I needed off the couch, I needed to go, but I couldn’t decide where I needed to go, where I
needed to be. I was sick of being chained to my desk, of sitting and watching television. Even
my dogs were sick of me. Earlier in the morning I had caught a glimpse of Zevon, my 80-pound
pit bull, looking at me with a side eye, his face somewhere near disdain.

“Go somewhere, do something,” he snarled, “I’m sick of you.”

I had a four-day pass from work, a nice break, though not long enough to escape anywhere

Lately, I’d been reading Southern Provisions, The Creation and Revival of a Cuisine, by David S
Shields so southern food was on my mind.

And for me, it was impossible to read about southern food without suffering the irresistible
urge to travel. I wanted to go in search of all that constitutes southern food, and its culinary kin,
soul food. When I lived in the South, those urges were easily satisfied by a simple trip up the street to the nearby barbeque shack or local meat and three diner.

Once summoned back north, however, southern food- the real thing- became a rarity in my life.
There were lots of places claiming to offer southern food, but they all fell short of the mark-
some very far from the mark. They made the recipes often found on southern menus, but they
didn’t get it right. Most places around here, at best, make almost southern food. Nearly always,
even in the near South, southern food was not.

Of course, there’s no official cookbook, no list of what constitutes official southern food,
because here’s the strange thing: just as we all agree there’s a cuisine called Mediterranean
food, it’s impossible to obtain consensus as to what exactly constitutes Mediterranean food.
In the same way, there is no single code as to what constitutes southern food, or its regional
variations: bluegrass, tidewater, Cajun and Creole etc.; it’s almost easier to state what southern
food is not.

Why? Why is it so hard to define what constitutes southern food and why did the food that I
encountered in even the near south- fail to recreate the genuine foods of the south?

Let’s put a pin in that for now, I don’t want to dive straight into the deep end.

I do want to finish making the point that ever since I left the South, I’ve found it damn near
impossible to satisfy that desire without going to the source. The mountain was not coming to
Mohammed, so I had to go to the source.

Southern food became traveling food.

So where to?

I’d been wanting to go to Louisville for a weekend, to stay at the one of the great old dame hotels there- the Brown or the Seelbach. Maybe eat at the Oak Room or 610 Magnolia. But that wasn’t going to happen this weekend as it was Derby weekend and I needed no part of that mess, even if I could get reservation, which I could not.


As much as I love the mountains, and Asheville in particular, anywhere popular before covid was now a shitshow. Everyone wanted to travel and hotel rates had doubled- when a room could be found.

A night in The Grove Park Inn, one of my favorite all time bolt holes, complete with fireplaces big enough to roast an ox, quarter sawn oak furniture, walls built of boulders ripped from local hills and a dining room with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the mountains and the town, (which became incandescent as the sun came down), would run $400.00. Dinner would be another $100.00, easy.

No, Asheville and any worthwhile restaurants there would be packed.

The same would be true of Savanah or Charleston, besides there really wasn’t time to get to the coast.

Then, I received the following email from brother Matt.

Mind of a Chef – season 2

Follows Chef Sean Brock and his efforts to resurrect southern food from heirloom seed banks and family passed down traditions. Really interesting and on par with our latest discussions.

Also, we need to take a trip….

To which I replied:

Thanks for sending. I’ve seen all of these episodes 2-3 times. I esp love the Brock episode. And for the record, I’m up for a roadie any time. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about southern food. In fact, I’m reading David Shield’s Southern Provisions that is apparently the bible of the movement. 

Hmmm 4 days off after today. What to do. A tour of the best bbq joints in ky.?

Which generated the following response:

Picked up that Shields book last week. Interesting guy.

Moonlite BBQ in Owensboro has my vote. They have a buffet that almost killed me. Big pot of burgoo at the end. 

Bluegrass Hall of Fame down the street.

Bring me back a doggie bag.

I looked at the large map of the US that hangs above my desk. Owensboro, Owensboro, Owensboro? I should know Owensboro, but I couldn’t place it.  And then I found it, halfway between Louisville and Paducah.

