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Southern-style comfort food is a fairly easy sell, especially after a few drinks. When Big Jones opened in Andersonville in 2008, it could have gotten along just fine doing a restaurant version of feel-good food, calories be damned. But chef Paul Fehribach, who opened it with co-owner Mark Armantrout, was determined from the start to do farm-to-table, whole-animal cooking, like people in the south always did. And the restaurant has grown in ambition to dig into the heritage of southern food over the years— especially in its series of occasional bourbon dinners, which resurrect forgotten dishes from old cookbooks, often things like calves' jelly which you've never seen in a restaurant in these parts, at least in the last century.
Now Fehribach is working on two cookbooks of his own for the University of Chicago Press. The first one, The Big Jones Cookbook, will come out next year. I sat down with Fehribach recently to find out more, and just to kick around the topic of southern food and the down-home midwestern cooking he calls country cooking. (He actually grew up in Indiana, but with southern influences all around him.) This is the first of two parts.
Michael Gebert: Tell me about your cookbook.
Paul Fehribach: It's a restaurant cookbook, about what we do here at Big Jones, and it sort of started as a little DIY project in which I was going to compile maybe three dozen of our most requested recipes. Because people ask us all the time particularly for cornbread, but I get colleagues asking for our blood sausage recipe or how we make our andouille or the process for our tasso. We get requests for recipes for red beans and rice, or chicken and dumplings. So I thought I would put together three dozen of our most often-requested recipes in a little staple-bound leaflet, and sell them souvenir style. I'd seen the booklet that Bob Stehling does at Hominy Grill [in Charleston] last year, and he's been tremendously successful with that.
I have another cookbook project on the table called Kitchen Garden and Bourbon Barrels, and that's about sort of the ancestry of American country cooking, as it relates to Appalachia and the Buffalo Trace, and about how all these different things came together in the heartland and created what we know today as, what I guess a lot of people would call comfort food, but what I like to call country cooking.
And I was going to put together this staple-bound book of our recipes to put in people's hands while I worked on this bigger project. But once I'd compiled 30, 40 recipes, I realized I didn't want to put that booklet out there because it wasn't representative at all of how we cook. To me, if I want to document something, I want to document it thoroughly. I wanted to represent whole-animal cookery, I wanted to represent all the baking that we do, and how it relates to all the finished dishes on our menu that come in the back as raw produce.
So I wanted to have pickles, jellies, preserves, finished dishes. The pantry was kind of the big sticking point because, over the course of a year, we'll do 15 or 20 types of fruit preserves, and two dozens kinds of pickles, and all of the charcuterie we do. And I actually came up with probably 75 or 80 recipes, and realized that I had a bigger project on my hands. That grew eventually into over a hundred—I think it's about 114 now.
[Food writer and editor] Francis Lam has been to the restaurant; he's always been nice to me, and I emailed him at Clarkson Potter not really expecting anything because they have a huge Southern catalog already. And he came back with some really good advice about how to make the concept stronger. Through a mutual contact I contacted Tim Mennel, who's in acquisitions [at University of Chicago Press], and . . . it's been a really interesting process.
So the first one is pretty much about what you serve in the restaurant? Because one of the things I've always found so interesting is when you do things like the bourbon dinners, where you dig into historical cookbooks and, frankly, serve things that aren't like restaurant food, they're more like homemade foods of a particular era and place.
Well, a lot of that historical approach is explained in the book. You know, the food we're doing here—we're about to embark on another major evolution in our menus here, the way we cook here, and the book is also going to deal with that history. But you know, all of these dishes have a story.
Even pimento cheese has a kind of wild and interesting story. It pops up in the late 19th century tea rooms all around the country. It wasn't a particularly southern thing. In the 1920s it was considered so high class and desirable that when Kraft first started making its cheeses, pimento cheese was one of the first ones they put in a jar. And all of a sudden what had been kind of highbrow was suddenly lowbrow, along with Velveeta. And so millworkers in the south started making sandwiches to take with them to work; it sort of infiltrated the south that way. Pimento cheese was one of those things people would put in their lunch boxes and take to the mills because they were encouraged to work through their lunch break, eat standing up. It would hold together better than, I guess, a chicken salad sandwich.
