Friday, September 1, 2017

Southern Fried Solar Eclipse

Southern fried solar eclipse

When the NASA interactive eclipse map combined with showed that the best places to watch the Aug. 21 solar eclipse were all west of the Carolinas--well what d'you think we did? 

Road trip!

Nine hours later around eight Monday morning we found ourselves in White House (TN not DC--the occupant of that other House was too busy frying his eyeballs), parked in the Walmart front lot with folks in campers pickups party tents all set up for the big event.

Some picnicked on hot dogs and chips; others passed out beer from coolers and checked their tripod cameras specially fitted with solar filters. I'd just blown forty bucks on eclipse glasses and wasn't willing to spend more for my smartphone (figured NASA would take better pictures) so the extent of my preparations went something like this:

A Crave Case from White Castle filled with Thirty Original Sliders.

I know I know I know--franchise! One most folks would say is only a step above McDonald's in quality. But White Castle (arguably) invented the slider (the tiny one-bite-and-gone burger) and the recipe hasn't changed much since: small beef patties steamed and stuffed into pillowy buns with chopped onions and two slices of dill pickle, a taste so familiar and beloved of a few--an extremely fanatical few--that they've developed a cult around it to rival any Trekkie or Star Wars fan club.

And it's a legitimately unique taste: faintly sweet bun, gently cooked moist beef, subtle funk of onions, sharp tang and crunch of pickle. Not a big flavor nor was it meant to be, perfect antidote to a night of overdrinking where the mix of carbs and meat help soak up alcohol. Or (if you don't believe that theory which I don't) a taste so understated yet harmoniously balanced it won't upset your nauseated taste buds as it nourishes you. 

That or (I don't drink) the perfect little snack to pop in your mouth every half hour or so during the long wait for totality. 

Got to confess I did snap a few photos: covered my cellphone camera lens with my new glasses and clicked away. The image was unsurprisingly crappy

so I improvised: if I didn't have the equipment to take proper pictures figured I'd take a video of folks watching the eclipse. Plunked my Polaroid handicam (gift from the company I work for, for ten years' loyal service) on the roof of the car and took this:

So how was I to know I'd star in my own movie?

Joking aside it was quite a spectacle: the sun was a waning moon on the widescreen of my shades, a slim scythe blade rapidly sheathing itself. Once gone I whipped off my glasses (as you see above) and managed a glimpse of the diamond ring--the dying gemstone flash the dwindling embracing arms--before the sun was replaced by this baleful black blot in a suddenly nighttime sky. Dogs howled people cheered; someone (of course) played "Total Eclipse of the Heart" full blast (I'd rather have listened to the dogs, or maybe Soundgarden). Most unsettling was this chill breath on my face teasing me with the possibility of a permanent condition--that maybe the sun won't ever come back. An epiphany? A religious experience? If it wasn't it came damned close. 

Afterwards we drove some two hours (thanks to the post-eclipse traffic) into Nashville for the main event:

The Loveless Cafe (perfect for a hundred heartbroken country ballads)--now all cafe since the motel room cabins (which look precious pretty from outside) have been converted into stores. 

Loveless is best known for their biscuits--really known for their biscuits; on top of the two hour drive we had to wait an extra hour for a seat it was that busy. 

The product when finally set on our table turned out thusly:

Based on Anne Loveless' recipe developed in the '50s, famously baked by Carol Fay Ellison (who made it for such celebrities as Martha Stewart, Paula Deen, Conan O'Brien, Bobby Flay--incidentally beating Flay's lilywhite butt in a biscuit cookoff) the actual ingredients and methodology are a closely held secret that folks have tried to replicate without much success. The most convincing theorists speculate that Anne (and Carol Fay after her) used three kinds of leavening in the dough: yeast, baking soda, Southern soft-wheat self-rising flour (they were called 'bridal biscuits' because the triple lift helped guarantee a light and airy snack for the husband). Add more salt, cut extra small (Carol Fay claimed to use a tomato paste can) to ensure consistency (bigger biscuits are presumably harder to bake uniformly), give plenty of time to rise. More enterprising readers can attempt to duplicate the confection by going here

The biscuits had a lightly browned buttery crust an almost ethereal crumb--the protective outer shell hiding a trembling inner tenderness. It was addictive on its own (we asked for seconds) but dipped in sorghum syrup (which you have to ask from them special) the burnt sweet on buttery soft was like a .22 caliber slug of pleasure fired right between the eyes. Had to pause to recover my breath. 

The meat sampler was arrayed thusly:

 Clockwise from left: Tennessee style fried chicken, country ham (succulent not too salty), catfish fillet (cornmeal crust with a lemon wedge and tartar sauce), hush puppy, with sides of mashed potatoes and turnip greens in pot liquor (Non-alcoholic? Could've sworn a sip gave me a buzz).  

More decadent if you can believe that's possible was the smoked pork chop:

Chops grilled and slathered with a housemade peach glaze ('twas the season) then served with cornmeal-crusted fried green tomatoes and a light cucumber-n-onion salad.

Best of all was the pulled pork:

Juicy pork in slightly sweet tomato dip piled over two cornbread hoe cakes, sides of coleslaw and garmonbozia--sorry creamed corn. When I finally found the hoe cake lost under that massive pile of meat it was drenched in pork fat and obscenely good. 

