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Lulu Kalman's Food Tour Across the South: Part 1

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Chef and Paper pal Lulu Kalman recently took a trip down South with her mother, illustrator Maira Kalman, and kindly agreed to document her travels and some of the delicious food she encountered for us. Below, part one of her adventures. Warning: You will have a strong, strong craving for smoked meat and Jell-O salad after reading this.


About a month ago, I left my job of five years at Union Square Events, Danny Meyer's catering company, where I had spent the last year as the executive sous chef. I helped cater events for two to 18,000 people, making beautiful food in some of the most challenging circumstances. As part of my new-found freedom, and a serendipitously timed road trip invite from my mother, I recently took eight days to eat, travel, cook, fish, canoe, drink, see, and write in Tennessee and Alabama.
 
I started in Tennessee, where I was visiting friends that I met through the BBQ world and then went on to Alabama to see pit master Chris Lilly at BBG BBQ, before ending in Marion with a visit to Southern chef Scott Peacock.
 
dairyfarm.jpgThursday: New York to Tennessee

Assorted weather and FAA shenanigans at LaGuardia lose me half a day of travel and potential snacks. It's easily 100 degrees when I get off the plane in Tennessee and I'm wiped from waking up at 4: 30 a.m. I finally make my way to Bolton's Hot Chicken and Fish in East Nashville. Hot chicken is serious in Tennessee and Bolton's is an institution. I've never had hot chicken, which is deep fried and coated in fiery spices, and am amped to try it.
 
Bolton's, which isn't far from the Nashville airport, is a low, sky-blue cement little building with a screen door. Inside, it's dark and ripe with hot oil and there's a noticeable absence of A.C. There's a push-board menu, four tables, and a pink door with a sign on it that reads, "Knock when you are ready to order."

boltons ex.jpg boltns int.jpg
Bolton's

I order a quarter breast of 'extra hot' hot chicken with greens and mac and cheese. The chicken comes in a Styrofoam box with pickles and white bread -- a must -- and the bird is beautiful, crusty and red. It's almost too hot to touch. I brave it, though, and pull off a fair piece of meat and skin.
 
You can feel the burn on your hands immediately. Put a piece of extra hot, hot chicken in your mouth on a 100-plus-degree day in a steamy cement shack on the side of the highway and your head spins. It's crazy, sweating hot. There is no one else in the place, except for the guy who took my order and fried my chicken. I look to him, my eyes swimming, and he smiles and asks me if it's hot enough. The spice from the chicken is on my lips and under my nails and I go through a significant amount of paper towels. I can barely talk. The white bread and pickles help cool me down, and then I keep going. After a while, a few other folks come in to get lunch. My fellow diners start trading notes about their favorite hot chicken spots. (Bolton's and Prince's are the two institutions, but others, like Chicken Real in Mt. Juliet and 400 Degrees are mentioned as well.) I'm sweating and smiling, trying to make small talk. They look from me to the chicken and giggle, 'Hot enough for ya?' I know I'll hear this over and over again on the trip. We chat for a little while, laughing about the heat and the sweat and the good, good chicken.

hotchen.jpg Hot Chicken at Bolton's
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Friday: Tennessee -- Work to do

rawrubbedpork.jpgRaw rubbed pork.

It's early in Tennessee and it's already sweltering. I've promised some of the folks that I'm visiting down here that I'll help them prep for their housewarming BBQ on Saturday at their new place. They're expecting a full house. The Flea Market Hustlers Band, friends of theirs from way back when, are playing and guests have all been asked to bring a covered dish. It's gonna be a real-big, day-long party, but in the meantime, we've got hickory logs to split, hog and brisket to smoke, lunches to eat, and work to do.
 
Last night, before the cherry moonshine and the beers had sucked us in, we butchered and rubbed the meats with a real basic salt and pepper cure. Today, I'll add a big, brassy green rub, made by pureeing cilantro, peppers, scallions, mint, rosemary, garlic and olive oil and then add an orange and vinegar injection to the pork shoulders. That should amp them up quite a bit and make for great tacos.

cherryshine.jpg greenndnotpork.jpg
 Cherry moonshine; pork shoulders with green sauce and without.

