Monday, October 8, 2012

The Southern Foodie: 100 Places to Eat in the South Before You Die (and the Recipes That Made Them Famous), by Chris Chamberlain


One glance at the rather unwieldy subtitle of this book will tell you precisely what it is.  Nashville food writer Chris Chamberlain presents a collection of short write-ups of, well, 100 noteworthy restaurants scattered across 13 Southern states. Chamberlain doesn't limit himself to the pricey, big name, world-famous establishments--in fact, there are precious few such restaurants included here. Instead, he focuses on the relatively unknown gems; there's many a locally famous dive or inexpensive diner tucked into these pages. Or at least, I assume they're inexpensive. Chamberlain doesn't really include information about prices--not even a $, $$, $$$, and $$$$ designation to help out those of us who might have to adjust our dining plans to fit our budgets. He does provide website information, where applicable, which may include a more detailed menu complete with prices. Still, it seems a shame to force readers to consult outside sources in order to ascertain something that would be quite simple to include, especially since it's by no means unheard of to provide such information in a book like this.

Each write up is just under a page (in two-column format), and includes a short snippet about the history and/or significance of the restaurant, as well as the usual information about decor, service, and some of the best dishes that particular establishment has to offer. And they're ... fine. Ruth Reichl he ain't, but the summaries are clear and workmanlike, if not brilliant and poetic, and they get the job done. By which I mean: they make you hungry. And if you're more the skimming type, there's also a small text box at the end of each write-up that summarizes the necessary info: type of cuisine, atmosphere (could be anything from 'classy and dressy' to 'like Aunt Bea might walk out of the kitchen at any moment'), specialties, and an 'insider tip'.

The insider tips are the real gems here, if there are gems at all. Chamberlain provides extremely practical advice--everything from happy hour savings to parking tips to portion sizes to off-menu offerings to nearby attractions to carryout options to seating recommendations.

Of course, as the subtitle suggests, this is more than just a guidebook. It's a cookbook of sorts (with pictures of some, but not all, the recipes included). I haven't tried the recipes myself, but I can tell you that the subtitle is a bit misleading in at least one regard: the recipes included here are not for the 'dishes that made [the restaurants] famous.' Or at least, they're not the recipes listed by Chamberlain in the 'specialties' section of the summary text box, or listed among the recommended dishes in Chamberlain's write-ups. Which, on the one hand, I get: It makes sense that restaurants would be loathe to cough up the recipes for their specialties. It's bad business to give away your best secrets. So instead, you offer up some no-doubt tasty (but less unique or amazing) recipe. Makes total sense. What doesn't make sense, however, is Chamberlain's (or the editors'/publishers') insistence on billing this book as containing the big, famous-making recipes. It doesn't. I understand that 'and some recipes that, while not their best, are still totally yummy and worth paying for' doesn't have quite the same ring to it, but at least it would be honest.

As a reference book, the organization is rather unimpressive. The restaurants are grouped by state, but within each state, they are listed in alphabetical order. The only index is essentially an index of recipes. The book would benefit greatly from the inclusion of some sort of geographic reference material--something as simple as a one page map at the start of each section, to give readers an idea of the restaurant locations. Some are in big cities, but plenty of these establishments are in towns I've never heard of. Are they small towns in the middle of nowhere? Suburbs of the cities I do know? Who knows? Granted, I could always Google the town, but again, forcing me to consult outside sources drastically reduces the usefulness of this book.  For those travelers whose destinations are determined by factors other than Chamberlain's restaurant locations, and who, finding themselves in a Southern town, wonder if there's a noteworthy restaurant nearby, maps would be extremely helpful.

All in all, it's a decent--if unimpressive--book, even if it can't make up its mind whether it's a practical guide (as the 'insider tips' would suggest) or just for show (as the lack of price information and maps would suggest). I probably wouldn't pay much for it, since I'd have to use the internet to figure out prices ranges and, in many cases, location, at which point I might as well just use the many free resources the internet has to offer instead of paying for this book.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” 

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