Dinner at the James Beard House: Memphis chefs impress
In a city that boasts dozens of Michelin stars, New York City's James Beard House is a veritable altar of haute cuisine. Memphis, on the other hand, is known for rock and blues and barbecue. That's why the recent Taste of the Delta dinner at the James Beard House was so highly anticipated - how would the best chefs of the Mississippi Delta fare in the Big Apple?
History of the James Beard House
Located on West 12th Street, the James Beard House is the 19th century townhouse where the celebrated cookbook author and cooking teacher lived, worked, and attracted the glitterati of the cooking world (including Julia Child) until his passing in 1985. Now it is home to the James Beard Foundation, which strives to "celebrate, nurture, and honor America’s diverse culinary heritage."
A Taste of the Delta dinner at the James Beard House
The house's interior showcases the large kitchen, which guests can walk through (and get a close view of the food prep) after passing through a reception room. But the party started in the spacious back garden where southern-style cocktails and Memphis brews were being served.
Mixologist Brad Pitts had created two cocktails for the evening with ingredients that conjured up flavors of the deep south. The Yazoo Basin featured Cathead's Honeysuckle Vodka and Pecan and Hoodoo Chicory Liqueurs as well as ginger beer, fig, and orange peel. His second cocktail was Immigrant Song, and this one sneaked up on you with Copper & Kings American Aged Brandy with Benjamin Prichard's Sweet Lucy Bourbon based liqueur, Fernet Branca, Peychaud's Aperitivo, praline liqueur, sassafras and sorghum bitters, and lemon oil! A heavenly sip with a big kick! After sampling the cocktails, I sauntered down the bar, where I was pleased to make the acquaintance of brewer Jimmy Randall of Ghost River Brewing. He had three delicious beers on tap: Riverbank Red, a toasty red ale; Ghost River Gold, a goes-down-so-easy beer made with Munich and caramel malts; and 1887 IPA, full of earthy, spicy, Columbus hops.
Passed hors d'oeuvres made southern staples swanky: braised pork butt with creamy delta grind grits and Parmesan; fried Catfish with honey hot sauce and creole coleslaw; Delta blues brown rice kibbeh with picked green tomato and lady pea hummus; hot-water cornbread with country ham marmalade.
Having enjoyed the small bites and big sips in the garden, the crowd was ushered up to the dining room on the second floor. It was time to take our seats and experience an elegant, candlelit dinner at the James Beard House.
Authentic southern ingredients elegantly prepared
Our first course was a fantastic roasted butternut squash bisque, and it was paired beautifully with Chateau-Fuisse Tete de Cru Puilly-Fuisse 2014 (wines were chosen by Memphis-based sommelier Chris Wicher and supplied by Frederick Wildman & Sons Importers.) Then we went down home with some sumac-rubbed Home Place Pastures Tamworth Pork Belly with sweet potatoes, cauliflower, and picked heirloom carrots - served with a full-bodied Ghost River Brewing Delta Force Brown Ale - a special brew created just for the dinner. The main course was juniper and muscadine brined venison tenderloin with wild rice spoonbread and dandelion gratin. This was paired with a tremendous red wine - Bodegas El Esteco Altimus 2011. The idea of pairing such an iconic wine with elegantly prepared game really brought the evening home. These chefs were here to make a statement: the Mississippi Delta is proud of its heritage and can prepare the region's authentic ingredients in a way that appeals to the most refined palates.
After an intermezzo of melon sorbet served with jezebel sauce, the dessert brought a new take on an old-fashioned favorite: dark chocolate bread pudding with bourbon molasses truffles and pomegranate paint. It was spectacularly paired with Churchill's Late Bottled Vintage Port 2007.
The evening was not quite done, as each guest was given a dainty box of devastatingly rich and flavorful chocolate truffles created by Phillip Ashley Chocolates.
The evening was a fitting tribute to the spirit of both the Mississippi Delta and James Beard, whose culinary inspiration and joie de vivre live on through divine dinners like this.
Reader's note: I attended this event as a guest of Memphis Travel.