Good looking out
What I saw on my whistle stop tour of Food Section country
Since I still haven’t shaken the habit of checking out every restaurant in the Charleston area, a practice picked up over eight years as food editor and critic for the local paper, the last thing I ate before setting out from Charleston to tour my new beat was a blueberry cake doughnut at the newest location of Hero Doughnuts & Buns.
It was a more prescient choice than I realized at the time. As I chugged from one major Southern city to the next, I realized a pan-Southern sameness is taking over downtowns, courtesy of chains such as Hero, Big Bad Breakfast, Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit and representatives of The Indigo Road brand: I was discouraged when the first two restaurants I saw after leaving the station in Raleigh were Oak and O-Ku, a steakhouse and sushi bar that got their starts in Charleston.
Before I reached Raleigh, though, I had a short layover in Wilson, North Carolina, a town known for barbecue and the fabulous Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park. While there, I bought a hot dog and bag of saltwater taffy at Kreuger’s Candies, the 13-year-old offshoot of a longstanding New Jersey confectionery, where the sweets are made on a clattering circa 1920 red machine.
A Wildwood Boardwalk treat isn’t traditionally Southern by any stretch, although my explorations in seven states confirmed my suspicion that the current deluge of Northerners is going to have a massive influence on food across the map.
Still, Kreuger’s offers idiosyncratic flavors and a personal story, as so many places beyond the metropolises still do. I gave up a great job at The Post and Courier because I wanted to seek them out.
I left not for the opportunity to connect more readers with meaningful eating experiences, although I don’t undervalue that privilege. No, what ultimately persuaded me to switch to Substack was the pandemic and the countless calls it brought from worried diners and petrified employees. I talked to so many people who said they didn’t know who else could help them in the face of a still-mysterious disease shrugged off by uncaring owners.
In most towns, I realized, there was nobody to call.
So I committed to looking out for the welfare of more people in more places, even though it would mean giving up the newsroom for new media. It’s indicative of my comfort on the cutting edge that the first thing I did upon signing on with an emerging media platform was … book a railroad pass.
Touring my new beat by train made sense for several reasons: It would give me a chance to reacquaint myself with food scenes I hadn’t experienced since before the pandemic and connect with people who have expert knowledge of them. Plus, I could talk up the newsletter wherever I went.
After a week or two on the rails, I realized I’d put together a fairly traditional sales trip: I could just as easily have been peddling Bibles or mufflers.
Probably no one asks the muffler guy for a detailed account of his calls, though. Whereas when folks know you’ve spent three weeks on trains, they want to hear all about it.
I’ve put off writing about my time on the train because I’m reluctant to sully anyone’s fantasy with facts. Part of what makes the train so special is how it activates the imagination: When your train pulls into the station, you never know what you’ll see through its windows or who you’ll meet in its seats (and unlike on a plane, if you don’t want to talk to the person next to you, you can excuse yourself to the observation lounge.)
Then I realized I didn’t have to inhibit dreams by rehashing my itinerary. Instead, I could encourage them by providing one incontrovertible recommendation, which is what The Food Section intends to do on a regular basis:
Take the train from New Orleans to Memphis.
That’s the train to take even if you have no reason to be in either city or inclination to disembark in, say, Brookhaven, Mississippi. In fact, it’s even better if you don’t have designs on Brookhaven, since most Southern trains run only once a day: Should you get off to see a town, you’ll be seeing it for 24 hours.
At least, that’s the standard schedule. But the day before I planned to board the City of New Orleans, the train running the route collided with a truck crossing an unguarded stretch of track on its way into the Jackson Motor Speedway, forcing a temporary suspension of service on the line.
When the conductor scanned our tickets in New Orleans, she warned us that the 142 passengers ushered off the train after the crash the previous day would join us in Jackson.
I can’t fathom how airplane travelers would react if told they’d have to share a jet with twice as many people as anticipated. I can guess how they’d fuss if forced to dash through a suddenly vehement rainstorm to claim their seats, as we did after being waved through a boarding door beneath a wonderfully kooky 1950s mural depicting New Orleans history.
