Chattanooga, Tenn., is a town that loves its art. (And its doughnuts, but that’s a different post.) Art is everywhere here. It oozes out of museums and galleries and spills out onto walls, buses and anywhere there’s an inspiring blank space. Such as sidewalks. In the emerging Southside Art District, for example, simply walking along immerses you in all sorts of innovative artistic minds. Sculptor John Petrey, for instance, is known for his dress series, and one of his astonishing works is just standing right there. You can walk up to it and inspect it and touch it all you want. Yea, art for the people!!! And then there was this wooden door propped up against a lamp post on a sidewalk in Northside, Chattanooga’s cool hipster alter ego. Younger Daughter and I were walking to Greenlife Grocery (which we all know is actually a Whole Foods, although everybody in Northside tries to deny it) when we spotted the door and tried to figure it out. Was it art? Apartment renovation? A magic door that would lead to an alternate universe? We resisted the urge to draw on it since all we had were ink pens and lipstick and, besides, if it did happen to be a magic door leading to an alternate universe, we felt that non-engagement was the proper response.
Have you ever been to Marietta, Ga.? I’d sort of skirted around it a few times — and, of course, being a Southern well-versed in my Confederate history, when I hear “Marietta” I also hear the sounds of Sherman’s invasion (they’re still peeved about that, you know) and the Great Locomotive Chase. But now I’m adding this town to my list of food destinations, starting with the Marietta Diner, which is only a “diner” in the sense that people go there to eat. It’s a large, noisy, family-friendly, food-abundant destination. We went with friends during a recent wedding weekend in nearby Kennesaw. Don had been there before and suggested we try it, although he couldn’t really describe the place. “It’s big,” he said, helplessly. “There’s a lot of food.” I wish I’d listened to him before I ordered pan-fried feta cheese in lemon butter for the table as an appetizer, although it was so good that I’m not sorry at all. Then came soup. And salad. And squares of spinach pie. (I can’t spell “spanakopita.”) And bread. And THEN came the entrees you ordered oh-so-long-ago when you first thought you were hungry. (All this, I might add, while in sight of tempting cakes, cookies and other desserts staring at you from the bakery section. Ouch.) I got kabobs because USUALLY that translates into a smaller and more manageable dish. But …. no. All you need to know is that the Marietta Diner is one of Guy Fieri’s top “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.” I believe that about sums it up. Also, Alton Brown and his family reportedly live in Marietta. Although I didn’t spot him at the diner, I have the feeling that in public he sort of blends in and you would only notice him in passing and think “Who’s that geeky looking guy who forgot to shave?” Stay tuned for another Marietta post about the biggest, most gigantic and most huge liquor/wine/beer store I have ever seen in my life. And that’s saying something.
Friends, food and fun — who would turn down an evening like that? You know I’m first in line. But when
partner-in-crime event organizer Sherry wanted to go see something called “Sister Myotis’ End Times Hootenanny” at Theatreworks in Memphis yet couldn’t describe exactly what would be on stage, I was a little concerned. “You just have to see for yourself,” she kept saying. “You have to have the total experience.” And she was correct. As she always is. Sister Myotis is … well … she’s … well … think drag-queen versions of TV’s GCB church ladies with … uh … more colorful wardrobes. That’s about the best I can do. You really have to go see for yourself. (Sister is taking a well-deserved rest now but keep checking for her return.) However, I can describe the food we had that evening at Boscos Squared, a restaurant and brew-pub in midtown Memphis‘ Overton Square entertainment and historic district: Delicious. Boscos is a popular gathering spot for its spacious yet cozy interior, lovely outdoor dining space and not-too-extensive menu of handcrafted beers and bar-food favorites. We had a yummy hummus duo to start, and some of the dishes we ordered at our table included an intriguing black-bean and goat-cheese tamale and the classic cedar-plank salmon and roasted-garlic mashed potatoes. Our server patiently helped us choose the proper beer and even took our picture on multiple cameras because none of us believe anything really happens unless we take a picture of it. After dinner, we enjoyed a stroll in the gorgeous early-spring evening — which was only enhanced with a stop at bakery and frozen yogurtery YoLo, where we sadly learned that gelato is MORE fattening than ice cream, not less as we had always thought. Oh, well. That probably wouldn’t bother Sister Myotis, so we didn’t let it bother us.
