The South Has Risen…. In The North?
The Common Man ventured out of DC last week and encountered a southern culinary treat deep in the Yankee North
Cambridge, Massachusetts … it isn’t exactly the first place you’d expect to find wonderfully cooked and prepared southern food, is it? Until last week, I would have agreed with you. I myself hail from Boston, and when I go home I usually gravitate towards Tremont 647 or take a stroll down Hanover St. So what the hell was I doing eating southern food here?
Well, it’s no secret in Cambridge, but a little place called Hungry Mother, just off of a side street just over the river in Boston has found a niche and hit it big — and not just with the locals. In fact, Hungry Mother’s reputation has reached down to the south, and such writers as John T. Edge and the Southern Foodways Alliance have recognized and indulged.
But what’s drawing them beyond the fact that it’s probably one of the only southern joints in the area is Chef Barry Maiden’s dedication to classically inspired dishes, done with his French technique. Some southern purists might complain that his food isn’t quite “down home” enough. This is not exactly the southern food you would find at a typical Southern Baptist Sunday supper or in diners on roadsides winding through the bible belt. But it’s still food with roots. Roots in southern homestyle cooking.
When you walk in to wait for your table and see a list of snacks “to hold you over…” including boiled Virgina-grown peanuts, or Allen Benton’s Tennessee ham on homemade biscuits with a black pepper jam, you know you’ve momentarily stepped outside the Northeast. There’s something to spying the little bar welcoming you and looking up at the old-man bourbons on the top shelf and ordering a real cocktail made fresh by a bartender in an apron and a bow-tie. If you’re from the Boston you’re thinking, where am I? This is special… it’s comfort mixed with elegance, class mixed with irreverence, expertise mixed with simplicity. You feel somehow part of the southern aristocracy, even as you shucking peanuts, and you realize how lucky you are to have been lead to Hungry Mother.
But what’s the secret? The chef says it’s all about making food that he loves, just making every component of it perfectly. Starting from the bare bones. Of course lots of chefs pay lip service to the same ideals, but Barry actually ‘walks the walk’. When you’re crunching on a fresh baked crostini with corned beef and spicy mustard on it, you’re eating something that has been brined and cooked in-house, served with spicy mustard that was mixed with house-made spices right in the tiny downstairs prep-kitchen. There’s a reason Chef Barry Maiden was one of the Best New Chefs in the country, according to Food & Wine Magazine this year. All the way from Saltville, Virginia. I envy you, Boston/Cambridge.
So the southern connoisseur (which I certainly do not claim to be) is driven to test the chef, of course. “Bring on the grits!” he may shout. But he’ll not taste a creamier and more perfectly balanced cup of grits this side of the low-country. These grits are made with fresh, craft-made cheddar cheese and topped with tasso ham. The corn is ground by a very special producer down in North Carolina who still uses his old, porous stone grinder, giving the grits that homestyle texture any old-school southern traditionalist would absolutely crave in his grits.
Amidst all this food, it’s hard to even look up, but when you do, you see that Hungry Mother has a warm decor that gives you the feeling that you’re in a cozy southern bead and breakfast, but without a hint of kitsch. I delighted in having Thomas Jefferson watch over my meal and in perusing the pages torn from Virginia Housewife cookbook that covered the bathroom walls.
But you can’t help forgetting about the space when you’re enveloped in the food and conversation. It has a communal loudness, without being oppressive, and being comfortable in one’s decibel is wholly southern, as far as I know.
The Black Eyed Pea Fritters with a house-made buttermilk ranch and pickled kohlrabi says, ‘Hey, I’m fried, but not heavy’. Good frying is an art, and when you are eating southern, but don’t feel weighed down, something is being done right.
As you might expect, there is a northern element to Hungry Mother, because Chef Maiden seeks out fresh, local ingredients. His Deviled Main Crab skillet is made with bread crumbs and house-smoked paprika. The cheddar cheeses are from Vermont, and the house-cured meats and chutneys are all made in-house from local produce.
You taste it in the Berskhire Pork Loin too. Imagine a perfectly cooked loin, draped with a dry-rubbed, smoked rib to top it off. The cider reduction felt so comfortable, along with the smoked and cured bacon. I haven’t found pork like this in a long time.
Never have I tasted a New England bouillabaisse so craftily southern, yet obviously from Maine and the fisheries of the North East. It features local diver scallops, squid, oysters, and house-made Old Bay aioli (yes, he makes his own Old Bay) in a delicate broth as succulent as it is unique.
You see, while Barry is from the South and is inspired by the foods his family cooked, he has been adopted by New England, going to culinary school there, training at Lumiere and L’Espalier under two of New England’s finest French-trained chefs, marrying his wife there, and even having his first child in his Somerville locale. This is no fancy “fusion” though. It’s a solid tree, with southern roots, a classically French base, and a tall New England trunk, with branches even directing towards Brazil (exquisite cow tongues smothered in gravy on toast, ZOMG!), if you can believe it.
If I had to muster up one complaint, it’s that their wine list doesn’t feature any of the best southern wines you can find, from Virginia. Of course this is the fault of the state of Massachusetts because there is no distribution yet — a truly sad state. Fortunately, they’ve got plenty of French and California varietals, combined with some great creative options.
Save room to indulge more with an old fashioned chocolate layer cake (the twist? a light sprinkling of sea salt) or a big ole creamy slice of pecan pie with bourbon (!) ice cream. Wash the sweets down with a champagne-bottle of Brooklyn Local Number 2, Belgian-style dark ale, that is creamy, chocolaty, and caramely.
Another famous figure born and bred in Saltville, the confederate general ‘Jeb’ Stuart, was known for his cavalry skills, exercised under the great General Lee, and for his hardworking image that inspired southern morale. Jeb met his end at the Battle of Yellow Tavern. Well maybe Barry is not so far from his this famous native after all. He has a truly southern conscious that has been stricken by the north, and we’re happy to visit his tavern any old time.
Go North to taste the South. Your just rewards await you.
Full disclosure: I’m lucky to count Chef Maiden as one of my close friends, but our friendship doesn’t detract from my ability to objectively identify him as one of the top young chefs on my radar