Country in the City: Rodeo Bar, NYC

When I made my first visit to New York City in May 2014, I was hoping not just to soak up the atmosphere in this incredibly famous city, but also to experience some other aspects of Americana that are of great interest to me. Southern culture is a key part my fascination with the United States, so it was with great excitement that on my first evening in the US, I headed to the Rodeo Bar, an NYC institution, having been open for 27 years.

I walked onto 3rd Ave and there it was:

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Upon entering, I sat down at the bar and ordered a beer and immediately I found myself in a friendly environment. Within minutes, I was talking about BBQ with a couple from Alabama and chatting to the friendly barmaid. A beer and a bourbon later and I made my way to the back room, where a band was playing covers of songs by the likes of Hank Williams. As I sipped bourbon in a darkly lit room while a country music band played, I could have been in a small town somewhere down South. It was hard to believe I was in the heart of one of the world’s greatest cities. The atmosphere was fantastic and I had one of the best nights of my life.

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Sadly, two months after I visited, Rodeo Bar was no more, having fallen victim to rent increases and changes in the neighbourhood, which left little room for what the New York Times described as ‘Rodeo Bar’s signature mix of country trim, Southern food and an appreciation for banjos plucked without irony’.

Southern Food in Chicago: Coco’s on S. Clark St.

‘Coco’s Famous Deep Fried Lobster’ is a small counter-serve place in the Chicago Loop, where, as the Chicago Tribune puts it, ‘the menu reads like a heartsick Southerner’s homecoming’.

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Coco’s is situated on a particularly unglamorous street and is sandwiched between a pawn shop on one side and a liquor store and a flophouse on the other. Across the street is a United States federal prison facility.

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However, I wasn’t there for the sightseeing and the food more than made up for the uninspiring surroundings. Besides, the restaurant itself was clean and a pleasant place to be. In fact, Coco’s was so good that I ate there twice during my May 2015 trip to Chicago.

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Unlike many fast food places, Coco’s do everything themselves. Their main courses are made to order, not taken from underneath heat lamps, their cornbread is made fresh each morning, and the sides are all made on site. During my visits there, I enjoyed excellent – and large – fried catfish fillets, amazing spicy and juicy fried chicken, intense macaroni and cheese, smoky collard greens cooked with ham hocks, rice and beans, cornbread, hot sauce for dipping, and Southern-style sweet tea to drink.

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If you find yourself in Chicago and you’re craving a taste of the South, head on over to Coco’s. You won’t regret it!

BBQ in the Deep South: Chimneyville Smokehouse

In Britain, ‘barbecue’ usually refers to the grilling of supermarket-bought burgers and sausages over coals in the garden. The results are all too often far from inspiring. As the Daily Mirror notes, ‘traditional barbecues will make you think of blackened food – often raw on the inside and burnt to a crisp on the outside’.[1]

In the South, ‘barbecue’ refers to an altogether different food. Large cuts of meat (in particular pork) are hand seasoned with homemade mixes of dried spices and seasonings, then cooked ‘low and slow’ in a wood smoker until the meat falls off the bone, and either eaten ‘dry’ or ‘wet’ (smothered in house barbecue sauce, the recipes for which are often closely guarded secrets). When done properly, the result is a spicy, tangy, sweet, smoky masterpiece.

In his seminal article ‘The Rhetoric of Barbeque: A Southern Rite and Ritual’, Professor Stephen Smith of the University of Arkansas argued that in the South, ‘in many respects, barbecue is taken as seriously as religion’.[2] Smith is far from alone in this assessement.

