Critic-Turned-Cook Goes On SFA Field Trip, Eats Nasty Bits

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Nasty Bits gang at Carnitas Michoacan. [Photos: Leslie Kelly]

I've been a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance since 2004, the year I moved to Memphis and fell hard for the rich regional cooking traditions. Loads of glowing praise has been heaped on this incredible organization, but I've got to pile on: I've never learned so much or eaten so well among so many good people as when I'm at an SFA event.

That's why I was more than willing to brave the wilting summer heat in Atlanta to climb on board a sweltering yellow school bus to explore the global South along Hotlanta's Buford Highway during this year's SFA Field Trip.

More than 100 folks from around the country signed up for tours of the wonderfully weird jumble of strip malls that are home to hundreds of Korean, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and Mexican restaurants. I was especially keen to find out if any Southern cooking traditions had been infused into these ethnic eateries.

We broke into small groups and made fast friends over kimchi, Hite beer and sizzling stone bowls of bibimbap. (The first day, I was on the Korean tour, making four very filling pit stops.) The food was delicious, the company delightful, but I didn't eat anything wildly different than I've had at Korean restaurants in Seattle.

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Blood sausage and more at Mirak.

That was certainly not the case on Day Two, when I signed on for the Nasty Bits eat-a-thon, a five-hour moveable feast that included goose intestines and pig uterus tacos. Before the tour, there was a spectacular dim sum brunch at the gorgeously industrial Abattoir. (Yes, Abattoir is French for slaughterhouse; it's located in an old meatpacking plant.)

Gene Lee, author of a blog called Eat Drink Man, was our Nasty Bits guide and a real gamer. He gave our group the scoop about the best way to eat pork backbone soup and a gruel made from tofu dregs. With our blessing, he ordered jellyfish head and crispy fried duck's tongue, pork blood pudding and chopped tongue.

As a former professional eater, I've learned the value of pacing oneself. At these SFA feasts, I always take tastes even though I'm tempted to load my plate. That wasn't a big challenge during the Nasty Bits marathon.

The field trip wrapped up at a Chinese food court, where more platters of stir-fried chicken, noodles and spicy eggplant were laid out. But it was the featured cocktail that got my attention. Mix master Jerry Slater created a savory shot using Shochu (distilled rice wine) and pot likker (the liquid in cooked greens.) It was garnished with a turnip green-wrapped chunk of smoky brisket from Rolling Bones Barbecue.

Now, that was the East-meets-South kind of fusion I had been craving. Man, even on a sultry evening, that warm concoction really hit the spot.

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