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Tom Chaney: Nigh Perfect Food

Of Writers And Their Books: Nigh Perfect Food! Tom reviews Jane and Michael Stern's cookbook -- Southern Country Cooking from The Loveless Cafe' and the Loveless itself, declaring the fried chicken there almost as good as what he himself cooks. This column first appeared 14 September 2008.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: 'So Jesus Found His Missing Years'

By Tom Chaney

Nigh Perfect Food!'

A couple of weeks ago I motored with a friend to Nashville for a noontime appointment. The meeting was slap dab on time and was over in a trice. Both of us were a bit on the hungry side.

For several years I had been aiming to find the Loveless Cafe', and this seemed as good a time as any.

I was introduced to this restaurant by southern writer John Egerton who happened by the Bookstore back in the days when we, too, had a cafe'. As he passed the religion section on his way to wash his hands, John spied a chocolate meringue pie cooling in the kitchen. He was hooked. We became friends based on that tall meringue.

John wrote about the Loveless Cafe' and it set my mouth to watering.

Some years later I came upon a copy of Jane and Michael Stern's Loveless cookbook -- Southern Country Cooking from The Loveless Cafe' [Rutledge Hill Press, 2005]. By the time I thumbed through it I had gained five pounds.

So, on this trip to Nashville I vowed to find the cafe' and give it a try. My friend was game, but of course that was irrelevant since I was driving. Loveless is located on the nether side of downtown -- out Tennessee route 100 after it splits off US 70S and just in sight of the northern terminus of the Natchez Trace.

Now my columns are supposed to be about books, and this one is. But it is also about the source of the book -- an allowed digression.

My friend and I arrived at the cafe' about 2:00 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon -- a good time to have the undivided attention of a gracious server. She took our order for coffee, and during the entire meal the cup never got more than half empty. The coffee was right good. It had some authority, not the usual restaurant blend through which one can read the potter's mark on the bottom of the cup.

But right behind the coffee the excitement began.

What to our wondering eyes should appear, but four luscious biscuits and strawberry jam and sorghum and butter. Like the coffee cup, the biscuit basket never went completely empty. Now, I prefer a thin biscuit, but when faced with a tall biscuit such as we got that day, I am able to improvise. I separate the top and bottom crusts from the middle and have three surfaces for jam rather than two.

The cook had been barbecuing that day, so my friend ordered the chopped pork -- pronouncing it superb!

I was tempted. I rarely meet a pig I don't like, but I went for the jugular.

In my book the supreme test of any restaurant is its fried chicken. I called for the half chicken, thinking as always to take the extra home. As always 'twarn't nothing left -- not even a faint cackle.

I have to say the test was passed with flying colors or, maybe, crumbs. Now I am an authority on the disappointment associated with restaurant produced fried chicken. My most frequent complaints are too much crust and too much time on the steam table. Those chicken chains seem to think that fried chicken is a fast food. It is most decidedly not! At least at its best -- and second best and third best. One of the most comforting disclaimers I find on a menu is the caution that fried chicken may involve a thirty-minute wait.

The Loveless chicken is the best restaurant chicken I have ever eaten -- almost as good as mine own when the Bookstore Cafe' was up and running. I found out why this is so when I ran down the receipt in the cookbook. While not as detailed as my receipt, which takes eleven closely spaced pages, it is identical in every significant respect.

The chicken alone is worth the one hundred plus mile drive from cave country. Throw in the biscuits and sweet stuff and it's enough to hurt yourself.

The Loveless offers an array of vegetables and side dishes. I tried the fried okra and the cucumbers and onions in vinegar marinade. But the other side dishes I saw passing by looked delicious as well. Little specks of ham peeked out from amongst the green beans, and I think they know what to do with bacon grease.

Now, the desserts have earned a fine reputation. But my friend and I never got that far, what with the sorghum and biscuits and butter.

I do not quibble with the food, but I do raise a quibble or two with the receipts in the book. They make red-eye gravy with coffee. That probably comes from using Tennessee hams rather than Kentucky ones. We can forgive the choice of hams on patriotic grounds, but coffee?

The ham trouble, however, is larger than the Loveless. Combine the meat packers' demand for skinny, 170 pound hogs with the government's outlawing hams cured in the old-time smoke house on the farm, and one is left with not enough ham fat to make decent red-eye gravy.

My other quibble is that I was unable to find a biscuit receipt in the book. I fear that arises from an excessive desire for secrecy. I spose the only cure for that is either the 120 mile drive for lunch or kidnapping the biscuit cook and bringing her across the state line at risk of hard time in jail -- but the biscuit cook also makes the jam.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2013-09-15 03:42:35
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