Monday, November 26, 2012

Bailey & Cato Cornbread Gets Edge's Nod as Best in South

Posted By on Mon, Nov 26, 2012 at 5:36 AM

Admission: I have a love-hate relationship with Garden & Gun magazine. I hate the name, and kind of love it at the same time. It speaks of the sickly sweet perfume of magnolia flowers. It reeks of gunpowder. It seemingly celebrates the dichotomy of Southern life, but too often narrows its focus on a coastal-centric, plantation-chic mentality. Its subjects are usually pretty, pretty white, or at least pretty rugged, if one can be pretty rugged all dressed in the latest finery from Billy Reid. (Granted, hand-wringing about this sort of thing is pretty Southern, too.)

They do have some damn good Southern writers on the payroll, however. As the market for good writers, especially good Southern writers, is seemingly shrinking by the day, deep publisher pockets ain't nothing to sneeze at. One of these writers, Southern Foodways Alliance kingfish John T. Edge, is arguably the top dog in his particular purlieu*, Southern foodways. (*Not to be confused with the deliciousness that is purloo, the Lowcountry rice dish)

Anyway, Edge recently picked his Top 10 dishes of the year for the October/November issue of G&G, and Nashville has an entrant — and it's probably not who you think. While restaurants like The Catbird Seat and City House continue to get all variety of national mentions, Edge takes us on a detour to a little ramshackle house off McGavock Pike in Inglewood.

Here's an abridged version of Edge's introduction to the article:

Based on my time at table in 2012, I believe the following dishes, from both steam-table cafes and white-tablecloth bistros, will catalyze conversations in the coming year. ... I can tell you that all ... celebrate the best of Southern senses and sensibilities, histories and futures. Nota bene: Great eats are ephemeral. Here last night. Gone this afternoon. If the dish I love is not in the rotation when you arrive, call an audible, for none that emerge from these kitchens will be duds.

His pick? The fried cornbread at Bailey & Cato Family Restaurant. Herein he waxes poetic on his selection:

Tuesday is baked neck bones. Thursday is beef liver with onions. Saturday is pigs’ feet and fried chicken. But every day is fried cornbread day 
at this workhorse of a meat-and-three cafe, set in a dusty pink bungalow in the decidedly unhip Inglewood district of decidedly hip East Nashville.

(Author's note: Inglewood unhip?) (Author's note: Author lives in Inglewood.)

Robert Bailey and his family cook the most elemental cornbread imaginable: cornmeal, water, salt, and a pinch of sugar. Fried hard, that cornbread emerges from the roiling oil with a sandpaper crust and a creamy core.

Gaze upon that oval of goodness before you dunk it in a bowl of collard greens. You can see the handprints of the cook who shaped it. Now crack it in two and sniff the streams of sweet corn aroma that rise ceilingward. Terms like handcrafted are employed too often these days. Here, my fellow eaters, is the real thing. Also on the menu: pork chops, girded by a sweet mantle of fat and fried in a parchment-thin batter.

When I interviewed Edge back in May for his book The Truck Food Cookbook: 150 Recipes and Ramblings from America's Best Restaurants on Wheels and attended the subsequent book reading, he mentioned in passing his pork chop lunch at Bailey & Cato, and expressed his disappointment about not being able to sup a few more times in the Music City before the next leg of his book tour. Good to know, then, that a little love was ladled out for an off-the-beaten-path eatery that perhaps originally only got picked thanks to proximity.

As far as I can tell, Bailey & Cato are the only restaurant whose dish isn't pictured in the Garden & Gun slideshow. Maybe the would-be photographer was busy. Maybe Bailey and Cato were busy (they almost always are). Maybe cornbread in and of itself just ain't that photogenic.

But maybe, just maybe, Bailey & Cato is a little slice of the real Southern experience to begin with, and a picture would only tell a second-rate story heard second-hand from the food, which, to this eater, speaks for itself.

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