Before COVID-19’s apocalyptic upheaval of society, I always associated take-out with fast-food: burger/fries, pizza, Chinese, deli, or the like. I could never have imagined that take-out could transcend fast-food into slow food. Case in point, my take-out meal from one of Los Angeles’ most avant-garde restaurants, Vespertine, unearthed a culinary inspiration and journey through Chef Jordan Kahn’s years growing up in the Lowcountry of the American South, specifically, a region of coastal Georgia, South Carolina, and the Sea Islands.
Chef Kahn curated the meal through written cards that described his Southern experience with each tasting course. First, he described his ventures in Georgia, picking up boiled peanuts in paper bags prepared by farmers’ children on the side of the road. Oh, how sweet was the peanut shell liquor spilling from the cracked shells in my mouth!
Our next Southern stop was a non-traditional Sweet Potato Pone, made with baby jewel sweet potatoes and glazed with blackstrap molasses, mixed with Townsend cane sorghum and caramelized shallots. The sweetness of the potatoes and shallots balanced with the rich bitter smokiness of the blackstrap molasses indulged my sixth sense.
Nothing compares to great grits. I’ve enjoyed them at Sean Brock’s restaurant, Husk, in Nashville, Tennessee, and hope to enjoy them at The Waffle House one of these days, as I heard from my dearest friend that they are pretty damn delicious. In the meantime, I dived into Chef Kahn’s version of Antebellum white grits with smoked tomato and onion gravy. These grits were made from South’s original grains, resurrected by Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills. These were a far cry from the store-bought cream of wheat that I ate as a child growing up in Los Angeles.
The only other time I felt as much at home was when I cherished the moments of my childhood, when my mother made homemade Matzo Ball soup. For the world to know, her secret ingredient was chicken fat in the Matzo Balls, otherwise known as “schmaltz,” in Yiddish. That blissful memory once more existed outside of my childhood dining room, tasting Chef Kahn’s Frogmore Stew, as I melted into a nostalgic, almost ecstatic moment.
Chef Kahn’s version of this stew included: yellow sweet corn; fingerling potatoes, cippolini onions; fennel; spring onions; gulf coast shrimp; Edwards smokehouse sausage; and Jonah crab claws. Chef Kahn did not skip a beat when he added a melodic twist to this stew with his homemade hot sauce and brown butter, infused with lemony herbs and wild bay leaves.
Although I don’t particularly lean into the sweet side of eating, the final chapter of this culinary autobiography - Pecan Pralines, a Savannah delicacy, and Buttermilk Pudding Cake, a sugar pie in its own right with a creamy center and topped with whipped buttermilk, along with stewed blackberries - sated my craving for a sweet subtlety.
These humble, or, perhaps, not so humble, offerings from Chef Kahn’s upbringing remind me how essential it is to feel grateful for the simple, slow food moments of joy, and of being together with those who matter, despite the extreme circumstances of illness, death, economic devastation, and isolation that surround us. For being together is a life worth living.