Fine Dining vs. Home Cooking



 


The Lauderdales believe in only two forms of dining: Fine and Very Fine. But curious about this unnatural craze for "home cooking," I instructed an intern to fetch menus from various establishments. Sure enough, my disgust was confirmed. Typed on the cheap paper were ham, potatoes, corn, carrots — even green beans.

The very things we feed the hogs at Lauderdale Farms.

Not believing that people would pay good money for such swill, I convinced the chauffeur to drop me off at a local eatery. No tuxedo-clad maitre'd greeted me with, "Your usual table, Mr. Lauderdale?" No mirrored booth in a corner. No silk napkin in my lap protecting my velvet culottes, while I sipped my 1975 Gascoigne de Normandie and eavesdropped on Memphis movers-and-shakers.

Instead, a blowsy waitress called me "Hon," guided me to a wobbly table covered with a grease-stained, red-and-white checked tablecloth (I can still see the gaudy pattern every time I close my eyes), and tossed a crumpled vinyl menu in my general direction. It contained a stomach-churning list of "food" — usually preceded by meaningless terms like "mouth-watering" or "heapin' helping" or "just like Mom used to make."

Please. As if Mother Lauderdale ever stepped into the kitchen and mingled with the servants!

And yes, as I feared, the "Tuesday Special" was meatloaf — a misguided concoction that is neither meat nor loaf, and is certainly never, ever special. Why not just pump a quart of pure cholesterol directly into my veins and kill me right away?

As my depression deepened, my senses were bombarded by my fellow diners: coarse oafs in jeans and casual attire (in a restaurant!) chewing with their mouths open, gravy running down their chins as they jawed about the great issue of their world: football.

I could stand it no longer, and escaped when the waitress turned away. Back in the mansion, I calmed my nerves in my usual fashion — by scanning the obituaries. And though the newspaper no longer gives the cause of death, I knew the reason. Poor young fellow! Poor pretty woman! Another senseless victim of home cooking.

— Vance Lauderdale

 


Don't believe what Vance says. I've seen that man crunch fried chicken bones and then suck the marrow out. He can look at a hog and tell you if its feet will taste sweet, its jowls savory, or its hocks tender. I don't even know what hocks are.

I do know what good is, and you don't need a white-gloved server to roll it out to you. Especially not in this town.

Even aside from our ongoing debate about the best barbecue around, Memphis is like a deep fried cornucopia, overflowing with home-style treats. One can find masterful examples of hot water cornbread, fried catfish, black-eyed peas, collard greens, pork chops smothered, fried, or both, tucked in and around the city.

The beauty and genius of home-style cooking strikes me in a way that another of our cultural exports, the blues, does. The forms are both simple, and in and of themselves don't signify artistry. Variation distinguishes the greats from the rest.

In addition to home cooking's well-earned reputation for resourcefulness — making do with unwanted ingredients — it features plenty of enhancements as well. Think plain rice is dull? Try rice and gravy, and you'll realize what's been missing. If peach pie isn't decadent enough, reach for a fried peach pie.

Home cooking's gotten a bum rap for being unhealthy. True, one's consumption of barbecued ribs should probably be limited. But side dishes of yams, boiled cabbage, butter beans, red beans and rice, and the aforementioned greens and peas should quiet any nagging mother or concerned doctor.

Like gourmet cuisine, the home-style menu offers plenty to the intrepid diner. Neck bones and chitterlings are tastes few ever acquire. Each, though, requires dedicated preparation that only a culinary artisan can provide.

Finally, home cooking has influenced fancier cuisine. Pork belly, for instance has been all the rage in gourmet circles during the past couple years. Soul foodies know that pork belly is nothing more than hog maw in chic clothing.

The reverse, however, seems ridiculously improbable. It's difficult to imagine Ellen's serving wasabi-crusted catfish in a collard green reduction, or Gus's offering deconstructed fried chicken. Just like Vance, you have to deconstruct that chicken on your own.

— Preston Lauterbach

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