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It seems that southern cooking is the new shabby chic. I’m not talking about the bastardized versions peddled by celebrity chefs on TV — Bobby Flay with his Brooklyn accent peddling stone ground grit cakes and molasses-glazed fat back, or Paula Deen y’alling us to distraction with her stick-of-butter infused kitschy cornpone. I’m talking about the standard meat-and-three, the plate lunch still dished up in industrial portions from steam tables across the South in crowded dining rooms with sagging ceilings and sticky linoleum floors.
This is cheap, basic fare, the food my aunts and great-aunts and mother churned out every day, prepared pretty much the same now as it was sixty years ago: fried chicken, pork chops, meatloaf, turnip greens, macaroni and cheese, pinto beans. White beans on alternating days. Liver and onions on Monday, catfish on Friday. Biscuit or cornbread on the side and a half-dozen pies or cobblers to choose from. Iced tea, sweet or unsweet, poured from a sweating pitcher.
This month’s Bon Appetit magazine, its cover embellished with a single, super-sized, golden-fried chicken leg, declares Nashville America’s new food capital. The poster child for southern-fried excellence? Arnold’s Country Kitchen, a meat-and-three on South 8th Street best known for its catfish and corn griddle cakes, but pretty typical by Nashville standards.
These lunchrooms offer the same dishes for lunch or dinner until the food runs out, upholding the southern tradition of lunch as dinner and dinner as supper, the heaviest meal often eaten in the middle of the day. I left Nashville twenty years ago, and still long for a meat-and-three, especially in the winter, out here on the wind-swept high plains of the West. If I opened one, as I have often fantasized, I would name it Pearl, after a favorite childhood doll, ugly as sin but sweet and lovable.
My father, a traveling salesman, was a connoisseur of the meat-and-three, and could drive you straight to the best one in any town in Kentucky or Tennessee. In his later years, he was partial to Wendell Smith’s on Charlotte, and I believe I took him there for our last meal together.
Or was it the Sylvan Park Diner? In my memory, they run together into one big feast for the senses. Loud, not with music, but with competing conversations and the clash of silverware. The air damp, near steamy. Skilled waitresses who could balance three plates on one arm and pour iced tea with the other. The scent was of the predominant vegetable of the day, stewing in its own potlikker, usually cabbage or turnip greens.
Wendell Smith’s saved my life one year, when all the kids were little and my grandfather, in his late 80s, came to live with us until he died. Grandaddy’s teeth were gone, along with his appetite, and his fondest wish was for banana pudding. I could have whipped up a Jello brand version and thrown in a few vanilla wafers and he would have been perfectly happy. But the favorite part of my day during Grandaddy’s last months was about 4 in the afternoon when I’d escape the house for a quick run to Wendell Smith’s to pick up several servings of just-baked banana pudding, still warm from the oven, topped with a tall egg-white meringue whipped into curls with browned tips. If I could put in an order now for my last meal, I believe it might be that banana pudding.
It tickles me to see everybody get all excited about the food at these meat-and-threes, especially remembering some of the dishes I’ve been served at the best of them. Sylvan Park used to offer what they called a pear salad — a canned pear half filled with cottage cheese and a dollop of mayonnaise, garnished with grated cheddar cheese. Arnold’s used to feature fried chicken livers with rice and gravy one day a week, and you would have thought it was foie gras for all the celebrating.
Daddy used to go as often as possible to a place in Nashville now closed, Hap Towne’s, named for its succession of owners, father and son. Their trademark dish was stewed tomatoes. Here’s the recipe:
Line a stainless steel serving dish with a whole loaf of sliced, soft white bread, crusts removed. Pour over that several large cans of peeled, whole tomatoes with their juice. Add a stick of butter, cut into pieces, and a lot of sugar — either white or brown will do. Cook down until thick and soupy. Add enough black pepper to make you sneeze. Eat with a spoon.
Bon appetit, y’all!
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.