Two words: “Blue food.” That is what we’ll all be eating in the future, says Jack White, of both Pulaski, Tenn., and Los Angeles. And he should know about food and the future, since he’s the one who created the dystopian feasts in the blockbuster movie “The Hunger Games.” White, food stylist to the stars in 75 feature movies during the past 20 years, was in Florence, Ala., — home of his alma mater, the University of North Alabama — sharing “Hunger Games” and food-styling insight with an appreciative crowd
of District 12 supporters. “All I know is that if you want futuristic food, make it blue,” he said, laughing. “For some reason, movie folks go crazy over blue food.” Also, apparently quail eggs will be big in the future, too, so start buying quail-egg stock immediately. Showing photos of the Hunger Games food in the making, White gave us insider information from the secret world of movie-making. For instance, every item of food has to be edible in case the director spontaneously wants the actors to eat — and this random going off-schedule, off-script and off-budget is what makes White’s job stressful anxiety-producing tons of fun since he starts working on food details MONTHS in advance. Plus, he has to produce multiple and identical items for each food scene — the single loaf of bread you see on screen has 74 exact copies nearby, waiting for stardom with the next take. And the next one … and the next one … and the … And, yes, it bothers him when scenes he spent days and $$$$ on are cut. “But I get my paycheck either way,” he said, with a grin. And, no, actors don’t actually eat the food. “At least the older, seasoned actors don’t,” White said. “The new, young actors will dive right in when they’re supposed to eat in a scene and they’ll really enjoy the food, and then the older actors will say, ‘Well, good. Now you’ve got to do the same thing 100 times today.” Dustin Hoffman, he added, usually has a fork in his hand or an empty fork coming from his mouth when he’s supposed to eat but arely actually chews and swallows. (And now I’m going to wander through “Tootsie” and check this.) Other tips from White include 1) use Israeli couscous as a good all-round basic food (it takes colors, it’s blandly pleasant tasting and it shoots well), 2) use olive oil to clean the soot off your smoked suckling pig. (Who knew?) and 3) to amaze and delight your friends, make tiny cuts in the whole cooked fish you’re serving, loosen the bones and then put it all back together for seemingly effortless fish-deboning at the table. I also learned that I really need a food stylist every day in my own kitchen, but I’m guessing that’s not going to happen. Oh, well. White spoke at the Florence-Lauderdale Public Library, which also was hosting its second Edible Books Festival. And, of course, one of the entries was a “Hunger Games” cake, from one of my favorite bakeries, Yummies, in Tuscumbia. Don’t you love it when cake and books and movies collide?
Anytime husband John Pitts and I are 1) together and 2) close to Oxford, Miss. and 3) it’s anywhere close to eating time, we celebrate by heading to the downtown square for some of the best food in the state … or anywhere. And the thing is, you can’t take a wrong step once you’re there. Oxford has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to places to eat. Take our newest favorite — Ajax Diner. This is real down-home cooking paired with a good beer selection, as if your Southern grandma cooked Sunday dinner at the local bar and invited the whole town. Best bets here are macaroni and cheese, sweet potato casserole and burgers. I decided to ignore the “List of Approved Foods for Patients with Malfunctioning Gall Bladders” my doctor gave me, and I went for the fried oyster salad (although in deference to The List, I didn’t eat all the cheese). But a better list is “Things We’re Going To Try the Next Time We Go To Ajax:” Black-bean chili with local ground beef, homemade pimiento cheese in a grilled quesadilla and the blackeyed-pea and catfish cakes. And maybe fellow Ajax fan Eli Manning will be there.
Where to eat in Starkville, Miss., home of , bulldogs and cowbells? For the best college-town experience — and some great beer and burgers — head to Mugshots Grill and Bar, in a restored brick house on a downtown historic-district corner. Husband JP and I headed here recently after a basketball game, based on several recommendations that all mentioned the good food and the iffy service. We agree on both counts. Love the decor and atmosphere — exposed brick, gorgeous woodwork, fireplaces and authentically worn floors. And then there’s the menu. You’ve got all the usual suspects, but with a twist. The fried cheese wedges are made of actual real cheese lightly breaded in maybe panko crumbs so you get more of a cheese flavor than a greasy taste. Sandwiches are on fresh-tasting sourdough buns and come with crunchy and potato-y beer-battered fries. (Why is this the first time I’ve ever eaten beer-battered fries?) Burgers come in all your favorite variations: blue cheese, sauteed mushrooms, barbecue sauce, hickory-smoked bacon … and peanut butter. Yes, peanut butter. Stop laughing. I now will never eat a good real-meat grilled hamburger again without spreading on some rich and creamy peanut butter and maybe some sweet berry-filled jam. Also, plenty of decent draft choices. Was all this worth waiting more than an hour for and listening to two — TWO! — stories of kitchen woes from our waitress to explain our missing food. Since the end result was beer-battered french fries and a peanut-buttered hamburger, the answer is “yes.”
You know how you’ll go by the same restaurant every so often and it seems really intriguing and you think, “We really should eat there some day.”? After the twenty-third time or so that my husband and I were in Murfreesboro, Tenn., and walked by the Maple Street Grill, downtown on the square, we finally decided to go in and, you know, eat. Turns out that Maple Street is a popular local gathering spot for lunch and dinner as well as drinks and tapas at night in the upstairs bar, Maple Street Uncorked. And no wonder. The interior space has that urban-cool feel of downtown renewal without being pretentious about it — it’s cozy, comfortable and Southern elegant all at the same time. The lunch menu was enticing — a grilled portabella sandwich, pan-seared tuna, fish taco and turkey and apple sandwich all sounded yummy. (Not to mention the Fried Hershey Bar. Since I’ve been banned from deep-frying sugary objects at home since our leftover Valentine’s candy debacle, I have to take advantage of anytime I can snag a warm & melty fried delight.) Dinner featured steak, chicken and pasta entrees, while the Uncorked menu included tapas choices such as a hummus flight and a cheese board along with I-really-want-to-try-that drinks — Cucumber Rain, made of Rain Organic Cucumber Lime Vodka with sweet-and-sour mix and ginger ale, seemed especially to be calling my name. Extra points to Maple Street, too, for online ordering and a smart-phone app. We’ll be back.