Wednesday, September 16, 2009

What comforts you?

This culture of ours is one that is away. From home, that is. I was thinking about the way we live, dine, and entertain as it relates to being perpetually from somewhere else.

I have tried to make my Mother's comfort dishes: Roast beef, my Grandmother's potatoes, curried meatloaf, butternut squash casserole, and her zucchini and Gruyere with no luck when I have been away. Eventually, I will have to accept that I cannot recreate these warming, life-has-beaten-me saviors. Only then will I find my way to the dishes my children will remember as mine.

In the meantime, I have been lucky in various ways along the road to this essay, enough to unearth soothing dishes that put both a cold night of my heart and a bruised inner child into a deeply satisfied state of mental safety. In Charleston, I found the shrimp and grits at SNOB, and the peach stuffed toast at Toast. In Boston, the Greek tapas at Meze. In Singapore, where I was always sick somehow, the miso broth and tiny spring rolls at the Four Seasons. In Florence, the cafe Americano and small bit of bread at the coffee bar underneath the corporate office.

29 South's house-made potato focaccia

In other places I was just out on a limb with no comfort food to call my own. Delicious, grand food that I was pleased to encounter but unlikely to seek out after a soul-drenching rain in Hong Kong or El Salvador. And I am a person who seeks solice in the plate: Not overly so. But food that speaks to the devils that torment me needs to be rich and thick. It needs to have weight, conquering heft in fact; my devils are many.

I think, though it seems crazy as I write it now, that I need comfort food to weigh down my nerves. Is this madness?

While Josh has been living in Florida, I have discussed 29 South here and here (okay, and also here) and the unfairly talented and brilliant chef-owner therein, Scotty Schwartz. When in Florida, I am in his dining room seeking comfort on a plate. He has never failed me. When you think of comfort food, do you think of old roadside places? For a moment, let me take you away from all that, okay?

This place is hip, it has a cool beachy casual vibe. Still, it heeds its deep roots in the South: dedicated to using southern family farms and organics and paying homage to the cooks who came before in dishes like fried green tomato stacks, shrimp and grits, knuckle sandwiches, and sweet tea brines. Much of what came before never left, and that may be why comfort is the first and last sensation when it comes to 29 South.

I do not know if the man knows that everyone is a million miles from home in their minds. I do not know if he cares that he is in a beach town where people claim to love light cuisine. But I do know that at the height of summer, 106 degrees on his porch, the man still serves dozens of plates of a dish some call heavy. What drives this phenomenon of reverse-climactic eating driving people to order the vast, heavy, hot meal of an enormous sweet tea-brined chop and macaroni and cheese with warm ginger blackberry preserves? It is an astounding dish that seems like it went so far wrong that it went right again. But that is not what happened at all: The chef is a genius, the kind I will not know again.

Josh and I dined recently at 29 South (shamelessly, enthusiastically, and vigorously) as we often do, and we had all of this (and drank an amazing Alsatian wine called Now and Zen, among others) was our supper (not kidding, ate it all, plates to the kitchen practically licked clean):

Lobster Corn Dog

Smokehouse Mussels

Grilled Romaine Salad and then Herb Roasted Tomato and Buffalo Mozzarella

Sweet tea-brined Pork Chop over mac n'cheese with warm blackberry ginger preserves

When I read the menu the first time and, as many surely do, saw the sweet tea-brined chop dish I was skeptical: Chop. Mac n' cheese. Blueberries and ginger. It seemed out there or over-dressed. But it is the dish to eat if you ever questioned whether your palate and stomach rule your head and heart. If I could secret food for moments like this, very late at night, a long way from home, body and soul just shot, I would put this dish in my life-cubby with my Mom's meatloaf and roast beef, and Grandma's potatoes. Sometimes when it snows and whenever it rains, I wish it such a cubby truly existed.

Dessert was a course to marvel over and cling to in my memory until the end of my days. This first dessert is something of an ethereal Brigadoon: On two separate occasions my shots did not turn out, either it was too dark or there was far too much light. But finally, a little begging of my esteemed blog colleague, Nan at Ecoculinaire, landed me this unbelievably beautiful shot (Nan is probably pretty busy, but if she ever quits one of her six day jobs as Mother, chef's garden manager, writer, and so on, she has a place here. Don't you agree? How beautiful is this shot, Chums?)