I’ve been meaning to get down that way for a long while now.

I had heard grumblings of a nascent food movement there. And I had recently read about Henderson Kentucky.  And Paducah was only another 100 miles or so from Henderson.

Best of all, I have not heard the names of any of these towns bandied about by the cut and paste internet travel twits.

It would be a trip that would clock in at just about 1000 miles for the weekend. Not too bad on the madness chart. And a trip down the Ohio would serve as a nice bookend to the recent trip upriver to Marietta and Pittsburgh which I was in the process of writing….

I sent back the following scree….


As much as I value our friendship- I cannot let search important assertions go unchecked. I have booked a hotel room and will be dining at Moonlite Bar-BQ Inn this evening.

While I’m at it- I’ll be checking out Hendersonville and Paducah as well- allegedly up and coming food bergs.

I was packed in an hour and on the road.

And then the stupidity commenced.

It was only 150 miles or so from my home in Southeast Ohio to Owensboro Kentucky. The trip should have been child’s play, but of course nothing is easy especially when you’re discussing travel after covid.

I’m not going to blather on, simply suffice it to say that there was more than 150 miles of bad highway between myself and Owensboro, which included a forty-five-minute wait for four dollar a gallon gasoline at Costco.

And it wasn’t just a question of miles and time, the trip also featured incredibly fucked up traffic, cars packed full of people who still have not figured out how to drive since the end of plague. At one point I looked up to find a truck- for no apparent reason- stopped in front of me in the center lane of the highway, there were screeching brakes and I went briefly sideways.

Not that I expected better from the start. The trip down 71, especially from Walton Ky to Louisville, is always a shit show. The highway there is narrow, and often without shoulders. In places, it’s hilly, rising and falling like rough lake waves during a Lake Superior thunderstorm.  The undulating road is also full of turns, poorly maintained and packed with tourists, and truckers, who are always in a hurry.

Drivers are constantly racing to pass one and other, even though there’s nowhere to go. Endless empty headed fools race to pass one and other, only to find- after they cut off the car they just passed- an endless line of cars before them once they do pass.

They then inevitably brake, endangering the drivers they just cut off, causing them to hit their brakes causing everyone behind them to suddenly brake and thus slowing traffic further, causing other aggrieved drivers to punch the gas and race to nowhere.

It’s an endless and stressful and infuriating game of gun and brake which never seems to end. In short, it’s my good fortunate to live atop one of my least favorite stretches of highway in this entire country, and I’ve driven damn near most of them. On so many trips, this congested stretch of hell has proven often to be what stands between myself and my destination.

Yet, as always, I survived the drive and once I did clear Louisville, I found that to get to Owensboro it was necessary to travel through Southern Indiana for most of the trip.

Which is not, in and of itself a problem, save for the general reality that your average Indiana driver is a bigger knucklehead than your average Kentucky driver, though enough of geographical disparaging.

Once in Indiana, the sardine like traffic and tight deciduous hills eventually give way to a more open country of rolling graceful hills. The gray skies lifted, and the sun even made an appearance.

The fields beyond the highway were also covered, in varying degrees, with bright yellow flowers I did not know. They could have been an early crop or simply wildflowers. Whatever the case, the bright flowers provided a calming and welcome harmony with the late spring greenery and I began to breathe again.

I did eventually find my way to the cheap motel which had, at least, the advantage of being just down the street from Moonlite Bar-BQ Inn

I checked in, stashed my gear and by then it was dinner time. I made my way to the Moonlite.

The Moonlite Bar-BQ Inn’s, location, it should be noted, is neither scenic nor auspicious.

It’s located on the edge of town, on a strip of four lane commercial slash and burn blight typical of so many small towns in America these days. Though given that the Moonlite has been in business for sixty years, the reality is that the blight undoubtedly came to them.

Once, I thought, the Moonlite probably was in a bucolic setting.

Nevertheless, the next thing I noticed about the Moonlite was that it is not a typical small beaten, worn, side of the road shack surrounded by a gravel lot full of pickups.

Rather, it’s a damn large place. There is an expansive parking lot in the back, about two acres, which was nearly full.

