Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Ultimate Food Lover's Companion to the South

Book cover image -- Southern Belly by John T. Edge
From the Pensacola News Journal, July 29, 2007

In a weary old world, it's always time to eat
by Carl Wernicke (

When the issues of the world grow too heavy, I eat. There's nothing like a good meal to take the edge off.

Iraq? I need ribs.

Congress? Fried mullet.

The presidential candidates? Gumbo -- and lots of it.

Fortunately, just off the press is a "revised and expanded" edition of "Southern Belly, The Ultimate Food Lover's Companion to the South," by New South food writer John T. Edge.

Included is a section on Pensacola informed by Edge's eating binge here in 2005, when he spoke at the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition.

He doesn't include many Pensacola stops, but what he lists is quality. I have to hand it to John T., he knows his food.

He should.

He has written for for Gourmet and Oxford American magazines, edited "Cornbread Nation: The Best of Southern Food Writing;" and is director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at Ole Miss in Oxford, where he lives.

On his Pensacola visit, he told me that "Food is a way to write about race and class and gender. Southerners like to tell good stories about themselves -- we talk about food and music and lifestyles to avoid the ugly stuff out there."

Then he went out to eat.

Edge went looking for Southern cooking. He's trying to keep it from being smothered by the homogenization of America, even if it means raising cholesterol levels across the South.

This is a guy you expect to see sopping up the gravy from a plate of smothered chicken with his last biscuit.

Ken Ford, founder of the IHMC and the catalyst for getting Edge down here, put it this way: "He's looking for authentic food."

He found it.

First in the book is the Coffee Cup on Cervantes Street. He celebrates the chicken and dumplings, omelets and grits -- including Nassau grits, and I've never had a better BLT. And of course long-time cook Creola Rutledge figures prominently.

Frankly, it is hard to claim you are a Pensacolian if you have never eaten at the Cup.

Next on his Pensacola tour list is Jerry's Drive-In.

If there's a test, Edge passed it. You can't do a piece on authentic Pensacola eating and not mention Jerry's; the very thought of it brings on the vapors.

He highlights the mullet at Jerry's, which is appropriate in a section headlined "Mullet Holiday." Mullet is, after all, a large part of Pensacola's culinary claim to fame.

Still, the burgers, fries and shakes deserve a mention, too. Ford says Edge was blown away by the fact you can order oysters a la carte at Jerry's. Ford says Edge ordered a single oyster on his first visit, apparently just because he could. (Edge makes multiple visits in rating a restaurant.)

Then it was on to the Marina Oyster Barn, which to various generations of Pensacolians is known as the Marina, the Oyster Barn, Rooks, for the owners, and sometimes even Johnson's (for the nearby marina).

Again, while he justifiably celebrates the mullet at the Marina, he could also mention the gumbo, consistently among the best in town, and the oysters. It is one of the few outlets for local East Bay oysters, which Dale Rooks serves when he can get them, and as far as I'm concerned there isn't a better raw oyster on the planet.

Finally, Edge goes where any true mullet holiday must take you, to Chet's on Navy Boulevard, for the marinated mullet.

The only real problem with Chet's is that it is only open Thursday through Saturday. But given that owner Randy Sanders and crew catches their own mullet, asking for more would probably kill them, given that they also stay constantly booked with catering.

One day, after years of puzzling over the bizarre phenomenon of seeing people eat at a bland chain eatery in the New Orleans French Quarter, I had an epiphany: Of course, that's exactly what you want -- if there are people who would go to New Orleans and eat in a chain restaurant, you wouldn't want them cluttering up the good restaurants.

Now, don' t get me wrong -- I eat at chains, and the food is often good. You know exactly what you are getting, and sometimes that's all you want.

But in an eating town like this, we should all support our locally owned restaurants as much as possible. The Coffee Cup, Jerry's, the Oyster Barn and Chet's make a darn good start.


HawaiiVacationGifts said...

Hi Ken,
I am alway attracted to your posts about food. If you are eating at all of these places, you better be making good use of your swimming pool doing laps to work it off!

Kenyo said...

What a good idea. I'll have to try it real soon!