From the Archives of Nancy Bestor
I’m going to be the first to admit it. Bob and I love food. It doesn’t matter the shape or form it comes in, if it’s good, we eat. It can be cheap, expensive, served on a paper plates or on fine china. So when we plan our travel, food always plays a major role. Sure I’d love to go back to Hawaii and lay on the beach and hike to beautiful waterfalls, but how’s the food? We’d probably be happier in Mexico where we can get delicious fish tacos. We love the coast of Oregon for its beauty and ocean, but have yet to find a good restaurant. Thus we’re not always jumping to head to the coast. The following story is from our archives, detailing our search for great regional food around the good old U.S.A. in 1993.
We were traveling in a Volkswagen pop-top camper, newly married, no responsibilities, and no worries. Money was tight, but food was still important. We did a lot of shopping because we cooked a lot out of our camper, and discovered that it’s iceberg lettuce or nothing in the Piggly-Wigglys and Winn-Dixies of the mid-western and southern states. Although we did cook quite often, as finances for such a long trip (five months) were a major issue, we tried to go out for special, regional meals whenever we had a good recommendation.
One of our wedding presents was the book RoadFood U.S.A. and we carried it through 35 states, poring over the pages looking for good eats.
While often maligned for a myriad reasons, the American South has produced a far more unique, varied, original, flavorful and exciting cuisine than any other U.S. region. And in our minds the heart of it all is New Orleans.
In New Orleans, you can still get ready-to-eat crawfish, seasoned and spiced to perfection, for not much more than a buck a pound if you are willing to venture out of the French Quarter to slightly more outlying areas. We spent over a week there—for JazzFest and to visit friends—and I think we had a plate in our hands the whole time. Crawfish etouffe, muffelatas, oysters, jambalaya, gumbo, crawfish bread, crawfish monica, creole stuffed bread, Napoleans, alligator, and po’boys filled with much of the above. All deep fried of course. We’re due back in February 2002 and promise an update.
All that said about the Big Easy, our finest single southern dining experience came in Savannah, Georgia, where we visited Mrs. Wilkes Boarding House (107 W. Jones St.). Check out a sample menu at www.mrswilkes.com. We arrived at Mrs. Wilkes’ Boarding House for an 11am lunch at 10:30 and people were already lining up at the antique three-story house located in a residential area. The only sign on the door reads “breakfast 8-9, lunch 11-3, no tank tops.” The lunch bell rang at about 11:15 and our line of about 60 people shuffled in. Bob and I sat at a table of 12.
Plain white plates and silverware wrapped in paper napkins were our tools. Mrs. Wilkes said grace, and then we dug in to whatever was laid out on our table. This included beef stew, fried chicken, mashed potatoes with cheese, mashed squash, mash sweet potatoes, brown rice with sausage, potato salad, chicken salad, green beans, lima beans, cornbread and biscuits, gravy, beets, barbecued sausage, corn on the cob, collared greens, white rice, green salad (our table’s green salad went untouched), fruit salad, and banana cream pudding or apple cobbler for dessert. Presweetened ice tea was the drink of the day. Everything, even the lima beans, was wonderful.
Rumor had it that the dishes changed daily because it was a popular local eating spot, but we dined mostly with tourists. Mrs. Wilkes has been featured in several magazines, many of which adorn the walls of the “dining room” (really just a converted basement). People, Gourmet and Esquire all had Mrs. Wilkes on the cover. Lunch was a set price of $8 (now $10) apiece. Just like at home, when you finish eating (our table was done in about 30-40 minutes) you carry your own dishes to the kitchen where as many as 8-10 women are working furiously (people were lining up outside for the next seating when we began eating). Different tables got different dishes, and the servers did not seem welcome to being asked for something different, such as soda or a different dish. No smoking, no reservations, nothing stronger than iced tea. True southern food.
There were hot dogs in Chicago, before a Cubs game at Wrigley Field, barbeque in Memphis, sandwiches (manwiches is more like it) in New York at Stage Deli, barbecued pork in Wisconsin, (where some of us watched dinner go from a live pig to barbecue on the table, I skipped that show and meal), swiss steak in Iowa (at a roadside restaurant named Hawkeye 127 a hole in the wall joint, where the food was outstanding), fried oysters and clam chowder in Seattle at Pike’s Market, chicken fried steak and meatloaf in Austin and crabcakes and steamed shrimp in Baltimore at Cross Street Market.
It’s been eight years since that trip and I can still taste some of the great food we ate. There is truly something special about finding great regional cuisine in a “local” restaurant. The atmosphere is always special and the food is always better than anything you might find in “the tourist area” of any place you might visit.
I can’t wait for the next trip, and the opportunity to eat my way around more parts of the world.