In most of Ben’s experiences the humble Southern chefs share their long protected family recipes, but it’s not an adventure if everyone cooperates. Some of these institutions guard their recipes like members of the family. To the untrained eater, the secret ingredients it takes to create such an iconic dish would remain a bewitching mystery without the original formula. However, Ben’s journey and mission is to deliver the most amazing 100 Southern recipes. With his charm and ability in the kitchen, Ben acquired each recipe–one way or another. If he was unable to get the recipe directly from the source, Ben replicated it himself, only having tasted the dish. After deciphering the exact mix of ingredients, Ben’s recipe was put to the test when the recipe gatekeeper gave him the thumbs up.
From iconic Southern kitchens all throughout the Delta—such as Mat & Naddies and Carlos and Rocky’s in New Orleans; Our Way Café in Decatur, Georgia; McMel’s, City Café, Dipsy Doodle, and Wendell Smith’s Restaurant in Tennessee; and Martha’s Menu in Mississippi—experience the real recipes, real people, and real stories as Ben journeys through the South exploring Southern Routes.
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About the Author
Ben Vaughn is a writer, chef, and Food Network host on a quest for the next breakthrough in taste. The combination of his years of practical kitchen experience filled with trials and triumphs and his zealous, adventurous spirit are a delicious revelation that even the most discriminating palate will enjoy.
Read an Excerpt
Secret Recipes from the Best Down-Home Joints in the South
By Ben Vaughn, Sean O'Halloran
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2015 Ben Vaughn
All rights reserved.
One of the best parts about taking this journey and writing this book was rediscovering places that I may have taken for granted. When I think of Alabama, I think of the true Southern slow pace of life. Then I remember that Huntsville was the birthplace of America's space program, that Birmingham owes its almost overnight population growth to the steel industry, and that Mobile was the birthplace of Mardi Gras. Alabama is more than Southern folks allowing time to pass by while sitting in rockers on a country porch. It's made up of people who are inventive, industrious, and know how to have a good time.
As I traveled the state, I was fortunate to run into several souls who fit those descriptions. Being true down-to-earth Southerners, they take great pride in their Southern hospitality, and it shows.
Rebellious by nature, Alabama was the center of the Confederacy during the Civil War, hosting the First White House of the Confederacy. Today, you may think that the war rages on with so many re-enactments taking place across the state. From more recent history, however, Birmingham and Montgomery have several monuments dedicated to the civil rights movement. Alabama is not at war with its past but makes an effort to remind visitors and locals alike of its rich history.
From the airfields of Tuskegee to the oval tracks of Talladega, Alabama has a story to tell around every bend and curve. Its landscape is rich with mountains, piedmont, waterways, and the northwestern shoals. If you've lost a bag on an airline, just stop by Scottsboro, home of the Unclaimed Baggage Center. Who knows? You just may get lucky and find that bag full of clothes that you've lusted after all these years that we both know won't fit you anymore. Or you can just stick to the basics and follow my route to meet some great characters and eat some delicious Southern vittles.
Beans & Greens
Some of the best places I've ever eaten are off the beaten path, and Beans & Greens in Gadsden is no different. You don't wander into this place by chance. If you've found this little country restaurant, it's because you're either a local or were nice enough to the locals to have them guide you here. Beans & Greens is an all-wood building with a pine interior, made especially for country folk.
Bobby Boles, the current owner, started his career in the place as a dishwasher. When the previous owner fell upon bad health, he handed the restaurant over to Bobby, and with his wife, Kelly, he's been running it for more than a decade. The restaurant is buffet style but sometimes offers special menus. The regulars tend to prefer the fourteen to eighteen items on the buffet with the salad bar that includes coleslaw and potato salad.
The restaurant is often busy, but customers usually don't have to wait long for a table since there is a fairly quick turn-around time with the buffet service. The staff is very friendly, and Bobby isn't afraid to get in the mix when the place fills up. There is usually a selection of five or six meats with choices such as chicken fingers, roast beef, meatloaf, and chicken and dressing. Then come the veggies — corn, baked beans, green beans, sweet potato casserole, and macaroni and cheese.
There was no special menu the day I was guided to Beans & Greens, so I went for the buffet. Everything looked amazing, so I sampled nearly everything on the line. I was careful, though, to save room for dessert. My sources had told me that the made-from-scratch sweet treats were not to be missed.
