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135. Café Du Monde: Fried Dough at its Finest

6 Dec

cafe du mondeOh, Top Chef New Orleans, you’re killing me. When you edit in a shot of a certain green and white striped awning, Café Du Monde calls to me. And I think, “Yes, Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong, indeed I DO know what it means to miss New Orleans.”

What do I miss most about Café Du Monde? Two words: fried dough. Also, powdered sugar. Heaps of powdered sugar. Most of which will land on your blouse, pants, skirt, dress, suit jacket, tie, whatever. Maybe even your socks. It’s impossible to eat at Café Du Monde without making a mess of yourself. But that’s part of its charm.

Heaven on a plate...

Heaven on a plate…

You may be thinking “Perhaps I would order something other than beignets, then I wouldn’t get messy.” You also wouldn’t get fed, seeing as there is exactly one food item on the menu.

You might recall this excerpt from The Pelican Brief:

She bought a Post and a Times-Picayune from a sidewalk vendor and found a table in a deserted corner of Café Du Monde…A waiter finally made it by, and she ordered coffee and a plain bagel.

John Grisham might ought to have added that she (Darby) waited there till three days after the world ended and never did get served. There are no bagels, plain or otherwise, at Café Du Monde. And if “deserted corners” exist there, I’ve never seen them. But perhaps the crowds thin out at some point in the 24 hours they’re open each day.

I remember the first time I visited the Original French Market Coffee Stand. This was during the World’s Fair in 1984, when I sported one of my worst self-inflicted hairstyles. (I’d cropped my hair closely on both sides, leaving the bangs and back long–sort of a cross between a mullet and a mohawk. A mulhawk.)

Anyhoo, I sat at a hard-to-come-by table with various members of my family and was amazed that our waitress felt no need to write down the order. Later I realized this wasn’t such a miraculous feat given the limited menu options.

After a few minutes wait, we were presented with a pile of deep-fried dough covered under a mountain of powdered sugar. “This,” I thought, “is where I want to go when I die.” Which if I had the chance to eat there every day would happen sooner rather than later.

On the way out, one of us spotted a yellow box of beignet mix. Hallelujah! No longer would I be satisfied with makeshift donuts made from canned biscuit dough. Not when I could recreate the Café Du Monde experience at home.

Sadly, eating “homemade” beignets isn’t nearly as much fun because A. No cooks or waitresses and B. People-watching opportunities are limited. Besides which, deep frying dough requires a certain patience and skill that I lack. I probably still have a long-since expired box of beignet mix hiding in one of my kitchen cabinets.

Yes, y'all, they also sell coffee.

Yes, y’all, they also sell coffee.

Folks who’ve frequented Café Du Monde might be thinking, “What about the COFFEE? Get to the chicory coffee already!!”

Ok, so. I’ve heard tell that they make a mighty fine cup of Joe. I will take y’all’s word for it. Even after a decade in Seattle, I’m still not a coffee drinker.

But maybe that’s because I haven’t tried Café Du Monde’s legendary café au lait, half coffee and half hot milk. According to their website, the chicory softens the bitter edge of the dark roasted coffee, adding an almost chocolate flavor.

Sounds sort of like hot chocolate with extra caffeine. I will order a cup next time I’m there and report back.

beignet mixCDM coffeeIn the meantime, if you can’t get to the New Orleans area in the foreseeable future, don’t despair. On second thought, go ahead and despair. But know that you can order cans of chicory coffee and boxes of beignet mix direct from Café Du Monde here. The prices are quite reasonable, until you get to the shipping charges. Consider yourself warned.

What’s your fondest Café Du Monde memory? How many beignets can you eat in one sitting? And is chicory coffee really tastier than the regular stuff?

Photo Credits from Flickr Creative Commons: Cafe Du Monde exterior by praline3001; Plate ‘o Beignets by Tammy Camp and Café au Lait by Gwen Harlow.

