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Soul Kitchen

Joe Rocco

50 lbs. cornmeal

10 lbs. bran (optional)

200 lbs. sugar

12 oz. yeast

200 gal. water

In Eastern Tennessee, that recipe will mix you up 36 gallons of "artisanal" moonshine, a local, sustainable, slow-food beverage cooked exactly so for many generations. You can proof your liquor by adding a bit of gunpowder and setting this witches' brew alight. If it burns bright, you've got yourself something like 50- to 100-percent alcohol.

The quest for moonshine whiskey is one good reason to take a road trip through the Deep South these days. Another is that places like Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah and Atlanta, Georgia, are knocking each other out to grab the culinary ball that New Orleans dropped when it found itself recently under many feet of water. But we're leaving Gatlinburg, Tennessee, without ever tasting a drop of bootleg, because the only moonshine still we know of, operated by an old German lady named Mary Janette Teague, was busted last year on Dark Hollow Road in Cosby. The place she ran was known as Fort Marx, and I have friends who remember it as a double-wide trailer set up on blocks with a handful of stools inside. At Fort Marx, you could throw back several dozen kinds of flavored homemade moonshine, berry wine, or high-octane white whiskey, and you could eat booze-soaked maraschino cherries out of a jar. Supposedly you'd get through the door only if your car had Tennessee plates. People drove long miles to get to Fort Marx: truckers and boozehounds and college brats and, in the end, some special agents from the Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

In Eastern Tennessee, nobody thinks anything of taking a day off to do one single thing — a four-hour drive to pick up bushels of the famous Grainger County tomatoes to make your salsa or a half-day's wait in line to buy a truckload of dirt at Monterey Mushroom Co. in Sweetwater to finish your asparagus patch. Last time my friends Lisa and Sue picked up their dirt at Monterey Mushroom, they came home and dumped it in their garden and about a month later found a strange plant the size of a magic beanstalk growing in the middle of it.

"You know, that sure looks like..." Lisa said.

"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" Sue replied.

Before they knew it, they had a nine-foot-tall marijuana plant towering over their little asparagus spears.

In Eastern Tennessee, you just don't want any ganja growing in your patch, because the black helicopters fly over with their special infrared equipment, and they can pick out the good stuff from a forest of basil with pinpoint accuracy. Before you know it, you'll end up like Mary Janette Teague, with a load of bail to pay. So my friends dug up the beanstalk and put it in a pot inside their house and grew it until it hit the ceiling and bent over. After that, I don't know what happened.

Gatlinburg is the new "Gay Mecca." Last week, a reporter from the Wall Street Journal called Lisa and said he wanted to do an article about the queering of East Tennessee. There are lots of gay people in Gatlinburg, I guess, but there is also the tall white spire of a Baptist church on every corner, and the Louise Mandrell Dinner Theater. My favorite show in Pigeon Forge is the "stunning faith-based musical of epic proportion," Miracle, which bills itself as "The Ultimate Battle Between Good and Evil." When you drive by the theater, you'll see its sign, a gigantic neon Satan's eye that magically morphs into the open arms of Jesus Christ.

You can't leave Gatlinburg without a stop at Bare Bones Barbecue on Bird's Creek Road in Sevierville, where along with slow-cooked hickory-smoked ribs, they sell "dang good" buffalo jerky "as seen on the Food Network with Al Roker," according to the sign out front. An old hippie with a long gray braid and the thickest drawl I've ever heard is closing up the smokers when we pull up around sunset. The place is nothing but a tent on poles with two big and four small smokers and a tiny trailer. All they've got left when we get there is three pounds of pulled pork, which tastes like a Tennessee forest fire bathed in peppers and dusted with brown sugar. We take everything they have plus the rest of the day's coleslaw. While we're waiting for them to pack that up, we chew on jerky. It's as salty and sweet as honey-marinated leather; you can rip it into satisfying shreds with your teeth. The ingredients list on the package says it's full of monosodium glutamate. Heidi buys three packs — in teriyaki, regular, and hot — because she's the last living soul who still swears by the Atkins diet.  

3-4 squirrels, skinned, cleaned, and cut up

Sprinkle salt and black pepper

1/2 cup flour

3/4 cup cooking oil

The simplicity of this little South Carolina recipe belies the rigorous prep work that goes into it. For one thing, you have to "squinge" the hair off the squirrel before you can even begin to think about cooking it, and you do that by holding it over an open fire to burn its fur off. Then you make a knife cut and pull the skin over the creature's head, basically turning it inside out. There are few things as ugly as a freshly skinned squirrel.

