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This article by Jamie Saxon was prepared for the May 7, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Southern Cookin’ Comes North
My first taste of real Southern cooking was in 1989,
when I — a Connecticut native and granddaughter of a member of
the DAR — went to Tennessee to meet my future in-laws. They live
on a farm in a small town called Dickson, 40 miles west of Nashville,
where the Wal-Mart sells ammo. I was taken directly from the airport
to the All You Can Eat Frogs Legs Night at my father-in-law’s Moose
Lodge. I valiantly tried one bite but imagined that little leg kicking
in a murky Tennessee swamp somewhere and could not stomach a second.
The next night I fared much better at Catfish Kitchen, where the only
thing on the menu was catfish served 20 different ways, mostly fried,
and hush puppies.
The third night was a pig roast: The men built a pit at 8 a.m., coffee
in one hand and beer keg within reach of the other, from which they
imbibed all day as they turned that pig, and the women made a pageant
of cornbread, potato salad, cole slaw, and lots of multicolored Jello
fruit salad. That pork barbeque was the best damn thing I ever ate,
went down smoother than butter on a baby’s butt, as they say.
When I left a few days later (and several pounds heavier), my future
mother-in-law, round and sweet as a bowlful of jelly, her cheeks and
hands still dusty with flour from that morning’s breakfast of biscuits
and gravy, squeezed me tight and whispered in my ear, "You shore
are nice fer a Yankee," and then promptly told me I’d have to
shoot a tin can off an upended garbage can with a shotgun before they’d
take me to the airport. Which I did, while the whole family watched.
Fourteen years later, I never cook Southern food for my husband David.
About once a year, he pines, "Why can’t you make me real banana
puddin’?" This is a classic Southern layered dessert made from
vanilla custard, fresh sliced bananas, and Nilla Wafers, the equivalent
of baby food for Southern grownups. David’s grandmother would haul
him two hours to the International Banana Festival in Obion County,
Tennessee, which featured a one-ton vat of banana pudding.
When I told David I was doing a story on the invasion of Southern
cooking up north and that I’d be going to Delta’s, a Southern restaurant
in New Brunswick with banana pudding on the menu, he said quite seriously,
"Now don’t come back without some." When I told him I’d be
going to the new Cracker Barrel, an old time country store and restaurant
chain that was birthed in Lebanon, Tennessee, just a stone’s throw
from his hometown, he said, "Now don’t come back without a Goo-Goo."
That’s a Southern candy shaped like, well, not unlike a cowpie, consisting
of chocolate, marshmallows, and peanuts.
At Delta’s, whose cheery yellow awning flaps brightly
beside the Frog & the Peach on Dennis Street, I found Willie J. Stafford,
known to the staff simply as Chef, tucked away in a teeny, tiny office
lodged deep within the kitchen. Number nine in a family of ten, the
58-year-old Stafford, whose parents and grandparents hail from Macon,
Georgia, was born and raised in Trenton by his seven sisters and grandmother,
who ran a boarding house.
Grandma ruled the kitchen, lording over her old wood stove, cooking
everything from pork chops to upside down cake in the same cast iron
pan, never washing it (ruins the patina) but just wiping it out in
between breakfast and supper. They routinely ate dinner for breakfast:
smothered pork chops, grits, and gravy. Given his choice of chores
— cleaning or cooking — he chose cooking: "If you cook,
you don’t have to clean up," says Stafford with a twinkle in his
eye. But food wasn’t his passion.
Mortuary science was. "I used to bury my money. In high school,
I started reading the obits, then went to the services after school."
His father was a laborer and his mother, who died when he was five,
was a laundress. In high school, Stafford earned extra cash working
in an Italian restaurant on Olden Avenue owned by a friend’s father
who commented, "you’d make a good chef," when he saw how deftly
Stafford prepped the chicken and turkeys and stuffed the peppers and
cabbages for the Sunday dinner crowd.
When Stafford discovered the six-feet-under scene is strictly a family
business, he decided to become a state trooper. Turned down for poor
eyesight, he fell into corrections, running the Yardville Correctional
Center. When the "adult babysitting" got to him, he ran into
a friend who got him involved in catering and convinced him to apply
to the Culinary Institute of America, where he graduated at age 32.
After years as a corporate executive chef in New York for blue chip
companies like Marriott, Philip Morris, and McGraw Hill, he now oversees
a masterful kitchen that churns out close to 400 mouthwatering dinners
a weekend night, putting his own contemporary twist on Southern favorites
and "Southernizing" others.
