Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Yer Biscuits

In the late summer of 2003, me and Martha loaded our possessions on a truck, said goodbye to family and friends and left the pleasant leafy neighborhood of Belhaven for a rickity townhouse, on a dingy street, in the wretched city of New Haven, Connecticut. I was enrolled at Yale for an MA in history.

I will always be grateful for the opportunity and to the people who made it possible but living in New Haven was worse than boot camp. It is a crowded, wind blown, broken down, boarded up, rusted out, trash strewn frozen dump...literally, it's a dump. I think most of New England's raw sewage eventually makes its way down to New Haven. New England raw sewage...let that simmer.

Among other things, it had a deleterious affect on the appetite...not such a problem really because, while the food may be fine as kinds of food (mostly Italian and seafood)...every place we went was dank and musty. Even cooking at home was problematic. After a comment by Martha's aunt, who is originally from Connecticut, I became disgusted by the thought of using the tap water.

At this point, I must admit, I had moved from a reasonable response to a dirty environment to a more pathological problem....shortly I would break out in hives and deal with them off and on for the rest of our time there.*

In fairness I have to point out that New Haven has great local rootbeer and the pizza is fantastic. Fair warning, if you're ever in New Haven, get the pizza to go...just so you don't end up sitting next to the tiny, thin-walled, unventilated toilet where shameless New Englanders will make themselves boisterously at home.

Still...a redneck's gotta eat. Fortunately...well sorta fortunately, fortunatishly...there is an option anywhere you go east of the Mississippi River...Cracker Barrel. It's a chain of country store/restaurants that have been selling Southern groceries to Yankees for decades (Atlanta was as far south as they went for years...what was the point?).

Cracker Barrels are like Waffle House in that there are good ones and bad ones. There is a Cracker Barrel in New Haven....Right.  Good or bad they all have grits and biscuits on the menu. So, one morning I decided to get up at 5am and drive to the other side of town for breakfast (it had to be 5am because of the mind boggling congestion...there was a point after 7am when it became impossible to get anywhere in under two hours). Cracker Barrel grits are quick grits...I could've bought some bottled water and made the grits myself. The biscuits are another story and they have a branded maple syrup that is delicious. That was my focus.

We got off to a bad start with the grits. It's nearly impossible to mess up quick grits but they managed...serving me a bowl of hot gritty water with a frown. Still I had my biscuits. All I needed was some syrup.

"Ma'am...could get some syrup please?"

"Whaaaadduhya want syee-rup for...ya' biscuits?" She was incredulous...and slightly disgusted.

"Yes ma'am...please."


Most of y'all have heard me matter where I've gone in the English speaking world no one has ever had trouble placing me on the map.** I wanted to say to her..."listen have your current job because people that sound (and look...but that's another story) like me eat a certain **** off to the kitchen and get my syrup before I ask you to bring me some peanut butter too."

Of course, I didn't say any of that. I just left her with a "bless your heart" smile and never went back.

Then there was the episode with a sour old cow from Wisconsin at a Cracker Barrel around here in Pearl. 

We had a friend from Indiana down to visit (i.e. down to drink). Next to Waffle House, there's no better place to feed a hangover than Cracker Barrel....evidenced by the fact that, on this Sunday morning, we had to wait outside for a table. That's when we met the old heffer...Sittin in one of the rocking chairs with a scawl on her face. It was hard to tell whether her eyes were narrowed or just hidden behind lumps of flesh. Her most prominent feature was a bottom lip that stuck out much further than her broad flat nose...there was the last whispers of blonde on what was left of her hair. She was wearing like a tent...a moo moo or whatever you call it.

As soon as my friend opened his mouth...

"Where are you from?" She demanded.

"I'm from Indi-ana."

That was all it took...

"I'm traveling through here from Wiscaaaaansin. Did you see that jar of pickled pigs feet on the counter. God these people will eat anything."

Hold it right there Frau.

First of all...I'm one of "these people". Mind your manners...oh yeah. That's don't have any.

Secondly, being from Wisconsin you might want to settle your ass a little considering that people in this state were forced, in large part by people from yours, to eat whatever they could get their hands on. Hopefully they'll keep closing your factories and sending them to Mexico and you people can develop a taste for pig ears.