Dessert was a relatively chaste banana pudding

Freshest bananas (firm sweet) ever sliced into a dessert mixed with pastry cream topped by sweetened whipped cream topped by crisp wafer.

Too late to go most anywhere after that huge late lunch, so we ended up going (But where else in the Music City?) to the Grand Ole Opry. Which was pretty enough:

But I kept asking myself: "This the same building I saw in Karl Reisz's Sweet Dreams? Michael Apted's Coal Miner's Daughter? I remember it standing somewhere downtown, not next to some suburban mall." 

Turns out the Opry had moved down here from the Ryman Auditorium back in '74. We had to drive down to Broadway (see pic at top of this blog post) to find the older structure: 

Next day we planned to go home but not before visiting one more landmark. I was thinking of Fort Knox, site of the finale to my hands-down favorite Bond film of all time but alas--turned out they once offered tours to the general public but now no more. Thought briefly of driving up to the fence and taking pictures; imagined how the security staff inside would react ("Yes officer all I wanted was pictures. Yes sir I'm a fan of the movie. No sir I wasn't casing the joint. No sir I'm not ISIS.").

Instead drove two hours north to Owensboro KY for their unique barbecue not found in any other state. 

Old Hickory Bar-B-Q has been presenting the classics since 1918. From right to left: barbecued ribs barbecued chicken barbecued beans barbecued mutton or old sheep.  

"Old what?" Lamb is what's usually available in stores, youthful tender little chops that frankly don't taste much different from beef. Mutton isn't as bland; it has a funkiness that soars above barbecue's smoke-and-vinegar profile to settle with a decisive splat on the tongue.

Sliced mutton is from the shoulder and being slow-cooked over hickory coals is tender tangy sooty rich:

Yes you need the bread--something to work as a cushion against the fattiness a sounding board if you like against which the mutton can play its unique melody.

Chopped mutton is a whole other critter, meat from all over the sheep slow roasted then shredded then seasoned with a peppery vinegar dip. 

Is it gamy? Gamier than sliced shoulder and definitely gamier than either pork or beef and that's the point. I can get perfectly good pork or beef ribs near everywhere else but this is a little-known meat (mostly consumed in the Middle East, Africa, parts of Central Asia) done in a classic American style. Loved how the flavors clash and struggle as if on a Civil War battlefield, the victor being my taste buds. Barbecued mutton--scratched off my bucket list. 

But hold--this is Kentucky after all. Don't they do fried chicken? Why yes; yes they do. As it turns out we drove nearly two hours--to Louisville KY--to find this place:

The staff take your order from behind glass (probably not bulletproof but still intimidating) while security cameras look on; some of us were understandably freaked. 

But if the ambiance was urban middle to lower class the food was classic soul. Fillets of cornmeal-breaded catfish the size of a bible served piping hot, the fish firm and flaky fresh, the mixed greens (pot liquor included) deeply satisfying, the mac n cheese sinfully creamy (wish I had taken the takeout covers off for the camera). 

The chicken was lightly floured then fried, the skin hot and delicate crisp the flesh juicy. Flipped the thigh over and there it was: a morsel of kidney tucked away against the pelvis, waiting for the knowing diner to scoop out with finger, pop in the mouth, savor the nugget of mineral-y goodness. 

We'd had mutton hours before and had just put away catfish and chicken; no way did we have room for dessert--at least not till we spotted this (see below) calling out to us: a peach cobbler, not too sweet, dark and tangy, gorgeous in its unpretentious homeliness. 

From Kentucky into Ohio; we couldn't just drive past Cincinnati without trying the city's Skyline Chili (first established 1949). I ordered mine 4-Way: spaghetti, chili, a mound of shredded cheddar cheese, onions.

Have to admit the taste of this dish eluded me; something I suspect about the spices in the chili. But it's certainly different with its mix of cumin cinnamon cocoa bay leaf and ground cloves (too much clove for my taste?). Iconic dish though and glad I managed to try it. 

Our last stop was Columbus OH where we found Schmidt's Sausage Haus in the German Village, charming little community with treelined cobblestone streets and little artisanal shops. The restaurant itself (an establishment dating back to 1914 as a restaurant, way back to 1886 as a meat-packing house) sits in a red brick building filled wall-to-wall with little beergarden knick-knacks, stained glass windows, oil paintings dimmed with age.

We ordered the sausage plate (original bratwurst, mild knockwurst, the Fat Daddy (a German bologna), the Bahama Mama (a mildly spicy invention)) with cinammon-sprinkled apple sauce and a tart potato salad:

The Bavarian cabbage rolls (pork beef rice stuffed into cabbage leaves, tomato sauce, grated Parmesan) with potato pancakes and sweet & sour red cabbage:  

The Weiner Schnitzel (veal cutlets breaded and crisped, thick dark mushroom-and-burgundy gravy) served with cole slaw and mashed potato:

Of course you can't not try their cream puffs, a pastry shell stuffed with light sweet cream about the size of a small cabbage head. Below is a picture of the display case--puffs on the upper right--as we devoured our order before I could even think of snapping a pic (was too cheap to order another): 

And that's it; rest of the way home was an epic trek fueled by slowly digesting carbs and protein and fermented cabbage, washed down by gallons of hot caffeine. All that for a light-and-shadow show big as the sky that lasted a brief hundred and fifty-nine seconds. 

Regrets? Hell no; would do it again in a hot second (or maybe 2024).

Next project: working off the calories. Wish me luck.

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