How far will you drive for a favorite food item or a meal?
My answer is easy: 112 miles. That’s exactly how far I live from New Orleans. I grew up eating in and around the Crescent City. My mother took my brother and me there, often. Her main haunts in those days were Galitoire’s, the Acme Oyster Bar, Commander’s Palace, and— in later years— Mr. B’s, which was her pre-theatre restaurant of choice.
In 1987, after I opened our first restaurant, I began traveling to New Orleans and eating around the city for different reasons. I became a chef by default after we fired the opening chef at the Purple Parrot Café on opening night. With zero experience in a professional kitchen, I was thrown into the fire and did the best that I could. On Sundays, my girlfriend (she’s my wife now) and I would go to New Orleans and eat around town. I would gather ideas for menu items and talk to chefs. Then I would come back to the Purple Parrot Café and replicate those dishes. Eventually, I began creating dishes of my own.
In the mid to late 1990s I began traveling to New Orleans, partially for research and development, but mostly for pleasure. I have no problem driving down for a meal and driving home. It takes me about an hour and a half from the front door of my home to most of the restaurants we frequent throughout the city. That’s no more mileage than a culinary road-trip commute into the city of New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago from a suburbanite in one of those areas.
This Father’s Day my wife asked what I would like to do to celebrate the occasion, and— without hesitation— I said that I’d like to have a Sam sandwich from Stein’s Deli on Magazine Street in New Orleans. She didn’t bat an eye. That’s been business as usual for the past 28 years. Additionally, my two kids didn’t think anything was out-of-the-ordinary about driving an hour and a half to eat a sandwich, and then turning around and driving home. I like that.
At lunch a few hours later, my son looked up to me and said, “Dad, this sandwich is worth the drive.” He was right.
The Sam is a true New York deli-style sandwich of pastrami, Swiss cheese, Cole slaw, and Russian dressing on seeded rye bread. It is truly one of the greatest sandwiches on the planet. It is worth a 90-minute drive.
My friends in the Mississippi Delta don’t think anything is unusual about driving an hour to eat dinner. Actually, it’s one of the things that endears me to that part of the state. They enjoy dinner— and the company and conversation— enough to drive from Greenwood to Clarksdale and believe that such a practice is standard operating procedure.
The people I know on the Mississippi Gulf Coast are different. It seems to be more territorial down there. People in Bay St. Louis or Pass Christian don’t regularly drive to Ocean Springs to eat dinner. The same goes for people in Ocean Springs or Biloxi heading west. Some might argue that the food in their current town is good enough. That may be true, but people on the Coast are more territorial. Those of us north of Interstate 10 might look at the Mississippi Gulf Coast as one contiguous coastal town, but don’t try to make that argument with a citizen of Gulfport about his or her town being the same as Biloxi.
I have made that mistake. I have also mistakenly referred to Greenville when I was speaking of Greenwood and vice versa. It doesn’t play well either, but the Delta folks don’t seem to be as rabid about it as my Coast friends. Maybe therein lies the reason they will drive a long way to eat a meal.
Personally, I grew up eating on the Gulf Coast almost as much as I ate in New Orleans. It is one of the most unique areas of the state. Ocean Springs would certainly be in the running for the coolest, quaintest town in the entire state. Two weeks ago my wife and I drove to Ocean Springs with our son and a few of his friends to eat his birthday dinner at Tom’s Extreme Pizza, an excellent pizza joint, and another instance in which we didn’t think twice about driving 80 miles, eating a meal, and driving back home.
Luckily I live in a town filled with great restaurants so I don’t have to travel far on a daily basis. But when that yearning hits, 112 miles is my number. What’s your number? How far will you drive to eat a single meal or food item? Tweet your reply to @robertstjohn.com #whatsyournumber?
1 lb. Lentils
1/2 gallon Chicken stock
1 TB + 1 tsp Kosher salt
1/4 cup Extra virgin olive oil
1 TB Fresh garlic, minced
1 cup Carrot, finely diced
Place dry lentils in a mesh strainer. Rinse under cold water for 2 minutes.
In a 3-quart stock pot over very low heat, combine rinsed lentils, stock and salt. Continue cooking over very low heat, stirring occasionally, until lentils are tender, but not mushy, about 30-45 minutes. Drain and spread out on a baking pan at room temperature. Discard any excess liquid.
In a large skillet, heat the oil over low heat. Add garlic and carrots and cook for 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the cooked lentils and stir frequently just until they are hot, about 3-5 minutes. Serve immediately. Finish each portion with extra virgin olive oil as desired.
Yield: 6-8 servings