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February 7, 2006

Eat Your Heart Out—February 7, 2006

It was in Meridian, Mississippi where my grandmother, affectionately known as Big Mama, was born, and it was in Meridian that she died last Wednesday at the age of 92. For those who don’t know, Meridian is one of the larger cities in Mississippi, which, I admit, is not saying much. I traveled to Meridian this past weekend for her funeral, and it has changed a lot from the days when my grandmother raised my mother there—it has become, as Bohumil Hrabal titled one of his books, the little town where time stood still. The center of town was devoid of people, and storefronts displayed boarded-up windows instead of merchandise, with forlorn signs that still advertised a box of saltine crackers for five cents or hotel rooms for one dollar.

Despite all this, Mississippi does excel in two culinary realms: barbequed and fried.

I got my fill of the former at Lonnie and Pat’s restaurant in Meridian. The restaurant was known locally for its winning burgers and still gives diners a roll of paper towels at the table in lieu of napkins. When placing my order, I saw that “BBQ–Large” was listed under the hamburger section of the menu and I inquired as to whether this meant a hamburger with barbeque sauce. Although this seemed like a reasonable question in my mind, the waitress looked at me like I was an idiot and then explained that it meant it was a barbeque pork sandwich. My incompetence aside, it was one of the best barbeque pork sandwiches I’ve ever had, so messy that it had to be eaten with a fork, and topped with cool, creamy coleslaw that offset the tang of the barbeque sauce.

The latter category of gastronomic triumph is one I associate more with Mississippi. The best fried chicken I ever ate was at the old Weidmann’s restaurant in Meridian, most likely because it was cooked in lard, making the skin extra crispy and the meat incredibly juicy. During the two days that I was in Mississippi this past week, I ate a lot of fried food: I devoured deep fried shrimp, a shrimp po’boy (essentially a fried shrimp sandwich with lettuce, tomatoes, onion, and a hearty slathering of mayonnaise), cornmeal-fried oysters, French fries, fried dill pickles (a specialty of the incongruously named Santa Fe restaurant in Forest, Mississippi, a good 1,086 miles from Santa Fe), and hush puppies, which are balls of fried cornbread lightly flavored with onion and other spices. One could argue that I ate a lot of fried foods because, well, everything seems to taste better when fried. Or maybe I ate my fill of fried foods because now that Big Mama is gone, I knew I wouldn’t be going back to Mississippi.

Deep-Fried Pickles

The Ingredients

1 16 oz. jar dill pickle chips (not bread and butter pickles)

1 egg

1/2 cup flour

1/2 cup cornmeal

salt

A neutral oil for frying, such as vegetable or canola

The Directions

Pour the oil into a small pot or saucepan until it is about two inches deep. Turn on the heat to high. You will know the oil is hot enough when you drop in a breadcrumb and it begins to sizzle. Take the pickles out from the jar and pat dry with a paper towel. In a bowl, combine the flour and cornmeal. In another bowl, beat the egg. Dip the pickles in the egg, then in the flour and cornmeal mixture. Gently ease them into the oil. When the batter turns a light brown, approximately 45 seconds to a minute, remove from heat with a slotted spoon and place on paper towels to dry. Immediately sprinkle with a pinch of salt. When dry, transfer to a plate and serve immediately. Serves four.