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Rerun: 16. Catfish (The “Deep-Fried” is Implied)

25 Jun

In an effort to be timely, I’m offering this rerun in honor of National Catfish Day (which I’d never heard of till I checked my Twitter feed this morning).

Ok, a lot of these posts feature food (or drink), and I reckon you can guess why: We Southerners loves us some food. Hey, Mississippi didn’t get to be the fattest state in the US for nothing!

So while folks here in Seattle are swooning over salmon, my peeps back home are loyal to the good old-fashioned fried catfish. With hushpuppies (which one of my Seattle friends mistakenly called “puff daddies.” Of course, the name stuck).

Though I now regularly buy organic produce and “hippie eggs,” I’m still of the opinion that farm-raised catfish is the way to go. Sure, maybe wild catfish live happier lives, but they are notorious bottom feeders. For me, eating free-range catfish would be akin to munching on a fried vulture. Ick. As an aside, when I lived in LA, I was extolling the virtues of farm-raised catfish to a work friend who said, “Farm-raised? I thought it was a fish!”

There’s a reason I’m writing this blog, people.

Now if you happen to be in the South and are itching to try some catfish, I recommend Jerry’s in Florence, MS. Not necessarily because it’s the best, but because it may be the one and only place you’ll eat catfish in an igloo. Yes, I said igloo.

Jerry's Fish House, Florence, MS

It’s been a long time since I’ve been there, and I can’t really remember whether the catfish or hushpuppies are anything special. But it’s one of few places where I, an avowed fish hater, will actually eat fish.

What’s your favorite catfish joint?

Update: I’ve since learned that my local organic grocery store, PCC Natural Markets (which may stand for Politically Correct Cooking) endorses farm-raised catfish. They pass out a pocket-size Seafood Watch guide that lists the most sustainable choices for fish-loving folks. In case you’re interested, click for additional reading on why farm-raised catfish (but not salmon!) is best.

Rerun–43. Cracker Barrel: Putting the Kitsch in Kitchen

10 May

2658965445_b485f917caSo, the evening after I revisited Stuckey’s, Cracker Barrel lured me in with their ever-present billboards. I think it was the one about “homemade dumplings” that won me over. Wish I’d reread this post before eating there:

You’d think the novelty of nostalgia would have worn off by now, but judging from the ever-crowded parking lot, I reckon not. But then Cracker Barrel combines two of Southern women’s greatest loves: eating and shopping. Also, you can get in quite a bit of gossiping, too, depending on who you run into and how long you have to wait for a table.

I’m not going to extol the virtues of Cracker Barrel’s food, because I fail to see any. Ok, I’ll admit, they do have some good pecan pancakes that come with wee bottles of maple syrup. I know this because whenever I’d come home to visit, Mom would wake me up WAAAAY early the next day (like around 9:00) to go get some pancakes.

What Cracker Barrel lacks in culinary skills, they make up for in kitsch. Where else are you going to find cornbread pans, patriotic clocks, wooden toys, and old-timey candy all in one place? Ok, maybe your grandmother’s house. But the candy will likely be not so much old-timey as just plain old.IMG_0241

There’s plenty to look at while you wait, and the fun doesn’t stop after you’re seated. Who’s up for a challenging round of the peg game? You know the one with a triangle-shaped piece of wood featuring pegs filled with golf tees? The object is to “jump” and remove the other tees, leaving only one tee standing. It sounds more exciting than it is. But then, maybe I’m just bitter because I’ve yet to win.

I’ve only ever been to Cracker Barrel for breakfast because from what I hear, that’s the only meal worth eating. However, I can’t imagine the food would be any worse than the short-lived “Po Folks” that we used to patronize frequently in college. Because, hey, we WERE po folks, and most anything beats Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.

Though I do enjoy poking around in the general store, I haven’t eaten at Cracker Barrel in the last three years. My mom loved those pancakes enough to endure breakfast with a grumpy, jetlagged daughter, and it wouldn’t feel right eating them without her.

