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.”
In my four-woman book club, we rotate host duties for the
monthly whenever-we-can-get-together meetings. The hostess chooses the book and decides where to meet — usually her house — and what kind of food to have. Because reading and eating are some of my all-time top favorite things, I’m not ashamed to admit that when it’s my turn to host, I usually choose books I know I can get a great menu from. And I hit the jackpot with my most recent pick, “Suite Francaise,” by Irene Nemirovsky. This is a powerful unfinished work about the German occupation of France during World War II. Nemirovsky, a well-known writer at the time, was from a wealthy Ukrainian family that fled the Russian Revolution when she was a teenager. The family settled in Paris, where she married and had two daughters while building her career as a major novelist. Because of her Jewish heritage, the French government refused to grant her citizenship in 1938, although she converted to Catholicism the next year. As the Germans approached Paris in 1940, she and her husband, also a Jew, fled with their children to a French village. Nazi control made life for Jews increasingly dangerous, and she sent her children to live with their nanny. She was arrested in July, 1942, at age 39 and gassed at Auschwitz, where her husband was sent and killed a few months later. The amazing thing about this story is that while watching her life and her family and her country — all the things most precious to her — destroyed all around her, she was writing a novel about it. “Suite Francaise,” made up of three novels of a projected five, follows fictional French characters as they are faced with the same unbelievable and unbearable circumstances Nemirovsky herself was facing at the exact same time — and, of course, without knowing the ending. You MUST read this book. It’s that good. And, since it’s about France — even France at war — there naturally are some excellent food references. I had great fun shopping for and putting together a menu: Shortbread, cream puffs, chocolate truffles, bread, cheese, olive oil and herbs for dipping, peach jam, sliced apples, cold sliced ham, mustard, pistachios, oranges, grapes, French-press coffee, French wine, Perrier and some little wine biscuits I found in the TJ Maxx food section — the best place for affordable gourmet. Impressed? Don’t be — the most I had to do to get this food on the table was open boxes and packages, although I did actually slice up the apple. I think. But for dessert, I actually made a cherry tart by my very own self. It smelled delicious while it was baking. How did it taste? Well, let’s just say that plenty of homemade vanilla-flavored whipped cream covers all mistakes.
As so often happens, once you open your heart and fall madly in love, the object of your desire is cruelly yanked away and you’re left only with the crumbs of passion and teasing reminders of happier times. Not that I’m comparing the loss of Mellow Mushroom‘s seasonal Homegrown Harvest Pie & Drunken Fun Guys & other yummy menu items to an intense but doomed love affair … oh, wait … that’s exactly what it is. Mellow Mushroom craftily got us hooked on this absolutely delicious pizza, made with nutmeg-seasoned roasted butternut squash nutmeg on an olive oil and garlic base & topped with parmesan and Montamore cheeses and a swirl of Arugula pesto. And then there were the Drunken Fun Guys — little pillows of pizza dough served with three beer-infused sauces: a spicy cheese dip with Abita Turbodog brown ale, a stout and honey glaze and a Rouge Dead Guy ale spicy mustard. And there there were the Magic Mushroom Soup and Holy Shiitake Pie — also gone but never forgotten. I only mention these now-unattainable treasures because 1) I’m fascinated with how Mellow Mushroom has merged a successful capitalistic business plan with its counter-culture too-cool-to-care laid-back attitude, 2) maybe you’ll be inspired to try to recreate these taste treats at home and 3) maybe the next round of limited-time offerings will be just as good. Fingers crossed.
Both my husband and Older Daughter are REM fans and were saddened to hear that the Athens, Ga., band was officially calling it quits. Husband JP has been a fan from practically REM’s very beginning, although of course Older Daughter wasn’t even born when future band members Michael Stipe and Peter Buck met in an Athens record store. (Historical note: “Record store” is an ancient term for the place in the olden days where teenagers would hang out and buy records, which were these sort of flat vinyl rounds that music came on back then. See also: “Antiques.”) So that tells you something about REM’s appeal and longevity. Coincidentally, Older Daughter and Son-in-Law recently spent a long weekend in REM’s hometown as a treat for themselves before Baby Boy No. 2 arrives in mid-November. And why did they choose Athens, Ga.? “For the food, obviously,” Older Daughter said when I asked the same question. That’s my girl! While Athens long has been known as a hip music town and of course the University of Georgia is there — with its football team’s new eye-catching all-red uniforms — it also has a growing reputation as a food destination. Luckily, it did not disappoint the baby-mooners. And although they didn’t see any sign of REM folks that weekend, several of the eateries they tried did claim REM connections. Here’s their list, in case you want to indulge in some REM
stalking research yourself (P.S. Older Daughter is a vegetarian who’s allergic to glycerin, Son-In-Law needs to eat lightly due to gall-bladder issues and they both tend toward gluten-free, sometimes ):
- Big City Bread Cafe — a bakery and cafe that serves breakfast, lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch. Highlights were the hummus, the roasted vegetable and tofu saute and the bakery’s cookies.
