Tennessee Stout and Firecracker Shrimp

As I waited at the barbershop, I picked up a magazine.  The magazine had very few articles but instead focused on listing the “Top 5″s of New Orleans from the Top 5 nightclubs to the Top 5 places to get grits.

A bar called Parasol’s was listed as serving the #1 roast beef po’ boy in New Orleans.  This was a big claim to fame as the roast beef version of this iconic sandwich was the original, though now it was possible to get anything from fried oysters to alligator sausage on a po’ boy.

Parasol’s wasn’t too far from where I was staying in the Lower Garden District.  I walked into the tiny bar area to the raucous crashing of punk music.  The man behind the bar nodded to me as he poured a beer for another patron.

“How you doin’? What can I get for you?” he asked, his voice barely audible as the power chords thrashed to the galloping rhythm of the drums.

“What have you got that’s dark?” I asked.

“Not a lot, man,” he said, “We’ve got Guinness or we’ve got this one from Wiseacre that I like called ‘Gotta get up to get down’; it’s a coffee stout.”

“I’ll go for one of those, please, that sounds good.”

“You got it.”

The stout was smooth, cold, and with a strong taste of coffee.  It was an easy-drinker that could prove to be dangerous.  One minute you’re having your first sip, the next you’re 8 pints deep and about to go home; the fresh air hits you, and your legs forget how to function properly.

“Any food?” he asked.

“I heard you guys do a good roast beef po’ boy,”

“Yeah, we do,” he smiled, “But I’m afraid we’re sold out of the beef.  You want my recommendation?  Get the firecracker shrimp.  It’s spicy like how they do buffalo wings except we batter the shrimp then toss them in Louisiana hot sauce.”

I ordered it immediately.  As someone who loves both seafood, hot sauce, and the process of deep frying, I couldn’t resist.

When the sandwich arrived it was much bigger than expected.  Lettuce, tomatoes, and pickles dressed a French baguette that had been overfilled to the point of a fried shrimp avalanche.  The batter was tinted red with hot sauce though had lost none of its original crunch.  The smell of the hot sauce announced its vinegar base with a sharp stab to the sinuses.

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The spicy shrimp combined with the refreshing coolness of the lettuce and tomato, taking away some of the immediate punch of the hot sauce which instead gradually grew with every subsequent mouthful.

I’m an advocate of travelling light.  I had packed 5 t-shirts – all of which were black – and 1 light blue long-sleeve shirt.  I was wearing the long-sleeve shirt when I looked down and saw that I’d managed to get myself covered in hot sauce.  Oh well, I thought, I wasn’t planning on going anywhere and Parasol’s was my favourite type of bar; a dive bar. There were no tourists here (other than myself) and no pretence. Everyone seemed to know everyone and if they didn’t know someone (like myself) then they went out of their way to get to know them.

 

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Plantations

Before coming back to the United States, I had it in my mind that I wanted to visit a plantation. I didn’t get the chance last time I was here so wanted to make a point of visiting more than one to make up for it.

I had read a number of reviews and blogs of different plantation tours and how their approach to talking about slavery could differ. 

I chose to visit St. Joseph’s plantation and the Whitney plantation. 

I was picked up at 8:30am by the tour company’s mini van and joined the small group of 6 other people. Over the next 90 minutes our driver discussed a range of topics from reasons why you should never swim in Lake Pontchartrain (bull sharks being my main reason to not take a dip), to celebrities that have found refuge in New Orleans, a city where there is a lack of intrusion into their personal lives; to the history of the city itself. 

When we arrived at St. Joseph we immediately headed for the big house which was bought by a family after the end of slavery. We were informed that very few families who owned slaves are still in possession of the plantations as many could no longer afford to pay the taxes on their homes and land after slavery was abolished. Instead, wealthy families bought the houses, sometimes employing newly freed people as sharecroppers (which from my understanding was not an altogether better situation from slavery as it kept people in debt to the land owner regardless of the success of their crops).

