Six Feet Under

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Six Feet Under’s main sell is its location. The tavern is a landmark in the celebrated Grant Park district just off Memorial Drive. Housed in a reclaimed Atlanta manufacturing company called the Southern Elevator Company; remnants of its former tenant are evident in the red brick design of the building and interior décor with exposed piping and large factory windows. The walls are lined with antique beer signs which give the space a relaxed feel and ambiance.  Folks who like a bit of history with their grub may like the fact that the restaurant is directly across from Atlanta’s historic Oakland cemetery; the final resting place to golfing great Bobby Jones and Gone with the Wind’s author, Margaret Mitchell.  It’s ironic and a bit funny that a bar called Six Feet Under serves food and drink to patrons overlooking a cemetery.  Customers can choose to sit downstairs in the main restaurant or head upstairs to a rooftop bar and patio with a delightful view of Atlanta’s skyline. I already mentioned the view of the Oakland cemetery. This time around we opted to sit downstairs in air conditioned comfort, dining outside in the midday sun is not an ideal setting.

The menu references the familiar lexicon of southern cuisine and makes no attempt at straying far from its safe confines.The kitchen’s straightforward dish on classic bar food, focus primarily on seafood with the addition of salads, hamburgers and wings. Ingredients and preparations popular in the south; deep fried, blackened, Andouille sausage, Cajun, corn, cornmeal, oysters, Po’boy, bacon and catfish are prevalent. Starters like fried catfish fingers, mini crab cakes and deep fried oyster or shrimp makes no waves but keeps the high volume of customers happy.

It’s obvious that this is a busy restaurant highlighted by the number of watchful servers, moving in and around the tables with quiet efficiency. Our server Tina was very pleasant and knowledgeable about the menu, and she quickly took our order for drinks and enquired about appetizers. I chose Oysters Rockefeller as an appetizer and my friend decided to have the mini lump crab cakes. The Oysters Rockefeller was a misstep on the part of the kitchen; I’ve had better versions and this one though pretty to look at was heavy on the parmesan and bread crumbs, which made them almost dry.  The lump crab cakes in contrast, were delicious. Lump crab meat seared on the outside, moist on the inside with the sweetness of fresh corn and mustard, guaranteed to make any diner happy. Tina our server was mindful to stop by and refill our water glasses and point out her favorite dishes on the menu. We were intrigued by the taco combinations and ingredients and decided to have them for our main course.

I chose a trio which included:

  1. Fried chicken with cotija cheese, shredded lettuce, roasted corn and salsa.
  2. Blackened shrimp with shredded fresh spinach, cucumber, sweet onion relish, mixed cheese and cucumber wasabi.
  3. Fried catfish taco with mixed cheeses, jalapeños, tomatoes, cabbage & cucumber wasabi sauce.  All our tacos came with salsa verde and home-style potato chips.

I enjoyed the food, I liked the ambiance. Sated, we decided to forgo dessert and I went upstairs to check out the view from the roof top bar. Up the broad stairway and out the screen door, I could definitely see the allure of enjoying a cocktail in this relaxed setting. I’m sure that after the sun goes down, the restaurant empties and everyone chooses to sit outside.  Six Feet Under has character and is a standout for location. It’s a fun way to introduce visitors to Atlanta’s bar scene. The food is good and the service professional and friendly. Definitely worth a second visit.

My Aunt Cooks the Best Roast Pork

“But I will place this carefully fed pig Within the crackling oven; and, I pray, What nicer dish can e’er be given to man.” Aeschylus, ancient Greek poet

Old school in a Dutch pot over a coal fire. The pork shoulder is seasoned the night before with thyme, pimento, minced garlic, fresh ginger, scotch bonnet pepper, soy sauce, kosher salt and black pepper. She takes her time.  My aunt also likes to cut up an onion, carrot and celery. She adds them to the pork and lets everything marinate.  I call it “mirepoix” she just laughs, “Mirror what?” There’s no rush, that’s what good braising is all about. In the refrigerator the meat absorbs all the herbs and spices permeate the meat, call it osmosis of flavor. The pork shoulder weighs about 5lbs, a medium sized roast, and a perfect fit for the Dutch pot. She likes cooking outside, there is shade at the side of the house. The overhanging ackee tree makes this the perfect spot. Cooking outside is the secret. A bit of cool breeze and sunshine trickles into the pot each time it’s opened. Is it true? I think so.

