Bill Cheng's Southern Food Diary
Novelist Bill Cheng's Southern Food Diary, Part 1: Conquering the Oyster
11:30 AM / July 30, 2013
/ Posted by Bon Appetit
When we heard that Bill Cheng, author of the new novel Southern Cross the Dog, was headed to the South on a book tour, we were intrigued. Though the novel takes place in Mississippi, Cheng himself--a Queens-raised Chinese-American--had never been there. So we asked him to keep track of what he ate on tour, and this week we're presenting his diaries in a three-part series.
(Credit: Alex Grossman)
On the 2:39 flight to Jackson, MS, three strangers were talking. Their voices were warm, lyre-like. They were reminiscing about their lives, the places they grew up, the people they knew. They talked about creeks and backwoods, and invariably the conversation turned to food:
"I've had impala; I've had bear; I've had monkey; I've had snake..."
"I've had snake," another agreed.
"Snake is all white meat. Just like chicken on a string."
"Well, I grew up in Mississippi, so I've eaten plenty of possum."
"Where I'm at, all we eat is what I hunt. It's fish in the winter and deer in the summer. I told my wife before she married me. 'You marry me, it'll be fish in the winter. Deer in the summer.'"
My wife, Olga, and I were about to spend a week down South to promote my novel, Southern Cross the Dog, about a young boy growing up in the Mississippi Delta in the 1920s and '30s. The book had gained traction among some reviewers, both Southern and otherwise, but the problem is, I hadn't actually ever been to the South before. I'd done it backward: wrote the book, then sought the experience.
In truth, I had no idea what it means to live in Mississippi. For me, the book had been about something different, but the question was coming up over and over again in reviews and at readings: What did this New York writer know about the South? This trip would be an opportunity to try to come to a peace with that question, through the region's people, its history, and, not least of all, its food. Food, after all, is place and place is everything--our tastes, our beliefs, the people we become, and the stories we tell.
From New York, the South had taken on a mythic quality. Birthplace of the blues, with dust-packed roads traveling along the great white bolls of cotton country. But as we flew in, I could see the Mississippi River and its tributaries, gray-green ribbons filigreeing the western border of the state--an artery into the Gulf of Mexico.
And when we landed in Jackson, the landscape was different still.
We stayed in the city's Fondren Arts District, a quiet neighborhood given over to art galleries, record stores, yoga studios--a far cry from the dust-choked countryside, ramshackle lean-tos, and shotgun shacks of my Northern imagination. On North State Street sat Walker's Drive-In. In the sun-blasted evening it looked like something out of a dime-store detective novel, boxed and squat with a blinked-out neon sign out front.
Inside, it had the decor of an Edward Hopper diner--teal paint, checkerboard floors, Motown piping from the speakers--but the atmosphere was decidedly upscale. My wife and I were seated at a table underneath an autograph from Sharon Stone, and a server in clean, pressed livery came by to take our order.
"What do you recommend?" I asked. I was painfully aware of my voice. Northern. Dull. Songless.
The waitress was the first person I'd spoken to since landing, and I was expecting a look to pass across her face--a moment where the gears shift, recognizing me for the interloper that I was, but her smile held.
(Credit: Flickr user j.anniewang)
The special, soft-shell crab, was very good, she said, adding that Walker's was known for its redfish Anna.
In my Northern imagination, I'd expected chitlins, pulled pork, fried chicken--not fish. And I hadn't had eaten seafood in over 20 years. When I was a kid, my family would go out to Long Island, where my dad would fish and my brother and I would haul up crab traps with my mother. What we brought home, my grandmother would gut and scale in the backyard. It was a longstanding tradition, and I learned to hate it--that humid rank, the brine of the Sound. By the time I was seven, I'd sworn off seafood.
But I passed the server my menu.
"I'll have that," I said.
My wife fixed her eyes at me. "Are you sure?" she asked.
I was here. I wanted to learn. Wanted to fit in.
"Yes," I said.
The crab came in a deep-fried effigy of itself. The crisp brown armor cracked under my fork, bearing out the white flesh beneath. I scooped it up. Anxious. Expectant.
It landed on my tongue sharp. Buttery. My mouth filled with juice.
