Wednesday, October 27, 2010


LYNCHBURG (pop. 361), Tennessee. Five years ago it was the whiskey maker’s location and the Jack Daniel’s legend that caught my eye. I found to my delight that the venerable distillery in lovely rural Tennessee was host to the world’s most prestigious and selective barbecue competition. I've returned every year to my favorite event in America.
They came in October’s leaf season to compete in “The Jack,” as it is known, sporting names like Parrothead Smokers, Pickin’ Porkers, Phat Jack’s and Smokin’ Lipps, part of more than 100 American teams and 21 international teams including Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Puerto Rico, Switzerland and the United Kingdom selected for the 22nd Annual Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue. This is the world’s most prestigious barbecue competition where slow cookers battle the flames in Jack Daniel’s Hollow.  This year’s grand champion, QUAU from Brimfield, Illinois savored their cash prize and priceless bragging rights.

Lynchburg, like Jack Daniel’s, is pure Americana. Nestled in the rolling hills between Nashville and Chattanooga, the village has a Currier and Ives feel and all the color and whimsy of a Grandma Moses painting. The Jack Daniel’s Distillery, the oldest registered distillery in the United States, operates on the same grounds where in 1866 it began, a fabled fixture on the National Register of Historic Places. 

“Barbecue competition is serious business and the rules for participation and winning are strictly enforced,” said one of the high-profile judges, television celebrity Kelly Sutton, morning news anchor at Nashville’s WZTV. To compete at The Jack, domestic teams must have in the past year won a state championship with 25 teams or a competition of 50 teams, or have won an event considered an automatic to the event like the American Royal, Memphis in May or Houston World Championship.

More than 35,000 people descended on Lynchburg to bask in the aroma of award-winning barbecue. “Being on the professional barbecue circuit is a way of life, and many people spend their whole lives trying to get to The Jack,” said Lynne Tolley, great-grandniece of Jack Daniel.  “After a long season of cooking and qualifying, just getting here is a reward in itself. Every year we are amazed at how the interest grows.”

Silky Sullivan, the legendary Memphis restaurant and bar owner and high profile judge at The Jack, once prepared barbecue in Moscow’s Red Square. A peerless raconteur, Sullivan says “barbecue pairs nicely with Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 Tennessee Whiskey.” It’s a natural fit, Lynchburg’s gift to the world.

Monday, October 18, 2010



 “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

ATLANTA--Emory University has a rather impressive Presidential Distinguished Professor. His name is His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama and he came to the Atlanta campus, a place he now calls “my university,” to lecture and participate in discussions. The weather was near perfect and the topics timely for students and adults.

The first all-day conference brought leading scientists and educators into dialogue with the Dalai Lama to discuss the state of current research on empathy and compassion, the scientific study of meditation practices for cultivating compassion, and the implementation of such meditation programs in various clinical and educational settings. The importance of empathy and compassion for human flourishing is being increasingly recognized in the fields of psychology, neuroscience, medicine and contemplative science.

The following day’s program brought together on Emory’s stage internationally known humanitarian and award-winning actor Richard Gere with Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Georgia native Alice Walker for "The Creative Journey: Artists in Conversation with the Dalai Lama on Spirituality and Creativity."  The topics included: How do the arts help us to express, or indeed to uncover, our spiritual yearnings and questions or certainties?  What do the artist and the spiritual master have to teach each other from their respective disciplines?  What is the role of tradition (or, conversely, iconoclasm) in maintaining or renewing art and spiritual life?  Is the human being innately spiritual, innately artistic? 

Emory University continues to be the intellectual and academic epicenter of the New South and beyond. I will be writing columns about these momentous events, placing certain aspects of this special visit in context of Atlanta and the South’s history along with the development of new understandings and visions.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


Spirits, Grandeur and Friendship

GUADALAJARA. The Tequila volcano peak reaches almost three miles, a mighty sentinel overlooking the primary Tequila distilleries and agave fields of Mexico.  According to legend, the agave embodies the spirit of the goddess Mayahuel, a divinity that possessed four hundred breasts to nurture four hundred offspring. Thus, some of the mystique of Tequila, made from the agave, a lily that thrives in the volcanic soil and blazing sunshine of the highlands and lowlands in the state of Jalisco.

Journalist Sheila Callahan at Casa Patron
Guadalajara, a city of approximately five million and host to the 2011 Pan American Games, is on same latitude as Hawaii. The universe was planned with more than one earthly paradise and here is the perfect beginning for traveling the Tequila trail.

Mexico is rich in history and heritage: Mariachi music, well-mannered people with beautiful children, remnants of ancient civilizations, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera and, of course Tequila. The regal spirit’s essentials, when understood, opens the door to more drinking enjoyment. Blanco is clear and aged no more than 60 days in stainless steel tanks. Reposado (rested), the best-selling Tequila in Mexico, is aged in wood for a minimum of two months, while Añejo (old) Tequila, is aged in wooden barrels, which sometimes are used Bourbon or even Bordeaux barrels, for a minimum of 12 months with some aged up to four years.

Tequila appreciation begins with the blue agave, a very hardy plant harvested by rugged jimadores. The resulting heart or piña (it looks like a giant pineapple) finds its way to one of the distilleries in the region. It is cut, placed in ovens, steam baked and the carbohydrate transformed to fructose. Then it is fermented, distilled, bottled and labeled.