Until a dish like this panna cotta is placed before you, you will just have to believe that you love buttermilk enough to become enamored of Buttermilk Panna Cotta. It is a cool, creamy, heady rebellion against fussed-up nonsense and a return to unapologetic purity in the bowl. All the ingredients in that dessert were perfect as the universe created them, 29 South only put them together and polished them into something unforgettable: Something I want to always keep in mind when I am cooking.

Lastly, on that perfect dining evening, we had "Doughnuts and Coffee": A house-made doughnut bread pudding over buttermilk custard served in a coffee cup with mocha ice cream. Here is the photo of the same dessert when I was slinking around eating Chef Scotty's food under the radar (ah-hem, a weekly activity).

When you get there, tip the cup upside down, there is a secret under there of the very old but truly masterful school: Custard. The real deal. Yes, you read that right. When my Mom and I ate this dish there, her eyes welled up: My Grandmother made custard for her when she was a little girl.

Custard, house made glazed doughnut, mocha ice cream.

It had been several ages since my Mom has had a true custard and she appreciated that it was presented with this thoroughly modern twist. Then I knew, really was certain, that she understood about this place. It is the reassuring corner I burrow into when she is not cooking and we have something to celebrate or the world is beating down the door (or it is just dinnertime down south, in truth).

There are so many things in this world that beat you up, including some chefs ideas of food which should satisfy you, that it can wear you down. Like anything Bar Americain slings at you with pomposity. Diners do not need pretense, they need memories of goodness, depth of pleasure, joy at the table. They need people to stop fooling around and put good food down in front of them. They need one man to look at a quart of buttermilk and think: Good enough. Just as it came to us, these ingredients are perfect. All that remains is to showcase just how perfect. So, this 29 South, it turns buttermilk into a masterpiece and leaves a legion of fussy chefs with substandard ingredients scratching their toques while they rack themselves for something more exotic and appealing. Meanwhile Scotty Schwartz just holds perfect ingredients up to the light, cherishes them, and stewards them on to comfort you and I: His tables full, every face in the house smiling and pleased.

Maybe his food is so good because he understands his place and all of ours as conduits to the things nature already created perfectly. Chef Schwartz is not here to improve on the way things are made, merely to do the best justice he can while these simple perfect ingredients are in his care. And, maybe, to help us to appreciate the perfection of the fruits of our planet, which is a demanding, life-long endeavor, I believe.

Buttermilk fried chicken salad, with tiny pieces of Stilton tucked in among the greens. Perfect.

Is it hard to strip away the determination of globalism? All the weight of conspicuous consumers who desperately seek out the most expensive tasting menu at the hippest It-restaurants around the world just to say they have been there and ate that? I will bet it is not. It seems like it would be something of a relief to just make good food really magnificently without endless bastardizations of the term "simplicity". I bet, when the greatest chefs in the world take a deep breath, find themselves, and pick up their knife again, they become Scotty Schwartz.

In summing up, I am not sure one can ever say enough, or jam together the right words to describe perfect soul-comforting food. I feel clumsy in trying to craft an understanding for you on the page which you surely need to do for yourself at the table. Instead, I encourage you to find this caliber of chef in your own midst, or encourage one to consider this road.

If nothing else comes of this, I know that on my last day, if there is time before I have to get going to squeeze in my last meal, and my Mom cannot make curry-encrusted meatloaf... Well, I hope Chef Scotty can make it and that he won't mind manning the stove for my heart that one last time. I will probably be needing some comfort.

As I mentioned here, not long from now half of our life will be headed to Washington D.C., the other remains in New York. I am surely going to miss this place.

Tell me, what comforts you?


MG said...

We're a bit south of DC. I'm sure you will love the area, there is so much to do here, you could never be bored!

Rona's Home Page said...

Actually prayer comforts me. When you've lost your job and home and you're starting all over again it truly brings comfort to me.

Rona's Home Page said...