In an article on barbecue as the ‘Southern Sacrament’, Roger Mccredie explains:

Barbecue makes up one of the four basic Southern food groups, along with fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, and banana pudding. But unlike the other three, which are merely foods, barbecue is a concept, entire of itself, fleshed out by its very own history, folklore and mores. In that respect, it occupies the same position in Southern culture as moonshine whiskey, over which it has the consumer advantage of being legal: you can walk in and order a plate of barbecue; you don’t have to knock on a strange door or arrange a meeting with somebody you’ve never met who will signal you with a blink of his lights on a dark country road.[3]

James R. Veteto and Edward M. Maclin, in their examination of ‘Smoked Meat and the Anthropology of Food’, write:

Sitting down to a meal of barbecue excites Southern sensibilities like no other foodstuff; it can only be properly understood as a ritual act of cultural continuity and identity formation. Barbecue has been the central component of meals in many areas of the American South at important family, political, and religious gatherings for the past three hundred years.[4]

For this reason, ‘handmade barbecue, the quintessential regional cuisine, has been able not merely to survive but thrive in the South, withstanding the onslaught of fast food and chain theme restaurants’.[5]

So it was that, during my May 2015 Deep South excursion, after a couple of hours exploring Jackson, Mississippi, and a short spell cooling off under the trees in grounds of the State Capitol building, I made my way to Chimneyville Smokehouse for lunch.

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Kris Norton of the Movoto real estate blog states: ‘Once you’ve eaten in Jackson, you’ll never want to leave the South’.[6] Based on my dining experience at Chimneyville Smokehouse, I can see why.

Chimneyville is located in one of the oldest residential areas in Jackson and occupies a building designed to look like a train depot, built as it is on the trackbed of a former railroad line. Eat Jackson describes the Chimneyville building as a ‘Jackson landmark’.[7]

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At Chimneyville, dry-rubbed pork is cooked for 14 hours in a hickory wood smoker before being shredded and smothered in the house barbecue sauce, which itself has spent four hours in the smoker.

For Adam Richman, prolific presenter of food programmes and author of America The Edible, the barbecued pork at Chimneyville is ‘about as perfect as you can cook a piece of pork, in my opinion. Absolutely amazing’.[8]

The South, writes John T. Edge in The Southerner’s Handbook, is ‘the region where farm-to-table eating is a way of life, not a marketing concept’,[9] and the side dishes at Chimneyville reflect this. The sides vary according to the season, as all the vegetables used are fresh from the farm, not packaged, including the beans used to make Chimneyville’s barbecue baked beans, and the vegetables in their coleslaw. Right across the street is the Mississippi Farmers’ Market.

The food was, as expected, absolutely delicious. The spices, the smokiness, and the sweetness of the generous helping of pulled pork were incredible and the sandwich was gone in a very short time. The baked beans were full of flavour, as was the excellent coleslaw. I washed it all down with a huge cup of sweet iced tea.

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The Southern hospitality was also in full effect. The waiting staff came to talk to me, and took a photo for me, then the manager came out to welcome me and have a chat, and when it turned out they had sold out of banana pudding, I was instead given a bowl of Mississippi mud pie on the house.

The Mississippi BBQ Trail website says that a visit to Chimneyville is how to ‘get to know Jackson the right way’,[10] and that was certainly how I felt about the whole experience.

If you ever find yourself in Jackson, make sure you don’t miss out!

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References:

[1] http://www.mirror.co.uk/lifestyle/10-expert-tips-help-you-6253125

[2] Steve Smith (1985) ‘The Rhetoric of Barbeque: A Southern Rite and Ritual’, Studies in Popular Culture Vol. 8, No. 1, p.17.

[3] https://www.capitalatplay.com/southern-sacrament-of-barbecue/

[4] James R. Veteto and Edward M. Maclin (2011) ‘Smoked Meat and the Anthropology of Food: An Introduction’ in idem (eds) The Slaw and the Slow Cooked (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press), pp.8-9.

[5] https://www.capitalatplay.com/southern-sacrament-of-barbecue/

[6] http://www.movoto.com/blog/opinions/moving-to-jackson/

[7] http://eatjackson.com/blog/2012/05/08/up-in-smoke-chimneyville-smokehouse/

[8] http://www.travelchannel.com/shows/man-v-food/video/cooking-slow-low-in-jackson

[9] John T. Edge (2013) ‘Why Southern food matters (so much)’ in The Southerner’s Handbook: A Guide to Living the Good Life (Harper Wave), pp.1-2.

[10] http://www.msbbqtrail.com/msbbqtrailjoints/Chimneyville-Smokehouse_Jackson.html