The New (Culinary) South

Story Jason Browne | Photographs Luisa Porter

Late last year, in downtown Starkville, Gaining Ground and Chef Ty Thames reclaimed some lost territory for the South.

In December the organization hosted its second farm-to-table fundraising event, Bites and Brews, at Zorba’s Greek Tavern. It was there that Ty Thames, the “Ty” in Restaurant Tyler, premiered his reboot of the Southern buffet. It was a lot like the Southern buffet of old, but not at all similar to what currently passes as a “Southern buffet.”

“In the 40s we moved to a fast food nation. We steered the country in the wrong direction, and now we’re trying to steer it back,” said Thames. To correct the course, he offered some new ideas. Which are really old ideas. Corn-fed beef ribs buried under store-bought barbecue sauces were dropped in favor of burgers made from local, grass-fed cattle and topped with green garlic aioli. Genetically engineered chicken wings gave way to Reuben sandwiches loaded with lean poultry from the Golden Triangle. There was even a healthy take on the ubiquitous barbecue sandwich. Fresh okra. Vardaman sweet potatoes. Foods not unique to the South, but uniquely Southern. We’ll even throw in a wild-card Southern favorite. The steel pan of fried catfish under the heat lamp gave way to rabbit grillades over stone-ground grits. Washed down with Mississippi-brewed beer and set to the rhythms of Mississippi bands. The all-Mississippi menu highlighted what’s possible without national chain stores.

500 TINY SAMPLES
Bites and Brews was Ty’s chance to step away from the business side of cooking and just get creative. Inviting local breweries to supply the beer meant the crowd would get familiar pretty quickly. So, rather than set a long table out on a farm as he did for the first farm-to-table event, Ty chose to keep the guests on their feet. Finger foods presented on mirrored tables throughout Zorba’s would keep their feet moving, and that’s exactly what happened, according to Mandi Sanders, vice president of Gaining Ground. “It was incredible. Everyone was talking and mingling. It was more casual,” she said. “It was low-key and perfect for the holiday season.”

Low-key, as in casual, but the room was packed. Both farm-to-table events have sold out. Tickets for the fundraisers have ranged from $35-125. Ty says he doesn’t know what the cost, or even the setting, will be for the next one on June 1. It could be in the Cotton District or at a farm. He wants to make each event unique but says serving buffet-style was worth the stress of preparing 500 tiny samples of everything. “We ran a little late and got it all done about five minutes before it began,” he said. But from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., it was all party. “Everyone was networking and mingling. And they just mowed the food down.” he said.

BRINGING IT HOME
Thames and Gaining Ground, which originated in Starkville before spreading across the state, are trying to change consumer culture in the Golden Triangle. By showing off the versatility of locally-grown livestock and produce, seen through Thames’ gourmet lens, they want to convince you that it’s worth your money to pay a little more and drive a little farther to buy local. The sales pitch is three-fold. First, by supporting local farmers, you strengthen local economies. Second, local farmers selling to local consumers means fewer 18-wheelers pumping exhaust into the air during shipping. Finally, the inevitable health benefits of eating pesticide/steroid/chemical-free food.

Thames has been loyal to local produce at his restaurant since its inception. “About 30 percent of what’s on the menu is made from local items,” said Thames. “Depending on what they have, we’ll run specials or do farmers’ salads. Most farmers come in on Wednesday nights. We change our menu every Thursday based on what products we get that week.” He would buy more, he said, but local farms aren’t big enough to meet his restaurant’s demands.

For Bites and Brews, Thames went a step further, experimenting with some unfamiliar ingredients to demonstrate Mississippi’s variety. Like goat cheese, served over a soybean falafel veggie cheeseburger at one station and celery canapés with local pecans at another.

At the previous farm-to-table, Ty’s goat stew got a lot of attention. “Goat is really underrated,” said Thames. This time around, the rabbit grillades, with rabbit from a farm in south Mississippi, edged the other selections as the fan favorite. Sanders, who admits to a biased sweet tooth, preferred the tiramisu cheesecake, assembled from a Strange Brew Coffee cheesecake, molasses custard sauce and Strange Brew espresso beans.

Even in winter, all of the ingredients used in Ty’s buffet were available fresh in state.

Dustin Pinion, of Beaverdam Farms in Indianola and Starkville, said locally produced food might cost more on the front end, but yields more health benefits. “With my chickens, you might pay a little more dollar-per-pound than Walmart, but with my birds, you end up with more meat per pound because there’s so much salt water cooked into their chicken,” he said. “With veggies, the prices are comparable, but mine are grown without antibiotics, hormones or pesticides.”

