on culinary conservatism

I just returned from a visit to my family, and my wife's, in Alabama, and as we always do when we're down there we made a special point of having dinner at our favorite restaurant, Highlands Bar and Grill. The dinner was, as always, spectacular, but in addition to enjoying it immensely I also found myself thinking, during our visit, of John Schwenkler's recent American Conservative essay on "culinary conservatism." One of Schwenkler's key points is that certain politically hyperliberal people — chief among them Alice Waters, proprietor of Berkeley's famous Chez Panisse — can be, in relation to food, models of a healthy conservatism.

Frank Stitt, the chef-owner of Highlands, is a native of Cullman, Alabama who studied philosophy for a time at Cal. (Hear that, John?) But he was more strongly drawn to Berkeley's culinary scene, and took an (initially) menial job working for Waters at Chez Panisse, where he internalized many of her key ideas, especially her emphasis on fresh local food, prepared in ways that highlight the freshness and the natural flavors of the main ingredients in a dish. Waters in turn had been a disciple of the extraordinary food writer Richard Olney, and wrote for Stitt a letter of introdution to Olney. Stitt moved to Provence and became Olney's assistant, learning a great deal from him especially about wine.

What I find especially interesting about Stitt's idiosyncratic education in cuisine is that it led him back to Alabama, indeed to my largely blue-collar home town of Birmingham, where the restaurant scene in the 1980s was pretty much non-existent. There he founded Highlands with the intention of putting Waters's and Olney's ideas into practice in what might (to others) have seemed an unpropitious environment — but was in fact just the right environment.

Consider this: you know what I had for an appetizer at this recent visit to Highlands? Fried green tomatoes. Yes, the most down-home and readily-mocked of Southern foods. But this was glorious: a delicate fine-cornmeal crust, a scattering of shrimp and crawfish, and a subtle vinegary sauce to make everything bright.

Even more extraordinary was my wife's appetizer, a fig and goat-cheese tart. In terms of technique and appearance, this was a classic Provençal dish — but it was also a very Southern one: some of the figs (highly prized this time of year in the deep South) had been brought to the restaurant by customers who have fig trees in their back yards, and the goat cheese came from a farm in northern Alabama. Though to my regret I only got a bite or two of the tart, it is certainly one of the very best things I have ever put in my mouth.

Stitt owns his own farm now, and between the produce he gets from it — including eggs laid by his own chickens — and the raft of local providers he has found and in some cases conjured into existence, he has found ways to embody the principles he learned from Waters and Olney in creating food that doesn’t look too much like anything you’d get at Chez Panisse. But then it shouldn’t: if food cooked in Alabama did look like the food at Chez Panisse, Stitt wouldn’t be much of a Waters disciple.

What this has to do with conservatism — at least, a certain kind of conservatism — I’ll discuss in my next post. I just had to get the rhapsodizing out of my system first.