With all of the recipes in the book, there's a story like that. It's not really a scholarly, research-driven book—again, it's driven by our recipes here in the restaurant—but it tells all those stories.
Kitchen Garden and Bourbon Barrels is going to be more about country cooking. It won't be a restaurant cookbook. It'll relate to old midwestern farmhouse cooking. But it's also about how the south passed through the north—most of the people who settled this part of the country originally came through the Carolina Piedmont, the old wagon road, and hit the Cumberland Gap, then took the Buffalo Trace out to the Mississippi River before they went anywhere. That was how Indiana, Illinois were settled, even parts of Wisconsin, people were coming through there. And they brought their own cuisine with them, and it changed with geography. That book is sort of relating to how that affected what we know as comfort food.
That's interesting because I know you grew up in Indiana, sort of on the edge of the south. I grew up in Kansas and kind of feel the same way—a lot of the food heritage there was German or Scandinavian, but if you went to a diner you'd get a pretty southern-food experience out of Oklahoma and Texas. So what is midwestern food, then? Is it just those two things butting against each other?
It is the two cuisines butting against each other. And you know, there are German communities in the south, the German Coast in Louisiana out around Lac des Allemands, which is called that because Allemagne [is] Germany. And Dutch Fork, South Carolina, and certainly throughout Appalachia—the Appalachian Dutch, those were German. So those influences came in, and the Ulster Irish and the Scotch— the British influence becomes less and less important the farther you get away from the east coast. Obviously the French influence waned a long time ago, although in restaurant kitchens that technique is still important.
There are two lines that I would describe when you're getting from southern cuisine into midwestern cuisine. There is what you might call the "okra line," which ends somewhere around southern Kentucky, northern Tennessee, and somewhere around Virginia and North Carolina, where okra, being a particularly southern and African-American ingredient, just doesn't thrive. We get it at the market, but it doesn't have a long season here. Okra has a very long season in the south; they'll be harvesting okra in Louisiana into November. It's not an important vegetable here.
Green tomatoes sort of play into that same line as well, because you have to eat a lot of green tomatoes because they grow so well that you're constantly picking green tomatoes to keep the plants from just reproducing to the point where they die and stop producing.
And then you go a little further into Kentucky and there's the "grits line." I grew up north of the grits line. I mean, you go to Louisville, you don't see grits much, you go to Cincinatti, you don't see grits much, but you go a little bit further into Lexington and you start to see grits, and then you go into Tennessee and there's grits everywhere. I'm going to say you see them in Oklahoma, maybe not so much in Kansas—
Fairly rare when I was growing up—
So those are sort of the two big lines, but otherwise I'd say that a lot of what I grew up with was very southern. We did fried chicken, that was a big special occasion dish, [but] if it was a long time between weddings, we'd have it for Sunday dinner. My grandfather had a whole pantry full of chow chows and pickles and relishes.
Throughout the midwest, just like in the south, you had a hog-based small-farm culture, so most farms had a smokehouse and people made ham and bacon and salt pork and whatever else you do with a pig. You had your blood sausage and your liver mush I guess in the Carolinas—over here in the midwest, the Swedish immigrants in Ohio or Nebraska or Wisconsin, they'd make liver sausage with potatoes as a filler. In Louisiana it became rice—it used to be corn meal until sometime in the early 20th century when the rice industry really took off there.
Geography sort of defines it, also the shorter growing season—but also, in the midwest, you have much much less of an African influence. And the farther south you go, the African influence, particularly in the low country and the gulf, is huge. Where here, there wasn't really much of an African-American [presence] until the Great Migration [in the 1920s to 1960s], and then it was concentrated in the cities. And that spawned soul food, which is another thing. I guess you could call that midwestern cuisine at this point, because it's here in the midwest, but it's not really related.
Tomorrow: Big Jones' greatest hits