What’s your favorite part of the Cracker Barrel experience?

pancakesUpdate: Last year, I went with my sister and dad to have the pecan pancakes again and they did not disappoint. Wish I could say the same about my meal last week. I had the frequently touted chicken and dumplings and they were just sad, y’all. Not as sad as the straight-from-the-can, lukewarm niblets, but almost. Of the fried okra, I will not even speak. In their defense, the biscuit was edible.

What puzzles me is that in my infinite quest to find a go-to chicken and dumplings recipe, I keep running across ones that claim to taste “Just Like Cracker Barrel,” as if it were a good thing. Huh?

So after a spectacularly underwhelming supper, I decided to go back for breakfast. Thought maybe I could drown the bad memories with a little bottle of maple-esque syrup. Low and behold, it worked. Note: Notions like this hardly ever work, but never underestimate the power of pecan pancakes.

Photo credits: Cracker Barrel exterior by Keith Lam, Flickr Creative Commons; pics with bad lighting by yours truly.

Rerun: 41. Stuckey’s–Home of Pee Breaks and Pecan Logs

1 May

Stuckey's, Coffee County, Tennessee by naslrogues

Hey y’all! I’m at the beginning of Dixie Expedition 2013, wherein I’ll be visiting seven states in 30 days. Whee! After a visit with family over the weekend, I took to the road yesterday landing in Tallahassee, FL, on my way to Jeckyll Island, GA for The Southern C Summit.

During my travels, I’ll be visiting some places I’ve never seen (Savannah, Charleston) and reconnecting with some old haunts along the way. I thought it might be fun to share some of my previous posts with updated commentary. Here goes:

Every road trip I ever suffered through as a child included at least one stop at Stuckey’s. Which was often the highlight of the whole ordeal. How to describe Stuckey’s to the uninitiated? Hmm…a gas station, restaurant, souvenir shop, ice cream parlor, and candy store all in one. Kind of a low-rent version of Disneyland, sans rides, dorky hats, and teenagers sweltering in Disney character costumes.

Anybody who’s ever been to Stuckey’s knows I’m building it up way too much, but y’all have to admit that to a road-weary kid, Stuckey’s is pretty awesome. Except for the bathrooms. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a clean bathroom in a Stuckey’s. But, hey, look! There’s a figurine made out of a clam shell! A rubber alligator! Peanut brittle!

What I remember most about Stuckey’s is that they used to sell their own brand of melt-in-your-mouth peppermint balls. I remember this because I’ve spent the rest of my life (so far) trying to find a decent substitute. If y’all know of any, please let me know.

My sister and I never left Stuckey’s without new “Yes and Know” books in hand. These were filled with trivia questions or word games, and you revealed the “invisibly printed” answers with a “magic pen.” As I got older (or perhaps my eyesight improved), I realized you could read the “invisibly printed” answers without the use of the “magic pen” AKA yellow highlighter. However, until I Googled them just now, some thirty-odd years later, I didn’t catch anything odd about the tagline “Hours and hours of by-yourself enjoyment.” Hmm.

My mom always had to have a box of sesame sticks (which were WAY exotic back in the day) and the ever-popular Pecan Log. This is not as gross as it sounds, but almost. I don’t remember anything my dad enjoyed about Stuckey’s other than getting the hell out of there and back on the road. Of course, we didn’t often get to-go drinks because a pit stop was to “empty” not “fill up.”

Anytime I happen to be on a road trip in the South, I can never pass up a Stuckey’s. They’re harder to find these days, but if you’re on the road from Jackson, MS to Memphis, there’s one in Vaiden. Last time I checked.

Alas, while they do still sell a bunch of Stuckey’s brand food-like substances, the peppermint balls are long gone. However, I’m happy to report that the bathrooms are just as nasty as ever.

What do y’all remember about Stuckey’s?

