14 December 2011

Eating (and Drinking) My Way Through Jackson

As soon as I learned that my husband and I would be traveling to Jackson last weekend, I began compiling a must-visit list of restaurants and foods that would complete our trip. There are many things that I love about New England compared with Mississippi, particularly the politics and the summers, but  regional cuisine ain't one of them.  Up here in the Kingdom of the Yankee, bbq is more like a noun than a verb, and if you can find grits or sweet tea at all, even mediocre samples, you're lucky. We were traveling so that DH could promote his newest middle grade book, The Cheshire Cheese Cat, and as such we were tied a good bit to the itinerary that Peachtree Publishers and the host bookstore, Lemuria, had planned, but that still gave us plenty of room to maneuver, as you'll see.

(Image found online)
Now, I'm not a fast food fan.  I eat meat but I try my best to avoid any factory-farmed food, which eliminates most fast food options.  I cannot, however, resist the siren call of Krystal Burgers when I head South, and thus our pilgrimage began during our layover in concourse A in ATL.  My DH also confesses to a deep-seated fondness for these sliders, as the chain began in his hometown of Chattanooga, TN.  It really is the perfect blend of mustard, pickle, and onion, and oh, those warm, pillowy buns.  We each ate two burgers and shared an order of fries and sighed with satisfaction before boarding our connecting flight to JAN.

Patrick & Elizabeth, a dynamic sibling duo! Note the stained glass.
Next up was dinner at El Charro, a Mexican restaurant that has opened in Jackson since I lived there.  My dear friends, Patrick & Elizabeth, and I have a tradition of eating Mexican food together when I'm in town and El Charro was a good addition to our food ritual.  The atmosphere is a fun one, filled with both families and local college students, and the food was really quite good.  I had one of the vegetarian platters with chile relleno and spinach enchiladas.  Not, perhaps, thoroughly authentic, but I was more than satisfied, and the price simply cannot be beat.  My entire platter was only $7.99.  My main complaint about Mexican food at home is that it is either good or affordable, but never both, so I wish there was a place like El Charro in western MA.  Plus how can you not like a restaurant with fun stained glass windows like those?

Broad Street Bakery

Those grits are mmm-mmm, good!
On Friday, Emily Grossenbacher, the children's bookseller at Lemuria, had arranged for us to visit a couple of local schools to talk about Cheshire Cheese Cat and the art of illustration.  To use my DH's own colorful language, the thought of talking to hundreds of 3rd-, 4th-, and 5th-grade children makes his ass suck wind, so clearly we had to fortify ourselves with breakfast at Broad Street Bakery, housed in the same building as Lemuria.  As a transplant from WI to MS, I was leery of grits, but once I embraced them, it was with the fervor of the twice-saved finding salvation through Jesus.  So believe me when I say that Broad Street's cheese grits are unparalleled--I've paid twice as much for half as good in the heralded breakfast restaurants of New Orleans (Brennan's, Commander's Palace, etc). Creamy and cheesey and hot and delicious and yummy and I'm about to run out of ways to praise them 'cause my mouth is watering at the sheer memory.  You don't know from grits if you've never eaten them at Broad Street. Just a cup of grits and a side of their minted fruit salad was enough to send us once more into the breach of those middle schoolers. 

After DH's last presentation for the day, all three of us were hungry so we stopped in at The Hickory Pit to nosh on some pulled pork sandwiches.  I'm afraid that I inhaled my own sandwich so quickly that I neglected to take a photo of it, but I found a photo on the Jackson Metromix website that shows the unsauced pulled pork, served up with coleslaw (on the sandwich, not the side) and a side of chunky fries where you can actually taste all of their potatoey goodness.  Note to Yankees: if you're served a pulled pork sandwich that's already doused in sauce, you're not getting authentic BBQ.  The customer should always be the one to add the sauce, and ideally there should be more than one option.

photo credit: Jackson Metromix.  Note lack of sauce.
At Hickory Pit, you get your choice of hot, mild, or sweet sauce.  They're all good. Plus, it's affordable.  It's done fast-food style, so you pick up your food at the counter and bus your own tables, which keeps overhead down.  Many so-called bbq places up north where I live charge you three times what we paid for our sandwiches AND they have the gall to serve wine.  No, sir!  Beer or sweet tea, or water in a pinch--those are the only three permissible beverages to accompany bbq.  (I nearly drank my weight in sweet tea that day at Hickory Pit.  They've got the best ice and their lemon wedges ain't stingy.)

