Atlanta Revisited — Family History and Southern Cuisine

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Fever-Tree Ginger Beer  

I do a fair bit of traveling for my job.  Annual conferences with hundreds to thousands of people scurrying about convention centers, hotel ballrooms and hallways. While my agenda is always first about what I can gain from these professional, topic driven and intensely geeky sessions I plan an alternate agenda to get me out and into the hosting city.

My last visit to Atlanta was 2004.

That year, my Mom and I were immersed in genealogy research on her father’s side of the family. As fortune would have it, that conference brought us to the heart of Georgia and near our family roots — stretching back several generations. As an added enticement, we also had a mystery to solve.

What happened to Gilbreth? He just dropped off the census around 1865 with no death record, just disappeared. Not uncommon after the Civil War, hard to trace as he did not serve in the military and would have been around forty years old in 1860. Family lore said he had some disability and was a school teacher.  Flummoxed and hopeful, Mom did research in the library while I was conferencing. After the conference ended on Friday, we drove to Franklin in the pouring rain.  The water ran in torrents, sheeting the car windows so that the highway striping was hard to see. I have never driven in such rain. Soon we arrived in Franklin and the sun broke through as we parked the car by the river. By previous arrangement we met with the kind Heard County clerks who gave us access to the old records, stacked on metal shelves in a storage room, under flickering florescent lights deep inside the tiny brick courthouse.

If you have ever watched the show “Who Do You Think You Are?” you can imagine our anticipation as we open the records and found familiar family names in historical documents, and yet the disappointment of being no closer to resolving the mystery. It was frustrating to say the least. A clue emerged, perhaps more to come from family cemeteries on the old landholdings. Anxious, but hesitant, we pondered our next steps.  Then, with true, genuine hospitality,  clerk Mary, our new friend said, “I know the family who owns the land!” and quickly picked up the phone to call. “I’ll see if Darryl can take you out there.”  Well, Darryl (who just had his wisdom teeth pulled) agreed to meet us in Glenn the next day and take us to the Lewis cemetery. He confirmed Gilbreth’s brother Edward and family rested there. Our hopes were high.

In the heat of the day (and an unexpected side trip to Alabama, to my chagrin), we finally met at a mini mart off the main highway. Following his little green truck we traveled down a red dirt road, deeply rutted by heavy rains and barely visible through the tall, thick Georgia pines. Suddenly we stopped. “We’ll have to walk in from here,” said Darryl. Walk we did, with hardly a breath of air and humidity unused to. Sweat was pouring off of us in rivers. The road narrowed to a path, tall with weeds, rock and chuckholes until we came to the wrought iron fence and tall family markers in what seemed to be in the middle of nowhere forest, overgrown with vines and brambles.  The gate creaked as we pushed it open and walked into that quiet, sacred space. For Mom, the emotion was palpable as her hands reached to touch the names of family she had only read about,  the notion of family roots and connection that once were words on paper, made real. The kindness of strangers made this possible and we are so thankful, even if we didn’t solve our mystery that day. Southern Hospitality.

Lewis Family Cemetery, Glenn, Georgia

If you’ve read this far, you are probably wondering what on earth has this got to do with food. The meals in the 2004 trip were, I have to say, either very ordinary or downright disappointing. I am sure it was lack of research resulting in poor choices on my part at the time, but the memory made me wary of what I would find in 2012. After all, there is still Hooters and the Hard Rock Cafe in the heart of downtown Atlanta, drawing in the crowds. Incredibly.

With a multitude of blogs, food review sites, restaurant rankings as reference, my experience couldn’t have been more different. My adventures took me on a train ride to Decatur, discoveries a short walk from the downtown hotel and a very interesting taxi ride to an event held at the Goat Farm Art Center (that story will take it’s own post.)  An active and vibrant culinary community reinventing “new southern” is taking hold in Atlanta!

First stop of note is Cakes and Ale in Decatur, a destination as part of the conference’s Pub and Grub Crawl. My dining companions and I rode the MARTA from Atlanta to Decatur.  I had chosen this restaurant based on the chef’s credentials (California Culinary Academy, Chez Panisse, and The Martini House in Napa) and was not disappointed.  The delicious menu changes frequently based on seasonal, local ingredients and the chef’s creative direction. We ordered several items and shared them small plate style with a selection of wines and beverages from the tasteful beverage list. I discovered Fever-Tree Ginger Beer as an aperitif while waiting at the bar for my dining companions to finish their walk about the square.  Unused to this level of humidity and associated heat, this chill beverage with a pure ginger bite cooled and quenched my thirst from stem to stern. I will be looking for this when I get back home, for sure. Nice to see Bonny Doon Vineyards Syrah made the wine list!

Congenial staff and beautiful plates. I enjoyed a delicious meal with new friends met over creatively crafted fresh ingredients.

A variety of fresh oysters, the selection changes based on freshness and availability and taste

Cold Cucumber Soup with Greek Yogurt

Roasted Beets and Zucchini Salad
Samplings  — Pulled Pork and Green Polenta, Pasta, and Fire Roasted Duck Leg

Traveling to different regions of the country at different times of the year opens up an expanse of flavors, customs and tastes. An opportunity to challenge our old impressions and open us up to new experiences.  But you have to do your homework to seek out the extraordinary and not fall in the chain food trap of convenience. An awareness dawns on me about how we are shaped by our climates and local surrounds. The best of cookbooks, blogs and magazine seek to capture that essence of the local and culture. Is there nothing better than tasting your way as you travel?

Links

Cakes and Ale,  Decatur, Georgia

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2 Responses to Atlanta Revisited — Family History and Southern Cuisine

  1. Bentobird says:

    This post was a feast, Robin! Wonderful writing (I cannot wait to learn more about your family mystery), and the avidity and inspired geekiness of your passion for food is a joy to behold. By geekiness, I mean learned, even passionate enthusiasm–is there anything better?

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