Sammy cakes — like a crab cake but made from canned salmon —
earn gourmet status when made with the cut-off ends of the Pecan Crusted
Salmon, another featured menu item. Chicken Parmesan, one of the most
popular items on the menu, goes south as Stafford trades tomato sauce
for a BBQ sauce, "more sweet than tangy," and adds pepper
jack, which melts like mozzarella. He offers up catfish fingers and
tartar sauce; duck confit spring rolls made with collard greens and
cabbage and served with a dipping sauce of hoisin, ginger, and pureed
spinach; and thin, crisp sweet potato fries dusted with confectioner’s
sugar. Weekend specials, invented by his multicultural staff, take
on a Caribbean, Creole-Cajun, or Hispanic flavor.
"They don’t teach Southern cooking at CIA, you know," says
Stafford. "CIA teaches you the academics of cooking: the math,
planning, pricing structure, and so on." When he interviewed for
the job at Delta’s, he says, "I cooked what I cook when I’m at
home. I served collard greens, fried catfish, and ham steak in a black
cast iron skillet, with black-eyed peas, candied yams, and macaroni
and cheese on the side."
He pulls out his notes from his Culinary Institute of America days,
yellowed about the edges, pages filled with exquisite, flourish-filled
handwriting and finely detailed sketches that look plucked from the
pages of a Victorian lady’s diary. "I kept these all these years
and still use them as teaching tools." Asked about his beautiful
penmanship, Stafford beams, "Like I said, I grew up with seven
His cost sheets, also handwritten even though a perfectly good computer
sits on his desk, look like the Declaration of Independence, and he
recalls the tax refund check he and his wife received that had to
be co-endorsed. "The bank called and said, `This isn’t a man’s
signature.’ They made me come down and prove it."
At Delta’s, Southern cooking borders on haute cuisine, and the menu
looks worthy of a Michelin star but tastes as down-home comforting
as the food from grandma’s backyard on a hot summer afternoon with
bees buzzing and toddlers rolling in the dirt. Smothered chicken,
baby back ribs slathered with bourbon sauce, and fruit cobblers, all
hot and oozing with juice. Even the pound cake is made by a little
old Southern lady. On the rare occasion he’s having trouble with a
dish, Stafford just asks an older Southern person. "They `know’
Southern cooking," he says. Once when his cobbler "just didn’t
taste like when I was a kid," he had his sister-in-law taste it.
Needs brown sugar, she quipped.
Stafford’s team plows through 25 cases of collard greens
from Friday to Sunday and 30 pounds of Lawry’s seasoned salt a week.
Two ingredients no Southern cook can do without are black pepper and
Lawry’s. "They don’t use black pepper at the CIA, because it shows;
they use white," explains Stafford. His macaroni and cheese, hands-down
the most popular item on the menu, is made the same way his grandmother
made it: noodles cooked first, then seasoned with black pepper and
Lawry’s. "If you can’t eat it [at that point] like a meal, I tell
my cooks, it’s not good enough," roars Stafford. Then the cream
sauce, and only just before serving, the cheese — only extra sharp
cheddar. It’s served in a six-ounce ramekin, which could feed a family
of four in a developing country. "Bangin’," cheers the comment
cards. That means fantastic.
Sitting at the long, polished bar, Delta’s co-owner Joshua Suggs,
32, born in Kansas City but raised in Highland Park, just across the
river from New Brunswick, can still claim Southern roots. As a child,
he spent summers in Kansas with relatives where he was fed okra, corn,
and plenty of smothered chicken. A Rutgers graduate, he was working
as a DJ at Napolitano’s, Delta’s former occupant, when he learned
the owner wanted to sell. The concept of opening a Southern restaurant,
says Suggs, was his wife’s idea.
Suggs met Coretta King on a cruise and proposed to her on another
cruise two years later. King, 31, a California native and recent graduate
of Long Beach State, came up with the concept of what Suggs calls,
"soul food, comfort food. I think our place just oozes soul."
Armed with a small business loan and money from their parents ("My
mom put her house up for collateral," Suggs freely admits), they
revamped the 6,000-square-foot space with a soothing, elegant color
scheme, adding sleek lighting fixtures and creating a lower level
dining area, a balcony dining area, and a private room for parties.
