True Grits

“Y’all have come all the way from England to eat the food here in Breaux Bridge?” “Well, in a way, yes,” I replied. As we stared up at the shack’s tiny hatch the woman, only her head and shoulders visible, shook her head with disbelief but said confidently, “Well, you won’t be disappointed. I guarantee it.”

Breaux Bridge is a poor town, neglected and rubbish-strewn. A loan shark and a Dollar General thrift store flanked our lunch destination; a hundred yards down the road our car was parked opposite a flea market and an unloved “La nd r  te”. But we were here to try what the place is famed for: seafood.

It was the first day of our gastronomic tour of the Deep South and, significantly, our first lunch stop. We drove into the Louisianan town, “the crawfish capital of the world”, at about 1pm but the place was shrouded in an early dusk: it was October, hurricane season, and angry-looking black clouds threatened to disturb our al fresco meal. 

The Creole Lunchbox has two makeshift outdoor tables, and we took one of them, eyeing the ever-darkening sky from beneath a distressingly flimsy parasol. Occasional whoops of laughter emanated from the shack as a line of cars waited patiently for packed lunches to appear from the hatch of the cubbyhole. From the same hatch came a shout for us to collect our food: sadly, no crawfish (crayfish), but crab-smothered shrimp (prawns) and a seafood platter, comprising deep-fried catfish, deep-fried shrimp, jambalaya and hushpuppies. 

Everything came in Styrofoam takeaway boxes and we were given that plastic cutlery that is just slightly too small, but the quality of the food belied its mundane accoutrements. Fresh, plump shrimp covered in a rich sauce thickened with a crab-based stock was a revelation. The expert use of spicing in the dish, here cayenne pepper and paprika, enhanced the natural flavour of the shellfish while keeping my palate interested — the perfect use of chilli as seasoning. Our seafood platter was equally delicious. I couldn’t say I was particularly looking forward to the catfish; I’ve cooked it before and it has always retained that suggestion of silty riverbed that is, frankly, pretty unappetising. This, however, was light and covered in a spiced batter that once again lifted the (altogether pleasant) flavour of the fish. Similarly, the jambalaya — a Louisianan rice dish dotted with seafood and/or meat — and the hushpuppies were highly spiced treats. Hushpuppies are very much like onion bhajis without the onion. That is, they are deep-fried balls of spiced cornmeal batter. They are so-called, as one legend has it, because during the American Civil War, advancing Confederate troops would quieten their dogs by tossing them these delicious snacks.

We took the scenic route from Breaux Bridge to New Orleans, abandoning the I-10 highway and swinging south to take in low-country Louisiana. We passed through St Martinville and New Iberia: single-storey, wooden towns with pretty antebellum high streets and marquee signs praising the Almighty — or the local high-school American football team. We were now in the Mississippi River Delta proper and it was truly wet. Creeks and bayous skirted the road; the Spanish moss that clings to live oaks glistened while luminescent snow-white egrets punctuated the half-gloom.

Driving into New Orleans, we passed two roadside signs that threw the countryside’s beauty into relief: having just passed a gun store hawking cheap ammunition, we saw an enormous billboard paid for by the family of a murdered young black man, which was emblazoned with the words “Do you know who killed me?”. The second sign read “Hurricane Evacuation Route”.

It has been more than eight years since Hurricane Katrina hit the US coastline, but its effects are still marked in New Orleans. The city’s population is at 70 per cent of its pre-Katrina level, after the storm killed nearly 2,000 people and caused $108 billion worth of damage. Many businesses never reopened. But the first places to open their doors in September 2005 were bars and restaurants; communal dining and the sense of togetherness it engenders went some way to restoring something like normality in the city. Food is part of New Orleans’s collective identity and its Creole and Cajun cuisine, with its influences from France, Italy and West Africa, does more than reflect its inimitable culture and history — it forms it. 

It was a Monday night and we had been told to check out Felix’s Restaurant and Oyster Bar — apparently they served the best bivalves in the city. Arriving early — this wasn’t to be our last dinner sitting of the evening — we were met by a humming queue that stretched for a block. The same was true of the queue outside the equally renowned Acme Oyster Bar opposite. At 6pm. On a Monday. Food is what the folks in N’awlins do.

Our next stop was Coop’s Place, which came highly recommended for its food but seemed to be little more than a dive bar. It was nearly too dark to read the menu and a soundtrack of 1980s hair metal (perfectly suited to my bad tastes, but not my friend’s) nearly prompted us to have a quick drink and leave. But then we saw a tiny plaque on the wall: “Best Gumbo in New Orleans 2012”. So we ordered it. And quite a lot besides: rabbit and sausage jambalaya, red beans and rice, Cajun fried chicken and shrimp Creole.

Gumbo is essentially a soup thickened with either a roux, okra (a vegetable brought over with the slaves from West Africa) or filé powder (a spice made from the dried leaves of the sassafras tree, a native species of Louisiana). It ranges in colour from light brown to close to black depending on how well-cooked (read burnt) the roux is. Much of Louisianan cuisine is bastardised French cooking that would have the average Cordon Bleu-trained chef in conniptions: pairing shellfish and cheese, using dried garlic and herbs, and blackening vegetables and roux for flavour. Our gumbo was a deep brown and contained okra, shrimp, oyster, crab and rice. It was a strange combination of fishy and earthy but was pretty good. Better were the rabbit and sausage jambalaya (smoky, hot and gamey, its richness offset with a terrific tomatoey acidity) and the red beans and rice, a dish traditionally eaten on Mondays — kidney beans would be stewed for hours with the pork bones from Sunday’s roast — was rich and pleasingly meaty. Best was the Cajun fried chicken with its buttermilk and cayenne pepper crust. Salty, spicy and so, so moreish: “the best fried chicken I’ve ever had” according to my Cheshire Cat of a companion.

