What is it about food that I love so much? That WE love so much?
We recently took my mom to Bastion in Nashville to celebrate her birthday, belatedly. I was very excited to share this experience with her because out of all the restaurants I’ve been to in Nashville, this one by far makes me think and feel the most.
As a southerner, and as a plant ecologist, I have had the pleasure of traveling across numerous parts of my state and other areas of the southeast and beyond. It has taught me to fall in love with my state; with the biodiversity, with my roots and with our culture. It’s a culture that has its fair share of flaws, of course, but nevertheless it is my culture. What I can see through the broken shards of a complex socio-political landscape is a beautiful vestige of a life once known to most. I have to view it as a voyeur now; the outside-looking-in.
I have been able to dine in multi-million dollars homes on Lookout Mountain, I have visited with landowners in their hoarded filth single-wide trailer in Eagleville, and I’ve driven through a lost coal-country winding mountain road where no amount of rain brings relief anymore the way the opioids do. The sociopolitical geography of the south is complex, to be grossly understated.
One of my favorite experiences as a plant ecologist is the one where you’ve spent a very difficult day or consecutive days in the middle of “nowhere” – undeveloped or recovering natural landscapes devoid of any meaningful infrastructure, including trails. It is hot, there are snakes and poison ivy, there are mosquitoes and ticks, but there are beautiful sights, rare plants and solitude as well. Our romanticized views of nature that we see in outdoor outfitter advertisements melt away to what is actually the harsh reality of what it means to be outside at the mercy of the elements. A wrong move, or a stroke of bad luck and you might die, and THAT for me, is the edge that makes me understand what it truly means to live.
Often times, emerging from these excursions, the adventure is not over. Usually on my way to or from a site the drive is a long one and my comfortable home in an urban landscape fades away to reveal what is the reality of life for most folks in the south… folks who I might even be related to. These are my kin folk and they, for multifaceted reasons, are devoid of the resources that our shared ancestors had and that I have in the city.
I stop at a gas station that pricks the sprawling sod farm or breaks up the monotony of the soy field or cow pasture. They’re all the same, really. Small cinder block structures with iron-grated doors and windows plastered with cigarette and beer advertisements taped up to block the brutal southern sun. The asbestos-tiled floors are streaked with years of dirty mops moving scum around on the surface. The black streak leads you to the back closet where sometimes there’s a bathroom with a plywood door and lock that doesn’t work.
These gas stations all smell the same. Cigarettes, packaged snacks, country air and cleaning fluid. This cleaning fluid is key. It at once smells very effective, terrible for the environment and like it might kind of taste good… citrus and sugar. It’s bizarre but ubiquitous.
For me it’s just one example of an experience that sticks with me as being very southern. There is something about the humidity here that seeps in to our pores and sets this scene apart from similar ones all across America. We melt in our heat and we are fluid in life, letting what ever comes come.
What does this have to do with Bastion? With food? That flavor of life, that experience, was magically infused into numerous dishes we sampled at Bastion this week. In a setting so far removed from this other reality, Chef Josh Habiger and his staff took the salt of life and delivered it into the vain, insecure and hectic subconscious of we city dwellers. Two items stand out for me in particular. The first is a port wine served at the end of the meal. One of two (a light and dark.) The dark port tasted EXACTLY LIKE THE GAS STATIONS! I don’t mean this in a bad way. I know it sounds that way, but to me it tasted like relief. It tasted like I just found the first gas station after coming out of the field, covered in seed ticks and facing a four hour drive home. It tasted like a very specific experience of my home state. This port topped off a handful of other similar experiences he delivered that took me to other times in my life in the southeast.
Another was his pork and corn. One of the more magical experiences I’ve had as a southerner is the one of a late-night family pickin’ party after a deer hunt in the hunting cabin. There are two small rooms in the hunting cabin. One has the venison prepared and sprawled out on the table and there’s a good many of us milling around it. The other room is tiny, with only a cot to sit on and most of us stand, eat and pass the jar. There is smoke in the air from cooking the meat and you can still smell the blood that was drained hours ago. When we finish eating, we transition seamlessly into singing, taking turns with the guitar for those of us who can pick a little. We get drunk without realizing it.
The pork and corn dish encapsulated this experience in a few precious bites. Somehow that meat was smoked but the smoke wasn’t IN the meat. Instead, that first bite expelled the smoke from the meat like the spores of puffball mushroom. It wafted wistfully around in my mouth and created its own atmosphere. It was paired with a wine that was more like a homebrew cidre and made me crave the peach shine. I was floored. I wanted to cry. I was so desperate to be back in that cabin during that moment and I was so happy to be able to experience it briefly again.
I don’t know if the chef intended the meal to come off this way. This is not some restaurant that advertises itself as southern “cuisine” – a cultural appropriation that seems to closely follow the “farm-to-table” movement; both labels of which I resent greatly. The last time we ate at Bastion the meal took us to different biological landscapes. One dish made me swear I was standing in the rain in the redwoods in the Pacific Northwest while another made me swear I was cooking my foraged food over the campfire in the Blue Ridge. This time, the meal took me very specifically home.
I valued these dishes as the vestige of experiences I have had, and even as reminders of who I am and where I come from. Flavor has the ability to pass through the barrier of our self-consciousness and cut right to an emotion. Each time I’ve been to Bastion I’ve had no idea what I’m getting myself into, and each time they have delivered surprising and emotional meals.