- Grit — a vegetarian paradise that also serves burgers. Offers great salads and sandwiches as well as Italian, Mexican, Indian and Middle Eastern dishes.
- Ike and Jane Normaltown Cafe and Bakery — a bakery/cafe known for its yummy doughnuts. Need we say more?
- Jittery Joe’s Coffee — a local roaster and wholesaler with several retail spots around town. I can smell it from here.
- Last Resort Grill — named after a 1960s Athens music club, the Last Resort was the most upscale spot on the kids’ food tour. Plenty of good entrees with a vegetarian dish right smack on the menu, which always is a good sign.
I’m not going to embarrass myself by telling you how many of these desserts I sampled at Thanksgiving dinner, but let’s just say I can tell you without a doubt that every one of these yummy pies and cakes and cookies and trifles was absolutely delicious. My daughter’s in-laws always have a big Behel-family feast — and luckily they consider my husband and me as family. My daughter’s mother-in-law made the chess and pumpkin pies from her grandmother’s recipes and her brother-in-law’s wife made the dark chocolate and buttercream cupcakes. As you can imagine, my husband and I started out sharing a plate of dessert goodies but quickly realized that we each needed our own. And there was my husband’s favorite: Green bean casserole. And my daughter’s famous corn casserole. And Paula Deen’s broccoli casserole. And light and soft homemade rolls. And now I’m making myself hungry all over again.
We’re still unpacking and settling in to our new house. And that’s good, because I’ve wrung two newspaper columns out of the experience and I’ve got a couple more percolating. When that last box is empty, I’m not sure what I’m going to write about. Maybe that’s why I keep putting off tackling all those boxes in the garage.
I know! Shocking, isn’t it? But it’s true: Now that my husband and I are in a house together after five years of having a commuter marriage, I actually truly really cook supper for him. This mainly is for my mother, who was properly skeptical as I heaped praise on the possibilities of our new kitchen in our new house — “But don’t y’all usually go out to eat?” she said, puzzled about why I would care about granite countertops and tons of cabinet space. But Husband and I made it a goal to cook and eat supper at home at least one night a week. Baby steps, you know! And here’s the proof. The photo on the left documents our first meal in Week No. 1: Sweet potato fries and sautéed vegetables straight from Jack-O-Lantern Farms market in Muscle Shoals with slices of Niedlov’s bread from EarthFare grocery in Chattanooga and some seasonal Samuel Adams. The photo on the right is from Week No. 2 — roasted vegetables from the JOL market with grilled Dubliner cheese-on-pumpernickel sandwiches and a bottle of Ravenswood. And that, folks, pretty much depletes my repertoire of cooking supper. Sad, isn’t it? Not sure what I’ll come up with for Week No. 3. But promising to post it here will motivate me to do something besides fall back on my childhood tuna-fish casserole, so stay tuned. Also, you can see that the boxes behind my husband haven’t moved from Week No. 1 to Week No. 2. Hey — I was busy cooking supper!
