at Wild Eggs, a chain with restaurants in Tennessee, Ohio and Indiana in addition to Kentucky. I can only hope they continue to spread, because their breakfast offerings are among the best you could hope to find anywhere. And if you find yourself near Lexington or Mt. Sterlin, Kentucky, be sure to stop by Ruth Hunt Candies, the “official candy makers of the Kentucky Derby and Churchill Downs.” Their bourbon balls are noteworthy, but I love their orange, lemon, and raspberry dark chocolate creams. Whenever I buy myself a box, I am lucky if I have any left by the time I cross the border into the next state!

North Carolina is the place for biscuits: biscuits and jam, sausage biscuits, biscuits and gravy, and the very local favorite, chicken and biscuits, a common breakfast entrée. Hands down, the best biscuits I have had here were from Sunrise Biscuits at 1305 E Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. There is a drive thru window, but you often do better to park and go inside, as the drive-thru lane is very busy, especially in the morning. The fried chicken biscuit is just too good for words, and if you have a sweet tooth or want “dessert”, get their amazing cinnamon rolls. This place is worth going out of your way to find.

Another North Carolina place that should not be missed is a chain of three restaurants called Dame’s Chicken and Waffles located in Greensboro, Durham, and Cary. I recently discovered this place on a cross country trip and visited the Cary location. The staff was delightfully welcoming and warm, but nothing could quite have prepared me for the experience of their food. While they do have all sorts of breakfast and lunch selections, it is the chicken and waffles that they are known for. You can select your type of waffle, a flavored butter, and one of several toppings. I opted for a sweet potato waffle, topped with orange-honey butter and a honey-Dijon drizzle. And of course, there was a perfectly fried boneless chicken cutlet that simply melted in my mouth. Ah yes, you may select one side dish from the menu, and in a fit of comfort food addiction, I opted for mac and cheese, and it too was about as good as it gets! I honestly think the staff thought I was crazy, as I could not stop raving about how utterly perfect that meal was to anyone who would listen!

If you venture to North Carolina’s Outer Banks, a long sandy set of islands that runs down the coast, check out Duck Donuts. The original is in the village of Duck, but there are now many other locations up and down the east coast from New York to Florida. Vanilla cake doughnuts are made to order and served warm from the fryer and you can add a variety of toppings like cinnamon sugar or strawberry, lemon, orange, or chocolate frosting. These just might be the best doughnuts I have ever tasted!

Across the border lies Charleston, South Carolina, a foodie mecca that rivals the greats like New Orleans, San Francisco, and Seattle. Boasting a charming historic center, surrounded by countryside that includes beautifully landscaped plantations, alligator-populated swamplands, and gorgeous beaches, the city has something for everyone. Food-wise, you almost can’t go wrong here, but my favorite, and evidently the favorite of a whole lot of people, is a place called Husk located at 76 Queen Street. If you have even an inkling that you might be in Charleston, make a dinner reservation because it can be difficult to do so even a few weeks in advance! I have, however, been able to walk in without a reservation for lunch, but I would not risk it. On the menu are many southern-inspired standouts like shrimp and grits, fried catfish, and crispy pig’s ear lettuce wraps (Trust me, they’re amazing!). The brunch menu features over baked pancakes, the likes of which I have rarely tasted and griddle coffee cake with whipped ricotta and maple-glazed pig’s ears (Trust me, amazing!). Husk has a sister location in Nashville, Tennessee that I haven’t tried yet, but I would wager that it’s every bit as memorable.

Meanwhile, up in Virginia there are more culinary treats in store. An off-beat place to get a great breakfast is the Handsome Biscuit, 2511 Colonial Avenue in Norfolk. They specialize in savory sweet potato biscuits topped with things like fried chicken, bacon and cheddar or pulled pork barbecue with apple coleslaw, or even peanut butter and jelly. They turn biscuits into dessert with the biscuit bread pudding with molasses and honey, or you can take a couple of double chocolate-sea-salt-pecan cookies for the road.

In nearby Virginia Beach, don’t miss the Tupelo Honey Cafe at 4501 Main Street. This chain that originated in Asheville, North Carolina has spread to Texas, Colorado, Georgia, Tennessee and South Carolina, as well as its Virginia location.  There are a variety of southern favorites for brunch, lunch, or dinner: fried green tomatoes, crab benedict, apple cider pork belly hash, shrimp and grits, and fried chicken and biscuits. On a recent visit for brunch I had the “Shoo Mercy Sweet Potato Pancakes”, which were served with bacon, eggs, and a grilled pear stuffed with blueberries. It was a tough choice, as another offering was the sweet potato pancakes layered with banana pudding and foster rum sauce.

Another regional specialty you’ll want to sample in Virginia Beach, along the Virginia/Maryland Eastern Shore, or in Annapolis and Baltimore is crab in all its forms and iterations: she-crab soup, crab cakes, soft shell crabs, or lump crab added to just about any salad or omelet or eggs benedict dish. One of the best places to find such dishes is Metompkin Seafood in Mappsville, located on Highway 13 on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, which is a calm and scenic alternative way to head north from Norfolk and avoid the traffic hassles of I-95 into Washington, D.C. Metompkin Seafood is a general store/take out restaurant that feels like something out of the 1930s and serves up very reasonably priced crab cakes and hushpuppies. Further north on Highway 13 in Nassawadox, Virginia is the bustling Machipongo Clam Shack, which offers a wide variety of seafood, with soft-shell crab or clam cake sandwiches and hushpuppies being some of the standouts. Finally, make a stop at Miss Shirley’s Café in either Annapolis or Baltimore for a brunch of amazing pancakes or an order of fried green tomatoes with lump crab meat. I need to plan another 10 visits to Miss Shirley’s to sample everything on their incredible menu.

Explore the south. Talk to the people, learn about its history, breathe in its gorgeous scenery, and for pity sakes, bring an appetite! You won’t regret a single calorie!

Next up, we’ll head north to my home turf, New England, the home of lobster rolls, clam chowder, and Boston cream pie. Stay tuned!

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