There is so much more to Chattanooga than buffets, westernized Asian food, troughs of processed starches and genetically modified veggies wilting beneath a sneeze guard. While sanitized feed bags sit like culinary churches on every street corner and patrons envision Paula Deen’s butter-glazed visage inviting them to worship at the altar of the deep-fat fryer, more adventurous Southerners are taking a bit more discerning look at what passes their lips.
In a recent LA Weekly article describing the perceptions Angelinos have of Southern food, the writer remarked, “Decades of drawling Southern stereotypes have penetrated the collective consciousness, giving Angelinos a fairly accurate perception of what Southerners eat.” The article goes on to describe this “accurate perception” of Southern food with these words: okra, chitlins, cheese straws, fried green tomatoes, boiled peanuts, pecan pie and cobblers. Admittedly, these foods do appear on Southern tables—but Southern food is being influenced by many of the same forces other regional cuisines are experiencing, such as immigrant populations, a rise in local food production and the popularization of cooking and dining thanks to celebrity chefs, cooking shows and entire networks devoted to round-the-clock food porn.
A quick look through the restaurant listing of ChattanoogaChow.com or a visit to one of the many ethnic or specialty food stores around town reveals how locals are expanding their palates and culinary horizons to go beyond “eating good in the neighborhood.” Just a few years ago, I was making monthly pilgrimages to Atlanta shops and markets to stock my shelves with the things I simply couldn’t find locally. Thankfully, I don’t have to make those trips anymore because of the ever-increasing number of choices being offered in and around Chattanooga.
The problem for most area residents is that they: Are unaware these places exist in Chattanooga; feel uncomfortable with foreign products and languages; or just don’t know what to do with most of what is offered in these wonderful little shops.
The Scenic City also hosts some of the region’s best food talent. Local chefs and cooks are growing increasingly adventurous with their menus as Chattanoogans become more comfortable with exotic ingredients, deconstructed dishes and out-of-the-ordinary treatments of traditional ingredients. But many diners remain unsure what restaurants offer these type of dining experiences, what these foreign sounding ingredients are or where to go to try something different without dipping into the kid’s college fund.
For those of us who like to cook, Chattanooga also has a growing number of locations at which to score local and regionally produced foods and cooking supplies. I am regularly able to make complete meals using 75 to 80 percent locally or regionally produced fresh foods within the same budget as my Walmart-and Bi-Lo-shopping friends. Many residents, however, do not know where to find these foods or mistakenly believe they are just too expensive.
In the weeks to come, I’m going to help cut through the noise of the chain stores, factory-farmed foods, and celebrity-chef spin to show you where to find the best value and best quality in what Chattanooga has to offer the conscious eater, whether you want to make a home-cooked meal or seek out a quality restaurant dining experience.
Are any chefs in Chattanooga using liquid nitrogen for their dishes? Find out as “Sushi & Biscuits” continues.
Mike McJunkin is a foodie, chef, musician and, in his spare time, keeps our computers and networks running smoothly. Got a tip for the column? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.