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February 14, 2006

Watershed

American Southern is a breed of food that's completely foreign to me. And with assorted work responsibilities eating up potential food exploration time, it was starting to look like I might escape Atlanta without expanding my horizons. Thankfully, my ladylove and I managed to sneak away for a late lunch this afternoon, and we ended up inadvertently stumbling into the eminently capable hands of Scott Peacock, who provided us with an exceptionally tasty lunch and a lesson in simple Southern fare. In doing some online research, I'd learned that ground zero for fried chicken goodness in Atlanta was to be found on Tuesday nights at Watershed. Apparently, the chicken starts flowing at 5:30, and is usually gone before the clock chimes 7:00. Sadly, other obligations made it impossible for us to hit that window. But the lunch menu seemed mighty tasty, with enough Southern dishes for me to do a little experimentation, so we decided to head on over for a late lunch.

A few MARTA stops east of downtown Atlanta lies Decatur, Georgia. It's a comfortable, unassuming little town, relatively devoid of national chains, chock full of upscale boutiques and altogether suburban. Watershed's decor couldn't be more perfectly suited to such a locale. The building, an old converted gas station and garage, has some of the original space's character, but has been repainted from floor to ceiling in various pastel blues and greens. With enormous rolldown glass doors in front, a multitude of skylights, beech chairs, worn antique tables aplenty and a small store up front selling bath soaps and greeting cards, it has the kind of (God forgive me for using this phrase, but it's accurate) shabby chic atmosphere common to suburban establishments more concerned with being light and friendly than serious about their food. And though I was trying very, very hard not to prejudge, the crowd didn't make it any easier. Across the room, two smartly-dressed ladies immediately identified themselves as on-the-siders. One table over, a solo diner went through her entire meal, appetizer and entree, without once pausing to remove her cell phone from her face. But appearances can be deceiving, in this case thankfully so, as we soon discovered.

Executive chef Scott Peacock, as it turns out, is co-founder of the Society for the Revival and Preservation of Southern Food along with one Edna Lewis. Edna Lewis, for many, will need no intoduction, if for no other reason than the fact that her society was dedicated in part to "seeing that people did not forget how to cook with lard." In a remarkable and sad coincidence, I discovered that Edna Lewis died last night, at the age of 89. Thankfully, it appears she died in good company. For the last eight years of her life, she served as Peacock's mentor, while he moved in and served as her caretaker. By all accounts they were close friends bound by a common passion. I can't say I expected to discover such a remarkable and timely back story when going back to research Peacock, but given the quality of the food, I'm not surprised.

We had a really delicious lunch. As Peacock says in the foreword of The Gift of Southern Cooking, the cookbook that he and Lewis co-wrote:

"In the South we are blessed with a long growing season and have always depended on fresh produce, both cultivated and wild. There's an old saying that what grows together goes together, and the dishes we put on our tables have that natural seasonal affinity. We also tend to enjoy life at a leisurely pace. Good cooks in the South see the preparation of food as satisfying, a natural part of the rhythm of daily life. It is all of these qualities that we have tried to translate into the pages of this book so that you can really taste what good Southern cooking can be."

It is eminently clear that for Peacock, respect for the ingredients is paramount. We started with a couple of appetizers. The first thing I tasted was Jern's salad, a simple one with a creamy blue cheese dressing and bacon. It wasn't the aggressively flavored affair that I'd generally expect from such a salad. It was much more about the simple crisp of iceberg lettuce and the light, sweet creaminess of the dressing. It was simple, refreshing and pleasant. My appetizer, however, was fantastic. I had the good fortune to choose what turned out to be one of Peacock's favorite dishes, his Creamy Stone Ground Shrimp Grits with Pullman Plank. It arrived, a bowlful of traditional creamy Southern grits, into which Peacock mixes his shrimp paste. The shrimp paste is made by sauteeing shrimp with a ton of sweet butter, salt, pepper, sherry, lemon juice and cayenne, removing the shrimp and reducing the remaining juice, then processing the whole mess into a rich, shrimpy paste. The resulting grits were extremely rich, but they stopped short of heavy. And they were full of a bold shrimp flavor that was just a touch dirty -- the kind of character you get from shrimp in New Orleans. The grits were served alongside a plank of toast, buttery and crispy with a shot of garlic. Jern's entree was the Garlic and Thyme Roasted Pork Sandwich with Fig Conserve, Fresh Cheese and Dijon Mustard. The sandwich was just as described, plus a small pile of fresh arugula, and extremely tasty. The pork was chilled and extremely tender, and while Jern probably would have preferred it somewhat leaner, I was thrilled to discover that Peacock has no reservations whatsoever when it comes to melt-in-your-mouth pork fat. I opted to go all shrimp, all the time, and had myself a shrimp po' boy. It was a number of sweet shrimp, lightly dusted in cornmeal and fried, put on a great piece of French bread -- extremely moist, with a perfectly crisp crust. The shrimp were buried in a mound of very finely shredded lettuce, and they sat atop a light smear of what I believe was a remoulade of some kind. I gave it a squeeze of fresh lemon, a little hit of Tabasco and dug in. It was the kind of sandwich that could have been entirely ordinary or even unimpressive in other hands, but the quality ingredients and perfect execution made it special. This isn't to say it was haiku-worthy, but it was light, crisp, extremely satisfying, and I tasted every single ingredient. For dessert, Jern had herself some chocolate chip cookies with a glass of milk, while I hit one of my all-time favorites, carrot cake with cream cheese frosting. Even the dessert gave me a bit of a different spin, in that it was surprisingly savory. This is not to say that it wasn't sweet, but it wasn't the smorgasbord of sweet that I'd generally expect from such a cake. As a result, I was less blown away by sweet cream cheese than I was drawn into the more subtle flavors of the cake... the cinnamon, the pecans, and -- God forbid -- the carrots.

All in all, Watershed wasn't a mind-blowing experience, but I think that's just the point. Peacock isn't going to write the book on neo-Southern and start the trend on FoodTV (though he has been on FoodTV). He simply loves his home, loves the fruits of its earth, and wants to prepare them in a way that makes them shine. He respects history and heritage and wants them to live on in his dishes. In this, he absolutely succeeds. We had a really excellent lunch that I only appreciate more as I continue to think about it. Naturally, I walked out the door with his cookbook, and at the risk of giving myself too many culinary goals for 2006, I'd like to further familiarize myself with this breed of American cuisine.

My only regret is that we missed the fried chicken. But you always have to have something to come back for, right?

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