I went to Atlanta recently and ate pork chops from heaven, grits fixed six ways to Sunday, and every piece of pie that sashayed within range of my fork.
Eating most of it made me feel happy to be alive. People in other parts of the country may view a meal as an opportunity to prove you are nutritionally correct, morally superior, and in command of the latest arcane "what-might-kill-you" study.
In the South it is still OK to eat because it gives you pleasure. I say this after spending four days in Atlanta at the annual conference of the Association of Food Journalists. These are the people who edit and write the food stories in America's newspapers, magazines and television programs. Like most groups, when members of the eating press gather, we listen to experts, we study trends in the industry, we pat ourselves on the back, and we chow down. I confess that while I did not attend every seminar, I did not miss any meals.
Among the good things I put in my mouth were the mile-high pork chops served up by Scott Peacock at Atlanta's Horseradish Grill. These chops were so fat that they looked like they had been dreamed up by L'il Abner, a comic strip character fond of cooked pig. To cut these chops, I was given a knife that was so long that carrying it was probably a felony in most states. The spicy flavor of this juicy piece of pork was as massive as its portion size.
I came across another version of the L'il Abner chop at the Buckhead Diner, a place I walked to for lunch when I was supposed to be attending a seminar on professional development. The experience taught me two things about Atlanta. First of all, not all big pork chops are equal. The one at the Buckhead Diner, which tasted like a hunk of ham, was not nearly as good as the juicier version at the Horseradish Grill.
Secondly, not many people walk to lunch in Atlanta. When my lunch companions and I announced we were walking from our hotel to the Buckhead Diner, a distance of maybe three-quarters of a mile, none of the locals could believe we were not traveling by car. Apparently local custom dictates that it is only OK to use your feet for jogging and shopping. Atlanta's Peachtree Road Race, for example, with 45,000 runners, is said to be the largest 10K race in the world. And I saw plenty of folks trekking through Lenox Square, the largest mall in the Southeast. But walking for a goodly distance outside on the sidewalk in the tony Buckhead section of town is, I was told, not normally done.
I liked the clean, corn flavor of the grits at the Buckhead Diner. But more importantly they met the approval of my lunch companions, Ronni Lundy and Sarah Fritschner. Ms. Lundy, a former waitress and restaurant critic in Louisville, Ky., is the author of "Shuck Beans, Stack Cakes, and Honest Fried Chicken" (Atlantic Monthly Press). Ms. Fritschner is food editor at the Courier-Journal in Louisville.
Both women are serious about grits, and said that someone in the kitchen of the Buckhead Diner had followed the correct, long, procedure needed to make the good stuff. However, they were not certain they approved of adding cream cheese to grits, a procedure they had seen demonstrated earlier in the day.
I ate a lot of bird in Atlanta. For some reason the nation's eating press was fed three versions of quail and two types of duck during our four-day stay. Much of the feathered fare struck me as "showing off for company," that is, cooking fancy food for the visitors.
Instead of more bird, I would rather have eaten more of the barbecued pork served to us one night by Low-Country Barbecue Catering of nearby Cobb county. And, instead of searching through glasses of unimpressive Southern wines for something I could swallow, I would have been happier drinking more of the local beer, Marthasville Pale Ale, served with the barbecued pork.
Earlier in my stay author John Egerton had said "the South is a fertile food culture." At the time Egerton said this I was sitting in Ritz-Cartton dining roon trying to eat pieces of almost-raw quail wrapped in greens and hidden in a piece of squash that was surrounded by a ring of dry herbs.
In that setting Egerton's message had not rung true. But later, when he and his wife squeezed into our booth at the Buckhead Diner and we all ate grits and heard stories about screwball uncles and ate banana-cream pie, I understood what he meant.
I left Atlanta agreeing with what Egerton said in his book "Southern Food" "Life without a little South in your mouth . . . is a bland and dreary prospect."