How to Read a Menu

By  |  September 18, 2015
“Burning Calories - Fried Chicken” (2013), by Henry Hargreaves and Amirah Kassem “Burning Calories - Fried Chicken” (2013), by Henry Hargreaves and Amirah Kassem

When I told my wife, Blair, about Antibellum L.A., the dining project that Samuel Monsour occasionally hosts at the Hotel Figueroa in downtown Los Angeles, she listened politely as I recited the chef’s Twitter cri de coeur: “Old South inspired Pop-Up Restaurant Heartened by an Era Troubled with Suffering yet Rich with Soul.” Instead of taking the bait, she asked, “Do the waitresses wear hoop cheese skirts?” making the sort of dismissive joke that comes naturally to a small-town Alabama girl who grew up weary of antebellum fantasy craft. 

Across town, The Ladies’ Gunboat Society, another restaurant, began  channeling a similar ethic in the summer of 2014. Besha Rodell of LA Weekly reported that the “mouthful of a moniker refers to a group of women who, frustrated with their relative helplessness during the Civil War, raised funds to build ironclad gunboats to protect the harbors of the Confederate South.” Jonathan Gold of the Los Angeles Times summarized the promise this way: “The South continues to rise. Fried chicken for all.”

This is not the first moment of vogue for Southern theme restaurants. It’s merely the latest clock tick in an ongoing cycle. Reading menus that I’ve collected over the years or sourced from various archives, four periods come into focus. Each burst of restaurant making and menu writing came during a time of social and economic upheaval, when old sureties were challenged and identities were in flux. 

The first came during World War II, as military investment in the region lifted the country from the Depression and the South fitfully joined the national economy. The second spanned the years between the 1954 Brown decision and the rollout of Nixon’s 1968 Southern strategy. A third boomlet, a correction really, coincided with the 1976 election of Jimmy Carter and extended to the early 1980s when chefs like Louis Osteen at Pawleys Island, South Carolina, began honestly interpreting the region and its larder. The more recent burst of creativity has been the longest. It began in the late 1990s, one generation after the civil rights movement peaked, gained momentum with the rise of the Charleston food scene and the post-Katrina rebirth of New Orleans, and found its mettle in the 2010s as chefs inside and outside the region began to spend as much time in the library as they do in the kitchen. 

 

We’ve now entered the abstract phase of this culinary rebirth, in which the idea of Southern food is as fungible and bankable as the food itself. Some of the most interesting work is being done beyond the geographic borders. Up in Boston, over in Chicago, out in Los Angeles, chefs get room to maneuver, and the South in general and the Old South in particular benefit from an historical untethering, a sort of deracination in which “The South will rise again” does not sound like a rallying cry for demagogues but a cute little turn of phrase. 

Beyond the region (and, if we’re being really honest, within its cultural bounds, too) fried chicken does not play like a complicated icon of black expertise, entrepreneurship, and stereotype. Instead, it’s now a meme to be mimicked, a trend to be exploited. Like bluegrass music in Japan or a Thornton Dial assemblage pulled from his Bessemer, Alabama, garage and hung at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, the craft benefits from the remove and the framing but loses something in the translation. 

Until recently, the South lagged behind other regions of the country. Culinary tourism did not prove a draw. In the deeper South, early adoption of Prohibition thwarted the growth of upscale dining. Southern restaurants played well out west, though. The Coon Chicken Inn, which began in Salt Lake City and expanded to Seattle and Portland, flourished by the 1920s, selling coon-fried chicken from roadhouses fronted by walk-through caricature busts of black bellhops. Carl’s Viewpark in Los Angeles, billed as the “world’s finest drive-in restaurant,” and popular in the 1930s, was built to resemble a columned manse and was fronted by a self-styled “Old South colonnade.” On Melrose Avenue, Carolina Pines built its reputation on “darky help and Southern Cookery.”