After came the redfish. It was seared crispy, a confetti of crab meat across its length. I chewed, the light crunchy tectonics breaking through to the soft under-mantle. It had a movement, depth. As if the staying away had made the experience sharper.
For the rest of my time in the state I would try the seafood where I could: crab and shrimp gumbo at Char, in Jackson; fried oysters at the Crystal Grill, in Greenwood; and, finally, at John Currence's Snackbar in Oxford.
It was our last night in Mississippi before moving on to Tennessee, and Currence was hosting me, my wife, and the bookseller Richard Howorth at his restaurant. It was good to be inside, our heat-logged bodies cooling in the air-conditioning. We drank bourbon and Currence ordered raw oysters for the table.
"With oysters," he said, "you're basically tasting the sea."
My wife laughed.
"Before this trip, Billy never ate seafood," she said.
Billy. A name I never use around strangers. But just like that, it was in the air.
They came in a ring, glistening, on a bed of ice.
Currence and Howorth crowded around, looking at me.
I looked down.
A wad of snotty flesh glistened in the smooth cup of its shell.
I plucked it up. Tried not think.
It was the first I'd eaten in my life. It was cold and clean and briny.
Currence was right; it tasted like the sea. Like Jones Beach in August. Musky sweet rising from the green black waters, the salt on the pilings. And maybe it'd been all the whiskey, but it didn't seem so bad now, surrounded by this warmth, hundreds of miles from home, holding this memory in my mouth.
I went back for another and Howorth smiled, leaning toward me.
"It is safe to say a door has swung open," he said.
Tomorrow: Pig-ear sandwiches and some really good bourbon.
Bill Cheng received a BA in creative writing from Baruch College and is a graduate of Hunter College's MFA program. Born and raised in Queens, New York, he currently lives in Brooklyn with his wife. Southern Cross the Dog is his first novel.
Novelist Bill Cheng's Southern Food Diary, Part 2
12:40 PM / July 31, 2013
/ Posted by Bon Appetit
When we heard that Bill Cheng, author of the new, Mississippi-set novel Southern Cross the Dog, was headed to the South on a book tour, we asked the Queens-raised Chinese-American--who had never been there--to keep track of what he ate, and this week we're presenting his diaries in a three-part series. Yesterday, he detailed his encounters with seafood. Today, he focuses on land creatures.
Miss Ora's Fried Chicken (Credit: Penny De Los Santos)
The Mississippi of my imagination is a land carved by movement--an expanse of country seamed with roads and waterways, beaten flat under tire treads and footfalls. There is an unrest like a curl of silt in fast-running water. "I gotta keep movin', I gotta keep movin'," croons bluesman Robert Johnson. In his songs, Johnson was afflicted with a restlessness, a need to keep chasing. And while Johnson had his Terraplane and Charley Patton his black mare, I had a rented 2012 tan Mazda, GPS built into the dash.
For this out-of-town author, Mississippi had been a disjointed network of destinations--wide open highways punctuated by rambling sun-baked towns. The rental had been a kind of time capsule--my wife and I, frozen inside, a tree-steepled country peeled across the windshield. In here we stowed maps and brochures and a camera and we turned the air-conditioning high. It was here that I first gulped sweet tea from plastic cups and slurped greedily from a bag of roadside boiled peanuts.
It was my last day in Mississippi and I had a full schedule ahead of me: Greenwood at noon, Oxford at four, then a late dinner before heading across the state line into Memphis, from where I was to fly out to Nashville the next morning. There were books to sign and hands to shake and almost 200 miles to push beneath our tires. We loaded our things into the car early that morning. I was anxious to get on the road.
But first, breakfast.
The Farish District of Jackson was a far cry from the neighborhood of Fondren where I'd been staying. Where Fondren was young and artsy, Farish had gone to seed. The streets were empty. Houses were barred or boarded-up, and the square squat buildings along the avenue showed signs of weathering.
The Big Apple Inn sat on North Farish Street between Hamilton and West Oakley. It was small, marked by a red-striped awning, and a round sign that read Big Apple Inn on a small reinforced window. Next door was a beauty salon whose doorway was reinforced with particle board. Above was a row of windows--the former offices of Medgar Evars and the NAACP. Now the panes were yellow and knocked out like bad teeth.