The house contained original pieces of family furniture, portraits, photographs, musical instruments, and toys. There was little talk of the life of the slaves who worked in the fields other than to say that many stayed after the civil war had come to an end. One surprising comment was that the two-room slave quarters, which were certainly not immune to the elements, were people’s homes up until 2001! This begs the question of why did these people decide to suddenly leave at that point and not sooner? I could understand that back when slavery was first abolished that the newly freed people didn’t know where to go and had little means of getting there even if they did know. But to stay until 2001 with little to no improvement on those shacks seemed strange. There was an air of disbelief amongst the group. I hoped it wasn’t true.

After the tour of the big house our guide left us to our own devices and told us that we could explore the slave quarters if we so wished but the quarters were not included in the tour itself.

“Careful when walking across the long grass,” our guide, an elderly woman, said, “there are fire ants in there – for those of you with your feet exposed.”

When we got to Whitney, the focus was on the men, women, and children who lived and died as slaves. Monuments had been erected in remembrance of these people including statues of the children who were known to have lived on that very plantation; the status were based on early photographs.

Some of these monuments listed as many names as had been found through research but a portion of the monument had deliberately been left blank in honour of the many who had undoubtedly passed through unrecorded.

The group had grown sizably and many had taken advantage of the free umbrellas available; permanent shelter from the sun. It was around 34° but with humidity close to 70%, the walking around temperature was close to an oppressive 42°. Many people in the group, young people, were struggling with the heat. The point was made by our guide that slaves were expected to do back breaking work in this heat: harvesting the sugar crops, stripping the cane, cooking the sugar down in giant bowls, maintaining the grounds, cooking for the master, and so on.

One exhibit in particular was set off to the side of the gravel path. It featured sculptures of 60 male heads impaled on spikes. They represented the 60 men who planned a slave revolt in the area, they were caught, and their decapitated heads put on spikes as a warning to others.

Whitney Plantation is a must for anyone travelling through Louisiana. It is brutally honest but also somber and respectful.

The drive back to New Orleans was quiet. Maybe it was because everyone was tired from being out in the sun, or maybe it was because they were reflecting on what they had seen and heard at Whitney Plantation. 

As I watched the numerous other plantations go by my window, I wondered how many of them were reluctant to talk about the realities of slavery, and how many, like Whitney, had decided to address slavery in an honest, educational way without attempting to play down the brutality that featured in the day to day lives of the enslaved.

Wanna’come to a house party?

When I got to Memphis, I met my hosts, Brendan and Yvonne. Yvonne was a full-time sculpture specialising in metal installations. She’d been successfully working as an artist for 14 years.

Both Brendan and Yvonne were amazingly passionate people when it came to me getting the most out of Memphis. Within half an hour of arriving, I’d been dropped off at one of their favourite BBQ restaurants: The Bar B Q Shop.

Their enthusiasm was well founded. I ordered the ribs (one of my favorite foods) which the waitress recommended that I have “half and half”; half dry rubbed, half glazed. That way I could try the house made sauces on the dry rubbed side “to get the full experience”.

The house made spicy BBQ sauce was easily my favourite. Their was no such kick the likes of which you would expect from a sauce that was habanero based. Instead it was more of a slow build that gradually warmed the mouth rather than assaulted it. I’m not sure what chillies were in the sauce but if it did contain habanero, then they were very polite.

The next day I went to the National Civil Rights Museum which is based in the Lorraine Hotel – the site of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination. This would be the 3rd civil rights museum I’d been to on my trip and it was no less powerful for it. I’d implore anyone travelling through Memphis to visit the museum as a site of historical significance and to learn about the civil rights struggle.

After almost 3 hours in the museum, I decided to get something to eat and drink, and to get out of the midday sun.

I ended up drinking far too much with a couple visiting Memphis from Missouri. We got talking about boxing – a trigger for me as it’s the only sport I care about. I eventually left the bar around midnight after discussing who I thought would win what upcoming fights, where my money would be bet, and what fights I thought would be scheduled on the backs of my prophesized victories. 