Update: I’ve been informed that the Stuckey’s in Vaiden has long since closed, but I stopped at the one in Hattiesburg, MS, yesterday and it hasn’t changed a bit (nasty bathrooms and all). Snapped a couple of pics for y’all. Also, I bought a package of pecan divinity, but haven’t worked up the nerve to eat it yet. Something tells me it will not live up to its name…

Classic Stuckey's literature.

Classic Stuckey’s literature.

All manner of pecan candy.

All manner of pecan candy.

128. Krystal–It’s Hip to be Square.

10 Apr

2926707617_c888f07a59_mWhen White Castle burgers made their debut on grocery store shelves a couple of decades back, this Mississippi girl was perplexed. The label said “White Castle” but I’d always known the wee burgers by another name, Krystal. These so-called White Castles featured the same sliver of meat sandwiched between a spongy square bun, complete with the diced onions and dill pickle slices.

White Castle and Krystal. Separated at birth?

White Castle and Krystal. Separated at birth?

Imagine my surprise when I learned that Krystal–a Southern staple since 1932–was a late-blooming imitator of America’s first fast-food burger chain. Apparently, everybody in the Northeast grew up eating White Castles, while those in the South ate Krystals. (I believe folks on the West coast learned about square hamburgers toward the end of the 20th century when they started appearing on appetizer menus as “sliders.” I should mention that this unfortunate name also originated at White Castle.)

My apologies to White Castle fans (who go by the name “cravers”), but my first-hand knowledge about The Original Slider® is limited to the frozen variety I last tasted back in the 90s. Krystals, however, hold a special place in my heart, much like an old friend with whom I cross paths a couple of times a decade.

My first memory of Krystal comes from the 70s when an elderly family friend (whose name I have forgotten) would occasionally pile a bunch of kids in the car and take us for burgers after church. On those days, I felt like I’d won the lottery (although I should substitute the word “bingo” seeing as Baptists consider gambling a sin). Not only did I get to skip out on eating yet another detestable Sunday pot roast, I got stickers! Note to kids today: Back then stickers were as rare as cassettes are today. (Let’s have a moment of silence to mourn the passing of mix tapes.)

70's Krystal stickers=swoon!!

70’s Krystal stickers=swoon!!

Sometime during the 70’s Krystal decided to branch out into fried chicken, but it never really caught on, seeing as the logistics were far too complicated. If you wanted bird, you had to go to an annex around back for it. Not really worth the bother. Before I graduated high school, they’d abandoned this practice and now you can get fried chicken as part of the regular menu. Sort of. They’ve taken away the bone and added a bun. Plus, it’s called “chik’n,” which seems a bit dubious to me, but I’m nothing if not skeptical.

The late 80’s/early 90’s were my peak Krystal-loving years, seeing as I was a college student and Krystal was A. cheap and B. open after the bars close. I must confess, I still believe those to be Krystal’s key selling points.

College kids' dining budget...

College kids’ dining budget…

So how does Krystal’s food taste? I hoped you’d never ask.

For tastebuds influenced by nostalgia and/or alcohol, Krystal burgers can be quite satisfying. The steamed buns offer the ideal pairing of spongy white bread and beef fat. The sliver of meat provides a canvas for Pollack-style spattering of diced onions and mustard embellished with a pickle chip. A slice of American cheese served slightly askew can be had for just a few nickels and dimes more.

Hot-off-the-grill Krystal burgers are best when eaten immediately. Like before your car pulls away from the drive thru. Seriously. If you must wait till you get home, I beseech you to treat the burgers to a quick trip in the microwave. To quote an old friend and Krystal-eating companion, “A cold Krystal is DEATH.”

The only way to eat a Krystal...

The only way to eat a Krystal…

I have fond memories of Krystal’s lemon pie, but they can’t be trusted, seeing as they were formed before I properly developed my dessert palate. It’s not that I’ve become a dessert snob so much as…Ok, yes it is.

Had I not been indoctrinated into Krystal eating as a child, I’m not sure what my opinion of the burgers would be. Certainly, I’ve had better tasting sliders, but they’re just not Krystal’s. The restaurant’s latest slogan sums it up: “Krystal®–Nothin’ Like It.” Unless you count White Castle.

