For a city that's not in the South, Boston sure has a lot of Southern restaurants, and new ones just keep coming. Plus, for every one restaurant centered around Southern cuisine of some kind, be it barbecue or soul food, there's a dozen more that serve chicken and waffles or shrimp and grits, and apparently it's now a requisite part of the licensing process to serve something in a mason jar. There are establishments that predate recent openings like The Bearded Pig and M3, such as Mrs. Jones in Dorchester, but the new wave is its own beast. Eater stopped by Hungry Mother to get a Southern perspective on the trend from chef Barry Maiden, a native of Saltville, Virginia and winner of Food & Wine's 2009 "Best New Chef" award. And he's kinda pissed.
Why do you think this is happening right now? Why is Southern cuisine so popular? BM: Personally I don't think people really understand the depth of Southern cooking, what's really involved and what it really is. It's tough for me to swallow sometimes. I don't know if restaurateurs see it as an easy sale - because it is trendy - because of familiarity and that comfort level, which is also a trend. A lot of fine dining restaurants are becoming more obscure and more neighborhood places are popping up, and the Southern cuisine fits into some of these molds as being easy, neighborhoody and familiar. And even though we’re in Boston, it ain’t really that familiar to everybody. What is familiar is all the things that we Southerners loathe to see on menus. The bad barbecue, the fried chicken, the deviled eggs, and now even more so pimento cheese, the overuse of the frier, the fried okra. I feel like it’s a very shallow base of things that people take on. Is it really Southern cooking? To some extent yes, because I wouldn’t take any of those components away from the South, but I wouldn’t base a whole restaurant on a few recipes that you might skim through.
Because you have pimento cheese and deviled eggs, right? BM: I have all those things, and I do them because I grew up with it. Deviled eggs is something my mom always made, and to this day she still won’t let me make the deviled eggs at Thanksgiving. I try to give her some new techniques and she doesn’t want to hear it. But her deviled eggs are delicious. Pimento cheese I grew up with, and I don’t do much to those things. I do deviled eggs really simply - just really good eggs - it’s the recipes that you see that do all these crazy things. There’s a time and place for that, but if you can’t do it simply and as the old recipes are then there’s got to be a base somewhere for people to jump off from.
So what’s missing? What are some styles, dishes or techniques that you feel people are missing the boat on? BM: I think a lot of it ties back into if the Southern food lacks the soul, and if you don’t believe it and understand it, maybe even on somewhat of a historic level as well. I mean cooking is a feeling for me, it’s an emotion, it’s very instinctual. When I look at a recipe of something that I’m not familiar with - I’m not saying I’m well versed in every Southern recipe and everything that has to do with the South - but sometimes I come across something that I really want to make, so I research everything to as far back as I can get in history. And in terms of trying to understand what the root of the recipe is or where does it come from and why does it exist, and that helps me understand and give it a little bit of life. And for me, I wouldn’t want to bastardize a recipe or hack it up if I don’t understand how to make it first.
Like the most recent addition I did was the classic eggplant and rice dressing from New Orleans, which is everywhere. I made it with farro instead of rice and ground chicken instead of ground beef, and I felt like it was such a respectful way to interpret that dish that if someone from Louisiana walked in and ate it, he would feel it and understand it and it would taste familiar, but there’s this little twist that I put on. And I don’t think people understand how to do that for the most part. I think it’s just a lack of understanding for the food in general, and people missing the mark of what it really is to cook these things.
Is there anyone who you think is doing a good job of Southern food in Boston? BM: I just went to Sweet Cheeks for the first time. It took me a little bit of time to get in there, but I’ve had her [Tiffani Faison] food. Even though it’s barbecue I was a little hesitant to go in there and she’s been in here several times, and so we talked about it. It was like, “I understand, you’re Southern.” But I was actually pretty impressed. I think she did her whole research and went down to Texas and she did it right. She at least went and tried to figure it out and ate some of the food down there and she had a vision for what that place was going to be. I thought for the most part everything was seasoned well and the meat was smoked right and had good time on it.
Mark [Romano] over at Highland Kitchen does a little bit of a Southern thing, and he’s from West Virginia. He has shrimp and grits, and he’ll do fried green tomatoes, and you see the influences on his menu, and it seems legit with him. The only thing I haven’t gotten from him yet is why he hasn’t done a pepperoni roll, which is a West Virginia quintessential. I was like, you gotta do one! I think he’s doing a great job.
Unfortunately I haven’t eaten at Tupelo, other than we did an event together, and I know Rembs [Layman] has spent a lot of time in New Orleans and I’ve tried his gumbo when he did it at East Coast Grill, and I thought that was nice, but I haven’t had a chance to sit in.
The trend has really picked up in recent months with places like The Bearded Pig and M3. Anything in that new crop that you approve of or feel strongly about? BM: I take it personally when someone opens a restaurant and it’s dubbed as a Southern place. I want to like those places because it could be somewhere I could go away from here and enjoy some authentic home cooking, which Southern food is at its core. It’s peasant food. But I think people want to capitalize on that fact of it and the fact that it’s cheap and also trendy, and now they can capitalize and make money off of it, which really, really pisses me off. Like more than anything. I feel like it’s like a slap in the face. I want to just say you’re taking the food of my people and bastardizing it so that you can make a buck. Unless you can show me that you can do it. You don’t have to be from Alabama to cook a good biscuit, but at least what’s your story? Why are you doing Southern food? What brings you to this? Why are you opening this restaurant with this 100% Southern food? What is the connection? Is it because you love Southern food and you’re passionate about it? Great. People do that all the time.
Ken Oringer opens restaurants because he’s passionate about it and he’s good at it. You’d never know Ken Oringer wasn’t from Spain based on Toro. But give me some kind of background as to why Southern food is a good choice for this restaurant. And going in there I want to be blown away by something. Give me a couple good things that I have to go back for. It’s disappointing a lot of times and I take it really personally to the point where it really irritates me, and I’m pretty vocal about it. And I don’t go into places to hate. I want to like them, even though I’m kind of a tough customer, but I’m fair, and in all fairness, give me some fair food.
I haven’t tried a couple of the newer barbecue places. We do the barbecue now on Thursday and Fridays [until Labor Day] and it’s not just because I wanted to turn and make a dollar off some cheap pulled pork. I wanted to have people come in and experience what is as close to Lexington-style barbecue as they can get, in terms of whole shoulder, hand-chopped, hand-pulled, homemade bread - even that is a little bit beyond what they do down there - and experience the rhythm. I wanted to give somebody the best pulled pork they could get in the city. I did it with an air of authenticity and thought people would recognize that, and obviously the flavor was going to be there, and I think we accomplished that. It didn’t take off like I thought it would, but that’s okay. I think the people that experienced it think that they got one of the best barbecue sandwiches that you can get in the city. The fact that the girl from North Carolina comes in and she orders a coarse-chopped sandwich, she can’t do that anywhere else. That makes me happy.
I’ve been reading reviews on Yelp of a few of the other Southern restaurants just to see what people think of it, because I’m curious how people perceive this restaurant. If I do what I think of as a high level, and our reviews are mostly good, but what do people think about something that’s much less complicated and much less delicious? What are people saying about it? Do people receive it like, “oh this is great! This is delicious Southern food?” I don’t know, maybe I’m over-thinking it. But I stand behind what we do, and I think people get it.