The gorgeous bar backed by an exposed brick wall was already there
but the 10-ounce martinis created by bartender Steve L. James —
Tuesday is "Tini Night" — are new.
Delta’s boasts plenty of regulars, many homesick Southerners who come
from as far as New York, Bergen and Passaic counties, Atlantic City,
and Philadelphia, often with visiting family in tow to enjoy live
R&B Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays; live jazz on Saturdays; and
a gospel brunch the third Sunday of every month.
Essence magazine has held mother-daughter luncheons here and Suggs
has hosted parties for influential New Jersey Democrats including
Senator John Corzine, Secretary of State Regena Thomas (who loves
the whiting, catfish, and pork chops, says Stafford), and Acting Attorney
General Peter Harvey, who has supported the restaurant from the beginning.
Harvey comes in regularly, once or twice a week, for the Southern
cuisine; his favorite menu item is Delta’s Pecan Crusted Salmon.
Thanks to a lead from a former Corzine staffer who moved to Maryland
to become county executive of Prince Georges County, which boasts
the highest African-American per capita income in the country, Suggs
and King have purchased 3-1/2 acres for a second restaurant. Suggs
says the new venue will be 8 to 10,000 square feet, located about
a mile from where the Washington Redskins play. "On game day,
70,000 people come through there."
When I arrive home with the banana pudding, garnished with an edible
orchid and a fresh, fanned-out strawberry, my husband takes one bite
and says "Oh, myyyy. That’s it. We’re there. Perfect."
Open Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, 5 p.m. to midnight; Friday
and Saturday, 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Closed Monday.
Sunday Brunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., with a gospel brunch every third
Sunday. Live jazz Saturdays beginning at 9:30 p.m., no cover.
Perched like a curious anachronism at the entrance to
Hamilton Marketplace on Route 130 north, the new Cracker Barrel is
dwarfed by its "big box" neighbors Lowe’s, BJ’s Wholesale
Club, Wal-Mart, and Kohl’s. However, if you block those out, from
the highway you’d swear you were in South Carolina zooming down a
hot, dusty road, and your eye just caught a little general store with
a porch out front and old-timers seated on wooden rockers playing
a game of checkers.
Nostalgia sets in and you feel a sudden craving for a big country
breakfast, like you had when you drove down I-95 to Florida years
back and the waitress who served you actually liked being a waitress
and when she said, "Hi, sweetie" and "Thank you, ma’am,"
she drew out her vowels like a kid pulling bubble gum from their mouth.
Then your wheels start going and you start thinking about the good
old days when people who worked in stores were polite and you used
your allowance to get all those great candies like Gold Rocks Nuggets
Bubble Gum, Atomic Fireballs, Necco wafers, and Sky Bars — four
squares of chocolate filled with caramel, vanilla cream, peanut butter,
and fudge. Then you start dreaming that your kids would ditch the
Game-Boy and PlayStation and enjoy the toys you loved as a kid. Remember
Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls, Sock Monkeys, kazoos, Lincoln Logs, Tinkertoys,
Curious George, and real porcelain tea sets? And most of all, remember
when all these things, including the pancakes, didn’t cost very much?
At Cracker Barrel in Hamilton there really are old-timers sitting
out front on rockers playing checkers (and the rockers, made for the
chain since its inception by the Hinkle family in Springfield, Tennessee,
are for sale at unbelievably reasonable prices). Inside, authentic
country artifacts, from kitchen utensils to feed signs to horse saddles,
and an old-fashioned check-out counter with open shelves piled high
with glass jars of penny candy create the ambiance of an old country
In the dining room, a stack of three buttermilk pancakes served with
real butter and pure maple syrup (when’s the last time you saw those
on a restaurant table?) and bacon or sausage will only set you back
$6.69, or $3.88 for the kid’s size. Or you can "loosen your belt,"
says the menu, for the Country Boy Breakfast for $7.99 — ham,
pork chops, or steak; three eggs; fried apples; hash brown casserole,
buttermilk biscuits and sawmill gravy, and grits on request.
If you’re not dead after that, you can buy a bona fide 12-inch cast
iron skillet for $14.99 and a buckeye (a giant blob of peanut butter
filling dipped in chocolate to resemble, yes, a buckeye) for 35 cents.
