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    Photos by Chris Witzke

    A few weeks ago I went to ValuMarket at Mid City Mall on a quiet weeknight and noticed that the summer breeze smelled like…fried chicken. Maybe you’ve smelled it, too: Louisville has had a Southern-scented waft lately. The new restaurant Somewhere, next to Nowhere bar on Bardstown Road, serves buttermilk fried chicken and fried green tomatoes. There’s Gospel Bird in New Albany, which has a whole menu section dedicated to biscuits. Red Barn Kitchen, local restaurant mogul Fernando Martinez’s first Southern/barbecue joint, just opened in Lyndon in what used to be Joe’s Older Than Dirt — if you have any reservations about trying the place, just look at the video of bubbling mac and cheese with fried cheese curds on its Facebook page.

    This resurgence of Southern food isn’t just happening in Louisville. There’s a place in San Francisco called Brenda’s Meat & Three, a place in Portland, Oregon, called Screen Door. When I talk to 610 Magnolia and MilkWood owner Edward Lee, he mentions a woman making really good fried chicken up in New York. Why it’s so popular likely has to do with the shift back to prioritizing local food. But one thing’s clear: Today’s definition of Southern food is murky as gravy.

    The core of Southern food is a blend of these elements: the convergence of European, African and Native American ingredients and traditions, and a long crop season with an abundance of local products. “To me, if you say ‘Southern food,’ I’m gonna say, ‘Which Southern?’” says Karter Louis, part-owner of Hillbilly Tea, which recently reopened on Main Street. “I’m thinking of New Orleans. I’m thinking of Mississippi. I’m thinking of Memphis. I’m thinking of those types of cuisines that are influenced by many things.” Lee, a Brooklyn native, says that Southern food has always had Asian influences. “Black pepper doesn’t come from the South. The basis of a spice rub for barbecue comes from the Far East spice trade.” He mentions Southern food’s dormant period, when it was dumbed down to a “Paula Deen-esque sort of greatest hits. People commercialized Southern food and turned it into Cracker Barrel, and for a while it was ignored. Chefs all over the South are understanding that if Southern food comes out of the dark ages, it needs to be something people want to eat, not just biscuits and gravy.”

    Finn’s Southern Kitchen opened in Germantown this spring. While it doesn’t have quilts hanging from the walls or checkered tablecloths — its clean white walls and round stools are more New York than Pikeville — it serves the classics: chicken and dumplings, fried chicken, the peas-and-rice dish called hoppin’ John. Don’t expect to hear Dwight Yoakam because it’s more of a Jack Johnson/John Mayer/Dave Matthews kind of place. “Do you think we’re Southern?” owner Steve Clements says almost defensively when I meet with him one morning. He points up at a large black-and-white photo of a rolling pin that hangs on the wall in a white frame. “Our decor is Southern. Our brand is Southern. Even our drinks — did you see our drink list?” There’s a Kentucky Mule made with Old Forester; a vodka-tea-lemonade drink called Summer in the South; and a bourbon-ginger drink called Shoo-Fly Punch. Clements says that his interpretation of Southern food gets down to high-quality ingredients. “Most people’s conception of Southern food is that it’s heavy, calorie-loaded and not good for ya. That’s really not true,” he says. Of course collard greens are on the menu, but there’s also a “detox” salad, with kale, quinoa, cranberries, carrots, cucumber and other fruits, vegetables and seeds.

    Finn’s isn’t the only place with a modern touch. Somewhere serves angel-hair pasta and potatoes au gratin. Gospel Bird puts twists on the originals with country-fried falafel, and shrimp and cauliflower grits.

    While so many others are fusing cuisines, Louis calls himself a purist. “If you cannot grow this item in the Appalachians, we will not serve it,” he tells me one Sunday afternoon. “It was a scandal last week. Our scramble comes with a side of fruit. My partner Prem (Durham) was lamenting that it was just raspberry, blackberry and two blueberries, like, ‘What? That’s an insult. More fruit.’ So the kitchen manager purchased a pineapple. She chopped this pineapple, and I came in right in the middle of brunch service and saw this pineapple and everyone saw my face. They all know.”

