Paul Fehribach had me at circa — as in "Old Virginia fried steak, circa 1824." The Southern menu at Big Jones, Fehribach’s restaurant in Chicago, includes a few modern standards like pimento cheese and shrimp and grits but also many rarities inspired directly from period cookbooks and texts. The "steak" (technically veal from pastured calves) was based on a recipe plucked from Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife, published in 1824. Pounded and breaded, it splayed across the plate resembling a three-dimensional map of a small country with ragged borders. Hills of creamed barley and lakes of sherry-scented onion gravy dotted its knobbly topography. Scattered tufts of shredded scallions deflected some of the richness. Really, though, richness was the point.
The whole thing came off like country-fried steak’s genteel grandpappy, exactly as Fehribach intended. He’d been frustrated by his initial attempts at bending today’s country-fried steak to his will: He wanted an elegant sirloin cooked to hot pink; his customers clamored for the thin, crisped, cooked-to-hell hubcap popular across the Cotton Belt. The delicate cutlets detailed in Randolph’s book became a happy compromise, satisfying Fehribach’s proclivities as both a chef and historian.
Other Big Jones standouts ("Savannah Fish Fry, circa 1910," "Potted Guinea Hen, circa 1840," "Chicken and Dumplings, circa 1920") come with similar back stories. It was Fehribach’s historical approach to the cooking that persuaded me to break a pattern: As a Southerner, I’ve rarely dined in Southern restaurants outside the region. I’ve sidestepped celebrated places like Boston’s Hungry Mother, where Virginia native Barry Maiden serves deviled crab and angel food cake with peach-bourbon caramel, or LA’s Hart and the Hunter, which reportedly turn out biscuits light enough to levitate. My thinking went: Why devote stomach space to foods I can find back home? If I resided in Milan, would I travel to New York to eat osso buco and saffron risotto?
But at Big Jones, I found immortal Southern dishes rarely prepared these days in my own region’s ambitious restaurants. In the South, including in its dining culture, a tension has long existed between romanticizing the past and forging the future. The region's thinking chefs grapple with the contradictions meaningfully. Through our thick and often ugly history, our cooks of many races produced America’s most distinctive cuisine. The first successful English settlement established itself in what became Jamestown, Virginia in 1604; we have the country’s longest chronicled culinary legacies. And the kitchens of yore produced place-specific creations that are wholly delectable and adaptable: the Colonial cornmeal souffle of sorts called spoonbread, for example. Or the bacony fish muddle known as pine bark stew. Or the myriad coastal rice dishes. Or trifles boozy with fortified wines for dessert. (And that’s only a starting rundown.) It’s a home-cooking lineage worthy of reclamation and celebration in our restaurants.
Beyond New Orleans, where centuries of Creole and Cajun cultures continually influence the food, only a couple of high-profile chefs in the South notably enlace the past and the present in their cooking. At Charleston's Hominy Grill, Robert Stehling prides himself on Lowcountry throwbacks like shrimp bog (a jambalaya-like mix of rice, sausage, seafood, and vegetables) but also throws in zingers like pimento cheese layered with fried onions on a pretzel roll. Sean Brock famously became an heirloom seed preservationist as his career evolved. At his Husk restaurants, old and new ideas intermingle effortlessly: Rice griddle cakes might begin a meal featuring ham braised in Cheerwine soda or pork loin embellished with ramp sauerkraut.
Couldn’t a few more chefs draw more closely on the South’s vast and wondrous culinary repertoire?
In Atlanta, where I live, the most accomplished Southern-leaning chefs lean toward looking forward. They may collect antique cookbooks and rotate a classic coastal dish or two through their menus, but their visions of Southern food are modern. Stephen Satterfield at Miller Union, for example, combines braised rabbit with sugar snap peas and oyster mushrooms; a dash of rhubarb chutney on the side adds an extra, heady dash of springtime. At Restaurant Eugene, Linton Hopkins introduces foie gras to creamed hominy and fermented collard greens. These plates may not have colloquial names like "hoppin’ John" and "reezy peezy," but they certainly taste of the South.
These chefs sing contemporary hymns to the region, and that’s commendable. It speaks to the creative liberation that restaurant kitchens have experienced in the last few decades. Southern foods, like cooking traditions all over the world, continually progress. And yet. Couldn’t a few more chefs (particularly outside of Louisiana) draw more closely on the South’s vast and wondrous culinary repertoire? Could the "receipts" detailed in those old tomes appeal to today’s educated palates? Could they be presented in ways that didn’t evoke a Colonial Williamsburg reenactment?
Sitting at a table in the front window of Big Jones, breaking off pieces of cakey Sally Lunn bread and swiping them through the sherry-laced gravy, I saw that perhaps an outsider with some distance and impassioned interest might more easily curate the South’s culinary legacy. Fehribach grew up around the wooded terrain of Jasper, Indiana, less than 75 miles from Louisville. His family served fried chicken at gatherings; biscuits and homemade jams were typical at meals. Fehribach was an early history buff. As an adult cook, a trip to New Orleans sparked his curiosity about Southern food. Subsequent research showed him that the vegetable-dependent cooking of the Appalachian highlands didn’t overly differ from the foods of his childhood.
