Thursday, January 27, 2011

Liquor Stores and Gas Stations

I love to write on this blog. Truly. It just seems like I've been so busy with my "day job" of late that I haven't had time to post very much. I dream about writing here though. I craft entries in my sleep and am somewhat disappointed to not find them online in the morning, because I've done some of my best writing in my dreams. I seem to lose some of the genius when I try to recreate them. Anyway, I have been cooking, eating, ruminating about food, etc. these past weeks. I just haven't shared much here. If I was a proper Southern hostess, I would've baked you some muffins or cookies to welcome you back after the hiatus, but instead I'd like to talk about some seemingly unladylike topics: Liquor stores and gas stations.

The first time I walked into a grocery store in California, I almost fainted. There were rows and rows of liquor being sold — even on Sundays and even after midnight!!! I couldn't get over having such access to alcohol. In college I recall a sense of panic setting in as the weekend neared. You had to plan ahead to make sure you had enough booze to make it to Monday. There was this mad dash to make it to the ABC store before 5:30 pm on Friday because it was the only place you could buy liquor and it wasn't open on the weekends (which is silly because that's usually when you want to be drinking cocktails). It was like stocking up on canned goods before a hurricane. I couldn't help but wonder why anyone in California even bothered going to the liquor store if they could buy a bottle of bourbon along side their milk and bread. I soon found out why. . . .

It's for the tacos and burritos.

Yep, apparently in California many of these liquor stores are fronts for some of the best and most authentic Mexican food you can find. They have these little surprise counter restaurants in the back of the stores. And while these kitchens may look unassuming and even uninspiring, they crank out food that creates almost cult-like followings.

Sure it may not be common place to buy a killer carne asada taco right next to a stack of Hustler magazines and a display of 40 different types of vodka, but trust me you'd wish it was if you ever sunk your teeth into one of these humble treats.

My personal favorite is the chorizo breakfast burrito. First off, a breakfast burrito is God's creation of the perfect breakfast food. You've got all the core components wrapped up in a warm flour tortilla with some cheese and salsa thrown in for some extra protein and veggies — the perfect balance between greasy, comfort food and fresh, bright flavors. It's cheap, portable and a savior following a big night of "over-indulgence," which is a tad ironic because you might think a liquor store is the last place you'd want to find yourself when you're hungover. My favorite liquor store makes their breakfast burritos with mashed potatoes which is truly off the hook, served with this roasted salsa that I could do shots of and leave this world a happy camper. Seriously, it's ridiculous.

I got to thinking about unsuspecting places to find amazing food. I know now, at least on the West Coast, gourmet food trucks are all the craze. But I'm talking about more basic spots that are part of the culture and landscape of a place. Things that seem obvious to the locals yet raise eye-brows to the visitors. I realized in the South it's gas stations.

Maybe that's why they're still called fillin' stations there. You fill up your tummies while you're filling up your car. It might be fried okra or boiled peanuts, but whatever they're serving it's bound to be good. Good like something your grandmother would make. It's probably organic and local but they're not advertising it as such. They call it homegrown and homemade, which are two of the loveliest words I know.

When I was at my grandmothers in LA (which is Lower Alabama not Los Angeles) for the Thanksgiving holiday, the thing we look forward to the most isn't the turkey, which I know sounds blasphemous. It isn't even Black Friday, and this is coming from a clothes horse. It's the Iron Bowl, the football match between the University of Alabama and Auburn played the Saturday after Thanksgiving each year. This is possibly one of the biggest rivalries on the planet. As sports journalist Tommy Hicks explained so perfectly, it's pure, un-adulterated, old-fashioned hate. Every single person is simply on one side or the other and must wear the colors of that school, which can run the gamut from a baseball cap to a tattoo. And bless your heart if you're in a House Divided, which is another way of saying a divorce is imminent. It's not a game where winning is acceptable. You'll only be satisfied if your team beats the other by 100 points. It's really the only game that matters during the year. You could lose every other game yet beat your rival and people will act like you've just finished a perfect season.

Anyway, the whole point of this is that 30 minutes before kick-off, I decided fried chicken would be the only adequate fuel to sustain us during this intense match, which usually includes shouting at the TV until you're horse, falling down on the floor when someone misses a pass, and jumping up on the sofa when someone scores a touchdown or makes an interception. So off I went to get the fried chicken . . . at the gas station.

It's not like getting a hot dog at 7-11. It's real fried chicken. Big ole pieces fried golden brown with a unique seasoning that dances on your tongue as you savor each juicy bite. It's truly finger licking good. You can smell it cooking from a mile away, which is about when your mouth starts watering.

There's good food in life and then there's food that makes life good. It's the liquor store and gas station food that makes me happy to be alive. While it may be nothing fancy, it certainly feeds the soul and makes me appreciate good cooks everywhere, especially those in the most unpretentious places.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Where You Come From

I can't believe we're winding down the first month of the New Year and I'm just getting around to my first post of 2011! I've been wanting to post for weeks now, but there were two reasons I couldn't. Firstly, I had to finish all my Christmas thank you notes. As any child raised by a Southern mamma knows, not sending a handwritten thank you note is unthinkable and has potential to shame the family, which is basically the worst thing you can do.

Secondly, I was in Boston for business and found myself stuck in the midst of this:

I was easy to spot as I was the only moron trying to walk around in 15 inches of snow in 5-inch platform heels. I got tired of strangers walking up to me and saying, "Those are wicked awesome shoes but where are you from?" And I've never seen people having to shovel a roof before!

Although I didn't get around to making a snow angel, I did have the most amazing and quintessential Boston lunch at this fine eating establishment. I often categorize cities by food, so when I think of Boston I think lobster roll, or the "lobstah" roll as the locals call it. Regardless of how you pronounce it, it's basically luscious chunks of lobster in a light mayonnaise dressing stuffed into a soft hotdog-like roll. But like most dishes, they can run the spectrum from ho-hum to life-changing. Chef Barbara Lynch is nothing short of a culinary rock star, so the fact that after just one bite I felt compelled to grab the entire lobster roll-filled tray for eight and run as fast as I could away from the table so I could stuff myself into oblivion shouldn't really come as much of a surprise.

It reminded me, though, that every place has its own beauty and characteristics — be it a meal or a monument or a method of living — that defines it and makes it unique. Often it's those "special" qualities that endears us to a place.

After having the pleasure of spending both Thanksgiving and Christmas back in the South, I spent some time thinking about all the little things that in many ways become big things that I love and miss about the South when living in California.

Things like frozen dumplings — and an entire case dedicated to them at the grocery store — for quick chicken and dumplings . . .

. . . quite possibly the best breakfast sausage in the world . . .

. . . Blue Bell ice cream. . .

. . . deep fried turkey breast . . .

. . . cane syrup for your biscuits . . .

. . . pimento cheese-stuffed celery sticks . . .

. . . scuppernong jelly . . .

. . . deer sausage, from a buck my cousin's 13-year-old daughter shot, to name just a few.

As much as I love to travel and learn about new places (which often involves food), I never want to forget where I come from and how it's shaped me. So here's to a 2011 filled with many wonderful new experiences and an appreciation for our roots.

I hope the year is off to a fabulous start for you!