Lastly...and MOST just pulled off the Interstate, with intent, to eat at a restaurant that specifically and loudly and exclusively....serves Southern groceries.

WTF....I ask you W...T...F?

All the disgust and fascination with...the desire for and repulsion by...sat in a rocking chair in Pearl.

What can you say...what can you do?

Just keep eatin' I reckon.

* This had more to do with the people than it did the grim surroundings. They started on the last day of a visit back to Mississippi...just before I was getting ready to head back.

** There was an episode at a bar in London...a man was actually kicked out because he wouldn't stop telling me how sexy he though my "Texas" accent was. That's a true story. Ha!


  1. Grits are polenta, right? Godzilla just turned 19 months and I'm pretty sure even he couldn't fuck up polenta. And pig's feet are awesome - awesome. I've never had them pickled but smoked or raw they are the base for pretty much the best pasta sauce human hands can make.

    The most disgusted I've ever been by food was in the roadside cafes driving down from Buffalo to New York, and I've spent months in China, where hyperbole aside I actually do believe about a quarter of the haute cuisine is based on a dare. There were cakes of a colour and texture so disturbing I'd probably get into a physical fight with someone if they offered them to my son.

    1. Basically yes...there are differences in traditional preparations and I think there's some technical differences in which corn is used and how it's treated but's ground corn.

      One of the better episodes of Good Eats with Alton Brown features grits...he brings on a Southern Belle character and an Italian to eat polenta and grits together. He keeps insisting that he's Southerner and they both laugh at him...he says he had to give up his accent for television...the girl accuses him of being from South Florida.

      We were out this week and I Shrimp and Grits...with freaking good.

      A lot of pigs feet, hamhocks and necks get smoked in these parts...and deliciously end up in collards.


      I have my limits...not crazy about organs (I'll eat some chicken gizzards and livers...boudin) but...gels and pastes are another thing I struggle with.

  2. Last time I was in Norway, a colleague and I were invited by our client to celebrate his birthday with him and his family at their holiday place in the mountains, where, he told me, we’d be eating his two favourite festive dishes. The first was rakefisk (i.e. soaked fish) – cod salted and fermented in a bucket for two or three months and then eaten raw (it’s sort of dark-grey and mulchy and smells like something died). The other was lutefisk, which is cod soaked for several weeks in cold water, then cold water and lye, then cold water again to get rid of the lye, until it’s basically a clear jelly with bone fragments left in it, which you boil and serve with lots of other stuff.

    I gagged when I first tasted the rakefisk, because of its unappealing texture, but then became aware of how damned delicious it was – rich and gamey and pungent – and got stuck in enthusiastically. When it came to lutefisk, a Norwegian cousin had warned me in advance that it was really disgusting, but nothing had prepared me for quite how revolting it was going to be. The problem was its lack of any strong flavour plus a hint of chemical unpleasantness. I took a couple of tiny bites (sucks?) of this crud and washed it down quickly with fruit juice, but my Scottish colleague (despite the fact that I’d passed on my cousin’s warning) shoved an enormous spoonful in his mouth as soon as the plate was set in front of him and then sat there for about a minute looking like a hamster, realising that if he swallowed, he was going to throw up. He eventually took a glug of aquavit and forced it all down and then sat for about five minutes trying not to regurgitate everything. Our host found this very amusing. Anyway, I assume both these dishes also originated with poor people having to make very little go a long way, especially in the middle of a Norwegian winter, when the threat of starvation must have been all too real.

    I wonder what the charming lady from Wisconsin would have made of those two treats.

    1. It would have been especially interesting had she gone out of her way to find a Norwegian restaurant.

      The rakefisk sound puckeringly good.

  3. I do love this post, Erik. Just picturing and hearing it all so well. The regional snobbery is vile but makes for great anecdotes, at least. I'm steering clear of discussions about meaty foods for obvious reasons, though.

    1. These episodes were just bizarre given the surroundings.

      I'm reminded of an episode of Freaks and Geeks where the kids get high and go to the planetarium where their having a lightshow and playing know like Rush. When it turns out to be "Southern Rock" they're all disappointed.

      Grits and Biscuits are meat free ma'am...and readily available.