I love the Lobster Corn Dog. While attending a mixer last year we tried them. Delicious!

An Aesthete's Lament said...

Macaroni and cheese. Nigel Slater's recipe for mushroom lasagne. A cup of Dallmayr's Früchtetee with a slice of lightly toasted, homemade banana bread with just a smidgen of Land o' Lakes butter (unsalted). Oatmeal, the coarsely milled Scottish variety. And, oddly enough, pistachio yoghourt, which I can't seem to get in the United States, though I have looked high and low.

vicki archer said...

All of these images are so comforting....lovely sentiments, xv.

Turquoise Diaries said...

A big bowl of pasta with the special souce of my mother..and let me tell you taht this is a great post. I enjoyed it a lot..

little augury said...

You have got to be kidding. Oh my goodness! It all sounds divine- and so -I might add- "as only in the South." One of the best restaurants and there are a number actually-is Magnolia Grill,Durham- that really gets it right every time with the So. twist. I think the doughnuts thing sounds over and above delicious & the corndog (how perfect). My mother makes a spoon bread from my great grandmother's receipt (but not on paper) that is a complete and total blanket. I even request it for birthdays! Another is Potato Soup- a family receipt via my grandfather's Scottish cook growing up as a child. Oh- Blushing I will have to share that one with you, do you have skills with a rue(this is the secret to its taste & I have found more than tricky to get right) ? GT

LPC said...

I do believe that part of reaching some kind of peace in middle age is having memories of food I have cooked for those I love and the degree to which I can now recreate them with confidence. Thanks for this post.

the southern hostess said...

What amazing food! Nothing comforts me like warm homemade bread and a cup of tea.

Jackie said...

NYC: crab dip at Etats-Unis wine bar; soup dumplings at Shanghai Pavillion; thing crust pizza at Otto (or anywhere, really!); spaghetti bolognese at Gino; Momofuku noodle bowl at Momofuku; a plate of oysters and lobster roll at Pearl Oyster Bar; focaccia with robiola cheese and truffle oil at Fred's at Barney's; polenta with toasted walnuts and gorgonzola cheese at Union Square Cafe;
LA: Vietnamese spring rolls and garlic noodles at Crustacean; cheeseburger at In-N-Out Burger; gnocchi at Pizzicotto; cheese plate at the Cheese Store of Beverly Hills during their tasting nights;
Charlotte, NC: fried chicken at Price's Chicken Coop; fish taco at Cabo Fish Taco; chicken and dumplings at Dish; small block burger at The Penguin ; pulled pork at Mac's Speed Shop; grilled pimiento cheese sandwich at NOFO;
anywhere: Affinois cheese with fig spread on a Bremner's wheat wafer!

The Blushing Hostess said...

MG - yes, we are really thrilled to go! The girls will love the museums though we will miss the beach at times, surely.

Rona - oh, yes, I have been to that place. And I know exactly what you mean.

AAL - pistachio yogurt, yes. That is good one. Greek, no?

TD - indeed, that was my college roommates comfort food, we even ate her mom's sauce on English muffins for breakfast it was so remarkable.

LA - People keep mentioning Magnoli in Durham to me, one of these days... those sound marvelous and yes, I can make a roux, I learned from watching Emeril, I love his two beer rule!

LPC - I hope I am getting there though I am curious about food and never repeat the same thing unless someone asks. My kids are going to say Mom's recipes were the beset days of her test kitchen, I sometimes think...

Soho - you are and AAL should get together as your tastes run on the same track for comfort...

Jackie - Remind me that I need to carve out an entire day for cardio if I hang out with you - and your Fred's notation is also one of my faves on a windy cold NY shopping day!

little augury said...

Blushing- I knew that spelling was "rong" I am going to put that in my personal dictionary! Not to be found in spellcheck. Another-many say the best in the area beyond magnolia is Lantern in Chapel Hill. (sara foster)
No- I am not getting any free lunches- unfortunately for promoting them (i wish!- Well worth compromising my integrity.

e.e. said...

We are heading to Amelia this next weekend, and will be dining there - thanks so much for sharing, we can't wait!