I felt pretty full already, so I went for a slightly lighter dessert option: the strawberry shortcake. In the South, when strawberries are in season, this delicious, light and f luffy confection makes an appearance at most outdoor parties. To celebrate the summer fruit harvest, places such as Castleberry (northeast of Montgomery) and Loxely in Baldwin County host strawberry festivals. And after a couple of bites of the strawberry shortcake at Beans & Greens, I can see what all the hoopla is about.
The shortcake is sweet, moist, light, and airy. The fresh ripe strawberries are bathed in the perfect simple syrup to complement the cake, and a dollop of whipped cream tops the whole thing off. It was the ideal ending to my meal, and I decided right then and there to perfect that recipe myself. So feel free to recreate this delicious treat at home, and don't hesitate to ask the locals in Gadsden for directions to Beans & Greens to try the original.
1 (16-ounce) box yellow cake mix
4 large eggs
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 cup sugar, divided
3 pints strawberries, sliced
3 cups heavy cream
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease two 9-inch baking pans.
In a large bowl combine the cake mix, eggs, and oil, along with the amount of water called for on the box. Beat until well incorporated. Divide the batter between the two pans. Bake for 30 minutes, or until a wooden pick inserted near the center comes out clean. Let the cakes cool for 15 minutes on a wire rack before removing them from the pans. Let cool completely on a wire rack before assembling.
Sprinkle ½ cup of the sugar over the strawberries. Set aside at room temperature until the berries release their juices, about 30 minutes.
Combine the heavy cream and the remaining ½ cup sugar in a medium bowl, and whip by hand or with a hand mixer until stiff peaks form. Place one of the cake layers on a serving platter. Add half the strawberries and half the whipped cream. Top with the second cake layer and the remaining whipped cream. Place the remaining strawberries on the top.
Charles' Cafeteria & Grill
In 1985 Charles Langley opened Charles' Cafeteria & Grill to serve the community of Fayette and the surrounding areas. He saw a need for a local restaurant that offered fresh local meats, produce, and homemade desserts, without breaking the bank for the local folk. After a while, Charles retired, leaving his daughter, Belinda, and her husband, Mike Watts, to run the business. I always love to hear about how businesses got started and, even better, how they have stayed in the family.
Whatever values Charles instilled in Belinda and Mike are still going strong today. The place is very busy, but the staff is extremely accommodating to guests and very friendly. There was a certain hum of energy when I walked in the door, with all the staff rushing around to greet hungry customers, not in a "get out of my way" kind of vibe, but in a nice and energetic way. This place has a great breakfast
menu with made-from-scratch biscuits daily. There's a daily lunch buffet with meats and a choice of several different fresh and seasonal veggies. The thing that really piqued my interest, though, was the desserts. I have a lot of respect for restaurants that make their own desserts daily. As a chef, I know the time it takes
to make that kind of commitment to your customers. It is truly a labor of love. I got my plate and headed to the buffet, but the whole time, my mind focused on dessert. The food from the buffet was great, but I couldn't wait to taste a fresh homemade sweet treat.
I happened upon Charles' Cafeteria & Grill in the Alabama summer, when the heat is somewhat unbearable, especially if you grew up in a cooler climate and aren't used to it. That being said, it was the perfect time to partake in the restaurant's strawberry pie. I knew the fruit would be ripe and delicious and the perfect antidote to the sweltering summer heat.
When the pie arrived at my table, I knew I had made a wise choice. The beautiful color of the strawberries let me know that I was going to enjoy every bite. The crust was light and delicate, and the filling was just sweet enough not to overwhelm the fruit. It was the perfect summer pie.
The next time you are looking for a light dessert that captures the essence of a Southern summer, just use the recipe I've included on the next page. It's a great after-dinner treat or complement to any outdoor picnic. If you ever happen to be in Fayette in the midst of summer, don't hesitate to drop by Charles' Cafeteria & Grill for the real thing.
Straw berry Pie
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour, divided
2 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons cold butter
¼ cup vegetable shortening
½ cup ice water
4 pints fresh strawberries,
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
Pinch of salt
1 tablespoon lemon juice
For the crust, place ¾ cup of the flour, sugar, and salt in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until mixed well. Add the butter and shortening and process until the dough just starts to clump together. Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula and redistribute the dough around the processor blade. Add ½ cup flour and pulse until the mixture is evenly distributed. Add the ice water one tablespoon at a time until the mixture forms a ball. Transfer the mixture to a medium bowl.
