A Fresh Taste of the Old South

Husk exterior

So, I had a chance to eat at one of the hippest, coolest restaurants in Nashville recently and guess what: The food they served was all stuff our great grandparents would have recognized and appreciated – especially since all of it comes from the Southeast and much of it comes from the garden out back.

The restaurant is called Husk and the Nashville location, Chef Sean Brock’s second, opened earlier this summer to rave reviews. Not being a food critic, I can’t do justice to the subtle details, but I have to tell you that the brunch I had there was among the best meals I’ve ever eaten.

For some of the vegetables, "local" means right here.

For some of the vegetables, “local” means right here.

We started off with some biscuits that could have been a meal by themselves. I followed that with catfish that had been grilled over hickory embers and served over cabbage with tomato corn meal gravy. Let me tell you, if I were a catfish, I’d want to go out just like that.

My son, Jimmy, got a smoked, aged-beef cheeseburger that was served on a fresh-baked roll, with the cheese provided from a local creamery. Mary had a coddled egg from a local farm, while some others in our group had French toast prepared with homemade bread. Our brunch was followed by dessert, which we polished off quickly, despite insisting only minutes before that we couldn’t eat another bite.

In the spirit of full disclosure, my sister-in-law, Lisa Donovan, is the pastry chef at Husk, so I knew we were in for a treat. For years, Lisa has resurrected and perfected her old family recipes — including a phenomenal buttermilk pie — and at least part of the extra weight I carry around these days is her doing.

What really impressed me about Husk (in addition to the great meal, of course) is the mindset that inspired it. Brock, a native of rural Virginia, grew up eating and canning food from his family’s garden. He obviously appreciates his heritage because he’s spent years researching and locating indigenous foods that predate the Civil War. In fact, he plainly states in his official bio that, “If it ain’t Southern, it ain’t walking in the door.”

And it’s very clear that he knows exactly what’s walking in that door. The servers don’t waste a lot of time talking about complex cooking processes or exotic ingredients, but they will tell you in great detail about the farm or dairy where their food comes from and about the people who provide it.

Another catfish could save my life tomorrow and this one would still be my favorite.

Another catfish could save my life tomorrow and this one would still be my favorite.

According to Lisa, this presents a couple of unique challenges to the chefs. Serving only things that are fresh and in season means that the menu is constantly changing. Because they are working with familiar recipes and ingredients, they have to bring their “A game” every day.

It’s one thing to serve some obscure dish that no one has ever had before. People will judge the dish based on the chef’s interpretation. But, as Lisa says, “If you put something as simple as an apple pie on the menu, it had better be the best apple pie anyone has ever tasted.”

This is refreshing to me because most of us from the rural South are only a generation or two removed from people who lived almost entirely off the land.  They ate what they grew, raised, caught or killed. They passed down recipes that were based on sometimes hundreds of years of trial and error. It’s a shame that so much of that wisdom has now been lost to time.

Granted, processing food has made it easier to distribute it more widely, and we’ve all benefited in some ways from modern sterilization and packaging methods. However, we’ve paid a price in terms of freshness and taste. It’s good to see those qualities making a comeback now.

Fortunately, Husk isn’t the only restaurant that’s returning to its roots. The farm-to-table trend is catching on and people everywhere are taking a greater interest in where their meals are coming from.

For those of us who hunt, fish, garden and gather our food, it means we’re suddenly part of the avant-garde of fine dining, at least where the rest of the world is concerned. The way I see it, though, Southerners and outdoors folks always have been.






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