In its heyday, Farish was a wellspring of black business and culture. There were night clubs, hotels, restaurants, and record labels up and down the avenue. But while the Crystal Palace and Ace Records and the Speir Phonograph Company are gone, the Big Apple had managed to keep its head above water.
Inside, the restaurant was cozy--wood paneling and plastic chairs, with a Pepsi vending machine banked against the wall. On the far end of the counter, a small television set was going, looping a recent documentary on Farish Street and the restaurant.
In its 74-year history, the menu hadn't changed--tamales, pig-ear sandwiches, fried bologna--and the prices have stayed more or less steady since the restaurant opened (accounting for inflation, of course). Yet at the same time, the Big Apple has also adapted to the times, opening additional locations in Jackson and Atlanta. Its pig-ear sandwiches have been featured on the Travel Channel, and its Atlanta location was highlighted in an episode of Anthony Bourdain's The Layover. The Big Apple Inn was both a holdover from the old Farish Street and a thriving presence in modern Jackson. And I wondered if that isn't part of what the South is, this constant negotiation between what is and what once was.
We ordered tamales, smokeds (as everyone calls the smoked sausages), and pig-ear sandwiches. The tamales came first--minced-meat sheathed in corn meal, enveloped in a sopping husk. It came steaming in a pool of bright amber juice. Next were the sandwiches--the smokes an incandescent hash of red rose sausage, smeared in slaw, hot sauce, and mustard. The pig-ears, though, were what enticed me down to Farish in the first place. It was the Big Apple's signature sandwich--a slice of gray-brown cartilage slathered in the same slaw-and-mustard blend as the smokes. The ear was soft as aspic, a warm loamy taste spreading over the buzz of tang and heat.
Fried boudin balls (Credit: Flickr user chez pim)
It was a hearty heavy meal. Fuel for the road. We sucked the grease from our fingers, bussed our trays then headed north on US-49 into Greenwood. It was a long, quiet drive, the road banked on either side by trees and swampland. After Greenwood, we headed northeast for another two hours, racing through flat green country, the roads clear save for the harvesters and mowers that hulked along the trim.
It was late into the afternoon by the time we pulled into Oxford, my head aching, my gut pitted with iron.
Oxford is a college town. Beautiful, well-kept. At its heart is the square, a series of boutiques, restaurants, bars, bookstores forming a perimeter from the marbled courthouse.
The air was damp and treacly. It'd been a slow and heavy heat all day, and by the time I'd finished the reading at the bookstore, it hadn't gotten much better. That night I was dining with Richard Howorth, the owner of Square Books and Oxford's former mayor, and John Currence, the chef and owner of the City Grocery Restaurant Group. We were to eat at Currence's restaurant Snack Bar just down the road from the square.
We stepped into the air-conditioning and the hostess showed us to a long narrow bar top just past the oyster-shucking station. It was good to be inside. I was weary and rootless, aware of our bags stowed in the rental, aware of our hotel reservation 85 miles away.
My trip had been a failure.
It was my last night in Mississippi. I'd eaten the food, driven the roads, hunted the markers along the Delta Blues Trail. That afternoon I'd been to Rowan Oak, Faulkner's house, and now I was here breaking bread with these men: the former mayor; a man who has fed this community for decades. But still I wasn't any closer to understanding what it means to be from Mississippi. To live here. To be a part of this place.
Grilled Chicken Liver Pate and Blackberry Crostini (Credit: Penny De Los Santos)
Currence ordered for us: boiled peanut salad, fried boudin balls, chicken-liver pate, catfish romesco, sweet-tea-breaded fried chicken. He had the food segmented and portioned out, and we ate and drank, sharing plates, humming between bites. I didn't realize how hungry I'd been.
I tore through the catfish. Its skin flaky and light. I pulled up strips of fried chicken, the hot juice spilling down my fingers.
It was interesting to watch Howorth and Currence together. They talked about their lives, people they knew, the goings-on around town. Howorth's daughter had gotten married the day before, while Currence himself was celebrating the birth of his own daughter.
I was drinking whiskey that evening and when the waiter came around, Currence instructed him to get me "some of the good shit." The waiter came back with two glasses of honey-brown liquid. It'd come from a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle's, Currence explained, a bourbon he'd selected out from the distillery just over 20 years ago when he first opened City Grocery, his flagship restaurant. I sipped and my throat hummed warmly. The bourbon was sharp and clean.