The money raised by Gaining Ground at their farm-to-table fundraisers funds research and development aimed at establishing a sustainable agriculture network in Mississippi. It also pays for programs like the Farm to School program at Emerson Family School in Starkville, which provides local produce in school lunches. A list of local farms participating in the Gaining Ground initiative is due to be posted on the organization’s website, sites.google.com/a/ggsim.org/official-website/home.


THE MENU

BURGER

Grass-fed beef burger topped with local Edam cheese and green garlic aioli, served on a pâte à choux bun

VEGGIE CHEESEBURGER

Soybean falafel patty topped with local goat cheese and a Lazy Magnolia Gulf Porter beer mustard sauce, served on a pâte à choux bun

BARBECUE SANDWICH

Sansing smoked pork butt stewed in Cathead chicory liquor barbecue sauce topped with white stem Chinese cabbage and Misato rose radish coleslaw, served on a Vardaman sweet potato roll

REUBEN

Smoked Beaverdam Farms chicken topped with Southern Culture’s sauerkraut and remoulade sauce, served on pumpernickel bread with pickled okra on top

CELERY CANAPÉ

Hakuri turnip and arugula pesto with local pecans, local goat cheese, served on tall Utah celery

GRITS AND RABBIT GRILLADES

Rabbitman Farms rabbit braised with Back Forty Truck Stop Honey Brown Ale, served over creamed Grit Girl stone-ground grits

TIRAMISU CHEESECAKE

Strange Brew coffee-crusted cheesecake topped with sorghum molasses custard sauce and Strange Brew chocolate-covered espresso beans


RABBIT GRILLADES

Yields 8 servings; prep 1 hour

1 pound bacon, large cubed
2 cups celery, small diced
3 onions, small diced
2 cups bell pepper, small diced
1/2 cup garlic, minced
4 pounds rabbit meat, deboned, large cubed
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs rosemary
1 teaspoon seasoning salt
3 bottles Back Forty Truck Stop Honey Brown Ale
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 32-ounce can tomatoes
1 10-ounce can Rotel tomatoes
4 cups rabbit stock
1 teaspoon fennel seed, ground
Salt & pepper to taste

• In rondeau, render bacon.
• Toss cubed, seasoned rabbit meat with flour and sift out extra flour.
• Place floured rabbit meat in rondeau with bacon to sear. Once brown, stir one time and add the holy trinity (celery, onion, bell pepper), garlic and sweat until vegetables are translucent.
• Add bay leaves, rosemary and seasoning salt. Stir.
• Deglaze with wine, Worcestershire sauce and red wine vinegar.
• Add all other ingredients and slowly braise for three to four hours or until rabbit meat is super tender, stirring every 20 minutes or so.
• Once rabbit is tender and liquid has thickened, serve over creamed grits.


REMOULADE

Yields 4 1/2 cups

24 ounces light mayonnaise
8 ounces Dijon mustard
1/3 cup Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup Louisiana hot sauce
4 lemons, juiced and zested
2 tablespoons garlic powder
2 tablespoons onion powder
1/2 tablespoon dried thyme
3 tablespoons Spanish paprika
2 tablespoons Kosher salt
1 1/2 tablespoons black pepper
1/2 teaspoon red pepper
1 pound Spanish onions, finely diced

• Combine all ingredients and mix thoroughly.


RABBIT STOCK

Yields a 1/2 gallon

2 ounces vegetable or canola oil
4 rabbit carcasses (leftover bones)
1 gallon water
1 onion, cubed
3 celery stalks, halved
1 carrot, large cut
3 bay leaves
1 bunch parsley

• Sear rabbit bones in bottom of sauce pan.
• When brown, deglaze with water, add vegetables and herbs.
• Bring to a boil and let simmer for 1 1/2 hours.

Chef’s note: Clean rabbits and put meat in refrigerator, then start stock. Once stock is on the stove, start preparation of grillades. By the time stock is needed, it is ready. Also, use any fresh herbs you have around the house for extra flavor.


PARMESAN CHEESE GRITS

Yields 8 servings

1 quart heavy cream
1 quart water
2 tablespoons salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
3 cups Grit Girl stone-ground grits
2 tablespoons unsalted butter (Mississippi State University butter if available)
2 cups Parmigiano-Reggiano (or other high-quality Parmesan cheese), shredded

• In sauce pan, bring cream, water and seasonings to a boil. When cream mixture is at a boil, whisk in the grits, cook for one hour. Chef’s Note: If mixture gets too thick add in an ounce of water at a time for desired thickness; grits should be creamy.
• Finish grits with butter and cheese. Serve hot.

Chef’s Extra: If there are any left over grits, pour into shallow pan and refrigerate. Once cooled, cut grits into small 4-ounce shapes (use cookie cutter, ring mold, etc.). You can now fry, grill, or bake the grit cakes to serve with a host of other dishes.