June 14, 2011 / 10:05 AM / 8 years ago

World Chefs: Southerner finds culinary gems in diners

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Travel writer and food critic Morgan Murphy believes to get to the heart of Southern fare and Southern folk in the United States you’ve got to pull off the highway.

Morgan Murphy is seen at the Colonial Pancake House in Hot Springs, Arkansas, 2010. REUTERS/Southern Living Off the Eaten Path/Handout

So the Birmingham, Alabama native hopped in an old Cadillac and tooled 10,000 Southern miles in pursuit of back road diners and out-of-the way dives cooking up regional wonders.

His book “Southern Living Off the Eaten Path,” serves up 150 recipes from 75 of his favorite restaurants, along with amiable dollops of local yarns, country wisdom and roadside curiosities.

Murphy, 39, spoke to Reuters about ferreting out the best of the Southern cuisine in the most out-of-the-way places.

Q: Why did you write this book?

A: “I was travel editor and food critic for Southern Living magazine for eight years. I always wanted to do a book on my favorite restaurants. I’ve eaten at thousands.”

Q: Which interest came first: traveling or food?

A: “Both. Food to me is the way you get to know a place. If you really want to understand a city, you have to eat its local food. You can go to its museums, you can take a walking tour, but when you put their food in your mouth you will understand the history of a place. And you’ll understand the people.

“You saw it in slave culture. Slavery took everything from a people that could be taken but the food. And the food is still with us in Southern culture. You eat red beans and rice in Savannah, (Georgia), for instance, and you are tasting the history of West Africa.”

Q: How would you define Southern cuisine?

A: “Very broadly. We have a confluence of cultures here. You go to Louisiana and it’s French Creole and it’s African. You go to Texas and it’s English and it’s Mexican. You head up to the Carolinas and it’s West African and English. There’s this weird collision of food cultures here. You wouldn’t think in Mississippi you’d find the best tamales outside of Mexico, but you do. Mississippi is a tamale culture.”

Q: Any common thread?

“Tea. From Texas to Delaware there’s hardly a restaurant where you won’t find iced tea. And something fried. We love fried. My mother said if you served a fried dishrag my daddy would eat it.”

Q: What’s your best advice for eating while on the road?

A: “In pulling over for fast food we miss out on the great breadth and depth of our country. I say plan your meals. Stop in town and ask the valet at your hotel or a mechanic or a librarian, ‘Where shall I eat here?’ and locals will tell you. That’s how I find my spots.”

The Aaron Sandwich from the Stardust Cafe, Lewisburg, West Virginia)

This grilled chicken sandwich piles on the pesto and crispy bacon.

1 (6-oz.) skinned and boned chicken breast

1/4 tsp. salt

1/4 tsp. pepper

2 honey-whole wheat bread slices, toasted



3 cooked bacon slices

2 green leaf lettuce leaves

2 tomato slices

Thinly sliced red onion

1. Preheat grill to 350° to 400° (medium-high) heat. Sprinkle both sides of chicken breast with salt and pepper. Grill chicken, covered with grill lid, 4 to 6 minutes on each side or until done. Remove from grill; slice chicken, if desired.

2. Spread desired amount of pesto and mayonnaise on 1 side of each bread slice. Layer 1 bread slice, mayonnaise side up, with grilled chicken, bacon, lettuce, tomato, and onion. Top with remaining bread slice, mayonnaise side down.

Makes 1 serving.

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