Walking in, a young woman confronted me. She appeared to be having a difficult day.

“Can I help you?” she asked without warmth while picking up a paper menu and leading me to a four top just inside the front room. It had a splendid view of the waiter station.

I thought about asking for a different table, but I quickly calculated that I had walked into a popular restaurant in a small town on Friday evening and had been immediately seated so I decided not to be that dick.

At that, I glanced about, noting that I was in a good size front room, from where one could see the next room with its several large buffets, and beyond that, at least one other large dining room.

The waitress came and she was sincere and warm and full of smiles.

She explained to me that just about everyone ordered the buffet and if that was fine with me, I could go ahead and help myself and did I want anything to drink?

I ordered the unfashionable unsweet iced tea and found my way to the next room which held two busy buffets.

To the right was hot food including casseroles and various vegetables properly cooked within an inch of their lives, including carrots and broccoli. There were also all forms of classic southern fare: biscuits and brisket with breaded shrimp, catfish fillets as well as whole breaded and deep fried catfish, sliced pork, pork spareribs, cornbread muffins, shoe peg corn, greens, and fried apples and yes, of course, sweet Jesus, fried okra.

In the North and near South I see competently deep fried okra maybe once a year.

On the other side of the room was a large salad bar- essentially the same large salad bar you’d see at any decent steakhouse.

There was also, along a mirrored tile wall, a very large selection of fresh pies and cobblers. I would hear my physician screaming from 150 miles away.

Culinary nirvana.

And there were, of course, hush puppies and the hushpuppies looked the best- small, perfectly round and fried to a medium brown crisp. There was a small bowl of sorghum at the end of buffet. Disappointingly, there was no burgoo.

There was also no buttermilk pie, as advertised, but there was banana pudding and lemon meringue pie.

The walls along the buffet were full of photos and proclamations- Bubba Clinton was apparently a big fan. There was a letter of thanks from the Ky Supreme Court- not something you see in a many BBQ houses.

According to my homework Moonlite Bar-BQ Inn had been in business since 1963. It was a well-worn but very clean place.

It had a warm and had a homey feel. The place was full.

My homework also told me that the Moonlite often entertained visitors from near and far, though this was clearly a local crowd. People chatted easily from table to table, stopping by tables to say hello and to ask of one another.

All and all, it was still a diverse crowd.

White haired Southern gentleman in khakis and starched collared shirts under expensive pullovers mixing with truck drivers and laborers in baggy Carhartt T-Shirts and dirty blue jeans. There were young women with ball capped boyfriends and husbands in tow and a consonant flow of families, often with young children.

I listened.

What I did not hear, despite the numbers of young children inside, were any misbehaved or screaming children, nor did I hear any loud drunks; or self-absorbed foodies or other form of social media lunatics seeking to make themselves the center of attention by loudly bloviating on topics no one cared about.

There was one gentleman across the room who was sounding forth in stentorian tones with a great deep southern accent. He was not lecturing on any esoteric topic but was simply discussing the matters of the day and his voice struck me as a welcome soundtrack to the evening. Closing one’s eyes and listening to him made me think of Larry Munson calling the University of Georgia’s football games or Keith Jackson calling the college game of the week- say maybe Auburn vs. LSU.

Sitting across the aisle from me and in direct view were a couple in a booth. They were about thirty. They sat down for a minute and then got up and went to the buffet. After coming back, they set their plates of food on the table before and without speaking a word to one and other, reached out, took hands, bowed their heads, said a few words of prayer, released their hands, crossed themselves and then met eyes with a smile.

There was not an ounce of artificiality in their actions. They were very quiet and had I not been looking in their direction, simply by virtue of the fact of where I sat, I would have never noticed them.  Their actions hit me hard. I couldn’t remember the last time that I saw such a genuine act of affection and religious expression executed in such a humble and honest manner.

Their actions were completely devoid of the showmanship or politics one so often encounters these days. It was, rather, a genuine expression of honest belief.

These small moments came together, and I realized, appreciated, that I was honestly back in the South again.