The lounge light turned off as walked through the door only to turn back on again. At the end of the hallway was Yvonne dressed in stockings and a short black dress, her face made up in white with black tears.

“We’re going to a Goth house party, wanna’ come?”

I was tired, I was drunk, and I’d spent way too much money.

“OK,” I said.

When we got to the venue there were private security guards on the door. They asked us all for I.D which Yvonne and I were able to supply. Brendan’s had expired. Brendan is 15 years older than me so it could be assumed he was OK to go in but the security guards stood their ground and refused him entry.

Brendan got back in the truck and drove away, appearing to accept defeat. Yvonne sneaked off to find a way for Brendan to get in. Not even 5 minutes later, Brendan casually walked through the back yard of the house and into the party where awful techno music played as people dressed in fishnet everything danced as they drank overpriced beers. As I sat at the bar in jeans and a t-shirt, I felt overdressed but it was still fun to see people older than me – parents – reclaiming their youth and breaking the rules.

Riders On A Storm

I always try to get to the airport early because I’m a natural worrier. Instead of waiting for things to go wrong, I anticipate every negative scenario miles down the road so that I know what to do if any of these situations arise.

This occasion was no exception. I was flying from Nashville to Memphis because I’d managed to grab a cheap flight. It would last less than an hour and I could spend my time seeing Memphis and its multitude of attractions with more money in my pocket.

When I got to Nashville International, there was the tail end of a storm in progress. It was the same storm I had experienced in Alabama; it had slowly moved North before beginning to dissipate.

I headed for security upon arrival. I stood in line with my boarding pass ready on my phone but when I stepped up to scan it, the light flashed red on the reader. After a brief conversation (in the “step aside, sir” aisle) I was told by security that they’d never heard of the airline I was flying with. The check point staff then turned their attention back to the people with real tickets and I was left to investigate for myself what was going on.

I asked at each airline desk on the main concourse whether they had heard of my airline. None of them had… Until I reached Alaska Air. 

“The name is ringing a bell. Something makes me think that we’ve had someone with this problem before. Let me ask…,” The woman said. She went into an office behind the counter.

When she came back, she handed me a post-it note with a street address and a phone number. I needed to head to a private airfield. It was still counted as Nashville International, but it wasn’t the main airport.

This was mentioned nowhere on my ticket, booking confirmation, or the company’s website.

When I got to the small airfield (by way of a taxi), I was greeted by a smartly dressed man behind the main desk. 

“Going to Memphis?” He asked.

“Yeah, how did you know?”

He smiled. “There’s free popcorn in the vending area, make yourself at home.”

The lounge was filled with luxurious leather seats and a huge TV mounted on the wall in one corner. The rest of the walls were filled with signed pictures of celebrities that had passed through.

Every plane outside was a learjet or similar. Not bad, I thought, for a ticket that cost less than renting a car!

I spotted my plane by the logo on the tail. Unfortunately, it wasn’t one of the luxury models that I’d seen. Instead, it was a single propeller Cessna style aircraft. I smiled thinking that this was going to be an experience: a tiny plane on which you can feel every bump in the road on a clear day but this time combined with a storm? I had a feeling it was going to get bouncy.

And it did.

The man sat next to me was stationed in a Nashville army base but was flying to Memphis for his sister in law’s wedding. He said he’d rather fly than drive because driving is boring.

I think he might drive next time. 

He spread himself across the interior wall of the plane and gripped his seat with white-knuckles every time we hit an air pocket, making himself look like a cat doing everything in its power to avoid being put in a bath.

Controversial Opinions and Cronuts

At 7am the air was muggy and dark grey clouds covered the skies of Birmingham, Alabama. I packed my backpack and requested an Uber to the airport.

The driver, James, short with a ginger goatee, was dressed in a formal shirt that was tucked into khaki trousers. He was an Alabama native who was just finishing his shift early on a Sunday morning so he could get to church.

“I’m gone meet my wife at church just as soon as I’m done dropping you off,” he said, “Now, I won’t be offended but what do you think of our current political situation?”