Primo's Cafe & Bakery
We had one mission to complete in-between leaving the bookstore and meeting friends for dinner, and that was procuring a caramel cake for the following evening.  I don't know why, but caramel cake doesn't seem to exist north of the Mason-Dixon line.  Come to think of it, that might be what the War of Northern Aggression was really about.  (Just kidding--I don't really think that, or call the Civil War that, except around Yankees who judge me based on my accent.)  Anyway, back to the cake.  Caramel cake is nothing but a yellow layer cake with caramel icing.   It's not complicated to make, exactly, but it is a little fiddly to get the icing right since there's a small window of temperature between grainy icing and burnt sugar.  We called Campbell's bakery first, but they need 2-3 days' notice to make a caramel cake. We found one at Primo's bakery, which is cute as a button. Best $37.50 I've ever spent.  We also picked up a small round layer of strawberry cake, which is another Southern delicacy not easily found up  north, more's the pity.

Please note full moon rising above the restaurant
Source: Char's website.  Our booth is in the bottom left corner
It's truly a shame that we ate lunch so late in the day because it meant we weren't able to do justice for dinner that night.  DH and I met up with Elizabeth and her husband, Tim, for dinner at Char, another restaurant that has opened since I departed Jackson.  Well, it was wonderful. The four of us had a cozy semi-circle booth and we celebrated our first reunion since their marriage two years ago in New Orleans with a round of cocktails--all good, all generous pours.  Tim and I each ordered the house salad with comeback dressing.  (Lawd, but do you know how long it's been since I've seen comeback dressing on a menu?  Too long!)  They were good, and Tim gave his an A while I would award mine a B for being overdressed.  Elizabeth and DH only ordered one course each: a salad with grilled salmon for the former and an appetizer-portion of marinated crab claws for DH.  Tim and I then moved on to the filet mignon special and the bbq shrimp & grits appetizer, respectively.  All four main courses were excellent, and despite everybody at the table pitching in to share DH's crab claws, there were still some left over.


Tim obligingly demonstrates the size of the cake compared to the human head.
The piece de resistance, however, was dessert.  We ordered two for the table: the chocolate cake as big as your head express and their award-winning pecan caramel butter crunch.  I'm not a big chocolate cake person, but even I could tell that Char's was something special, but for me it was nothing compared to the butter crunch, topped with vanilla ice cream and a Granny Smith apple cinnamon glaze. That might be one of the best things I've ever put in my mouth.  It pained me to leave any of it on the plate, I tell you, but eating dinner less than four hours after a big lunch was simply not a challenge I was up for.

Besides the opportunity to catch up with Elizabeth and Tim, one of the best things about our dinner was our server, Lloyd.  He was soft-spoken, pleasant, knowledgeable, courteous and he possessed the rare instinct of knowing the exact number of times to check in with us without making us feel rushed, interrupted, or neglected. When I discovered that I had forgotten to photograph the chocolate cake the size of a human head before we all demolished it, he had another one made up in the kitchens for us.  That Lloyd.  What a sweetheart. 

This post is getting a little long in the tooth, so let me be brief about two meals on Saturday so that I don't waste space and readerly goodwill.  We breakfasted at Broad Street one more time before DH's booksigning: more cheese grits, some freshly-squoze orange juice (feel free to say "freshly-squeezed" if you want to, but don't expect me to say anything but squoze), a biscuit. My dad drove up from Purvis, MS, to have lunch with us, so we took him to Bravo, which was really good, but I have no photos to share, plus it's a restaurant owned by the same folks as Broad Street, so I've given them enough bandwidth for now. 