By contrast, Amtrak riders in this region generally don’t complain. Nobody much minded getting wet.
In the vicinity of New Orleans, there’s music to repair souls thinned by the pandemic. When you’re southbound on the Crescent, somewhere around Hattiesburg, Mississippi, riders turn up the volume on the gospel songs they’ve chosen as companions. If other travelers take note, it’s to sing or hum along: There’s no barking about headsets; no casting nasty glances.
As for the scenery: In most sections of the South, presumably because the routes were carved for industry, it consists of half-fallow fields; abandoned buildings; piles of burning leaves and dollar stores set against big skies, pinked by western wildfires during my trip. It’s so endlessly captivating that I finished just one of the books I brought along.
Yet the landscape northwest of New Orleans is memorable in a striking way. The trestle is so narrow that the train seems to be suspended above the swamp in amusement park fashion: We were only 20 minutes out of town when the woman seated next to me pointed out an alligator.
Perhaps it’s also a function of traveling in the South, but many Amtrak passengers’ enjoyment of such sights is enhanced by alcohol. Not too much: I never felt unsafe on the train. (Related: Amtrak does a stellar job enforcing mask mandates.) But just enough that friendships formed quickly after we picked up the 142 passengers stranded in Jackson: Onetime strangers were trading relationship advice by the time we reached Greenwood.
“I was about to get me a shot of Jack Daniel’s with my coffee, and they sold out,” announced one disappointed rider who had been patiently waiting for the café car to reopen after sunrise.
It’s unusual for the café car to run out of liquor. But that shouldn’t stop you from finding fault with the café car, which hardly merits an accent aigu. The only hot foods it serves on most routes are a microwaved pizza slice and Cup Noodles. Customers also have their choice of four candy bars; a bag of potato chips; trail mix and a rock-hard Rice Krispies Treat knockoff.
Amtrak in 2019 axed its traditional dining cars east of the Mississippi, save for the car hitched to the Auto Train from Lorton, Va. to Sanford, Fla., where white tablecloths remain in place. In June, Amtrak announced plans to reinstate cooked-to-order steak and ceramic dishes west of Chicago, but the South appears stuck with M&M’s:
“Our intention, at least at this time, is not to bring this traditional dining approach to the eastern trains,” Amtrak’s vice-president told the Washington Post. (I probably ought to include contact information here so folks can file their opinions of Amtrak’s intentions.)
Still, that’s the beauty of traveling out of New Orleans. I failed to plan ahead, so had to make do with cheese wedges foraged from Whole Foods’ remainder bin and decent canned wine, but it’s easy to assemble a terrific picnic before the train leaves the station.
Besides cold fried chicken from McHardy’s or Willie Mae’s, consider packing charcuterie from Cochon Butcher; cheese from St. James Cheese Company; bread from Levee Baking Co. and cookies from Willa Jean. Surely it’s more fun to scan wetlands for gators while snacking on Zapp’s chips.
And there’s great food awaiting in Memphis, which delivers perhaps the most dramatic welcome in the Southern rail network, on which it’s more common to encounter creaky vending machines with taped-up notes promising the Cokes will be cold soon.
Memphis’ Central Station, unveiled in 1914, was in sad shape by the 1990s. Following a $20 million renovation, the venue now doubles as a train station and upscale hotel, so passengers who arrive at night are funneled through a buzzy, red-lit lounge with a DJ on the turntable and black Manhattans on the menu.
Even though I’ve described it here, I swear it’ll feel like a dream. It’s certainly one I’ll reflect on in coming months as I chronicle the contemporary food scene, in all its pandemic exhaustion, financial anxiety and cultural unrest.
New Orleans to Memphis is the jewel of the Southern train routes because of the terrain it covers and timetable it keeps, but that shouldn’t dissuade you from traveling from Savannah to Richmond or making the short trip from Birmingham to Atlanta.
(If booking the latter, make sure to bring dinner: There are a bunch of excellent takeout options within a few blocks of the station, but I couldn’t have been more pleased with my puttanesca from Trattoria Zaza.)