Have you eaten at Krystal? White Castle? Both? How do they compare?

Photo Credits: Krystal Restaurant by Scott Beale, Flickr Creative Commons; Loose Change by Rich Renomeron, Flickr Creative Commons; Hot sign by Jonathon Coleman, Flickr Creative Commons.

127. Pilgrimage–Not Just for Pilgrims Anymore

28 Mar

Shadowlawn, Columbus, MS (c. 1848)

Shadowlawn, Columbus, MS (c. 1848)

Yes, folks, Tara may be gone with the wind (or more accurately, fire), but throughout the South you’ll find many a pre-war home still standing. Judging by the variety of coffee-table books and Pinterest boards on the subject, folks really enjoy looking at these not-so-humble abodes. But what’s better than ogling photos or casting admiring glances from across the street? Why, being invited inside, of course! For a fee, but still.

During a spring pilgrimage, Southerners travel from far and wide for the opportunity to stroll the gardens and peek under the dust ruffles of these stately mansions. In all my years living in Mississippi, I can only recall taking a tour once, during which I was shown a “secret” dresser drawer wherein treasures could be stashed. I recall thinking, “Hey, my mom’s dresser has one of those!” Of course, one would be disappointed to discover that the “treasure” in Mom’s secret drawer consisted of birthday cards, old letters, and memorabilia. Her actual treasures? Well, she stored her jewelry in Band-Aid boxes tucked away deep in the cabinets. Sometimes hidden so well, she couldn’t find it herself.

For my mom’s side of the family, the pilgrimage was a time to bust out the hoop skirts and tricorn hats and put on a show. I inherited my fondness for all things fancy from the Lucas’. Two of my mom’s siblings were antique dealers and almost all the rest were regular customers. Every family reunion had a touch of the estate sale feel. But with more casseroles and cake.

Mom and Jenna (post nap)

Mom and Jenna (post nap)

For many years, my aunt Clara’s home Shadowlawn was part of the Columbus, Mississippi, pilgrimage tour, so naturally we were, too. My sister and I stood on the front lawn greeting visitors with a smile, wave, and perhaps an occasional “Welcome, y’all!” Each of my mom’s siblings would be assigned a room and provided with talking points along the lines of “the antique Victorian half tester bed” or “this vahse…” (never “vase,” always “vahse”).

I’m not ashamed to tell y’all that one of the highlights of my pilgrimage career was being promoted from lawn duty to room guide, and not just because the indoors had air conditioning. I can’t recall many of the room’s furnishing, but I’m certain there was an antique washstand (like the one we had at home) and at least one “vahse.”

During one particularly taxing day when my sister was around four or five, she climbed up on one of the beds and proceeded to nap. As the story goes, more than one tour taker was startled when Jenna moved saying, “I thought she was a DOLL!” Clearly, they do not know my sister like I do.

Me, dreaming of glass doorknobs...

Me, dreaming of glass doorknobs…

Between pilgrimages and July 4th family reunions, I spent a lot of time exploring Shadowlawn, from the room ‘o dolls from around the world to the exotic taxidermy collection. Once, I even spent three days locked inside a downstairs bathroom. (Ok, it might’ve been half an hour, but I’ve adjusted for kid time.) While I was in there, I admired the doll whose crocheted skirt doubled as a toilet paper cover. We never had one of those. On account of “they’re tacky.” Beside our toilet? A replica of Rodin’s statue “The Thinker.”

One of my favorite things about Shadowlawn was the glass doorknobs. As a kid, I told myself that one day I would live in a house with glass doorknobs. And now I do. My walnut vanity has not one but two hidden drawers. But I’ll most likely never own a vessel worthy of being called a “vahse.” Keeping it real, y’all.

Mission accomplished!

Mission accomplished!