Aunt Fanny’s Cabin in suburban Atlanta gained fame for fried chicken and rosin potatoes, poached in pine tree sap, served in a country manor interior, accessorized with tchotchkes and primitives. (A generation later, Cracker Barrel, a Tennessee-based chain, earned its reputation with the same method and, come to think of it, a comparable aesthetic hustle.) Founded in 1941 by Isoline Campbell McKenna, Aunt Fanny’s flourished during World War II when the Bell Bomber plant opened nearby, and reached its zenith in the 1950s, when Harvey Hester, a Falstaffian proprietor who curried favor with celebrities, ran the operation. 

Under his direction, black women in white gowns gathered around the piano to sing gospel music and shake Mason jars for tips. And black boys worked the dining room with menu boards yoked over their necks, sing-songing the offerings: “Howdy folks, what’ll it be? All complete dinners, our famous fried chicken, gen-u-wine Smithfield ham, charcoal broiled steak, fresh rainbow trout.” (I know the exact phrase because it’s inscribed on a frosted mint julep glass that I purchased for five bucks at a junk sale.)

The menus printed by Mammy’s Shanty, which in addition to the Atlanta flagship ran four Florida locations by the late 1950s, were pithy narratives of Louisiana turkey and rice a la Alexandria and a Georgia cracker sampler plate that suggested tourists who longed to have another go should “Save your Confederate money like the rest of us.” Chicken shortcake Natchez was teleported from a day when “crinoline and hoop skirts were in vogue and Jean Lafitte was pirating around New Orleans.” Lafitte wasn’t looking for gold. “No suh, he was looking for a Natchez Negro Mammy who could make Chicken Shortcake handed down from the Good Old Days.” (It came as no surprise when I learned that James Earl Ray, the man who murdered Martin Luther King Jr., was a regular at Mammy’s Shanty. He had two receipts from the restaurant when arrested.)

In the 1960s, when the centennial of the Civil War and the signal years of the civil rights movement entwined like combatants in an awkward headlock, Johnny Reb’s was in its neo-Confederate prime. One of the four Atlanta restaurants operated under that banner erected a sign, topped with two butternut gray uniformed mannequins, muzzle-loading what appeared to be an actual cannon. Beneath, outlined in light bulbs, blinked the word DIXIELAND

A portrait of Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest, C.S.A., dominated the menu front, which opened to reveal a chicken giblet soup, said to be handed down from the wife of General Robert E. Lee. Sirloins were ordered Shermanized (burned to a crisp), Lincolnized (warm, red heart), and Stonewalled (rare). Across town, Johnny Reb’s Charcoal Broiler sold Confederate fried chicken. “It’s new . . . it’s different,” promised newspaper advertisements, seemingly unaware of the irony of pegging a century-old Confederate ideal as being somehow innovative.

These Southern pageant restaurants prospered in the latter half of the twentieth century. And they broadcast staying power over ensuing decades. Later iterations were generally more subtle. Mammy’s Shanty, which fronted its early menus with kerchiefed mammies and watermelon-eating children, had begun printing a more subdued scene by 1969. A washed-out watercolor of the restaurant dominated the foreground. In the background, the skyscrapers of Atlanta loomed, symbols of encroaching modernity. 

The city of Atlanta did not enjoy a lock on happy darky days theme dining. Scarlett O’Hara, set in a retrofitted Great Lakes steamship, decked out in crushed velour and velvet, floated off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina, in the 1970s. When it opened in 1973, the restaurant played up Gone with the Wind conceits, advertising “Rhett Butler’s notorious blockade runner returns to Charleston harbor.” But overt homages to the Old South were few. The most offensive thing on the menu was the insult to the French language of “Frogs’ Legs Provencale, Sauce Fantastique.” Not everyone gave up the ghost. As late as 1985, Old Plantation Barbecue in Birmingham tended a crop of cotton in the parking lot. A sign invited: “Watch this cotton grow.” A second sign, mounted on the roof eave, proclaimed, “Yas Sur, it’s cooked in de pit.” Back in Atlanta, Aunt Fanny’s Cabin staged its nightly shuck and jive until 1994. 