In The Big Jones Cookbook, engrossing and just-published, Fehribach writes:
I stuck with Southern food because once I fell for it, I delved deeper and deeper into its many regional variations, traditions, and the rich tapestry that is its history and the foundation of its future … During my culinary upbringing, I was taught to revere the French, idolize the Chinese, and give great respect to Italian, Continental, and eventually Mexican cooking. Yet here was our own homegrown cuisine, emerging in my mind as on par with all, yet completely unappreciated and underserved, at least in Chicago.
Of course, Chicago served as a beacon city during the Great Migration of African-Americans away from the South last century. Until recently, though, when modernized Southern cooking became a national darling, much of food traditions brought by those generations of newcomers remained isolated to soul food cafeterias on Chicago’s South Side. Part of the motivation behind Fehribach’s researched approach is to acknowledge the many diverse hands that have made Southern food the glory that it is.
All this can be a lot to bring to the dinner table. Time for a drink, maybe? How about a licorice-tinged Sazerac, or perhaps some "Milk Punch circa 1721," woozy-sweet with Cognac, rum, whey, lemon, and sugar and finished with grated nutmeg? Such cocktails make a gracious start to a meal in Big Jones’s long, narrow dining room, lined with handsome woods and old-timey wallpaper with white and lime-green swirls. Order coush coush, spheres of fried cornbread glazed with honey and served with vinegary pepper sauce, to stave off hunger while looking over the rest of the options.
In an age of charcuterie ubiquity, Fehribach’s efforts with Louisiana standards like slow-smoked andouille and silky tasso ham nonetheless stood out. Extra props to the rustic, cobbled texture of his potted guinea hen, nicely offset by a swipe of quince ketchup. The andouille showed up beside chicken in a gumbo whose roux was so chocolate-brown and smoky that even a Cajun chef like Donald Link would likely nod with approval. Fehribach’s long-simmering fascination with New Orleans surfaced again at dessert time with an admirable rendition of calas, Creole sourdough rice fritters once sold by vendors on the streets around the French Quarter.
To be clear, not every aspect of Fehribach’s menu glares into the murky past. A Lowcountry soft-shell crab special came with a risotto-like perlau dyed emerald from ramp greens and a mound of Sea Island red peas (a South Carolina legume lately popular again with Southern chefs) with a pat of butter atop melting slowly and sweetly. The novel-seeming collard sandwich, glossed with melty cheddar and homemade mayo between layers of moist slabs of cornbread, takes its cues from a concoction favored by the Lumbee Indians in North Carolina.
Fried chicken bubbles in a combination of lard, ham drippings, and clarified butter
Fehribach credits reading The Taste of Country Cooking — written by Southern doyenne Edna Lewis — with deepening his approach to the food at Big Jones. Lewis served as muse for the restaurant’s clamored-after fried chicken. It bubbles in a combination of lard, ham drippings, and clarified butter. A similar mixture gives the famous fried chicken at Watershed in Atlanta its distinctive porky savor; Lewis developed the recipe with her protégé Scott Peacock, who was the chef at Watershed for a decade. Fehribach’s take tastes entirely different from theirs (he throws cornmeal into the coating, for starters), but it’s a delicious testament to how cooks can riff on similar recipes to make something uniquely their own.
The cooking at brunch — Edna Lewis’s popovers, an unblemished Creole omelet with crawfish and cream cheese, comforting spoonbread cooked in bacon fat per an old recipe from Charleston — left me equally contented. Having scanned the menu online, I knew before arriving that I’d be ordering "Eugene’s breakfast in Mobile, circa 1930." Fehribach conceived the sustaining heap of fried catfish, brown rice, black beans, plantains, and green tomato relish as an homage to raconteur and Alabama native Eugene Walter, who wrote American Cooking: Southern Style for the Time-Life Foods of the World series. Walter, who died in 1998, was also a culinary historian who penned the joys of bourbon cocktails 20 years before the recent revival and studied 19th-century recipes full of spices like fenugreek that arrived via Mobile’s lively port trade. If Walter had known of Fehribach's endeavors and tasted his context-rich cooking, I've no doubt he would have embraced him as a rightfully adopted son of the South.
Cost: Southern breads $5-$6, snacks and appetizers $7-$11, sandwiches $12-$15, entrees $14-$25, desserts $9-10.
Sample dishes: Popular favorites like fried chicken and pimento cheese are indeed wonderful, but be sure to look beyond the familiar to try Paul Fehribach's renditions of historic Southern recipes. Some standouts include eggy Sally Lunn bread, charcuterie selections like potted guinea hen, chicken and dumplings, fried steak with sherry cream gravy, and calas (Creole rice fritters served with vanilla bean ice cream).
What to drink: Per its Southern leanings, the bar stocks a wealth of bourbon and rye whisky. Historic cocktails like Sazerac and milk punch pair naturally with the meal. Craft beer lovers will find plenty of local options as well.