I was in the South, the real South, not the artificially recreated South, not the Popeye’s Chicken South or the Cracker Barrell South, but the honest to the God authentic kudzu, sweet tea and fried chicken livers in the glass and aluminum food case beside the register in the gas station South.

To say such a thing, of course, is to invite discussion if not a vociferous argument. For what was the South?

When, for that matter, did the South arise?

What states constitute the South?

History reveals there to be more confusion than clarity on these issues.

Even the players themselves are uncertain. In a recent Five Thirty-Eight poll, Kentuckians themselves split evenly as to whether their state was a part of the South.

And what constitutes southern food is an even more contentious and ambiguous topic reminiscent of other attempts to define squishy topics such as pornography and the aforementioned Mediterranean food.

For just as Supreme Court Justice Stewart Potter attempted to define pornography, or what is obscene, by saying, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced… but I know it when I see it ..”; or as chef and author Clifford A Wright more eloquently confessed in A Mediterranean Feast, “So called Mediterranean Foods are served every day in restaurants in America, yet we can give only an inchoate answer to the question: ‘What is Mediterranean cuisine’”?

The consensus seems to be that there is no clear-cut answer as to the exact identity of the South or which foods should be definitively recognized as being southern or even when the South rose from the dusty bins of history.

Shields in Southern Provisions  explains that “The South… as a cultural identity, is of relatively recent vintage. “

“When did the South begin,” Shields ponders. “When,” he asks, “did people over the region begin confessing a regional identity?”

“Historians wrangle over the nativity,” he tells us.

Thus, our ability to conclusively agree on what constitutes southern food is hampered by our inability to define the temporal and geographic identities of the region- for how can food be southern if the cuisine arises from a land which is not a part of the South?

Or, as Shields more eloquently notes, “to speak of southern food before there is a conscious South risks incoherence.”

Ultimately, the South and Southern food, like the Mediterranean and Mediterranean food, both remain ambiguous concepts as both are, as Mr. Wright would have it “composed of many cultures and there seems to be no single image that represents a magical unity.”

And yet, such a lack of academic agreement does not mean that one cannot appreciate that one is in the South. There are any number of tell-tale signs, any number of which I recognized inside the Moonlite.

For instance, manners and civility. I can’t remember the last time I spent an hour in a restaurant and left feeling relaxed, or for that matter, left without wanting to stab someone in the eye.

I not only felt relaxed at the Moonlite, I felt welcome, I felt at home, in the best sense of the word.

There is a term in the South, which anyone who has lived there for any time knows: that term is fellowship. Fellowship suggests a warm conviviality, an intimacy or closeness shared between people and or groups of people even despite personal differences.

The Cambridge Dictionary helpfully clarifies that “fellowship is a friendly feeling that exists between people who have a shared interest or are doing something as a group.”

I’d almost forgotten about the fellowship until I went back to Moonlite.  But once I there and seated and relaxed, it all came rushing back. I remembered that that one of the things I loved the most about the South was manners.

Manners belonged to all classes. No one, in the true South, I grew to love over the decades I spent living and wondering there, was too poor to afford manners.

In the true South, with many many exceptions, there are certain things that transcend even the most basic differences held by the people who live there.

Food, manners and fellowship all transcend differences such as religion and politics and/or love of your favorite college football team.

For instance, I spent decades avoiding Texas given that there was so much there that I disdained. For decades, I drove, on any numb er of occasions, hundreds of miles out of my way to avoid being in the state for any period.

And then, I couldn’t avoid Texas any longer.

I found myself having to drive damn near the breadth of Texas. I drove from Roswell NM to Dallas and then north. I drove across the desert and through endless tattered dilapidated, half abandoned towns and the endless exurban hell of Dallas.

I stayed during that trip in some small unforgotten town with someone I had never met- they rented out a bedroom through Air BNB. I was in their home for a half hour when they insisted that I go with them to their church, a local Baptist church, for Sunday Potluck Dinner.

Into the belly of the beast, I thought.

Years later I can’t recall much except that I was warmly received and fed and made to feel at home by people I had never met, people who didn’t know me.