The brisket goes on first, around noon, over hickory. Then it's time for lunch. We head to the Kleer-Vu Lunch Room in Murfreesboro, TN. Kleer-Vu is an absolutely zero-frills 'meat and three' lunch spot. Food is served cafeteria-style, complete with plastic trays bearing the seal of a local elementary school. The selections for the day are listed on a board: chicken and stuffing, pigs' feet, and pork ribs are the options today, along with squash, mashed potatoes, turnip greens, black eyed peas, and other sides. I ask for the pigs feet and the woman behind the counter does a double take. "Are you sure? You really like those things?" she asks. "I need a foot!" she yells to the guys in the back kitchen and then tells me she doesn't like pigs' feet or understand why I do. She does, however, enjoy chitterlings. "That's where you and I tend to differ," I try to joke with her. Nothing. Not funny. We end up ordering a bunch of stuff to share, including chicken and dressing and, in the end, pigs' feet.

kv exterior.jpg lunchkv.jpg
Kleer-Vu Lunch Room. Murfreesboro, TN
 
The place is sparse and has about 20 tables, each one set with vinegar and Louisiana hot sauce. And the food is great. The pig's foot comes out grey, nails on, jiggly, and huge. It's delicious. Fatty and tender, with a big kick of heat.

But the highlight of the meal, by far, is the hot water cornbread. In short, it's cornmeal batter that is made with butter and hot water and then dropped, hush puppy-style, into hot oil. Like fritters. They're crisp and hot, and when you dip them in hot sauce they serve as a nice foil to the deep, greasy flavors of the meal.

After a keg and bourbon run, it's back to the house to rub, inject, and smoke the shoulder meat over night.
 
pigsfeet.jpgA plate of pigs' feet I demolished at Kleer-Vu

hw cornbread.jpgHot water cornbread at Kleer-Vu.


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Saturday: Tennessee -- The BBQ

smoker.jpgThe smoker early in the morning.

It's already ripping hot early in the day.  9 a.m. marks about 21 hours of smoking for the brisket. Around 2 p.m. friends and family start rolling in, winding up the dusty road with baby carriers, coolers, cases of beer and their covered dishes. These include shrimp toast and big bowls of mayo-y salad, as well as classic mustard potato salad, a friend's grandmother's potato olive salad, slaw, corn pudding, quick pickled cabbage, and Jell-O cake for dessert, which will all be perfect compliments for the meat.
 
Folks are anxious to eat. The keg is flowing fast, babies are passed around, cigarettes are bummed, and it is time for me to re-stoke the smoker and get the meal going. The brisket and pork are so tender that I can barely pick them up without them falling apart. I start tortillas for tacos while people give me the hungry eye.
 
The skillet cornbread holds up the show for a minute or two, but then, with the table set, a big, split-open watermelon plopped in the middle of the table and a few little dishes of herbs set out as finishing touches, it's time to eat. Folks get right on in there and pile their plates high.
 

bbq-collage.jpgClockwise from left: The spread at Saturday night's BBQ; Skillet corn bread; Guests picnicking on the lawn; Peaches, peppers and onions cooking on the converted fire pit.

The Flea Market Hustlers roll in with their instruments a few hours later. The Hustlers, as they are known locally, take rotating turns on the double bass, drums, guitar, harmonica, and more. Other guests who have instruments with them join in, and party-goers form a circle around the band, bopping to Hustler originals and singing along to country and bluegrass hits. The guys are tall and lanky and watching them move and breathe and sway with the music takes the whole party far into the night.

The food stays out until close to 4 a.m. and people help themselves to seconds and thirds, picking as the night goes on.


P1020733.jpgFleamarket Hustlers playing under the carport.

