road trips are just the best.
I realize not everybody feels this way, so allow me to state my case. Perhaps one of the most wonderful things about living in this vast expanse of land called the United States is that we have thousands of miles of fabulously beautiful country to explore. Plus, we all know the old adage, "life is a journey, not a destination." Sometimes if we take our time with the journey, we'll find all sorts of unexpected destinations along the way.
So Obe and I love road trips and our favorite place to drive to, lately, is New Orleans. Admittedly, in the 1,400+ miles between Denver and New Orleans there is a whole lot of, well, nothin'. For two days. From the seemingly endless, flat fields of east Colorado all the way through Kansas to the miles of swampy highway through Louisiana, it's easy to conclude that there's nothing to see.
But of course, there are tons of places to see in between and we learn something new each time we make the trip. We learned that driving all the way to Nashville in a torrential, multi-state downpour will slow you down enough to miss dinner in music city, altogether, despite leaving Denver at 4:30 in the morning (womp womp). After crashing in Nashville for the night but not getting to spend any time there at all (which made me sad, because Nashville is wonderful), we hit the road and drove all the way back across the breathtakingly beautiful, lush landscape of Tennessee down through northern Mississippi to finally stumble upon the green, wooded, tucked-away little town where Ole Miss and the Southern Foodways Alliance happen to be. And we learned that it's a lovely little place.
Obe and I found the Southern Foodways Alliance website when we were looking for information about some of the great ingredients that go into Louisiana cooking. It is a veritable treasure trove of information about food culture across the South, packed with oral histories, recipes, short films and interviews with Southern cooks, and so much more. It's kind of my favorite place on the internet (one of them, anyway). So when we realized they were located right on the way to New Orleans from Nashville, we knew we had to stop and say hello.
The timing could have been better, we discovered, as we pulled up to campus and saw that clearly it was graduation day and the place was swarming with kids in cap and gown and proud parents and here we were like, "Hey, can you talk to us about food?!" But still, the kind folks at the foodways office took some time out of their extremely hectic-looking afternoon to sit for a spell and have a chat with us. We were grateful.
We talked about the unique food cultures of the South, and were shown a map of the areas they cover. We spoke about some of the efforts they're making to give voice to all the people out there who are maintaining some very old, and sometimes pretty weird, food traditions and doing amazing, delicious work in restaurants, farms and everything in between. We talked about restaurants and food in New Orleans and perhaps most importantly, we talked about Middendorf's.
Just before you cross Lake Maurepas, as you drive south on I-55 to get to New Orleans, there's a very old and very special restaurant called Middendorf's (in the South, they swallow up all those d's and it gets pronounced more or less like min-dorf's) in a tiny town called Manchac. We were told that the original owner, Josie Middendorf, was credited with inventing "thin fish" and that we had to get some. Made with catfish, the flesh is cut very, very thin and then breaded and fried. The result is a crispy, crunchy "fish chip" for which the restaurant has become best known.
So now we had a mission. By the time we left Ole Miss, we calculated that we had exactly enough time to get to the restaurant about half an hour before they closed, so we knew we were cutting it close but we were determined and hungry. Once we got to Manchac it was dark and absolutely pouring rain and we had been eating road food for two solid days and we were exceedingly enthusiastic about putting some gumbo and thin fish and shrimp in our faces. It might have been the exhaustion, or the thrill of finally arriving super close to our final destination, or the spirit of Josie and her restaurant taking us over, but either way, the meal tasted amazing.
I have a full-blown obsession when it comes to gumbo, so I ordered it almost everywhere we went in New Orleans. This one, being my first bowl of the trip, tasted pretty great although I can't say it was the best (I'll tell you where the best gumbo I had in New Orleans was in a soon-to-be-posted blog. Oh, the suspense!). Nevertheless I found it deepy satisfying in my state of hunger and excitement and this was just our first course. Did I mention how much I adore the soft, pillowy, ultra-refined bread of the south? It's everywhere and in abundance. And there's always room-temperature butter to be found.
But we were here for thin fish and thin fish we ate. Along with more bread (always more bread), hushpuppies, cole slaw, and a big plate of Louisiana BBQ shrimp - another dish that I can rarely resist ordering from any New Orleans menu. The thin fish was crispy with a sturdy cornmeal crust coating that famously slender slice of catfish. The shrimp were plump and drenched in sweet barbecue and butter. I liked them best of all, but I am a true lover of shrimp. Random fact: in my teen years as a vegetarian slash pescatarian, sometimes shrimp was the only pesc I ate. You might've called me a shrimpatarian. But I digress, the food was all so good and I feel a little bit like letting out a deep, wistful sigh as I gaze at that picture of our meal. These are just a few of the things that make Middendorf's such a special place.
Our trip was off to a great start. And we hadn't even arrived at our destination, yet.