As I write this, more than two decades since my last visit to Columbus, I wish I had paid more attention as a kid. I wish I’d appreciated the opportunity for such a pilgrimage. These days, Shadowlawn is a bed and breakfast, so I could go back if I wanted to. But now that Mom and most of her brothers and sisters are gone, it just wouldn’t be a pilgrimage.

In case you’re curious, it’s Spring Pilgrimage time in Mississippi. The Natchez Pilgrimage continues through April 9th and the Columbus Pilgrimage runs March 31 through April 13.

Have you toured an antebellum home? What did you think? Please do tell.

125. Graceland, Where the King Died on His Throne

7 Mar

gracelandOf all the Mississippi natives who’ve reached the first-name-only level of fame, I daresay that Elvis tops the charts for Most Interesting Residence. I reckon Oprah’s place is none-too-shabby, but I wouldn’t know, seeing as I’ve yet to snag an invite. (Sorry, Mr. Grisham, I know your admirers are legion, but the media’s not about to start referring to you as “John.” I mean, even Mr. Lennon never made it to single-first-name status and his band was more popular than Jesus. Except in the South. Where there’s two things you don’t mess with: Texas and Jesus.)

You know you want one...

You know you want one…

During my sojourns in Memphis, I’d passed Graceland a time or two before stopping in for a visit. I always thought they’d open up the gates and let me drive right on in. They. Do. Not. Instead, you park across the street and go into the souvenir shop to purchase tickets. After you’ve had sufficient time to examine all the trinkets at least twice, you’re transported to mansion in the manner of a herd of cattle, if they would fit on a shuttle bus.

But once you arrive at the mansion and pass the threshold, WOW, it all looks so…normal. Yes, that white couch probably seats about 17 folks (20 if you scooch in), but it’s not bejeweled in any way. Plus, I was kinda hoping for a disco ball or two.

billiard roomNow the billiard room is impressive in that it’s the only place I’ve ever seen where the fabric on the couch matches the fabric on the walls and the ceiling. They had the pool table roped off with a sign saying Please Do Not Touch. However, if you do, it’s not like you’ll be shocked, tasered, or anything. Probably. I’m just speculating.

Next up: the infamous Jungle Room. I always thought the furniture was custom made for The King. Turns out he bought the whole kit and caboodle from a furniture store’s showroom. Everything from the primitively carved, fur-covered furniture to the green shag carpeting (on floor and ceiling) was already constructed and just waiting for some rich guy with crazy-ass taste to come in and buy it. Voila! Elvis! For an extra special treat, check out this 360° view of the jungle room from the official Elvis site. jungle room closeup

I loved how his bar/lounge featured a wall of TVs like you’d find at Best Buy. The arrangement on the wall, I mean, not the TVs. They’re the sort you might find at Goodwill, seeing as they were made in the 70’s. If Elvis IS alive, I’m sure he has a top-notch media room. With a ginormous couch. Apparently, he had a thing for huge couches. Also, the color yellow.

Not pictured: Eternal flame.

Not pictured: Eternal flame.

I think these days they might let you go upstairs, but that whole part was roped off, so I don’t have much more to report. There were other rooms, but none that left an impression. They let you go outside and look at his grave, where there’s an eternal flame burning to keep his spirit alive. Not sure how it fares in the rain, but I reckon it’s the thought that counts.

There’s also a museum where you can see some of his outfits and other ephemera. It costs extra to check out his cars and airplanes, so I didn’t.

Finally, the shuttle bus takes you back to the souvenir shop parking lot so you can retrieve your car and drive off into the sunset. Unless, perhaps, you’ll like to take a final stroll through all the Elvis paraphenalia…No? Ok then.

Have you been to Graceland? What’d you think of it? Please do tell.

And now, I’ll let Paul Simon sing us out:

Photo Credits: Graceland Mansion and Billiard Room by Danube66, Flickr Creative Commons; Jungle Room by NoirDame, Flickr Creative Commons; Elvis’ grave by Su_Anna, Flickr Creative Commons.

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