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The French Connection

Southern cooks know how to make something out of nothing -- like frogs' legs.

Last year, I did a three-minute radio piece on my deep and abiding love for barbecue. I'd been asked to do it by Jay Allison, who was producing a show for NPR called This I Believe — a resurrection of a project originally started by Edward R. Murrow in the 1950s, which asked people to crystallize the beliefs that define and border their lives. Everyone was welcome to have their say and, both in the '50s and today, many people did. My little ode to slow-smoked pork took its place alongside pieces written by nurses, presidents, housewives, scientists and teachers.

Funny thing was, after my essay aired, I got a few e-mails from folks who wanted to use it — in whole or in part — in a variety of ways. There was a preacher who wanted to work it into a sermon on belief in the Almighty (which I, as an agnostic, thought hilarious). Another guy tried to sell "I Believe in BBQ" T-shirts (without my permission, but I didn't mind). And a couple of different people said they wanted to use it as a teaching tool about Southern culture and foodways. Invariably, their messages would start out asking where in the South I hailed from, who my family was, and what, exactly, I was doing all the way out in Denver.

I think they were disappointed when I told them I was a Yankee (bad enough) originally from New York (even worse). And I know it bothered them to learn that my time in the South was both brief and scattershot — a year in the very ripe hell of central Florida, a few days in the Carolinas, a few more in Georgia and Alabama, Memphis one year, an afternoon in Kentucky years later. They wondered how I'd come by my tastes, my language — which I've been told can sometimes have the rhythms and slurred cadence of a besotted Southern gentleman wistfully discussing the ponies and his squandered inheritance — and my appreciation for Southern culture, in particular that part of it having to do with the consumption of hogs.

By eating, I told them, and by my close association with the French — which was usually enough to end most conversations, toot sweet.

For those who stuck around long enough for me to elucidate, I would explain my ideas of the proximity between French cuisine and the varied grubbin' done south of the Mason-Dixon. Soul food, Southern food, American low-country cooking, obviously Cajun and Creole, all the odd little regional cuisines of the backwoods, the bottoms and the shore — each had its own similarity to the poverty-stricken, podunk cuisine that all of haute French grew out of and wants desperately, in its best expression, to get back to.

"Tell me what you eat and I'll tell you who you are." It was Brillat-Savarin who said that (or something close to it), and he was right. Eating, I would tell people who questioned my tenuous connections to the Southern tradition, is the best, fastest way to get to know a place and its people. No one can lie in their appetites, in their deepest wants and needs. And to me, nothing is quite so telling as walking into a joint so out of place in terms of geography and culture — be it a soul food restaurant in Denver or a Thai food stand in Burbank or a French brasserie in Altoona — and tasting for myself what its owner and its cooks have chosen to bring with them whence they came.

I discuss the French connection to Alabama soul food in this week's review of Priscilla Smith'scombination restaurant/catering operation, Cora Faye's Cafe (see review), and the draw of the deeply Southern barbecue at Yazoo BBQ in Second Helping (page 62). But perhaps unsurprisingly, oxtails and sweet tea, fried chicken, greens, potato salad, pork sandwiches and a rack of ribs weren't quite enough to cosh my own appetites last week, when the temperatures seemed stuck in the 100s, and I wanted nothing so much as the comforts of a cuisine designed for hot, sticky, slow afternoons in the sun.

Which is how I ended up waiting in the foyer of the McKinley Mansion (950 Logan Street) last Friday afternoon, sweating though my shirt and waiting on an order of fried tilapia, green beans and potatoes, cornbread, lemon cream-cheese pie and a tall traveler full of iced lemonade.

In my review of Cora Faye's, I said I didn't like anything that comes crusted in cornmeal — but I wrote that before I had the pleasure of the tilapia fillets as done by Slayton and Corine Evans at their eponymous "restaurant" Slayton & Corine's. The fish was amazing — spongy, soft, full of flavor, crisp on the outside, steaming and juicy inside and so fresh from the fryers that I burned my fingers picking at it. Apparently, I disliked cornmeal crusts just because I hadn't ever had anything done well in cornmeal. Now I have, and I am a changed man.

Slayton & Corine's opened last year on the first floor of this beautiful Capitol Hill mansion. It isn't really a restaurant, because there are no tables, no waitresses, no dining room or counter. The closest thing I can compare it to is a house restaurant — like Mama's House, the secret Ghanaian restaurant once run out of an apartment in Aurora ("Mama's House," January 5, 2006). Here, there's just a door that opens onto what was probably once a sitting room. Orders are taken over the phone or in person (but over the phone works better) and passed back to a small kitchen where everything is cooked. All the boxing and bagging and assembly goes on in the sitting room, atop one large, round table, and is then handed off — either to a delivery driver or to whomever has come to pick up the grub.

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