Regardless of which line you ride, you’re guaranteed to catch my all-time favorite glimpse through a train window:
U.S. passenger trains don’t go through nearly as many towns as their European counterparts, but one of the constants in towns along the railroad is an elder care facility, for reasons I’m certain a demographer could explain. I know this because residents are frequently wheeled outside to wave at the train when it goes by.
Trains travel at approximately 100 mph, except when it’s so hot that conductors are ordered to slow down to reduce the risk of fire on the tracks, so the people waving never get a good look at the passengers. But I bet they like to imagine who’s on board.
Because that’s what trains do: They come around with startling regularity and they’re exciting every time.
In other words, trains supply a pretty good model for what I hope to do with The Food Section, which aims to be the South’s leading source of news and analysis about food and drink in the region.
Want in? Going forward, The Food Section will publish three times a week:
On Mondays at 8 a.m., paid subscribers will receive the week’s showpiece article, which could be an investigative expose; reported feature; topical essay or restaurant review.
On Wednesdays at 8 a.m., paid subscribers will receive a collection of original news briefs and an array of fun columns highlighting overlooked stories from Southern food history; restaurants opening far from the beaten path; country cooking institutions and a can’t-miss food festival scheduled for the upcoming weekend.
On Fridays at 8 a.m., free subscribers will receive a short digest of what they missed.
HOW TO SUBSCRIBE
If you received this e-mail directly from me, you’re already a free subscriber. The Food Section offers two membership levels if you want to upgrade to paid:
A basic membership costs $9 a month or $99 a year. In addition to receiving the twice-weekly newsletters described above, members of The Food Section can participate in the newsletter’s comments section and join its subscribers-only Facebook group. Members will also receive invitations to occasional virtual and in-person events and have access to its article archive.
A Food Journalism Champion membership costs $199 a year. In addition to receiving the basic membership benefits described above, Champions have the exclusive opportunity to join a two-way texting service with The Food Section editor and publisher Hanna Raskin. (That’s me.) They can also look forward to getting major investigative reports and restaurant reviews in their inboxes before the general paying public.
(The Food Section offers free memberships to out-of-work journalists and others for whom the subscription price represents a hardship. E-mail email@example.com to join the list.)
WHEN TO SUBSCRIBE
Since nobody has yet seen The Food Section, the paywall won’t go up for another six weeks. Paid and free subscribers alike will receive every newsletter so they can decide if a paid subscription is worth their hard-earned money.
But for all you roving gamblers, The Food Section is offering a one-time deal: Between now and the end of the week, subscription fees are slashed by half. If you lock in your annual membership now, it will cost just $49.50. That works out to less than 50 cents for each newsletter.
On Sept. 18, the discount will drop to 40 percent. Then it goes down to 30 percent off in October; 20 percent off in November and 10 percent off in December. Starting Jan. 1, 2022, all subscriptions will be sold for full price.
You make the call when the time is right.
WHY TO SUBSCRIBE
If you’ve read this far, you probably already know. But I’d argue that what you haven’t read is the best reason to support quality food journalism in the South’s underserved states, cities, and towns.
Here’s what you won’t ever find in The Food Section:
Breathless new restaurant coverage orchestrated by swanky PR firms
Mindless parroting of popular opinions or reflexive veneration of popular people
Unsubstantiated rumors; unearned praise; unfair treatment or unquestioning acceptance of authority
Instead of propping up the status quo, The Food Section offers intelligent food journalism that helps make sense of the South’s extraordinary and complex culinary scene. I hope you’ll agree that’s worth the price.
(And keep in mind that if just one of the reviews you read in The Food Section makes you think twice about booking a table at an overhyped restaurant, you’ll recoup your investment without any trouble.)
If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to write: firstname.lastname@example.org.
But I’m possibly most excited for the Fast Casual Executive Summit in Charlotte, since I maintain you can’t really understand American food unless you understand chain restaurants: I’m marking my calendar for executives-only sessions on “Using Tech to Control Labor Woes,” meatless strategies and drive-through remodels. Looking forward to reporting back!