In his foreword for our new cookbook, Andrew Zimmern waxes poetic on the appeal and importance of our America’s Classics Award–winning restaurants
James Beard once said, “I don’t like gourmet cooking or ‘this’ cooking or ‘that’ cooking. I like good cooking.”
I love grand restaurants. I love seeing what the world’s most highly motivated and inventive culinarians can do, pushing themselves to the outer limits of their potential to produce food that will influence chefs for generations to come. I am one of the few who adore being dazzled for hours, sucking down course after course, getting a food high from 24 plates that all look like children’s portions designed by interior decorators. I want to see what the greatest chefs can do with a foraged matsutake mushroom and a frying pan, or an anti-griddle and immersion circulator. I am guilty. I’m that guy. And yet I would trade all of that in, every tasting menu, every fought-over reservation, every fancy-food feather in my cap, every fancy-pants nibble notch on my edible bedpost, for a plate of Doe’s Broiled Shrimp. Head down to Greenville, Mississippi, dig in for yourself, and call me if you don’t think it’s toe curling in its deliciousness. As complex, as deep in flavor as any food on earth. That’s all Jim Beard cared about: getting the toes to curl.
Like Beard, and all of us who love to eat, cook, and talk food, the flavor is the thing. And so is the place, the memory, the find, the smell, the smile as it’s served, the hunt, the company, and about a thousand other variables that have nothing to do with the number of epic Barolos on the wine list. Some of the restaurants represented in this book have pretty nice wine lists, but if you’re hung up there, you miss my point. I’ve had the honor of eating in most all of the eateries that share their histories here. I have history in them, too. I’ve had Tadich’s sand dabs in San Francisco about 40 times, fried tomatoes at Arnold’s every time I’m in Nashville, and the bureks at Three Brothers in Milwaukee every year for the last 24. Doesn’t matter whether I’m a regular or a first timer, the experience is the same. The food is sublime, the ghosts can be felt, the legends continue.
The restaurants in James Beard’s All-American Eats: Recipes and Stories from Our Best-Loved Local Restaurants have all been open for a long time. A real long time. That’s a rarity in the food world. That means they’re special, and that they have set the bar for generations of cooks to be impressed, to go off seeking excellence in simplicity, the hardest achievement in our business. These institutions have depth, they represent our nation’s struggles, and they tell stories to hundreds of customers every day when they open their doors. That’s the difference maker.
Are the crabcakes at Joe’s Stone Crab the best of all time? They are when I’m sitting in that ancient dining room with the swirl of Miami pulsing all around me and the smell of icy piles of cracked crab whisking past our table on the tuxedoed arms of a waiter who understands that this is called the hospitality business for a reason. Did you know that Joe’s owns its own crab boats and controls their product from the moment the crabs come on board to the time you pay your check? Did you know the mustard mayo sauce is never served the day it’s made because it tastes best a day old? Did you know that the same man has made the Key lime pies for the last 17 years?
We can all relate to that, can’t we? Seems logical. Dedicated resources, staff that stays on forever because the restaurant is a fulfilling place to work, a family really, mostly run by families, too. Consistent, simple food tastes great. Food with a story tastes better. Food with a story you haven’t heard before tastes better than that, and if you can relate to that story, well, that makes it an American classic, one of our best-loved restaurants.
Andrew Zimmern is the JBF Award–winning chef and host of Bizarre Foods and other programs on the Travel Channel. Find him on Twitter.