    The current menu is a collection of customer favorites from the five years before the restaurant closed last year. (After closing, Louis didn’t go on the Facebook page for a while, but when he finally did, there were many personal messages from people telling what Louis calls heart-wrenching stories about missing Hillbilly Tea.) There’s pork and pone, crawdad fritters, chow chow, succotash, sweet potatoes. “I tried to distinguish us with doing Appalachian food instead of Southern food,” he says. “This is my concept of a hillbilly. It wasn’t really about no shoes and bad teeth and all that stuff. Or even white people or any of that. It’s really about wholesome living off the land.


    Chicken and pone at Hillbilly Tea

    “What people call Southern food is plantation food. It’s what mammy made,” says Louis, who grew up in Old Louisville and downtown in a family rooted in farming. “Now there’s confusion of Southern food that was for the master and for the slaves. Now it’s all blended. The food my family eats, which we call soul food, is now called Southern food in restaurants when you go to New York. My friends in Chicago who are black eat the same food, so what is Southern food?”

    Seviche owner Anthony Lamas has a Latin-inspired cookbook called Southern Heat. Edward Lee’s Smoke & Pickles has a recipe for beef bone soup with kabocha dumplings, which has strong Asian influences. At what point is food no longer Southern? “That’s a great question,” Lee says. “No one knows the answer. It’s a fine line based on judgment.”

    In attempting to find the Southern food line, I haven’t even gotten to the unanswerable question of whether or not Louisville is Southern. I will argue this: Camille Glenn. The late Glenn used to be a Courier-Journal food columnist and for some time catered debutante galas in town. Her 1986 book The Heritage of Southern Cooking leaves us with a lot of evidence of Louisville being Southern. But a lot of the foods aren’t those “greatest hits” you would think of. Glenn has a menu called “Dinner on Cherokee Road” that includes lamb chops with artichokes, buttered brown rice, watercress and walnut salad, tidewater feather rolls, dry red wine and frozen Cointreau soufflé. Yet Louis doesn’t think Louisville is Southern. “Benedictine was developed in Louisville. The Hot Brown is from Louisville,” he says. “Those things are not the South.”

    At the Taste of Louisville a couple years ago, I had some inspirational shrimp and grits. No, it wasn’t a Jack Fry’s creation. It was from Sway (a portmanteau of “Southern” and “way”), which opened at the Hyatt Regency downtown in 2012. It’s late June when I finally get around to eating there. The large windows open to Fourth Street, letting the urban heat in to fight with the air conditioning. A group of men in suits, likely in town for business, sip drinks around a high-top table. It’s hard to tell if the people next to them are visitors or locals, with all the gliding vowels. My fiancé and I get those spicy shrimp and grits along with an order of Southern fried chicken that comes with a gravy boat, mashed potatoes and collard greens. When the server tells us the chicken will take probably 25 minutes, we’re both giddy at the realization that the food is actually being made right there on the spot from scratch, not just warming under a heat lamp.


    Southern fried chicken with collard greens, mashed potatoes and gravy at Sway

    I later learn that the restaurant has just gotten a new chef, Pietro Consorti, who has transferred from the Park Hyatt in Milan, Italy. (He visited in March for an interview and on his way home transferred planes in Brussels, Belgium, on the day of the terrorist bombings. “I went outside to smoke a cigarette and boom!” Consorti says in a thick Italian accent.) It might seem a little strange for the hotel to hire a chef who comes from a place where collard greens are unknown. But, he says, “Cooking Southern doesn’t mean also to cook in your way. For me it’s to use your products; then it’s my way.”

    As the meal arrives, we realize that our decision to sit in the lounge and eat from a cocktail table was silly for such serious eating. “I had some fried chicken at 610 Magnolia once that was really good,” Jeff says to me, hunched over the little table as he pulls meat from a drumstick. “This is really good.” Who knew that the humble fried chicken, the result of some flour and an iron skillet, could turn into a majestic food experience on a Monday night?​

    Cover Image: Chicken salad sandwich with jalapeno pineapple slaw at Finn's Southern Kitchen

     

    This originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here. To find your very own copy of Louisville Magazine, click here. 

    Mary Chellis Nelson's picture

    About Mary Chellis Nelson

    Mary Chellis Nelson is the managing editor of Louisville Magazine.

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