I had expected the question to come up at some point during my stay. I was travelling through all red states and I guessed people would naturally be curious about how their president, the man for whom the majority of the people in these states voted, was being perceived elsewhere in the world.

“Well, as an outsider, I can’t really judge on the day to day aspect, only what’s been presented in the media. I know the media can skew things but from things he has said, admitted to, and done while in office and in the campaign, I can’t say I would’ve voted for him.”

“Obama is behind ISIS, did you know that?” He took his eyes off the road and held my gaze to make sure I knew I was being let in on a huge conspiracy that might not have crossed the pond.

My first flight took me to Tampa where I waited for two hours before getting another flight to Nashville. The original plan was to drive but failure to book a rental from Birmingham sooner meant that the good (read: cheap) deals had gone, and flying worked out cheaper.

The first thing that struck me about Nashville was how beautiful and verdant it looked.

The city was currently under the thumb of a small storm – nothing like the one I’d experienced in Birmingham – but when I reached my accommodation I was greeted by something I’d been meaning to try for a long time: cronuts, provided my by host, Megan.

Cronuts are a genius mixture between a croissant and a doughnut, resulting in layers of flaky pastry filled with any number of flavoured creams, mousses, or jams.

I was presented with a chocolate moose tracks iced cronut filled with peanut butter and chocolate icing.

“I can usually only take one bite and I’m full,” Megan said by which point I was halfway to finishing.

The second cronut was a vanilla cronut filled with vanilla cream. This didn’t last long either.

“You should come by my bakery and see what else we do. I’ll hook you up with more.”

For the first time in my life, I felt an addiction building and, again for the first time, I had a dealer willing to take my money in exchange for my fix: sweet, flaky pastries.

My Worst Kept Secret

There is no secret worse kept than my love of fried chicken. I spent years perfecting my own recipe after my girlfriend told me that her mom makes the best fried chicken. Challenge accepted, I thought. Now, years later, I’m pretty happy with my own recipe though my girlfriend’s mom’s fried chicken is still out of this world.

When I began planning this trip one of the things that got me most excited was being able to go on the road to find good fried chicken in the South. I’ve been very fortunate that locals have pointed me towards a number of great restaurants. However, I’m going to mention two restaurants in particular both because of the quality of their fried chicken, but also because of the difference in environment.

The first is Mary Mac’s Tea Room in Atlanta, Georgia. I was first told about Mary Mac’s by the barmaid at Grant Central Pizza who said I simply had to go. I knew it would be busy. I was expecting a queue but when I first got to the restaurant, I knew I’d found the right place because there was a line of people going around the block.

“You need to leave your name at the front, then they call you in when they’ve got space for your party,” a woman told me as I joined the line.

I headed to the front and into the packed restaurant.

“How long is the wait?” I asked, though I didn’t really care. I’m always willing to wait if there’s the promise of fried chicken at the end of it.

“It’s an hour. How many in your party?”

“Just one, just me,” I said.

“Oh, well you can just head straight to the bar then – you can eat there.”

It made sense. Plus I didn’t like the idea of taking up an entire table to myself while others are waiting for me to finish. I also wasn’t going to argue about getting to skip the line.

I ordered 4 pieces of fried chicken and chose fried green tomatoes and mac ‘n’ cheese as my two sides. Not the healthiest options, I know, but I’d heard mouth-watering things about them.

The chicken was beautifully crisp. It was seasoned perfectly with salt and as far as I could tell, the coating was simply plain flour. The chicken itself was moist inside. It was some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever eaten.

Sitting in Mary Mac’s is like sitting in someone’s living room but mixed with a high-end restaurant. It’s cosy and furnished to a high standard. The bartenders​ are dressed in smart white shirts with red bow ties and black trousers. Their manners and service cannot be faulted.

It felt like the restaurant could have been used for fine dining if the owner so wished. It felt like the meal should have cost more than it did – and I’m sure a lot of places would have tagged on a higher price based on their reputation – but thankfully there was acknowledgement of what the food was: soul food, cheap to make but rich in the kind of glee that increases your waistline.

