En Route to Bonnaroo: Athens

The Southern Sojourn
June 2011

Aside from the general desire to share my wanderings, the flavors and the general feel of the South inspired me in ways that will be evident and bear a background story.  Accordingly, I present the city-by-city recap of my Southern Sojourn.

Now for Athens…

I met Jake about one year ago when he was visiting our mutual friend.  He came to Pittsburgh via Athens, Georgia, bearing beef from the farm-to-table restaurant, where he worked as both a farmer and a sous chef.  Ever since that outdoor meal we all shared, I had been dreaming of eating at Farm 255.  Fast forward to the Southern Sojourn, and I was en route to Athens with menu items swirling in my head.

What I knew of Athens, Georgia was this:  despite the name implication, Of Montreal was from there, Jake worked on a farm there, and the farm supplied an amazing restaurant.  That about summarizes what I knew of Athens and incidentally, indicates the lack of research surrounding the whirlwind trip (what we are calling “spontaneity”).  Sandra and I were picturing a smaller, dustier, southern city.  We neglected the University of Georgia in our calculations, so the scale and the general happenings surrounding our arrival pleasantly surprised us.

(Click on the above image to see the full set of Athens photos)

Appropriately enough, our first stop was the restaurant, where Jake and his father, who was also visiting, joined us shortly thereafter.  We only had a few moments to explore the interior, but everything I saw from the old wood, the brickwork and the chipping paints of cupboards, to the long curve of the bar, I liked.  However, on a summer evening, the patio was the place to be.

A little bit more about Farm 255 from the folks who know it best:

Farm 255 is a restaurant that seeks to reconnect food to its roots & people to their food. We serve local, seasonal, & sustainable food sourced from our own farms. In addition to the Farm we operate full moon farms and moonshine meats, a cooperative of small farms that cultivate a diversity of fruits, vegetables, and meat in and around the Athens area. We are the folks sowing turnip seeds in the morning and cooking turnip greens in the evening. We supplement our own harvests with those of other local family farmers and ranchers that avoid harmful chemicals and practice sustainable agriculture.

Our menu, based on the seasonal shifts in the field, changes as often as the weather. We raise our own livestock, and utilize whole animals & all the various cuts of meat throughout our menu. We serve lunch on our patio out of farm cart, our moveable feast, offering an economical and everyday option for eating locally and sustainably. We are as committed to good community as we are to our cuisine. We have an open kitchen so that dinner is a dialogue, where the farmer-chefs and diner-neighbors can have a meaningful exchange. 

Based on that description, why wouldn’t I spend a year pining after a meal at Farm 255?  Finally, the long awaited dining moment was upon me.

“I would suggest you start with a ‘pop pop’ to drink,” Jake recommended as we began taking our first glances at the menus.

“What’s a ‘pop pop?’”  I asked so very unnecessarily, for after Jake said, “Bombay dry gin, sweet tea and mint,” I was sold!  One sip into the drink, and I learned to shut up and accept Jake’s drink suggestions wholeheartedly.

The meal began with the most extensive butcher board I have ever received, fitting for a restaurant linked to a place called “Pork Chop Hill.”  Jake walked us through the long wooden board of names I knew well- pork sausage, chicken liver mousse, country ham, bresaola, pastrami, pork belly confit, hard boiled egg, housemade sauerkraut, pickles, radishes, Dijon and bread- but their flavors came to life in a very different way.

I quickly forgot which name linked to which portion of the extensive board, but in the moments of mouth watering first tastes, the names were highly inconsequential.  Whereas I previously associated pastrami with deli sandwiches I avoid (probably because I mainly see pastrami on Pittsburgh menus where the slices usually come between pieces of flavorless white bread, mysterious cream condiments and most likely French fries), this pastrami became a new favorite.  The vibrant red chunks of pastrami were cut thicker than the average deli spread, and the tender strips of meat melted in my mouth.  The pork belly confit was another favorite, and the house-pickled sides complimented all of it.  It was heaven on a wooden board.  How could any religion ban these foods from its followers?

As if we needed more proof of the merits of the farm-to-table movement, our next course arrived at the table.  I had already decided, while mentally preparing in Savannah, I would eat the pork chop for two main reasons:

1.  The pork chop came with peaches, and when in Georgia, eat a peach!
2.  If the chops come from the same town, eat the pork!

Sandra ordered the coq au vin, and Jake’s dad decided upon shrimp and grits.  There were plenty of flavors to be sampled all around the table, but barely enough tabletop to contain our feast.  The perk of having the sous chef attend our meal came tucked under my peach porkchop:  the “secret ribs!”  What a bonus!

We sat and stared at our picked over plates for a while.  There was no room for dessert, but there was time to enjoy the night, the remains of “pop pop” number two and the company of new friends.

Susannah and her husband, Tad, were Athenians making their rounds to places they appreciated the most, which brought them to Farm 255 for late night drinks and to our table to hang with Jake.  Their upcoming trip to the Gambia had inspired their Athens rounds.  I was really intrigued by, and slightly envious of, their upcoming journey to study agriculture for months in Africa.  What an opportunity!  In the meantime, I vicariously enjoyed their plans and reminded myself of the travel adventures that had brought me to the table.

The evening in Athens ended at Chez Jake with a Georgian nightcap- whiskey, sweet tea and muddled peach- proving once again that Jake was not to be doubted in the cocktail department.

The next morning, we went from the table to the farm to visit the source of our meal:  Pork Chop Hill.  Accompanied by the canine friends, June Bug and Bustie (short for Le Bustier?), Jake’s truck was farm bound.  The end of a dusty road revealed Berkshire/Tamworth pigs wallowing in vibrant, rust colored soil.  These were massive pigs, and they were eager to soak up the hose water Jake splashed their way.  These were the massive pigs behind our meal (or future meals rather), and seeing these pigs in their environment went a long way to explain the quality of our dinner.  We left the pigs wallowing and went on our respective Athens ways, Jake to the restaurant and we girls to the shower.

While we packed our bags, and while I tried to find a way to take June Bug home with me, we could hear the tinkering sounds of the neighbors through the shared wall of Jake’s lofted home.  Remember how I said I knew Of Montreal was from Athens, despite the implication of the name?  What I didn’t know was the band members lived right next to Jake!  These were the tinkerings of the band who can make me dance with the words “Suffer for Fashion.”

Alas, I left June Bug to her owner, locked the loft door, and we went into Athens for the last time for this round.  After a quick stroll around the main drag and the score of a pearl-buttoned plaid shirt from the local vintage supply, it was time for lunch.  We asked the store clerk for suggestions, but in the end, we couldn’t risk a meal below the par of Farm 255, knowing that such a high standard of food was available.

We took the safe and delicious route with a slight variation- lunch from the Farm Cart, the mobile version of the restaurant.  As we approached the window to order, we heard our names, and there was a new friend Susannah.  We weren’t the only ones back again, so we all had a lovely, farm cart lunch in the sunshine of a Georgian afternoon.  Burgers and banh mis!

Our last taste of Athens came from 1000 Faces Coffee, the coffee spot near Farm 255, and I have been craving my chosen coffee beverage ever since.  Upon requesting an iced latte to sip on the patio, the barrista suggested I try the New Orleans style iced coffee.  Once he described the drink, I agreed quite readily:  cold brewed coffee and chicory with a little bit of cream.  The iced nutty and smooth flavor was the perfect finale for the city, and it may be the very craving that brings me back again very soon.

The Southern Sojourn continued!  Stay tuned…

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