I am a sucker for regionalism. It’s nearly dead in this country, so it’s often hard to distinguish one city from the next. Chain stores. Chain restaurants. Same stuff. Same food.
I am old enough to remember when there was more diversity of choice when it came to dining out; certain restaurants in certain towns where you could get the best this or the best that. In fact sometimes these were the only places to get those particular or regional this & thats!
It used to be if you really wanted to understand a place and the people who lived there; you sat down and ate with them– maybe not at the same table, but at least sharing the same food. Food that was completely unique to that place and those people. Because food like that gets passed down through generations. It comes from a time when people tended to stay put. This is how regional cuisine developed, through heritage, tradition and pride.
It’s a different world today for all sorts of complicated reasons. It’s much harder to define a place through its food traditions, because so many of those traditions have become homogenized.
But there still are places, even in this country that have held onto those traditions. Places that have kept regional foods alive. They are often well-kept secrets and every region has them.
For me some of my most personal memories of food come from the Southern states. Beignets in New Orleans (click). Barbecue in Alabama. Catfish and Rice in Georgia (click). It was a time in my life when food that good required a road trip, because the food was over there– and you weren’t!
I am so glad I had the time and inclination to search out these foods. To this day just the sight of a neon café sign flashing at me beside a cluttered highway or the thought of dusty back roads gets my tummy to wake up and pay attention!
Well if you have a fondness for regional cooking and a soft place in your heart for good Southern food the way it used to be, then I have a cookbook for you.
It’s from Southern Living. It’s called Off the Eaten Path: Favorite Southern Dives and 150 Recipes That Made Them Famous, by Morgan Murphy.
It’s part road map, part nostalgia and all Southern! Every page and every recipe feels familiar to me. I know these places and I know these people. I’ve eaten with them, so to speak…
So you can imagine how I felt when I saw this book. It was like a flash of deja vu. Now, can’t say that I have cooked my way through this book. But I can tell you the very first thing I did when I got it in my hands was flip to the index and see if they had a recipe for a pimiento sandwich. Sure enough, on page 157, there’s a beauty of a pimiento sandwich gussied up a bit with a pretty name– The Caitlan. But it’s a classic pimiento. Swiss, Havarti, pepper Jack and Cheddar come together with sweet pimiento and spicy jalapeno. This sandwich has bacon and sprouts and is served on toasted sourdough.
If you have never heard of or never had a pimiento sandwich, let me tell you something. It’s the specialty of every mom south of the Mason Dixon Line. It’s what we Californians might call white trash cooking. But let me just say– I am not too much of a food snob to know that a good pimiento sandwich is one of life’s great joys. Hell, a bad pimiento sandwich will still make me smile! So I have included a recipe for a very modern (food snob friendly) pimiento sandwich so you can get acquainted with this little masterpiece.
This version is the specialty of a place in Valle Crucis North Carolina called The Ham Shoppe. Which is really more of a country store where you can still pick up locally canned jams and jellies. But it’s this gourmet take on the classic Southern pimiento sandwich that keeps this place on the map. There’s no place to sit, so you’ll have to take your sandwich out to the parking lot and eat if off the hood of your car. I swear. I have been to this place, at least in my mind.
To me that sandwich and that Ham Shoppe really sum up this book. Because the author does more than just present recipes, he presents stories so very regional that you can’t help but be transported. It’s as if you have climbed into his vintage Cadillac and traveled with him to some of the South’s most iconic regional food destinations– places that only locals know about, and a few great culinary institutions too. State by state. From Alabama to West Virginia. The best drives. The best roadside attractions. The best cafes, BBQ joints and diners. There all here, with GPS co-ordinates included, and they are all deliciously presented. With facts about the place, the food and the people.
Because it takes special people to keep these traditions alive, and that’s where this book shines. Every recipe tells a story, and that story is always set in a very specific place. A place like no other. And though that place and that food is much harder to find than it used be. I encourage you to make the journey. Go beyond the bland hum-drum and explore a little.
The Cailin, a Pimiento Sandwich makes 8
SERIOUS FUN FOOD