The recipe comes from a book by Sallie Ann Robinson, Gullah Home Cooking the Daufuskie Way. I'm paging through this book and sipping free lemonade while Amy and I are standing in line outside a famous soul food diner in Charleston, South Carolina, called Jestine's Kitchen. Jestine's doesn't have any squirrel on the menu, but this recipe would not be out of place here. The blue-plate specials listed in the window include fried catfish and shrimp Creole. The place is named after Jestine Mathews, who provided all the recipes. Jestine's father was the son of a freed slave who lived on Wadmalaw Island, and that made her part of the South Carolina sea-island culture known as Gullah, freed slaves and their descendants who spoke their own language and passed down recipes based on what they could catch and grow themselves. When we finally get a table at Jestine's, we eat fried green tomatoes and cheese grits; we have hot corn bread slathered with honey and butter, a bowl of the crispest pellets of fried okra, plus blackened chicken, catfish, black-eyed peas, mashed potatoes, and the house "table wine" — sweet tea. For dessert, we order coconut cream pie and peach cobbler. "I'll never eat at another Cracker Barrel," Amy tells our waitress, who looks appalled. Jestine herself lived to be 112 years old, possibly because of the healthful diet of fried oysters, corn fritters, pecan whiting, and Coca-Cola cake she ate every day for her whole life. Today, Dana Berlin, granddaughter of the lady Jestine worked for as a housekeeper many years ago, pours our sweet tea.

Overnight, it seems, Charleston has become the food capital of the South. There's a concentration of young and old chefs here who, just like Jestine Mathews and her Gullah contemporaries, are working wonders with whatever they can catch and grow in the Lowcountry. Well over a century after Jestine was born, the hog is still king of the Carolina table. At the fanciest restaurant in town, Charleston Grill, Bob Waggoner is getting his collards from Wadmalaw Island where Jestine's daddy once farmed, and he's cooking them with Palmetto Amber red ale and cabernet pigs feet. Waggoner braises the greens with the ale and hog jowls, roasts then simmers the pigs feet in red wine, then tosses the greens in this rich reduction. We eat our collards, flecked with sumptuous bits of pork, while a jazz trio plays Dave Brubeck classics in the background. And we have shrimp sausage and zucchini blossoms stuffed with lobster and smoked salmon. We graze through a dish of young, local lettuces and dip into a fragrant bowl of Frogmore stew, where crab, shrimp, andouille, fingerling potatoes, and corn kernels jostle in a light shellfish and tomato broth. At last, a crepe burdened with Carolina peaches and pistachio ice cream is just the right Frenchified Southern thing.

A couple of blocks over at FIG, a young upstart from the Northeast who came south to seek his fortune is making edible art just as interesting at half the price. FIG's chef and co-owner, Mike Latta, is a passionate slow-food advocate who buys his produce from local growers and his fish off the nearest dayboat. Here too, the hog is put through its paces, in this case as a piece of roasted suckling pig from a nearby sustainable farm called Sweet Bay Acres. It's served with rapini and grain mustard and roasted beets produced by the family farm of Celeste and George Albers on Johns Island. Chances are that Ted Chewning, who raised the pig I'm eating, knew it by name — and this piece of pork has real personality. Zucchini's in season, and so are fava beans, so FIG serves the most delicious zucchini salad imaginable — paper-thin slices of the squash in a lemony dressing with fresh, emerald-colored fava beans, bracing mint, salty pecorino cheese, and crunchy shaved almonds. Bliss.

On our way home to Florida, the back of our truck riding low because of all the peaches and giant watermelons and pecans and vine-ripe tomatoes and bags of Vidalia onions we've loaded into it, we stop for a night in Atlanta. The home-cooked meal Pete and François lay out for us rivals anything we've eaten on the road. There are pork chops covered with warm spicy-tart apple and currant chutney and silky whipped sweet potatoes full of heavy cream and a vat of magnificent collards — glistening with bacon fat and a full stick of butter and half a pound of big chewy chunks of bacon. There are bottles of red wine and a store-bought lemon cake for dessert. And then a wobbly walk in the warm, sweet-smelling Atlanta air down the block to Zesto — home of the chubby decker, the footlong, the chicken gizzard dinner with tater tots, and of Zesto's REAL ICE CREAM — where, in guiltless Southern style, we order our "second dessert." Butterfinger Arctic Swirl, hot fudge sundaes, and a soft vanilla ice cream cone with Zesto's famous "nut brown crown."


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