In the store, there’s plenty of cool country stuff like Fiestaware,
wooden toys, a painted wooden butterfly house that looks like a miniature
birdhouse, candles scented like hazelnut cappuccino, and a wicked
adjustable metal rake. And there is painted glassware, if that’s what
blows your skirt up. While the full spectrum of country "taste"
is covered, my impression is that the buyers for Cracker Barrel are
focused on quality goods at very reasonable prices. Many lines are
made exclusively for the store.
It’s a good thing there’s all this stuff because Mike George, retail
manager, says that since they opened at the end of March, they’ve
seen up to two-hour waits for breakfast and lunch on weekends. "We
sold 20 rockers yesterday, and we’ll sell the whole porchful of rockers
on Mother’s Day weekend," he adds.
But why, I wanted to know, would this Southern concept work north
of the Mason-Dixon line? Was it just because, as my husband David
has quipped a number of times, there are rednecks all over, they just
have different accents? It couldn’t be, because I looked up the demographics
on Hamilton Marketplace and the average income within 10 miles is
I called Julie Davis, director of communications of Cracker Barrel,
to see what she had to say about the wildfire success of the company,
established by Shell Oil "jobber" Dan Evins off Interstate
40 near Lebanon, Tennessee, in 1969. Today Cracker Barrel numbers
over 500 locations in 41 states, has been named for 13 years straight
as the best family dining restaurant in Restaurants & Institutions
magazine, and posted net sales of $1.8 billion in fiscal year 2002.
Last year the chain used six percent of the world’s supply of maple
syrup to serve breakfast to over 40,000 people a day.
The company’s move out of its core Southern market started in the
early 1990s. Says Davis: "Our old country store is the same as
the general store in the northeast or the outpost in the midwest —
a gathering place for people where everybody would get to know each
other. Cracker Barrel is known for its genuine hospitality and friendliness.
That will translate anywhere: that’s not specifically a Southern thing."
George, of the Hamilton store, worked at the Yorkville, Pennsylvania,
Cracker Barrel, the first to open up north in 1994. George, a country
boy who grew up on a 180-acre farm in northeast Pennsylvania, confirms
that people come to Cracker Barrel in much the same way people frequented
their local general store in days bygone. He says for the four years
he was in the Mount Holly store (he’s worked in four Cracker Barrel
locations), a Mr. and Mrs. Mitchell came in every day, sometimes twice
a day. "She’d pass out candy to everyone in the store and when
her husband made pumpkin bread, she brought that in, too." The
Mitchells would travel around the country and send George postcards
comparing other Cracker Barrels to the Mt. Holly location.
On a weekday afternoon I sat down in the middle dining room, contemplating
both the huge menu and the wide stone fireplace with a rifle and buck’s
head mounted above the mantel. I suddenly thought about those frogs’
legs at my father-in-law’s Moose Lodge, but I kept an open mind. At
the table behind me, a mother tucked her toddler into a real wooden
booster seat with a real leather strap. No plastic here. At the table
beside me, a waitress stopped, as if she had all the time in the world,
to admire the baby in the photos that a proud grandma was showing
to her friend.
I ordered chicken and dumplin’s, green beans, and turnip greens simmered
in country ham hocks. My meal came in under five minutes with a melt-in-your
mouth corn muffin and buttermilk biscuit, hot and crunchy on the outside,
sweet and soft on the inside. It certainly wasn’t gourmet, and there
wasn’t a garnish in sight, but I was completely unable to save even
one bite to take home to my husband. That food was just — gone.
I’ll be honest. I didn’t really want to like Cracker Barrel. The idea
of it made me feel a little like I felt on my first trip to Tennessee
— like a fish out of water. What did it for me, though, what made
me cross over to the Cracker Barrel side — more than the polite
and friendly and neatly dressed staff (no one in a store has been
that nice to me since the last time I went to Nordstrom’s and all
the men wear a shirt and tie ), more than my bill, which only came
to $7.31 (I love a bargain as much as the next girl) — was that
I was served real butter at room temperature. When a
restaurant has the smarts to serve real butter at room temperature
(nobody can spread those icy pats), I know they’re going the extra
I’m a cheap date but I’m also a purist. I will be back for breakfast
so I can have more real room temperature butter and real maple syrup
on my pancakes. And then I’m buyin’ me a Sky-Bar.
609-581-5462. Open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, 6 a.m.
to 10 p.m., on weekends to 11 p.m., and breakfast is served all day
long. No liquor is allowed.
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