I have to admit that I don’t know anything about Sweden beyond that Swedish muppet guy and the wonderful breakfast I order at the Original House of Pancakes in Birmingham’s Five Points that comes with powdered sugar, whipped cream and strawberries. (Now, that’s a breakfast.) Or I didn’t know anything before I got addicted to those internationally bestselling Stieg Larsson’s “Girl With …” books. If you haven’t picked these up, you’ve got to. And keep the coffee pot handy because that’s basically all they do in these books: Hack into computers, track down killers and drink endless cups of coffee. I can’t get enough. And luckily my food-loving book club read the first book in this trilogy — and extra-luckily our hostess for this meeting is our friend who specializes in creating marvelicious meals for the rest of us to enjoy. She went all out for our “Girl with the Dagon Tattoo” night and created a Swedish smorgasbord that I believe Larsson himself would have felt right at home with. We had smoked salmon, pickled herring, beets, potatoes, ligonberry preserves, pickles, cheese, sandwiches and of course coffee and cake for dessert. Oh my cookies. It was delicious, and she made us feel so special. We always nominate her for Best Hostess Ever and we threaten not to leave whenever she has us over. You’d think she’d learn, but we’re glad she hasn’t.
Oh you silly people who thought that just because the calendar says “July” we are still in summer. Wrong! It apparently is time to start counting your orange napkins and trying to remember where you put the box of jack-o-lantern lights and, hey, how long can leftover Halloween candy stay in the freezer anyway? I’d heard rumors that a few craft retailers were in holiday mode already — Christmas truly is in July at Hobby Lobby — but that seems reasonable to me when you’re talking about getting a head start on handcrafting your memories. However, I’m just not sure I’m ready to start shopping for fall decor yet. I mean, I haven’t even worn all my summer clothes yet. Even the employees at this Cracker Barrel seemed embarrassed. “We’ve got some Thanksgiving things over there,” one whispered, grimacing, “and I hear Christmas is coming next week.” Oh, dear. Actually, my main concern is not the ever-earlier starting bell for holiday spending but a deep dismay that fall coming to Cracker Barrel means that the seasonal summer specials soon will be gone and my new favorite breakfast of Blueberry Streusel French Toast will be … well, toast. Have you had this yet? I’m telling you, it’s like the warmest freshest blueberry muffin/doughnut/pancake/pastry/pie ever. Ever. Go get some. Right now. Just please don’t bring back a black-cat coffee mug. Until late September, at least.
There’s a commercial on TV about some sort of food where the voiceover says something along the lines of “Nobody comes home and says, ‘I can’t wait to eat a big bowl of lettuce.'” But that’s exactly what happens in our house on the days our local hydroponic farmers, Steve and Connie Carpenter, open their farmer’s market. I promise you that once you eat fresh hydroponic lettuce, you will never let plastic-packaged iceberg pass your lips again. Steve’s explained why lettuce develops more flavor when it’s grown hydroponically, but all I know is that a sandwich made with good toasted homemade bread and some of this tender-yet-crunchy lettuce is beyond delicious. Literally, it’s one of the things we just stand there and eat out of our fridge. But if you want actual recipes, go to http://www.timesdaily.com/article/20100428/ARTICLES/4285000 to find some recipes from a “Meatless Meals” cooking class I covered recently. Sherry Campbell, my friend and the director of the Shoals Culinary Center in Florence, Alabama, is a confirmed meat lover, but fresh and homegrown vegetables rank right up there with her, too, and she gave us some wonderful veggie recipes — although of course she admitted that at home she’d add a nice grilled steak to the menu. Go to http://www.jackolanternfarm.com/ to find out more about Jack O’Lantern Farms. Farmers’ markets are gearing up here in northwest Alabama/northeast Mississippi/southern middle Tennessee, and we can’t wait.
Don’t these vegetables look gorgeous? I went to an Oriental-cooking class earlier this week and watched amazed as the chef produced piles of perfectly chopped and consistently shaped fresh veggies. I would have snapped the actual cutting but his knife was flying so fast I didn’t want to get in his way. He made it look easy, but I’ve taken a knife-skills class and let me tell you that it is not. I guess experience is the key, though. Our teacher/chef — Justin Letson, chef de cuisine at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Muscle Shoals, Alabama — did show us an easy trick for julienning peppers: Cut off the ends, then make a slit in the pepper and sort of unroll it as you use the knife to cut out the core and membranes. Then pop out the stem and cut up the end, too — which I wastefully never did before. So simple! And the resulting Lemon Stirfry with LoMien was delicious. And pretty. Our class was at the Shoals Culinary Complex in Florence, Alabama — a kitchen incubator that’s part of the Shoals Entrepreneurial Center, http://www.shoalsec.com/facilities/SCC_index.html — and this class was so popular that director Sherry Campbell is scheduling a second one. Maybe I’ll go to that one, too — best stiry fry ever!