Having spent a good part of my life moving around the U.S. as an Air Force dependent, a sailor, and a nuclear professional, I have had many opportunities to learn about the regional foods in the areas where I have lived.
Louisiana, by far, has the greatest variety of food, although many Cajun dishes start out looking like something that is not the least bit edible. Over the years, Cajuns have developed the knack of making excellent meals out of nasty looking things that inhabit the swamps and bayous. Take crawfish, for example. They don’t look appetizing dead or alive. However, after six years of eating New Orleans cuisine, the dishes do grow on you – figuratively, not literally – and everything else tastes somewhat bland.
At Nickajack Lake, down the Tennessee River from Chattanooga, I ate what had to be the biggest and best-tasting BBQ’d pork sandwich in the world. Admittedly, my appetite was whetted by the scent of hickory smoke wafting through the park as the meat simmered throughout the morning. You just can’t beat a 16-oz portion of pulled pork covered with spicy homemade BBQ sauce and served on a huge sesame seed bun to relieve that gnawing hunger in your tummy.
The Great State of Texas is where I acquired a fondness for chili. Texas chili is made without beans and the spicier the better. One of my coworkers was a regular competitor at the annual East Texas Chili Cook Off. His secret recipe was as closely guarded as the formula for Coca-Cola. However, I learned that the real reason Texans make their chili so hot is to provide a legitimate excuse for drinking copious quantities of Lone Star beer. Texans make a good dish of barbecued ribs too, and, in the vein of Al Gore, they insist on taking all of the credit for inventing mesquite wood.
Frequent trips to South Carolina to visit with my in-laws on the Grand Strand, taught me to appreciate the subtle flavor of resin-baked potatoes and the unique texture and taste of boiled peanuts. I also learned to appreciate crunchy parboiled okra, vinegar-soaked cucumbers, and cold beets.
The resin-baked potato was discovered by accident. The South Carolina Low Country exported turpentine made from the Southern Loblolly pines that grow like weeds in the sandy soil. The pine resin was boiled in huge vats to distill the turpentine. Evidently, a worker accidentally dropped a potato into one of those vats, and when he fished it out, found he had created the best tasting baked potato in the world. The process is more thermodynamic than culinary. The hot resin seals the skin of the potato, allowing it to cook very quickly while holding in the moisture.
In my 34 years of marriage, I’ve learned that my mother-in-law, who is now confined to a nursing home, made the best tasting Southern-style vegetables I have ever eaten. They aren’t the healthiest vegetables, what with the fatback she uses for flavoring, but they taste the way God meant vegetables to taste. If you are a health nut and believe that vegetables should be eaten uncooked and unseasoned, God would not have created fire if he wanted us to eat our food raw.
I don’t recall anything unique about the food in North Carolina. The Tar Heel State is bordered by Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee, and probably had difficulty coming up with its own indigenous recipe. I do know that coastal North Carolina is famous for Calabash seafood, and that fame has spread to the Myrtle Beach area where I met my wife in 1966. I have also noted that most Yankees who visit the Grand Strand prefer their seafood breaded and fried. They don’t want their seafood to taste "fishy," and deep-frying certainly removes any hint that the food originated in the ocean. That probably explains why sushi bars aren’t popular in Myrtle Beach.
However, if someone asked me to name my all-time favorite regional food, I would have to say it is the Deluxe Moon Pie. The Moon Pie is a double-decker, chocolate-coated, marshmallow-filled, goody made by the Chattanooga Bakery, designed specifically to compliment an ice cold Royal Crown Cola. The best analogy for a Moon Pie would be the proverbial S’mores eaten around campfires by Girl Scouts and Brownies; only the Moon Pie is a S’more that is turned inside out.
The Moon Pie was invented in 1917 when the Mountain City Flour Mill, a subsidiary of the Chattanooga Bakery, needed something to do with the mill’s excess flour. Mr. Earl Mitchell, a salesperson for the bakery, got the idea for the Moon Pie from Kentucky coal miners. In those days, miners carried round lunch pails, and they wanted a snack that would fit inside a round container. You can read about the history of the Moon Pie at the Official Moon Pie Web site, www.moonpie.com. You can also order a Moon Pie T-shirt to impress your friends. I have two of them, one for dress and one for casual.
I became addicted to Moon Pies back in the early Eighties. When we moved from Chattanooga to Augusta, Georgia, our old friends would send us a case of Moon Pies every Christmas. I have since cleaned up my life, after going cold turkey for a couple of years. Now, I can eat just one Moon Pie. However, I have to admit; it was easier to give up smoking.
Bob Ciminel ©2001 – 2004
by Bob Ciminel
November 24, 2004