The South Rises Again
In my dreams, I wake up every morning to freshly made biscuits, angel-light with leaf lard, fork-split and thickly buttered on one side, filled with a prosciutto-thin slice of savory country ham.
Boston, at long last, has a restaurant that knows the subtle dreaminess of good southern cooking: Hungry Mother, whose chef and co-owner, Barry Maiden, grew up in Marion, Virginia, near Hungry Mother State Park. That park’s picture and a wallpaper of pages from Mastering the Art of French Cooking and The Virginia Housewife announce Hungry Mother’s dual southern and French allegiances. Combined with the earnest, just-out-of-grad-school look of the other co-owners—John Kessen, Rachel Miller Munzer, and Alon Munzer— the restaurant has the feel of a thesis project. But the quality and assurance of the food attest to the professional experience of all four owners. And they’ve already given me a new breakfast dream: corn sticks hot out of the cast-iron pan with a blackened, buttery crust and a tender, moist center, slathered
with butter and sorghum syrup—the juice of sorghum cane boiled down till it’s amber and slightly smoky.
I have other dreams as well, chiefly centered on deviled eggs and shrimp and grits. Both dishes exemplify the high bar for technique and ingredients that can make preparing southern food a lot harder than it looks. Sure, deviled eggs can be a snap—until you try to make them taste as good as Maiden’s. First, find very fresh farm eggs. Figure out how to boil them so you can peel off the shell (never easy with fresh eggs) and keep the white pristine. Mash the yolk not with a fork but through a fine-mesh sieve, and lighten it not with Hellmann’s but with lemony homemade mayonnaise. Season with paprika and Dijon mustard, and add a few drops of juice from bread-and-butter pickles for just the right sweet-and-sour touch. Garnish with crisp little sticks of bacon cured with brown sugar and smoked over hickory and apple wood, not too salty and not too sweet. Tired yet? You can see why Maiden told me, "We ought to charge $10 for those eggs, not $4."
You won’t find fried chicken, sugary yellow cornbread out of a sheet pan (that’s for Yankees—southern cornbread is white and hardly sweetened), or abundant barbecue on the menu. And the barbecued Berkshire pork ribs ($10) might not conform to your southern expectations: They’re less sloppy than we’re used to up north, where cooks often seem to view southern food in a funhouse mirror. But the quality of the meat and the care in its preparation will win you over, and so will the homemade accoutrements served on the side: those fresh corn sticks and the sweet-and-sour southern relish called chow-chow. Similarly ubiquitous in the South are boiled, rather than roasted, Virginia peanuts ($3). Peanuts are legumes, not tree nuts, and boiling them (for three hours, in Maiden’s recipe—this isn’t a guy who takes shortcuts) brings out their creaminess. Peeling them and popping them is as lulling and addictive as it is with edamame. They make for a perfect bar snack.
Hungry Mother does have a dish almost as emblematic of the South as fried chicken, and it’s the single most successful item on the menu: shrimp and grits ($9), the low-country South Carolina classic. Here, the shrimp actually taste like shrimp, which too few Gulf shrimp do, with sweetness, crunch, and the flavor of the sea. Maiden also makes it easy to get used to grits, which seem like creamy porridge to northerners, by making them with just water, butter, and salt, leaving out the milk (he uses stone-ground white grits, of course). They’re topped with a superior, Creole-style sauce that starts with blackened roux and a homemade stock base spiked with Fisherman’s lager, and gets plenty of red peppers, garlic, onions, Tabasco, Worcestershire, and homemade tasso ham, the Cajun specialty heavy in cayenne and garlic.