Whiskey on the Rock (Credit: Jonathon Kambouris)
"Can I have a sip of that?" Howorth asked. I passed it to him and he drank. He looked into the cup.
"I can drink this all night," he said then he passed it back.
I'd come here hoping to understand what it meant to be from Mississippi. But maybe in the end, it doesn't mean anything. Maybe this was the extent of what any life is--the people you know, the things you share.
We kept drinking and eating, and at some point in the middle of dinner, there was a great roar outside the building. We were all quiet--not just our table, but the whole restaurant--looking out toward the front windows. Rain stormed down on the roof and the parking lot, and in the darkness beyond.
How small everything seemed right then. How intimate.
That night, after saying goodbye, my wife and I climbed into our rental. We were exhausted and soaked, and I was drunk, and she drove us beneath lightning skies and angry rain--85 miles through the small lightless hours into Memphis.
Novelist Bill Cheng's Southern Food Diary, Part 3: Nashville
1:00 PM / August 1, 2013
/ Posted by Bon Appetit
When we heard that Bill Cheng, author of the new, Mississippi-set novel Southern Cross the Dog, was headed to the South on a book tour, we asked the Queens-raised Chinese-American--who had never been there--to keep track of what he ate, and this week we're presenting his diaries in a three-part series. Tuesday, he detailed his encounters with seafood. Yesterday, he focused on land creatures. And today, he tackles meat-and-threes in Nashville.
Robert's Western World, Nashville (Credit: Marcus Nilsson)
Block by block, I watched Nashville slide along the open window of the silver pickup. Last night's rain had come and gone, and the afternoon light beamed bright and clean over the city. I'd flown in from Memphis early that morning and it was fortifying being in a large city again. Telephone poles, office complexes, the grind and gnash of roadwork. Mississippi had by and large been a ramble of small towns spread over wide open spaces. Here in Nashville, the city shored up its buildings around you. The warm fuzz of metropolitan traffic burbled faintly at the edge of my hearing.
My guide that day was Tandy Wilson, chef at City House. He'd picked me and my wife up from our hotel and was taking us around to his favorite places to eat.
I looked out the passenger window. Office buildings. Auto centers. Consignment shops. Nashville is a modern city. Cosmopolitan, electric, expansive. In a few days, a 350,000-square-foot convention center was set to open in the South of Broadway district. Neighborhoods were gentrifying, turning younger. It was a reminder that soon I'd be heading back to New York, and I was no closer to understanding what it means to be from the South.
I watched Wilson as he drove. He was young, in his 30s, slender-framed save for the slight paunch of his gut. The quintessential Nashvillean. Warm. Friendly. Eager to smile. His voice rang twanged and brassy when he spoke. He'd spent most of his life in Nashville. He knew its districts, where to eat, where to drink, which honky-tonks to visit. He was fanatic about country music--Jason Isbell, Justin Townes Earle. That day, a silk-screened Dolly Parton smiled brightly from his T-shirt.
(Credit: Marcus Nilsson)
Our first stop that afternoon was Arnold's Country Kitchen, a meat-and-three restaurant--a cafeteria-style lunch line offering a serving of meat and a choice of three sides to go with. The building sat wide and squat, fire-engine red, with its name painted in full yellow letters across the side. Out front, a marquee announced the day's meats: brisket and pork chop.
Arnold's is a family-run restaurant started over 30 years ago by Jack and Rose Arnold, and in that time it'd become a community center. It seemed like the whole city was here; families, construction workers, pensioners--all packing into the gallery for a late lunch.
"This is slow for them," Wilson said.
We squeezed into the queue along the wall and picked up our trays.
Mile-High Chocolate Pie (Credit: Ditte Isager)
That day Rose Arnold and her son Khalil crammed our trays with food, and we lugged our meals to an empty table. Our spread was obscene. We spaced the plates across the whole topography of the four-seater table. A row of cakes and pies, each slice mounded with a bouffant of homemade whipped cream. The sides lay scattered--a heat map of yellow squash casserole, mac and cheese, red pulp of stewed tomatoes. On the trays were the dense mulchy marshlands of collard greens, okra, black-eyed peas.
