Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Pilgrim Travels To A Simple Country Church And Is Converted

Cookin'On 3 Burners--"Feel Good, Inc" (mp3)
Little Feat--"Dixie Chicken" (mp3)

Friday night, I worshipped at the Church of the Loveless Cafe. It was a well-attended service. I sang hyms of praise to perfect biscuits, homemade jams, fried chicken, hash brown casserole, cole slaw, iced tea. I passed the peace with friends and a skilled, but not overly-doting waiter. I went forth into the world with the blessing of half a chocolate pie and a package of country ham slices. And now I'm writing the sermon.

Country cooking is, arguably, among the simplest cooking on the planet--pieces of meat smoked or fried, greens and beans cooked until the cows come home, biscuits mixed together at the last minute and quickly baked, starched tubers boiled and mashed, bacon or some other smoked sidemeat flavoring just about everything.

But, as we all know, to do the simple things well is often the hardest. Most of the time, we fail. I have read many times in many places that the true test of any chef is his or her ability to roast a chicken. Simple, right? Put that thing in the oven and cook it until it's done. With any luck, the one you buy will come with one of those plastic "thermometers" stuck in it that will pop up and tell you when it's done.

But the chef is looking for a truly succulent bird, with a crisp, herb-infused crust, breast meat that remains juicy while the darker meat has plenty of time to become fall-off-the-bone tender. Quite a balancing act, and one that, if I've ever done it, has been sheer luck.

In country cooking, that test of one's skill is fried chicken. It is not accidental that there exist across the the Southern half of the country various havens of fried chicken excellence. Chattanooga can offer up a decent chicken finger here and there, but it doesn't really have a fried chicken mecca too much anymore. For a long time, Bea's filled the bill (and still may, but I keep hearing that they've gone downhill), and I have friends who are big fans of Champy's, but even so, both places are praised as much as anything for how, where their chicken is concerned, COST/AMOUNT=VALUE.

The Loveless Cafe fried chicken, by contrast, while not particularly expensive, has as its main virtue the fact that it is perfectly prepared. First of all, it has a very light coating of flour that allows the skin to crisp up. I usually don't eat the skin (because it isn't good for you) because it is laden with a thick paste of fat and flour gunk, almost its own separate entity, but the Loveless chicken skin you eat with the chicken itself. And, oh, that chicken, rich and juicy, not brined or heavily seasoned, just plain good chicken.

When you order your platter (I went for the half chicken), you get a couple of sides. My friend Jeff did some online research and texted me the recommendation to get the hash brown casserole. Good call. If possible, the casserole is light and fluffy. The slaw, chopped into tight little squares, has an oil-sugar base, rather than a mayo one. Its gentle sweetness is the perfect foil for the savory chicken and casserole.

And, I have to talk about the biscuits. Like Krystals, they are fresh, hot, small, square, but these are ready to be split and spread with butter and homemade jam. But a biscuit should have enough flavor in and of itself that you can just pick it up and eat it plain. Most taste too much like paste once they get in your mouth. Not the Loveless. Each one is a soft pillow with a slight buttermilk tang.

You know, the reality is that, like barbecue in particular, for country cooking in general, there are fairly small differences between the run-of-the-mill fare and the top-notch chow. That means if you are going to present it and make it special, you have to do everything perfectly. You can almost always tell the places that are able to do this, like the Loveless Cafe, because their staff exudes supreme confidence in their products. Another key sign for the Loveless is that nothing is too salty. Much as I love salt, it often masks an inferior dish. Even when I was talking with the woman in the gift store about the country ham, she informed me that it, too, was not too salty, didn't need to be soaked or anything.

So that's my sermon on how the great glory of God's kingdom is alive and well just off the Natchez Trace in Nashville. I think I'm in love(less).


troutking said...

Love the sign too. Looking forward to checking it out. Have you had Prince's Hot Chicken in Nashville? Another Roadfood recommendation.

Daisy said...

This must have been the weekend for southern food. I had the pleasure of tasting fried black-eyed peas for the first time. Delightful!

BeckEye said...

I can't believe someone covered that Gorillaz badly. Sorry, but me no likey.

jed said...

i'm on my way!