I would bet everything I own that at least 80% of those people in that basement church room had very different views on damn near everything that mattered to me, and yet, they never allowed those views to overtake the fellowship I experienced that evening.

I once also had an opportunity to meet and speak with former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. I was in law school. He gave a speech which was funny and droll and enlightening.  He then was gracious enough to stand online greeting all of us, speaking with each of us and briefly answering questions. I was drafting a paper about a topic on which he had recently wrote a majority opinion.

I had question about the case, and he answered my questions with civility and humor.

A friend the next day asked me how my time with Scalia went. He knew that I despised the man and his politics. “It’s a horrible thing to learn,” I explained to him, “that a man you count as an enemy is gracious, kind and funny.”

So goes Texas and so goes, especially, of late, the South as a whole.

I hate wide swaths of the South these days and yet, it’s a complex and difficult world. Fellowship and manners sometimes (sometimes not) allow us to navigate that world with a certain amount of grace, if not ease.

Some of the time, at least. Drifting into such pockets of civility eases the pain of living in an ever increasingly hostile and ignorant world.

I’m guessing 50% of the people with whom I shared the Moonlite that night, did not share my religion or politics. I can’t tell you that for certain however because none of them made it a point of lecturing me on same or expressing their beliefs in an empty headed, let alone belligerent manner. No one asked my about my convictions. I was more than happy to return the favor and share their barbeque mutton and pork.

We simply sat together as human beings enjoying a very good meal after a long week, enjoying ourselves, enjoying our families.

It seemed, that at least in this small corner of the South, manners still ruled the day, no matter one’s class or station in life.

I can find southern food at home, yet none of these places offer fellowship on or off the menu.

It occurred to me driving to Henderson the next day that true southern food  is not just a matter of cuisine, it’s a matter of culture. Manners, fellowship must be served with the Barbeque.

There’s a woman called Tootsie- she’s 80 years old, works full-time during the week as a school custodian, and on the weekends she arises at 2 am and fires and tends the barbeque pits at Snow’s Barbeque in Lexington Texas. She was a part of a recent Netflix series about Barbecue in America. In that show she had this to say about the importance of food and it’s power to unite:

Growing up in a small town,  one day a year we’d have a community picnic, everybody would fry up a chicken, make potato salad and blueberry cobblers and in the afternoon we’d play  baseball. To think back on fun we had, I miss that, nowadays we’re too far away from each other, it seems like everyone is too fast and in too big a rush and don’t have time.  Barbeque brings people together, it gives people time to visit with each other more, people just kind of slow down to speak to one and other and look at the bright side of life, a lot of people don’t realize what a wonderful feeling that is.

Oh, and the food at the Moonlite?

It’s the real deal, made by people who take pride in their work and who clearly sweat over the food’s preparation all day. The buffet groans under a large selection of traditionally southern foods.

The Moonlite Bar-BQ Inn does have authentic Western Kentucky Barbeque, which means smoked mutton, as well as barbecue spareribs, sliced pork, navy beans, shoe peg corn, sweet potatoes and countless other sides. They have entire breaded catfish, and the sight of that alone damn near made me weep.

And the brisket at the Moonlite was as good as the brisket at the small neighborhood barbeque house which stands just 300 yards from my home.

My local barbecue house does not have dine-in seating and occupies a very modest corner of a very modest strip mall. Yet the food, the brisket is, nevertheless, the byproduct of a trained and dedicated culinary professional who’s clearly infatuated with what he does.

And while the Moonlite serves mutton and a few other excellent sides not available at my local barbecue house, I could have enjoyed and replicated essentially the same dinner I had at the Moonlite and spared myself the cost of a hotel room, $50 in gas and 6 hours on the road-roundtrip- without meeting countless jackasses and knuckleheads 

What I could not have replicated by going to my local barbecue establishment was the culture and ambience I found at the Moonlite. I would not have been reminded that this is still a large country with many diverse cultures and that there are still many people with whom I need to share fellowship.

It wasn’t the best BBQ I’ve ever had, but it was damn good and because they fed my heart, soul and belly, it was easily worth the effort.