Place a piece of plastic wrap on a work surface and place the dough on top. Flatten the dough into a 4-inch disk. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Dust a work surface with the remaining ¼ cup flour. Remove the dough from the refrigerator and unwrap. Place it on the work surface. Roll the dough into a 12-inch circle about 1/8 inch thick. Place the dough in a pie pan, leaving the overhanging dough in place, and refrigerate until the dough is firm, about 30 minutes.
Remove the pan from the refrigerator. Fold the overhanging dough under and flute the edges or press the tines of a fork against the dough to flatten it against the rim of the pie pan. Refrigerate until firm.
Remove the pie pan from the refrigerator and use a fork to prick the bottom of the dough. Line the crust with foil and fill with pie weights or dried beans. Bake for 15 minutes. Remove the foil and weights. Rotate the pan and bake for an additional 5 to 10 minutes, until the crust is golden-brown and crisp. Let cool to room temperature.
For the filling, pour 2 pints of the berries into the bowl of a food processor and process until smooth, 20 to 30 seconds, scraping down the bowl as needed.
Whisk the sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a medium saucepan. Stir in the berry puree. Cook over high heat, stirring constantly, and bring to a full boil. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl and stir in the lemon juice. Let cool to room temperature.
Add the remaining 2 pints berries to the bowl with the glaze and fold gently with a rubber spatula until the berries are evenly coated. Scoop the berries into the piecrust, piling into a mound. Refrigerate the pie until chilled, about 5 hours for a perfectly firm pie.
Clara's Country Café Clanton, Alabama
No matter what part of the country you are from, I can guarantee that in every city or town there is a place that plays into the local sports rivalries. In Clanton, Clara's Country Café likes to bring warring rivals together to eat under the same roof. Even Auburn and Alabama fans agree that the food at Clara's is a touchdown.
Like many of the great establishments I've visited on my journey through the South, Clara's is a little off the beaten path of Interstate 65, but worth the slight detour. The exterior of the building, with its stone walls and a slatted sign over the door, made me think more of an upscale steakhouse than a country buffet. But once I stepped inside, the smells and small clusters of tables told me that I wasn't lost.
The buffet isn't sprawling, usually offering a couple of entrées and a handful of veggies to choose from. But what Clara's may lack in quantity, it makes up for in quality. The limited offerings allow Clara's to provide everything fresh and hot to its customers. It must be working, because they keep coming back. And when I asked locals about a good place to grab some home cooking, they all replied with the name Clara's.
The day I happened upon Clara's, the featured entrées were fried chicken and Salisbury steak. The veggies included black-eyed peas, French fries, green beans, greens, and creamed potatoes. I knew that I couldn't go wrong, and with everything looking so amazing, I sampled some of everything. The chicken was crispy without being greasy, and the Salisbury steak brought back a cozy TV dinner feeling to my tummy.
The veggies weren't slackers either. With the right amount of tenderness to complement their earthy flavor, the black-eyed peas weren't overcooked. The greens were tender and well-seasoned. But the standout of the buffet that day, for me, was the creamed potatoes. That's no false advertising. I'm sure there was enough butter and cream in those potatoes to support the local dairy farmers, but all I was thinking about was how good they tasted going down. The texture was amazing — so smooth with just the right amount of salt. I made it my mission to recreate this silky side and hope that the recipe below does it justice. If not, feel free to stop by Clara's Country Café the next time you are passing through Clanton and need a little break from the monotony of the drive on I-65.
5 russet potatoes, peeled and
cut into cubes
1 tablespoon salt, plus more to taste
6 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon flour
2/3 to 1 cup whole milk
Freshly cracked black pepper to taste
Place the cubed potatoes in a medium saucepan and cover with cold water. Add 1 tablespoon of the salt. Bring the water to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and cook until the potatoes are just done, 6 to 8 minutes.
Pour off all but about ½ cup of the cooking liquid. Return the pan to the heat, add the butter, and stir until melted. Gradually add the flour, stirring until well incorporated. Add 2/3 cup of the milk and stir well. Add a generous grinding of pepper and taste. Add additional milk and salt if necessary. The potatoes should be slightly lumpy but fully cooked, with a creamy consistency.
Cock of the Walk Opelika, Alabama
Every region has its own traditional sayings, and if you're not from that area, they usually sound pretty strange and don't make much sense. In Opelika a group of folks used one such saying as the name of their restaurant, the Cock of the Walk. According to the owners, the saying means the best of the best. The first restaurant opened in 1977 as a catfish house in Natchez, Mississippi, but with the growing support of customers, the owners soon expanded the menu and locations, including the one I visited in Opelika.
