JEFF FITZGERALD (this was first published FEBRUARY 2012)
Not too long ago in my adopted hometown of Roanoke, what had been one of the fanciest and most expensive restaurants in town for over 30 years closed its doors. The Library featured the sort of stiff, fussy Continental dining that catered to “new money;” the Star City’s old money still preferred the timeless peanut soup and spoon bread of the Hotel Roanoke’s Regency Room. Gone was the table-side preparation of Steak Diane, the ritzy Lobster Thermidor, and the sense of class they imbued upon the mink-clad matrons and other assorted American dreamers for whom formal dining was itself a mark of success.
While some have lamented the loss of The Library as some sort of passing of an era, I took it as an indication of real change in the way we approach fine dining. The Library’s style was already quaint 30 years ago. The food was a mid-century take on what the Upper Class would eat, if such a thing still existed in an increasingly egalitarian society. The whole thing was a 1975 Cadillac Eldorado, gaudy excess bereft of any real elegance; a dinosaur even in its time.
Forgive me if it seems like I’m looking down my nose at the whole thing. We’ve established my Appalachian pedigree, and I was raised to think that a fancy restaurant was one that required you to wait to be seated. My father hated dressing up so much that he actually had it written into his will that if anyone put a tie on him after he was dead, they were cut off. The deep-seated sense of frugality born in hard times never quite left my father, and even when we had the money to eat at a really fancy restaurant, he just couldn’t see spending that kind of money for supper. For him, I think, paying too much money to eat unfamiliar food while wearing uncomfortable clothing and being expected to behave by a bewildering set of rules of which he felt wholly ignorant was a rough approximation of his idea of Hell.
The idea of fine dining has not gone away, though. We’re not reduced to nothing but fast casual chains, even though it sometimes seems we’re awash in them and even if some people still view Olive Garden as a “fancy restaurant.” Fine dining has evolved and reinvented itself. Gone are the baroque flourishes, the silly gilded decor and shop-worn French-ish cuisine. What has replaced it, though, seems to me to be not so much a newfound appreciation of regional cuisine as it does a partial theft of it. What does it mean when the trendy buzzwords “local” and “sustainable” are applied to a way of cooking where those criteria were a matter of simple fact and not some idealized concept played for karma points?
Cropping up all over this region are small, expensive, exclusive restaurants that are taking the local food and widening its boundaries at every edge. The humble pork chop, once served with homemade sauerkraut and pole beans, is now a heritage pork tenderloin served with braised pork cheeks (hog jowl, if you please), sauerkraut, Purple Cape Beans (whatever the hell those are), and red-eye gravy. It is the simple being made complex in an attempt to mimic the elemental simplicity of the source while making sure everyone knows just how difficult it was.
Somewhere in the midst of this elevation of our cuisine, it seems as though it is being deliberately placed above us. Ramp aioli and collard green kimchi deliberately exclude the people who subsisted on what was once considered “poor people’s food,” much like lobsters were in New England. It feels as though our deepest food traditions, born of privation and necessity, are being gussied up and sold back to us for two prices. For every Sean Brock, a native Southerner with a matchless appreciation for our food and bacon grease in his veins, there is a CIA-trained chef turning out the same soulless imitations of Southern cooking that a previous generation of chefs once made of another kind of cuisine to which they had no intimate connection.
In a sense, it is but another heist in a long line of thefts. The foodways of disenfranchised blacks and poor whites has been ripe for plunder for decades, if not centuries, in America. In fine old antebellum Southern homes, the cooking was done by blacks or lower class whites. It was their day-to-day recipes that became “home cooking.” In Appalachia, where there was significantly less class division (the ones getting rich off of the coal and the railroads that invaded the region, for the most part, didn’t actually live there), all cooking was home cooking. Local and sustainable were not optional. Using what was available was a matter of necessity in the mountains, where what you had around you was all you had on which to survive, and management of resources was of the utmost importance in a place where most of the arable land was at a 45-degree angle and the trains took out more than they brought in. The tweezer-happy chefs carefully assembling delicate bouquets of pea shoots on top of a panko-crusted fried green heirloom tomato and drizzling it with a buttermilk remoulade have no idea what it was like to have to go out into the woods and come back with breakfast, lunch and dinner, not just forage for a fistful of morels for their risotto.
Still, for years, we in the South have smiled and winked when Yankees line in rows for “authentic soul food.” We’re more than happy to commoditize barbecue, once a make-do creation now scrutinized and fetishized like a Star Wars movie. We managed to keep our Southern charm as they ate fried chicken with a fork and spouted ridiculous Beverly Hillbillies nonsense about “possum grits.” We didn’t care, because the joke was on them; we kept our best stuff for ourselves and still got paid. Suddenly, though, it seems we’re laughing out of the other side of our mouths. The best stuff is now being made by someone else and sold back to us.
Lenny Bruce once said, “I am part of all that I indict.” And that is my sad truth as well. I gladly eat Americanized Italian, Mexican, and Chinese foods that their mothers wouldn’t recognize. I am a borrower in every little ethnic restaurant I seek out, and an outright thief in the kitchen when I apply what I’ve learned. What stings is not my own guilt, but the fact that now I know what it’s like when they come for someone else’s deepest and most treasured memories. Among the taciturn mountain folk, honed by generations of hard times, food is the currency of emotion. I know I’ve said that before, but it’s never truer than when it comes to your own heart. It’s like watching your purest love turned to lust, or worse, mere infatuation.
The final shame is that by and large, I like the new tastes and culinary creations of this current breed of high end chefs. So much of my own, admittedly amateur cooking begins with the phrase, “I wonder what would it would taste like if…” I am not afraid of innovation, so long as it doesn’t become a Ship of Theseus paradox; how many pieces of something can you change and have it still be the same thing? And who decides what the benchmark should be? Biscuits and gravy to me have always been substantial, crumbly, butter-soaked biscuits topped with bacony sawmill gravy. But to some people, with just as much Southern cred as I have, they are light, cloud-soft biscuits and spicy sausage gravy. Just because my Mom didn’t make it that way, doesn’t make it wrong. And just because it costs $36 for not enough food on too much plate doesn’t make it any better.
Truth be told, one’s own definition of Southern food, and of the South itself is as unique as a fingerprint. Small changes accrue, altering the food itself more over time than any one huge change all at once. I grew up in a South where tomatoes were available year round, albeit flavorless and unnaturally firm ones. Coffee, cane sugar and wheat flour were not rare, as they were in the days when my great-grandfather used to trade his talents as a cobbler for them. I’ve eaten possum as a novelty, not as a staple protein. I’ve never had sorghum, or a pie crust made with lard. And if I had to go into the woods to gather my dinner, I’d come back empty handed if I managed to find my way back at all.
Still, our food and our culture, whatever the current definitions of those may be, are inextricably intertwined. And if Italian food can survive Chef Boyardi and jarred pasta sauce, and Mexican cuisine can thrive even in a land of Taco Bell and gringo-riffic number 21 combo platters, then Appalachian grub can survive tweezers and white tablecloths. Our food is so deeply imbedded in our gene stock that generations from now, our great-great-grandchildren will still be compelled to fry the hell out of everything in bacon grease even if they don’t quite understand why.