With heavy hearts and ever-growing waistlines we left the Big Easy and headed further east. Hugging the coastline, we drove through Mississippi and Alabama, passing over Old Pearl River, through Biloxi, Mobile and across Chacaloochee Bay. We had planned on spending the next couple of days eating more oysters in the Florida Panhandle — “The Redneck Riviera” — but a severe weather warning over the car radio put paid to that. Tropical Storm Karen was to hit the Gulf Coast sometime in the next eight hours and tourists were being advised to avoid the resort towns. A quick detour along State Road 399 and Santa Rosa Island, 50 miles long and at most 750 metres wide, revealed dunes of almost translucent quartz sand and a turquoise sea-eerie under a slate-grey and electrically charged sky.

We headed north achingly slowly, our car’s windscreen wipers unable to keep up with the rain, eventually making it to Basin Bayou and Nick’s Seafood Restaurant for a very late lunch. It was a dingy place, but had a fine view of the bayou at the rear, where we took our seats. Fried (which, in the Deep South, always means “deep-fried”) green tomatoes, tangy and crispy, were followed by half a dozen enormous blue crabs, steamed and covered in Old Bay seasoning, which came with a pot of clarified butter for dipping. Again, we noted the marrying of dried spices and seafood, but this was more unusual. Originally made in Baltimore, Old Bay has become ubiquitous across the South and is made from, among other things, mace, allspice, ginger, cardamom and cloves. It was sensational with the crab. As we were licking our fingers having finished lunch, our charming waitress told us to look out of the window — a pod of dolphins had appeared in the bayou to feed.

Swapping the Gulf for Florida’s Atlantic coast we travelled north, stopping on tropical, windswept Amelia Island before crossing the border into Georgia, the Peach State. On Jekyll Island — an otherwise manicured, golf course-ridden mock-paradise — we had the apotheosis of Southern seafood cooking: a Low Country boil. Shrimp, snow crab, “crawdads”, boudin (a smoky blood sausage), red potatoes and corn are boiled up in a highly seasoned broth, drained and served on newspaper. A tangy hot sauce and, once again, clarified butter were provided to make a mess with. It was completely unimprovable.

It was the final day of our Dixie odyssey and we had many miles to travel and so much still to eat. After an early start we sped north on empty highways lined with longleaf pine trees and lonely buzzards. Our destination: Savannah, and more specifically Mrs Wilkes’s Dining Room. The restaurant is strictly first-come, first-served, and so, even at 10am, we hastily parked the car and raced through the town’s impossibly pretty streets, mottled sunlight illuminating their 19th-century mansions. A huge queue of mostly blue-rinsed women lined the front of Mrs Wilkes’s and wound past a line of antique shops around the corner. Two hours later we were put on a table of ten with those closest to us in the queue, most of whom seemed to be called Betty. We were presented with what could be the best home cooking I’ll ever have. This is Soul Food: fried chicken, meat stew, barbecued brisket, collard greens, mash, mac and cheese, rutabaga, pickled beets, butterbeans, red rice and candied yams. And those are just the things I can remember. The vegetables were outstanding, and the brisket deep and treacly, its layers of fat bursting with flavour. It was all washed down with sweet tea and finished with banana puddin — no “g” — and blackberry cobbler. Stupefied, we thought it best to take a stroll before getting back in the car. 

We arrived in Charleston, South Carolina quite late — but in time for dinner, of course. Charleston is like Savannah but grander, more self-confident and less eager to please; it knows it’s beautiful and, well, it is. 

There was only one thing left on my Southern Food Ticklist — shrimp and grits. Our dinner reservation, the Hominy Grill, is renowned, and indeed named after, the dish. So, in spite of the fact that I was still uncomfortably full from Mrs Wilkes’s, and that I really didn’t fancy what is essentially prawns and porridge, I asked for a plate. I needn’t have worried. The grits — made from treated, dried maize-food (hominy) — contained bacon, mushrooms and cheese and tasted like a fine risotto; the prawns, piquant and charred on the grill, were deliciously sweet.

The Deep South is a deeply contradictory place. Its climate is responsible for its natural beauty as well as its natural disasters; its Cotton Belt wealth helped build the most beautiful of its towns and buildings, yet also created the very worst poverty, financial and societal. Equally, its food is dismissed, certainly by many in Britain, as a reflection of the excesses of consumer culture: greasy, unrefined and throwaway. The opposite is true. Food here is culture, and cuisine maintains communities: the culinary traditions of the originally West African Gullah peoples of South Carolina were, and in some ways still are, steadfastly maintained so that the enslaved could retain a sense of their human identity. But Dixie is also a place of extreme warmth and redemption, one that recognises the mistakes of history. More than anything, the Deep South is home to a pride in its exceptionalism that manifests itself in a desire to share that unique heritage. Oh, and it’s got the best prawns and porridge you’ll ever eat.

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