Cathead Vodka logo
That afternoon we met up with our  pal Mel Evans, who drove us up to Gluckstadt, MS, to see her son's new company, Cathead Vodka, the only legal still in MS.  Austin Evans and his business partner Richard Patrick started Cathead nearly two years ago as a means of combining two of their favorite things: booze and the blues.  We got a tour of the facility and sipped some of the goods, too.  Austin and Richard are joining forces with Lazy Magnolia Brewery (founded by my ol' MSMS classmate, Mark Henderson) to produce a whiskey made in part from the latter's Southern Pecan Nut Brown Ale.
A portion of Cathead proceeds goes to support music & the arts

Richard & Austin in front of their still
Label maker for Cathead Vodka (it's yummy!)

After a while we bid adieu to Austin & Richard and headed back to the hacienda, Chez Evans at Fox Hollow, to get ready for that night's gathering. John and his bookstore staff work harder than anybody I know during the month of December (they elect to work every single day between Thanksgiving and Christmas--I remember doing it myself back in the day), so John decided to invite his booksellers out to his place on DH's and my last night there to kick back, share stories & beverages of the adult variety, drool over his library, and make fools of ourselves over his pool table. Some pizza pies and that fabulous caramel cake topped off this wonderful evening of books, blues, and brews.

'Tis a fine, fine thing
Look at all of that caramel goodness!

Yes, caramel cake is a fine, fine thing.  But I really need to end with a photo of the two men I love most in the world: my DH and John Evans, the man who is mentor, friend, and father figure, all rolled into one.  They love each other, I love them both, and I would not have met (and married) the one if it were not for the other.  To friends and fellowship, I raise this particular glass of bourbon, and if it happens to go well with the caramel cake, so much the better.

My DH and John


 NB: Interested in winning a copy of  Pandemonium, Lauren Oliver's much-awaited sequel to Delirium? Click here!

8 comments:

  1. What a lovely post, Ms. Emily…. Brings me back to our days in Jackson! I absolutely love reading your writing about traveling and eating…. I’m beginning to think you should compile a book. Seriously. We should discuss it soon.

    On a more somber note, it appears you didn’t make it to Two Sisters or the new Keifer’s? A pity.

    Love and caramel cake to you!

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  2. What a lovely post, Ms. Emily…. Brings me back to our days in Jackson! I absolutely love reading your writing about traveling and eating…. I’m beginning to think you should compile a book. Seriously. We should discuss it soon.

    On a more somber note, it appears you didn’t make it to Two Sisters or the new Keifer’s? A pity.

    Love and caramel cake to you!

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  3. I am always pro-posts with pictures of food. Now I feel like I haven't given grits their fair shake and should journey to Jackson EXCLUSIVELY to do that.

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  4. Mel, it came to pass that Two Sisters was closed on the day we planned to have lunch there. Barry and I are still upset about missing the fried chicken and banana puddin'.

    Rambo, as someone who has come late to the grits appreciation table herself, I can tell you that a trip south just to sample the regional cuisine would be well worth your time.

    It also occurred to me in a Facebook discussion this morning that if Jesus had been a good southern boy, the last supper probably would have been grits and sweet tea. And while the former would be hard to commemorate in a weekly eucharist, the latter probably would have helped all of those alcoholic priests through the ages.

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  5. Now THAT is what a vacation is all about.

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  6. However did you come to write so well, lady? Have you considered penning a travel tome? You must have. So when will you publish, eh? Should you require an early reader, you know where I live on the interwebs, and I am cheap. Cheap, I tells ya.

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  7. And, Bourdain: Watch your back.

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  8. I love seeing photos of food people eat on their travels. I don't understand why people give me funny looks when I do it! ;)

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Please, sir, may I have some more? (Comments, that is!)