Atlanta was the citadel city for pageant restaurants, which makes good sense when you think about how quickly “the city too busy to hate” changed over the last half-century. More than any other urban center, immigration and economic reinvention buffeted the Georgia capital. In the face of swift change, the white conservatives of the city grew nostalgic for a past that was long faded, or maybe never was. And they indulged that nostalgia while dining in restaurants, the same spaces employed by black protestors of the early 1960s, well aware of the theatrical possibilities. 

As the sociologist John Shelton Reed has pointed out, “The South has changed faster than the rest of the country in these last few decades, and Southerners are distinguished now by a more extensive experience with rapid social and economic change.” Reed wasn’t speaking specifically about Atlanta when he made that observation. But he did give thought to the city’s complicity in what C. Vann Woodward called the “Bulldozer Revolution.” In the run-up to the 1996 Olympics, Reed said, “Every time I look at Atlanta, I see what a quarter of a million Confederate soldiers died to prevent.”

 

I have yet to make it to one of Samuel Monsour’s Antibellum L.A. dinners. The menus posted online are populated with all the right nouns and branded with all the right provenance tags. As in “Guinea hen ballotine, benne souya, country sausage, spring-dug root veg, redeye demi.” The use of benne, a grain vogue among progressive chefs, signals that Monsour recognizes the African roots of Southern food. The redeye is a nod to the mountain South, where hams are hung in clapboard smokehouses and breakfast biscuits often come drenched in a slurry of ham grease, sugar, and coffee. That dish sounds just as delicious as his cri de coeur sounds senseless. 

When I take a step back from that mod menu writing, though, I recognize Monsour’s pop-up is a plantation pageant restaurant for the twenty-first century, a throwback repackaged for this multicultural moment. Or, as he puts it, “By embodying techniques, staple foods, and indigenous ingredients of Spanish, French, West African, Native American, and Caribbean cuisines, Antibellum presents diners with an experience rooted in the genesis of Southern cuisine.”

I did recently dine at Pittypat’s Porch, a downtown Gone with the Wind–themed restaurant. It’s the last of the pageant palaces still doing business in Atlanta. Founded in 1967, three years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed segregation in public accommodations, it is, by some measures, the oldest continuously operating restaurant in the city. (By those measures, the Varsity, founded in 1928, is not a restaurant, but a drive-in.) 

A. J. Anthony, the founder, was a Czech immigrant. Set in a onetime funeral home, his first location of Pittypat’s Porch featured menus printed on church fans. Service was on pewter plates. Appetizers included headcheese, served from a buffet. Anthony wasn’t fully assimilated, though. Until at least the mid-1970s, menus misspelled the word y’all, placing the apostrophe between the a and the first l. 

Carpetbagger steaks, stuffed with oysters, came with souvenir skillets. Mint juleps, guaranteed to make you “feel like a plantation owner,” arrived in logo mugs. Ankle breakers, named after Stonewall Jackson, said to have fallen and shattered his ankle after downing a half-dozen of the drinks, came in ceramic jugs with skull-and-bones stoppers. 

By the time I sipped my first cocktail in the Rocking Chair Lounge, while listening to a canned version of “Doraville” by the Atlanta Rhythm Section, Pittypat’s Porch no longer possessed the ability to aggrieve. Like the Cyclorama, the Battle of Atlanta depiction erected in the late nineteenth century as a celebration of Confederate valor, now owned by the City of Atlanta and operated by a staff that’s predominately African-American, Pittypat’s has also been cleansed of overt racial taint.

As I descended the stairs from the lounge to the dining room, I glimpsed a signed glossy of John Lewis, the crusading civil rights leader and U.S. representative, mounted by the balustrade. When I ordered “Chef David’s Tara Combo” of fried chicken and a half rack of ribs, I learned that the David in question, walking through the dining room like he owned the place, was David Myree, a thirty-plus-year veteran of African-American descent. Scanning the menu, I locked on the black bottom pie, expecting some veiled insult, but finding, instead, whipped cream and chocolate custard.


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John T. Edge has served as an Oxford American columnist since 1998. His book The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South, which Jack Hitt calls “the smartest history of race in America in a generation,” was published in May.