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How do you describe Southern food? Pursuing that answer is as much the daydreamer's indulgence as the academic's conundrum. It’s a workman’s meal of sugarless, butter-smeared cornbread, swiped through a bowl of potlikker and crumbled into the mouth. It’s an antebellum fever dream: she-crab soup, shad stuffed with roe, and the sherry-soaked dessert called tipsy squire consumed using weighty silverware on snowy linens. And it is, of course, an unconquerable buffet of fried chicken, fried green tomatoes, baked ham, candied yams, black-eyed peas, and small plastic bowls filled with peach cobbler sweet enough to give you the sugar jitters.
The sixty-plus-degree weather has made grateful simpletons of us all, as we make any excuse to wander around outside with glazed, happy expressions. But when the temperatures dip again at the end of the week, plan to nestle back inside with a copy of the Oxford American magazine’s new Southern Food 2010 issue, guest-edited by John T. Edge. It crowds some juicy, intelligent prose (and a few poems) between its 127 pages.
The braised rabbit at Miller Union looks homely, as many of the South's finest dishes do. Shredded meat, sauteed mushrooms, russet-colored gravy, and a moat of grits make for an unglamorous collage of earth tones. But, oh, the taste. Bite after bite, this entree reminds me of Nat King Cole’s voice: velvety, soothing, timeless. The rabbit is cooked for two hours with carrots, celery, and fennel in chicken stock and red wine before being pulled from the bone—a step that helps squeamish eaters disassociate their meal from the cuteness of bunnies. No fancy seasonings mar the Logan Turnpike grits from North Georgia. They are simmered in water and milk and finished with salt, pepper, cream, and butter. The mushrooms add pleasant murkiness, and the braising liquid, acting as gravy, curtails the richness. This is food in high definition, a vivid sequence of flavors that reflects the agrarian roots and ingenuity of our region’s cooking.
Woodfire Grill on Cheshire Bridge Road has undergone many changes in the last year, but its most essential trademark endures. The sweet, smoky aromas drifting from the open kitchen at the dining room's entrance still tranquilize as if a lullaby had dissolved into fragrance. Borrowed from the playbook of California cuisine, the layout places the focal point of cooking directly in the path of newly arrived guests, who inhale scents evocative of campfire and barbecue en route to their table. Those first wafts anchor the meal. They communicate the tone and ambitions of the restaurant more effectively than words on a menu ever could. And now they act as an aromatic through-line that connects the restaurant’s past with its recent and remarkable reinvention.
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