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 Monday: Last night in Tennessee
 
Allenbrooke Farm.JPGAllenbrooke farm

My last night in Tennessee I am invited, through friends, to dinner at the Allenbrooke Farms in Spring Hill, Tennessee. Allenbrooke is a small, third-generation farm run by the husband and wife team of Dan and Stephanie Allen -- local high school sweethearts who found their way back to each other after more than a decade apart. The farm sits on about 120 acres and is an idyllic home to chickens, dogs, cows, cats, and among others, a pig named Maybelline who dines nightly on the latest scraps from the garden, served up on china. There's also a pig named Lulu who has almost a dozen little four-week-old piglets. There's some confusion when Lulu the pig is called for but we sort through it -- I offer to go by "Lulu 2" for my visit.
 
Stephanie has made beer juice -- a sugary mix of beer and limeade. The recipe is 6:1, measured by the can. These types of recipes and concoctions thrill me, especially Jell-O salad. I haven't dipped far into the congealed salad repertoire of the Southeast or tasted many yet, but friends of Dan and Stephanie's have promised to bring Jell-O salad tonight and I'm excited. "You besta come hungry," they warn.


Allenbrooke Mini Harvest.JPGMini harvest of tomatoes and potatoes at Allenbrooke farm.
 
We all sit down to dinner at a long table covered in gingham and quilted cloth, which looks out over the fields. The dogs, Shep and Tyke, circle and flop down in the grass near a potato and tomato harvest sorted into worn, wooden baskets. Stephanie and Dan have butchered two of their chickens and brined them in salt and water before roasting them for dinner. They've also picked tomatoes from their garden for a big caprese salad. There's fried okra, cornbread and potato salads too.
 
We say grace and then we dig in. I serve myself a lot of everything. Even long after I clean my plate,  I continue to pick at the fried okra, forgoing manners and utensils and just scooping it up by the handful. The much-anticipated Jell-O salad is served and I'm given a heaping portion. The salad, a word I still cannot associate with the dish in front of me, is a three-layer affair. Crushed pretzels make the crust, followed by a thick, set layer of Cool Whip and red Jell-O that's studded with whole berries. The Jell-O is super set and almost too toothsome, but the salty sweetness brings it all together. I sit back and eat it up bite-by-bite as I kick the mosquitoes from my ankles and the night closes in on the sky.
 

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Tuesday: To Alabama
 P1020769.jpgThe four-step (secret) smoke room dip that makes the chicken at BBG BBQ so good.
 
Tuesday morning has me making my way to Alabama. My first stop, not too far over the Tennessee border, is Decatur, a town that boasts, among other sights and eats, Big Bob Gibson's BBQ. My plan is to meet Chris Lilly, the sagely pit master of BBG BBQ, and his father-in-law Don for a tour of the operation. After chatting with them for a while in an office filled with taxidermy, bottles of barbecue sauce, and family photos, Chris takes me back to the kitchen. As you'd expect at a good BBQ joint, the main magic happens back in the pits, and the kitchen produces the items that will play the supporting roles. BBG BBQ is known for their stuffed baked potatoes, each potato larger than the baby pigs I had visited the night before, as well as their barbecue salads. (But a salad, mind you, should never include more than a quarter lettuce. This rule is also posted on a signboard outside the restaurant.) But I'm here for the meat, so we don't spend long in the neon-lit industrial kitchens. The smoke rooms are dim, brick and metal and wood and Lilly takes me back to the smokers, where chickens, split in half, have been loaded, to tell me about his smoking process.
 
BBQsauces.jpgL-R: Jars of the vinegar and cayenne 'red sauce' and signature 'White BBQ Sauce' at BBG BBQ in Decatur, Al.

Back in the searing light of the kitchen, I get to chat with a woman who has been making pies for BBG BBQ for over three decades. About 40 lemon, chocolate, and coconut pies line the shelves in the pie fridge today. The day before Thanksgiving every year, the restaurant shuts down and pie-making and boxing takes over the whole kitchen and a good part of the dining room.
 
My mom has been on the road too, traveling with friends in Florence, Alabama and we've decided to meet at BBG BBQ for lunch. Chris sits with us while we dive into pulled pork sandwiches, ribs, slaw, beans, and pie. My mother and I eat, while Chris talks to us about the restaurant and his cooking. He is magnetic and we eat up his stories and BBQ before heading out onto the road to visit Scott Peacock.





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