I don’t know where to begin, so I will just start. I had one of the greatest meals of my life today. Of my life.
It is Day Three of the Southern Foodways Alliance symposium and I am about to eat Michelle Bernstein’s food. If you do not know who Michelle Bernstein is then you need to get yourself some education. She is a James Beard award winner and, more importantly, she beat Bobby Flay on Iron Chef. And that takes some doing, let me tell you. She is cute as a bug, which of course doesn’t get you anywhere in the kitchen. As I will find out shortly, she has the singular ability to change one’s life. Namely mine.
So we sit down to lunch and amazingly, for a Southern Foodways event, I am actually hungry. From here on out, I will just talk about the food because, really, what else is there to say?
The first course of Michelle’s (if I can call her that, which I just did) “Miami Reverie” menu is Icebox Fried Chicken for the Table. It is a humble opener requested by SFA president John T. Edge, but it is the perfect opener because a piece of fried chicken to a Southerner is like diamonds to Elizabeth Taylor. The crust on the chicken is shatteringly crisp and the chicken within is abundantly moist. There is barely the bone left when I am done.
Then comes what may be one of the top three things I have ever eaten, and I can’t even think of the other two. It is a Shrimp and Sweet Potato Ceviche, but it is so much more than the name implies. The shrimp are beautifully cooked in the most ambrosial marinade or broth, really, that I have ever consumed. It is napped with a shrimp reduction and topped with tiny pieces of popcorn. I am not embarrassed to tell you that I took a spoon and ate the broth after I finished the ceviche. I will never have this in my life again and I am already pretty sad about that.
However, more joy is on the way in the form of Braised Oxtail Stew with Gnocchi. I later find out that Michelle hand cut 4,000 pieces of gnocchi for this dish. The oxtail is meltingly tender, the gnocchi are light as pillows and the sauce, well I can’t even explain how stinkin’ good the sauce is. I am so happy right now, I don’t even need dessert. Or at least I don’t think I do. But I am wrong.
I need Banana Tres Leches Tian. It is Michelle’s sophisticated take on Banana Pudding.
It is a layer of banana bread moistened with three kinds of milk, with bananas, custard and whipped cream on top. Michelle crumbles Vanilla Wafers over it to mimic a traditional Banana Pudding. I intend to take one bite. Of course, I do not stop and before I know it, the dish is empty.
So here’s the thing. Two things, actually. The first is that it is tremendously pressure inducing to cook for members of the Southern Foodways Alliance who expect excellence. Add additional pressure when you plan a menu for which there are no shortcuts. The fried chicken has to be perfect. The ceviche transforming. The oxtail beyond tender and the gnocchi ethereal. And banana pudding reinvented? Iron Chef indeed.
The second thing is this. In a group conversation with Michelle after lunch, she tells us that even though she was born and raised in Miami, she feels the need to become more Southern, as in the parts of the South that include biscuits and gravy, collards and mashed sweet potatoes. The South is a place, yes, but it is also a state of mind. It is a state of mind that includes many indigenous cuisines from very different places, as I have learned this weekend. It is not an exclusive geographic club, it is an inclusive universe of food. And Michelle Bernstein is definately a part of that universe.