But first, a sulfur match and a wad of newspaper to coax the coal to fire.

My Aunt’s Dutch pot is heavy. This thick sides and bottom prevent the meat from scorching. It holds the heat while distributing it evenly. She adds a little oil when the pot is hot enough and allows the oil to shimmer and smoke lightly before adding the meat. It takes time to brown a large piece of meat. The longer it takes the better. Food scientists describe the caramelization of meat as a “maillard reaction.” They would love my aunt because her “maillard reaction” is perfect. Five to eight minutes per side, she leaves the meat to sizzle and goes inside to start the “rice & peas.” Kitchen towel in one hand, fork in the other, the lid is lifted and she proudly allows me to take a picture.

“Mirror what?”

That culinary term again? She adds the vegetables and all the seasoning saved from the meat. A cup of water is enough to start. The lid goes on. What happens inside the Dutch pot? The low heat, long cooking time and moisture breaks down the connective tissue in the pork. The added aromatics respond to the heat and gradually begin their own gradual “maillard reaction.” For now I was in charge. Every fifteen minutes or so, I would lift the lid and add water if necessary.  Never more than a cup or two.

At least I had company while I sat outside tending the roast pork.

Never trim the fat or skin from a pork shoulder. The skin is delicious; the fat bastes the meat and keeps it moist. Heat contracts and tightens muscle fibers. Over time, these fibers expel moisture and the meat becomes dry. The long cooking process allows these fibers to relax and absorb the melted pork fat and gelatin. Braised meats absorb liquid. It took three hours till the meat was fork tender. I’m sure it was done and tender, I told my aunt, and after all, it was my fork that did most of the testing.

 

Hello Mangrove Oyster

“It’s not uncommon for oyster lovers to remember their first experience and often times the person responsible for it.” Jomo Morris

The Mouth is Every Babies Favorite Investigative Tool

Oyster lovers are adults who have subconsciously developed a taste for umami. This enduring affinity for the humble oyster, the taste of ocean made flesh, begins from infancy, as babies develop sensory perception and explore their world through touch, sight, sound, feel and taste. Babies drool, smile, gurgle, laugh and are inquisitive. Children, first learn to associate food to different tastes – sweet watermelon, sour lemonade, salty potato chips, bitter marmalade, and umami by imitating those around them. Female sea otters teach their young to open oysters in a similar manner. While floating on their backs, otters place a rock on their stomach and crack the mollusk against the rock to open it. This technique is done repeatedly until the cub learns the trick. In this, all mammals unerringly pass on innate traits that guarantee the survival of mankind and wildlife alike.

I’ve grown to love oysters. My first oyster experience was in culinary school where I was put in charge of making “Oysters Rockerfeller” for prospective students and their parents at an open house.

They were blue point oysters, layered with sautéed spinach and Pernod (a French liqueur with an anise flavor) and finished with hollandaise and herb bread crumbs.  Curious, I made sure no one was looking and ate one.

That Day, an Oyster Changed My Life

“There are three kinds of oyster-eaters: those loose minded sports who will eat anything, hot, cold, thin, thick, dead or alive as long as it is oyster; those who eat them raw and only raw; and those with equal severity will eat them cooked and no other.” – The Art of Eating, M.F.K Fisher

For the next hour, I ate an oyster for each person that was given a “Rockerfeller.” I was hooked and happily so. Since then, I’ve worked my way through several professional kitchens and become more flexible in preference. I’m just as comfortable enjoying an oyster, raw, with the juice from a lemon wedge and a drop of tabasco sauce, as I am eating oysters steamed, grilled, fried, smothered in sauce or used as stuffing.Some may feel sorrow for a creature that spends its life sequestered in a fossilized mantle. But, what is life to an oyster but to spawn, spat and survive; as it waits motionless for the ultimate predator, man’s hunger. Oysters have nothing pleasant to look at and even more so pried open and naked on the half shell. For thousands of years, men have pried open an oysters’ shell and feasted on its contents without a squeamish thought.

