Stand in the middle of our town, throw a rock in any direction and you will hear the clink of stone against blue plate. Starkville loves its plate lunches, its “meat ‘n three’s” and its blue plate specials. But it’s broader than just a Starkville thing – it’s a Southern thing. I will ‘fess up front that I have not spent a great deal of time north of the Mason-Dixon Line looking for meat ‘n threes, but it just feels Southern to me. If it doesn’t belong to us, we should at least take credit for making it an art form.
In most cases, if you are in a restaurant that offers the plate lunch, you have choices to make. Normally you get one meat from a list of several, up to three veggies or salads from an even longer list and a choice of a roll or piece of cornbread. Drink and dessert may or may not be included – either way, more choices. I am certainly an advocate of variety and choices, but I don’t always like having to eliminate options. I want it all. That’s why I so enjoyed the Lodge Cast Iron Meat and Nine Supper, one of the evening meals at the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium. A more accurate title would have been “Three Meats and Nine Veggies,” and I didn’t have to pick just a few. I got it all.
It was a three-themed evening. Three tables were set up, and each featured one meat and three vegetable dishes. Portions were controlled by the servers, and in hindsight that was probably a good idea. Total buffet style would have ended in self-imposed misery - someone would have had to roll me back to the hotel.
The meats were what one might consider the “big three”: chicken, beef and pork. Chef Billy Allin of Cakes and Ale Restaurant in Decatur, Ga., was in charge of the Pastured Pork Loin that anchored one table. Drew Robinson of Jim ‘N Nick’s Barbecue in Birmingham, Ala. served three kinds of beef from White Oak Pastures farm in Bluffton, Ga. – rib eye, flatiron steak and short ribs. Yes, I tried a bite or two of each. No, I did not eat three steaks. All that was good, but through the night the majority of flattering comments were directed towards the chicken: Luxe Chicken and Dumplings from Chef Chris Hastings of the Hot & Hot Fish Club, also in Birmingham, Ala. This was served in individual aluminum ramekins and to be honest, in appearance it was more like a chicken pot pie than chicken and dumplings. I suppose it was just one big dumpling that rose to the top as it baked, with more of a biscuit consistency than the boiled dumplings I am accustomed to. However it was imagined, it truly was “luxe.”
Just about everything was served out of some sort of Lodge Cast Iron, and it was a colorful table. Greens were represented, of course. They could have been turnip, collard, mustard or a mix –I forgot to ask and tend to mix my own in the pot, anyway. And there was a lot of orange. One line featured butternut squash baked and drizzled with sorghum syrup and homemade butter – healthy and decadent, if that is possible. Another table diced the same squash and tossed it with pumpkin oil. The third went a slightly different direction — sweet potato with onion and bacon. That’s all I wrote down, so I cannot readily reproduce the recipe, but it’s definitely a combination I will experiment with someday.
It may have been more green that escaped my pen (and thus my memory) — a tossed salad of some sort was represented, I think. Another did not, however, because it focused on two colorful foods that I still struggle with liking: red beets and goat cheese. In our house as a boy, beets were not on the list of “eat this or no dessert.” Really, I don’t remember ever seeing them on the table. I could have blocked the memory, but probably not. So I am still working on acquiring a taste for them — ditto the goat cheese, but I’m trying.
Another dish that did make my list was a combination of apples and kohlrabi, flavored with sage and lemon verbena. This may have been my first experience with kohlrabi, and it was a good beginning. Since then the purple bulb and its greens have appeared in my farm bag a time or two, and I’ve prepared it several different ways. It is a bit of a wild-looking vegetable, but quite versatile.
On the starchy side, I got to try something else for the very first time: buckwheat polenta. A quick search on the world-wide interweb and I learned that in Northern Italy, buckwheat was one of the original grains used to make polenta before corn arrived from the New World. Truth be told, it just looked like a skillet full of mush, but it was high on my favorites list that night - warm and comforting and full of flavor.
The last component to complete a true meat ‘n three (or nine) is a bread of some variety. Naturally, with all those Lodge cast iron skillets sitting about, cornbread was the obvious choice for this evening. Whether used as a pushing utensil, a sopping vehicle, or just an extra mouthful of crumbly goodness, a hunk of cornbread is an excellent companion to plate lunch fare.
If you’re doing the math, you may have realized I have not accounted for nine distinct veggie dishes, though way more than nine veggies were represented in all. It is possible that in my fervor to try a bit of everything, one dish may have escaped my notes. Please forgive me. I don’t think anyone will go hungry with only eight sides.