Many of the distilleries are quite familiar: Sauza, Don Julio, Jose Cuervo, Herradura, Cazadores and Patron are Tequila powerhouses with a global presence. These are dominant brands with technologically advanced facilities located in breathtaking venues that Mexico justifiably showcases. A week into the Tequila trail and you realizes that these are comparable to the Bourbon and whiskey distilleries of Kentucky and Tennessee.

Although spirits like Bourbon and whiskey are different in composition and taste, the share common ground with premium tequila. There are rigidly enforced procedures, formulas and regulations. Tequila’s trustworthiness ranks alongside Cognac and Champagne.
 Some traditionalists say that Tequila should be consumed in particular ways that honor the spirit. A popular chaser is Sangrita, a tangy mixture of tomato and orange juice. Blanco and Reposado are often sipped out of a caballito or shot glass. Añejo, say many others, should be served in a French snifter. Atlanta Mixologist Stephanie Ruhe suggests a glass by Riedel, one she says is “similar to a flute glass. It’s delicately designed and aesthetically suitable for gentler Tequila enjoyment.” And, drinking straight spirits, even the noble Tequila isn’t always appealing to women. It gets hot here in the Deep South and there’s nothing taboo about ice.

Tequila is Experience Blacno, Reposado and Añejo and then determine what you prefer. Enjoy it straight, on rocks or add a splash of lime to a rich Añejo. Tequila, one of the world’s great spirits, is multidimensional. The added complexity from a measure of Cointreau, Triple Sec or Combier magnifies the Tequila experience. Design your own cocktail.

Tequila remains the blue agave’s gift to the world.

Saturday, October 2, 2010



It is a hallowed culinary ritual down here, inextricably tied to NASCAR races, college and NFL football. Tailgating is core heritage, vital bedrock, and a supersized, high-octane picnic as Deep South as grits with red-eye gravy. Many wonder where it began. Frank Spence, a former top Atlanta Braves executive and a respected student of Southern customs believes that the 1861 “Great Skeedadle” and the law of unintended consequences launched the first tailgating party. A native of Nashville, Spence was referring to the Union Army retreat after the first battle of Bull Run. “Accompanied by beautiful women, Congressmen set up colorful tents for a fancy hillside picnic to view the assumed destruction of General Lee’s rookie army.

Unaware of the looming disaster, party wagons-forerunners of today’s caterers- arrived loaded with picnic baskets filled with fancy food, and cases of expensive French Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne. Reacting to the sudden bad turn of events, lawmakers and their ladies fled back to Washington’s fortified safety, abandoning the delicious goodies. Exhausted Southern soldiers removed the food and wine from the rear of the wagons and celebrated, going home after the war to share the amazing memories with others.” Thus, claims the ebullient Mr. Spence, “tailgatin’ was born.”


There is an art to producing a successful tailgate experience. The formula, according to authorities like Josh Butler, the acclaimed chef for three Florida governors, includes an outdoor venue, friends and family, wonderful food and  appropriate things to drink. “Combine everything,” says Butler, who can lay claim as one of Florida’s most accomplished celebrity chefs, “and you have magic, a feast for the ages.”

Tailgating food should be informal, even casual. One secret is the little things served. I found the combination of charm and down-home cooking in a line of products made in Norman Park, Georgia, not far from the Florida border. Lauri Jo’s Southern Style Canning,, features pickled okra, pickled asparagus and green tomatoes and much more. This began as a hobby at a local high school canning plant and blossomed into a full-blown family owned and operated business with sales in 16 states including the Florida Panhandle. The products are unique to the South. 

The pickled okra can be rolled in cream cheese and wrapped in honey ham for an unforgettable snack. The picked asparagus is a nice touch for a bloody mary stirrer and if fish-smoked, grilled or fried- is on the tailgate menu, the pickled green tomatoes provide extra mojo before kickoff.


The debate rages about the best tailgating culture. LSU, Auburn, Alabama, FSU and Florida make a convincing case, but then there’s Nascar. A weekend tailgating at Talladega just outside Birmingham will cast out any doubts that tailgating, just like barbeque and grilling, is solid, red-blooded Americana, a tradition that is only going to grow stronger.

Tailgating at LaGrange (Georgia) High School could put many colleges to shame.  Five years ago, a couple of students decided to form there own spirit group called the "Blue Crew" selling T-Shirts, using the profits for hot dogs and hamburgers given to those who wore the shits for football games.  The crew has grown. The night before each game, the guys go to the grocery store and purchase enough hamburgers and hotdogs to feed an average crowd of 200. The group is so large they have to start cooking early to feed everyone.  The young ladies are in charge of setting up the serving line and assembling the cheeseburgers and hotdogs while the guys cook. Out of this, chefs will be born.


Beer or sweet tea remain constant staples, but based on my first-hand observations,  tailgaters are getting more sophisticated and gravitating to sparkling wines plus white and red still wines, particularly those that are light and handle a chill. Heaven knows, Tequila will forever have a prominent place with the tailgating bartenders. However, the objective is not serving alcohol; it’s compatability with the food. All these fit with the customary tailgating menu of Southern picnic-style dishes.

A variation would be Sangria. It’s easy to make, very popular and recipes are found all over the Internet and in cookbooks. For more drama, there are Mojitos, Daiquiris and even Martinis.

My favorite tailgating memory began after a game in the parking lot just outside FSU’s Doak Campbell Stadium. Most football fans were tired and hot, but our gang was just getting warmed up. Some members of FSU’s marching band came by and we made a deal. If they would serenade us and beat wild rhythms on those amazing drums, we would include them in the post-game feast.

Three more hours of fun. A legendary tailgating soiree.