The dining room's wooden tables, wooden slat chairs, and simple decor give the building a very rustic feel. Because the restaurant is situated on a lake, guests flow out to the back dock to feed the fish and turtles and admire the beautiful strutting peacocks on site. It's a very picturesque little place to enjoy a good home-cooked meal.
It's also entertaining. The staff flips the skillet jalapeño cornbread in the dining room so high it seems to go over the rafters, but they're careful not to knock into any of the fine examples of taxidermy lining the walls.
The food is served in tin plates with tin cups to drink from. It kind of made me want to pull out my sleeping bag and try to earn my wilderness badge, but then I remembered that I'm no Boy Scout. The menu has a variety of fried fish, shellfish, pork chops, and chicken tenders, or if you prefer, you can have the same protein grilled. They also have a selection of po' boy sandwiches and salads.
I went for the fried flounder with cheese grits, coleslaw, skillet cornbread, and pickled onions. The portions were huge, and everything tasted so good that I wished I could expand my stomach to eat a few more bites. The fish was nice and crispy with a mild, light flavor and good seasoning in the breading. The pickled onions were a nice, tart treat to accompany the richness of the cheese grits. Surprisingly, though, the best thing on my plate was the creamy coleslaw.
In the South, coleslaw is a must-have at any picnic or backyard barbecue. I often overlook it as a side, but at the Cock of the Walk, the coleslaw commanded my attention. How can I not share the recipe with you for something that is so simple and delicious and can add enjoyment to your next outdoor get together? And the next time you feel the call of the wild, make a trip to the Cock of the Walk in Opelika and fill up before you wrestle that bear.
1 cup mayonnaise
3 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
½ cup vegetable oil
1/8 teaspoon onion powder
¼ teaspoon celery salt
¼ teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
¼ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 large head cabbage, finely shredded
2 large carrots, finely shredded
In a large bowl combine the mayonnaise, sugar, vinegar, and oil. Add the onion powder, celery salt, pepper, and salt. Whisk in the lemon juice until well blended. Toss the shredded cabbage and carrots with the dressing until they are well coated. Refrigerate for 30 minutes or until ready to serve.
Serves 8 to 10.
When you walk into Pannie-George's Kitchen in Auburn, you feel as though you are being welcomed into the family. In 2005 the family of Mary (Pannie) and George Taylor set out to accomplish two simple goals: to serve their community and to get more people to taste their family's food. Pannie-George is a combination of their names, and their restaurant is designed to expand the traditions they created. When they first started, they hosted the family and whatever friends and neighbors came along for supper after church. Their children decided to expand the reach of this Sunday supper to the community seven days a week.
Guests are served cafeteria-style in this family-run joint, and I do mean family-run. Pannie and George's children and grandchildren run the place. They welcome you like family and make sure that you get a healthy helping of Southern hospitality to go along with your other selections. Customers walk along the cafeteria line and make food choices before paying the cashier and snagging their tray at the end of the line.
As I scanned the offerings of the day, I knew I had my work cut out for me. I saw the fried chicken offered daily due to its popularity and plenty of other entrées, including beef tips, country-fried steak, and pork chops. And don't even get me started on the sides. The offerings were a Southern vegetable daydream with everything from green beans to corn casserole to black-eyed peas and, according to customers, some of the best mac 'n' cheese within thirty miles.
I settled on the fried chicken as my entrée and chose the black-eyed peas, green beans, and broccoli, rice, and cheese casserole to complement my plate. As I headed to my table with my tray, I wasn't even the slightest bit worried that I had made the wrong choice, because from where I was sitting, there was no such thing. The fried chicken was crispy and slightly salty, but in the good, Southern way. The green beans and black-eyed peas were seasoned and cooked well, but the real star of the show, for me, was the broccoli, rice, and cheese casserole.
Broccoli is one of those veggies that you usually have to coerce your kids into eating. But when it's tossed with rice and encased in cheese, parents have no such problem. The result is a tasty and satisfying side that makes you feel all warm inside. Use the following recipe to convince your kids that broccoli can be delicious, or just to remind yourself. And the next time you're in Auburn, be sure to stop in and sample the tasty goodies at Pannie-George's Kitchen for yourself.
Excerpted from Southern Routes by Ben Vaughn, Sean O'Halloran. Copyright © 2015 Ben Vaughn. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsForeword: There Is Something About the South by Simon Majumdar, vii,
North Carolina, 161,
South Carolina, 189,
Destination Index, 269,