We let loose in a fugue, reaching with our forks for gooey stands of brisket, banana pudding, pecan pie. I shoveled it in bite after bite--my appetite raging. The more I ate, the more I wanted. The dishes were simple, unpretentious. "Nothing here is frozen," Wilson said. Every vegetable, every pie crust, every dollop of cream was made at Arnold's. By the end of the meal, the food had settled in me warm and full and good. I felt solid; anchored.
I'd eaten myself into a narcotic haze. But country cooking was only one part of a complicated culinary culture in Tennessee.
Southern Mac and Cheese at Arnold's (Credit: Ditte Isager)
"There're three kinds of cooking in Nashville," Wilson explained. "There's the food that white people cook; there's the food that black people cook; and then there's the food that black people cook for white people."
It was this last item that excited Wilson.
His favorite example was something called hot water cornbread. It was a dish that had come out of the Southern black cooking tradition. Boiling water is poured over cornmeal, and the mash shaped into a nugget and fried in lard. Black cooks brought it into the homes of the white families that employed them, serving it to their children.
Wilson had debuted a version of it in his restaurant. His white customers at City House were struck by how familiar it was. "They didn't know the name," Wilson said, "but they remembered it from when they were kids." This was food in Nashville. It was history and race--the junctures where the narrative lines of two schismed cultures twine and uncouple, each bound up in the other. It was about people and sharing.
We piled back into the truck. Our next stop was Bailey & Cato's--a soul food favorite among Wilson's kitchen staff. Wilson drove us into the sleepy neighborhood of Inglewood. I slumped in the passenger seat, swollen, catatonic, gazing drowsily out at the ash tree-lined streets.
Bailey & Cato's was set up in a small, weathered cottage on McGavock Pike. Inside the room was small and cool. A television set was going on the shelf behind the counter.
We took the Styrofoam cartons outside and in the back of Wilson's truck. He cracked open the cartons. The chicken was crisp and warm, fried into golden coral. The ribs steamed moist and smoky from under the butcher paper. We were full but we snacked, tearing off hot moist slurping, slurping the varnish of grease and juice from our fingers.
"Look at this," Wilson said. He plucked up a piece of hot water cornbread. It was roud and small like a deep-fried Ping-Pong ball. He held it up to the light. "Doesn't that look just like a hand?"
I stared and something clicked into place.â€© Suddenly I found myself, six years old again, sitting in the kitchen of my grandparents' Spanish Harlem apartment. My mom and aunt at the table, their hands blanched with flour. They were making potstickers. I watched them scoop the dough, pit the mass into their palms. Every stitch, every dimple of everything I've ever eaten was a movement of the hand, the pursing of two fingers. It was someone's life.
I looked at the cornbread--the dough rounded into the inner groove of someone's palm. Someone of whom I knew nothing, who knew nothing about me. And yet in some lost moment, we'd shared something bizarre and intimate.
Fettuccine with Pork, Greens, and Beans at City House (Credit: Matt Duckor)
That night, my wife and I went to City House. It was a late reservation and the street was dark and lonesome with only the warm amber glow of City House's private room casting into the street. Wilson had reserved us a seat at the high-top counter in the back room where we could watch him work.
We sat down. He was focused, his forehead knit in concentration as he rabbited from station to station. He was sharp, delierate, his earlier enthusiasm converted into kinetic energy. I watched him lift a cheese grater, and in tight thrusts, shake filings of Parmesan loose from the teeth.
Wilson poked his head over the ceramic pigs that mounted the counter. "The strawberries just came in," he said, setting down a plate. A ring of crisp red wedges sat on a bed of sweetened ricotta.
We ate. More food arrived. A perfect curled octopus tentacle over a slush of black-eyed peas. House-cured salami sliced thin and dark like rose pedals. A poached egg sitting in a nest of al dente fettuccine, wild mushrooms, and shredded chicken liver. I watched my wife as she broke the yolk, letting the yellow spill and bind into the tangle of pasta.
We ate late into the night--tired, happy. I toasted a cider against my wife's club soda. By the end of the night we sat leaned up against our chair backs, our hands folded over our pooched stomachs.
I felt lucky right then. To be where I was. With who I was with.
We sat there quiet, heads buzzing, washed in the warm roar of the wood oven. --Bill Cheng