Mike McJunkin is back on the eating circuit. Get your forks and chopsticks out.
Just like the inevitable spring return of Bradford pear blossoms, Daisy Dukes and unfortunate tan lines, Sushi & Biscuits is back. During my brief hiatus, I got married, reaffirmed my hatred of fennel and spent some time eating my way across parts of Thailand and Cambodia.
While in Southeast Asia, I was repeatedly confronted with both similarities and differences between the food cultures of the Southern US and where I was at the time. At first glance, the mind-blowing, LSD-trip-like experience of taking your first walk down Sukhumvit Road in Bangkok would appear to have as little in common with the South as the Fresh Prince had with Carlton.
But when I finally gained a small measure of focus away from the cavalcade of colors, sounds and smells swirling around me, my eye fell upon a food stall, not unlike the others on Sukhumvit, with a pyramid of skewered street meat, neatly stacked and wooing me with an uneasy familiarity, like a prostitute that resembles an old high-school sweetheart. As I approached the stall I couldn’t help but notice that the crispy, shapeless, suede-brown chunks of what I hoped was tasty street meat also produced a soothing smell that filled me with a sense of inexplicable comfort. Within two hours of touching down in Bangkok, I was feeling a sense of ease and a sense of hominess I did not expect amid the tuk-tuk exhaust fumes and old Thai ladies selling lottery tickets.
What was this magical street food that had almost instantaneously put me at ease? Fried chicken livers on a stick. Beautifully seasoned, skewered and fried fresh on the spot to crispy perfection, these livers were almost indistinguishable from the ones at Zarzour’s, Mount Vernon or even my own beloved Granny’s. But how could this be? Fried chicken livers are as Southern as biscuits and gravy. Could there be common threads woven between food cultures as seemingly disparate as Thailand and the southern US?
As I continued to think about the handful of similarities and the myriad of differences between the foods I encountered in that part of Asia and the foods I experience here in Chattanooga, I began to wonder how best to define Chattanooga’s current food culture. More specifically, how can Chattanooga’s food culture be defined in 2014? How has it changed in light of the increasingly connected global community and also, immigration, which has contributed considerably to all of the foods and flavors that have become available in recent years?
Southern food is as diverse as the regions and micro-regions within the South, and Chattanooga certainly has its own culinary peculiarities (aside from The Krystal and Moon Pies). Note: As a Chattanoogan, it is important to refer to the local purveyor of small square comestibles as THE Krystal in spite of the fact there is no definite article preceding the iconic burger company’s name.
At first glance, Chattanooga’s present-day food culture looks like a schizophrenic grab bag of bad country-style buffets, chain restaurants, and Americanized Mexican and Asian shops, with a handful of local, fine-dining restaurants thrown in for special occasions. A more careful look reveals a vibrant food culture finally starting to expand beyond its somewhat homogenous, Southern-fried legacy to incorporate flavors and foods from a variety of cultures.
We’re constantly told how Chattanooga’s food culture has its roots in Appalachian cuisine with its English, Scottish, Irish, German, French, Native American and African American influences. Now, after decades of immigration and the advent of the internet, Latin, Asian and eastern European cuisines are becoming as commonplace as Kanku’s and Dollar Stores.
The past decade’s renewed interest in locally grown, produced and prepared foods has created a thriving cadre of restaurants and markets selling fresh, local food to everyone from fixed-gear bike-riding, hairy-faced millenials to “Duck Dynasty”-watchin’, Obama-hatin’ good ol’ boys. Despite their insistence on calling all Asian food “Chinese” and all Latin food “Mexican”, it is encouraging to see self-described rednecks saddling up to a plate of moo shu pork or clearing the buffet of all its California rolls. Likewise, it’s good to hear a tattoo-covered, bespectacled hipster extolling the virtues of a solid plate of buttermilk biscuits with redeye gravy and a side of hog jowl.
In columns to come, I’m going to dig deep into what defines Chattanooga food culture by exploring the undiscovered and little-known foods, flavors and people. We’ll talk about the foods we love, the foods we hate and especially about the weird, wild and wonderful eats found in the back rooms, tiny shops and unexpected places all around our city.