 I had to Leave Jamaica to Love Oysters

Oysters are a constant on the buffet for Sunday brunch and for that reason, I’ve been lucky to try oysters with distinguished pedigrees – from the super sweet Kumamotos, to delicate Beausoleils, salty Wellfleets, the tiny intense Olympias, and the powerfully metallic and briny Belon, but I’ve never had a Jamaican Mangrove Oyster.

“The Wickedest City on Earth”

The small fishing village of Port Royal which sits at the mouth of Kingston Harbor was once a favorite hangout for notorious pirates like Henry Morgan and Calico Jack. Port Royal grew rich from the illicit plunder of these buccaneers, who spent their gold freely on drink and women. The city was punished for its sinful ways on June 7, 1962 when a massive earthquake struck and most of the city was claimed by the sea. Today, Port Royal echoes with the ghosts of history past; shells of brick and mortar buildings, forests of red and black mangrove trees and ancient relics watched ashore by a reticent sea. Port Royal has once again become famous but this time for its laid back ambiance and exceptional seafood. Walk into any of several open air restaurants in Port Royal, sip on a cold Red Stripe beer or Heineken and order fresh fish steamed, curried, fried, brown stewed or escoveitch. There are plenty of sides to choose from including local favorites like bammy (a fried cassava cake), water crackers, rice & peas and festival. An added bonus, Port Royal also sells Mangrove oysters.

Peta-Gay is busy texting on her blackberry phone. Her fingers methodically press each button as the car turns onto the Palisadoes highway, huge mounds of sand driven by wind and sea, mark our passage as we glide past the Norman Manley international airport. On the right side of the road, a rasta-man with a small wooden stall is busy selling fresh coconuts parked end to end in a line like metallic ants.

The smell of sea salt is strong and the landscape drifts by in a blur of dull greens and browns. Sea gulls circle overhead dipping and swaying gracefully on currents of air.  Peta-gay is still toying with her phone and I focus on the road, steering the car round a corner, lost in my own thoughts. I think our silence was appropriate and the mangrove trees twisted and wizened with thick green foliage and long slender roots, agree to our quiet homage. “Welcome” they say and I nod in passing as Port Royal comes into view.

The Oyster Man at Gloria’s’ Gate, His Name is “Juici”

We decide to stop at Gloria’s a popular seafood restaurant in the town and I gingerly nudge the car onto a large dirt parking lot across from the restaurant. Peta-Gay orders snapper, deep fried and smothered with escoveitch sauce and a side of fried bammy. “I think I’ll have my fish steamed with a side of water crackers and a cold Heineken to wash it all down,” I tell the server as she politely retrieves our menu and heads off to the kitchen. “But what about oysters, are they for sale here? And if not where can I get them.” She smile and points to the entrance, “don’t worry” she says, “in the evening around six, the oyster man sets up shop at the gate”, looks at her watch, “he should be here in another hour.” We weren’t in a hurry, by then our food had arrived – two huge plates –  one, a  whole fried fish with a generous heaping of escoveitch vegetables with a side of  piping hot bammy, the other, snapper steamed and still steaming with okra and bits of pumpkin crowned with water crackers that have been allowed to soak in the broth . It was delicious and we dug in with fingers, fork and knife, oblivious to the patrons around us.

Hers and Mine – Our First Mangrove Oyster.

Peta-gay was the first to see him. A thickset man of average height dressed in a bright red shirt, shorts and slippers. He was setting up a stainless steel table at the entrance to Gloria’s, just as the server had predicted. I turned to my sister and asked, “have you ever eaten an oyster?” And to my dismay, her reply was “no.” “Would you like to try one”, I asked, sensing her apprehension, I pinched her cheek and said “I’ve never eaten an oyster in Jamaica either, it will be the first time for both of us” and she laughed. In all honesty they weren’t the best, but we made the best of it. They were delicious for all the right reasons; with the sound of seagulls in our ear and the shore at our back, the crunch of sand beneath our feet, faces upturned to the sun and eyes closed in happy communion.