The second restaurant I’m going to talk about is called Green Acres Cafe in Birmingham, Alabama.

“If you like fried chicken, go to Green Acres,” Grady, my Uber driver, said as he merged onto the interstate. “It’s a hole in the wall place. Just counter service but it’s good. I try not to go there too much because it ain’t good for you but it’s hard, man, because it tastes so good. If you go, I guarantee you’ll be the only white face in there. Some of the best wings in the city, you’ve got to go.”

When I walked into Green Acres, I was the only face in there other than the two women behind the counter. I ordered 4 pieces of chicken which came with fries and a slice of white bread. I was asked if I wanted salt and pepper on the chicken – which I did – and whether I wanted hot sauce or ketchup. Of course I asked for hot sauce. I was given a numbered ticket then waited to the side for my number to come up.

Green Acres Cafe consists of a large counter at which food is ordered and a small counter at which I decided to eat. There’s also a vending machine and a wall-mounted TV. But that’s about it. There are framed pictures of staff, articles that mention Green Acres as well as acknowledgements, awards, and celebrity photographs. Most striking is a framed newspaper front page from the day in 2009 that it was announced Barack Obama was to become president of the United States.

My food arrived in a cardboard tray inside a brown bag which was quickly becoming stained with grease spots.

The wings were huge! They were outstandingly crispy but with masses of meat. The addition of salt and pepper after frying really lifted the flavour, giving you an extra kick in your sinuses from the pepper. Hot sauce was spackled artistically across everything. The sauce was possibly the popular Louisiana hot sauce I’d seen a lot of, and from what I could tell was a vinegar based sauce.

The next day I went back for more wings. This time I chose 6 wings and was given additional bread. 

Just as I began to tuck into my meal, the sky went so dark that the street lights came on. It was 3pm. The trees in the park began to sway violently, leaves and debris cascaded down the street. There were three flashes then an almighty bang as the sky cracked and the rain quickly pooled in the gutter till it was level with the curb.

I watched as people dashed about in the street, ducking into doorways, or diving into their cars. For some people, no amount of rain was going to get in the way of their goal. These people walked through the door of Green Acres.

If you’re going to get stuck anywhere during a storm, make sure that place has got award winning fried chicken.

Decisions, Decisions

I’d just turned out the light when I saw the light on my phone was blinking. It was a message from Jess:

“What are you doing? Want to play pool with me, Liz, and Julio?”

I was warm and comfortable in bed. It was almost midnight. I checked the time the message was sent and saw it was sent only two minutes ago. Should I go? Or should I sleep off my lunch and the handful of stouts and porters I’d already drank?

I got dressed and messaged Jess.

They were in a club called The Basement which was underneath another club called The Graveyard. I’d made a point of bringing my passport with me as proof of age as I’d previously been denied a beer when trying to use my driver’s license. The bouncer, a man wider than the doorframe and with an unapproachable demeanour, squinted hard at my passport before letting me in. I bought a beer then went over to the pool table where Jess was lining up a shot.

She scuffed the cue ball sending it off to the side. Julio smiled then took the cue and ended the game.

We played doubles; Jess and Liz Vs Julio and me. It was a close game that we won by default. Julio disappeared and Liz got talking to Jess’s sister. I played against Jess. After a couple of beers I was in that “sweet spot” where my judgement was unclouded. I could make bank shots, carom shots, and sometimes even jump shots. I won but thought at one point I’d been hustled when Jess began making a comeback.

We drove home after first stopping off at Cinnaholic. A custom cinnamon roll restaurant where customers are able to pick any combination of icing and toppings.

I chose peanut butter icing with cookie dough on top. 

Fresh and warm out of the oven, the icing melted into the cinnamon roll, the cookie dough becoming gooey and amalgamated. As a late night snack, it was perfect and was a sugar-filled hug that helped me to crash into bed immediately.