A whirlwind weekend brought me back down South, to Auburn, Alabama. Besides being the site of the World's Best Lemonade, at Toomer's Drugstore, it is a bustling university town, with all the trimmings of a Southern football school. It was quite the change of pace to visit in Spring; I'm used to an oppressive heat and humidity that leaves everyone perpetually lounging in the shade or in the air conditioning. It almost didn't feel like Alabama, to have it so temperate and mild, but to see the campus blooming with Spring color was refreshing. We brought the "cold" (as in, below 80 degrees) weather with us, as my family always jokes.
It really highlighted my halfway Southern upbringing to hear my New England family's accent intermingle with that of my Southern family. Hearing my grandfather tell my grandmother (from the other side of my family) that her presence "was the gravy on the biscuit," just about summed the whole thing up. What a Southernism, and to be sure, one received with a strong Boston accent.
My family has deep roots in this historic campus; we're a few generations deep on Auburn graduates, and everything from the war cry ("War Eagle!") to the Auburn University cookbook pervades our everyday life. Even if we're not in town, there's certain to be some reminder of campus, whether it's a special-occasion batch of cheese grits, or a holey old college t-shirt worn while mowing the lawn.
We celebrated our trip down South with a couple of fantastic meals. The first night, we partook in a traditional barbecue dinner, with Mason jars full of sweet tea set out on the checked, plastic tablecloths. Sip by sip, you re-acclimate to the South, and the accents around you start to sound less like accents and more like your second home. I ordered a veggie plate, stocking up on butter beans, fried okra, cole slaw, and a pile of black-eyed peas. Probably the only (mostly) vegetarian option on the menu, if you don't count the ham hock used to season the black eyed peas, but I don't mind. I could eat black-eyed peas every day of my life.
The next day, I relaxed my vegetarianism a bit. My philosophy, which I suppose I should get out in the open right now, is to eat as plant-based as possible when you're on your own and able to take time to cook for yourself. Otherwise, when traveling, I try to go with the flow and experience the culinary traditions that are in front of me. Veggies and legumes are always number one in my heart, but if I find myself at a Low Country Boil or sat in front of a bowl of jambalaya, I'd be hard-pressed to miss out on the very occasional, very traditional meal.
And go with the flow, I did, in Auburn. We took a quick side trip to a new restaurant in a very old train depot, aptly called The Depot.
The first thing I did was crowd up to the bar with my family. Now, this weekend was Derby weekend. I've never been in the South for Derby weekend, before, and I'd be remiss to skip out on my chance for a real Mint Julep.
It was incredibly strong and incredibly refreshing. Simple syrup, mint, and bourbon is all it takes. The fancy pewter cup sure didn't hurt either.
This restaurant was a revelation for me. Modern and sleek, while maintaining the industrial charm of the historic railroad, the restaurant perfectly mixed together old-school Southern style and a minimalist aesthetic: clean lines mixed with that distinct Southern flair. Railroad spikes served as draft taps, and old pulleys held up the light fixtures.
My dad told me a story while we sipped our drinks, of a characteristic story (or is it a legend) of Auburn University students of years past. One year, back when football teams still travelled between schools by train, some Georgia Tech students were approaching Auburn, near to pulling into the station. Upon hearing this, some students jumped out of bed, still clad in pajamas, and ran to the tracks. They then took it upon themselves to grease the tracks, making sure that when the Georgians arrived to the station, they'd slide right on through and miss the stop. Now, this may be another tall tale, just like the four competing theories surrounding the origin of "War Eagle," but it was fun to hear, all the same.
This place had me excited as soon as we walked in, and "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay" was playing over the speakers; a song that through road trip memories, I have come to associate with the Gulf Coast of Alabama. But it was the food that did me in.
First, we ordered a Spicy Blue Crab Dip, with dill-dusted chips, to share. Broiled to the point of blackening the top of the cast iron-cooked dip, this dip was spicy and creamy and crabby and everything you could ask for in a crab dip.
I then ordered the Black and Blue Shrimp and Grits. This was another life-changing meal. This was a meal that made me feel truly in touch with Southern cuisine, and represented the culinary history, and my own personal experience of Alabama, all in one bowl. And isn't that what food is really supposed to do?
It consisted of blue corn grits, topped with blackened shrimp and Conecuh sausage, a truly cherished family favorite that my father grew up with. An Alabama Christmas morning is nothing without grits and Conecuh sausage. It managed to be spicy and savory, all at once, like any good Southern seafood dish should.
I also managed to steal a few bites of my dad's gumbo, which was also adorned with some Conecuh sausage, a true selling point for him. Piled with rice and served with toast, it was delicious and traditional, making me want to grow my own okra this summer. I always thought okra was a weird, prickly, gooey vegetable, but the older I get, the more use I see for it, whether it's fried, or thickening a gumbo.
The Southern homecoming was a glorious one, full of old college stories from my dad, and some of the most delicious Southern food I've had in a long while. That is, besides homemade. Because there's nothing better than homemade cheese grits on Christmas morning.