By Robert St. John
For the past 23 years I have written a 1,000-word column every Monday morning. Always early in the morning. I haven’t missed a week. Ever. I typically let the column sit for a day and then revisit it on Tuesday morning, catching things that need to be edited, sentences that need to be swapped around or eliminated, misspelled words, misplaced punctuation, and just general things I forgot— or remembered— that should be included in whatever topic I may be writing about on that day.
This morning I am writing on a Tuesday, the day after Labor Day. I did absolutely zero labor on Labor Day and that may be a first. I spent time with family and friends and had a blast. I am having a hard time getting focused this morning, so I am going to do something I have wanted to do for several years and cover a wide array of topics and things that are on my mind that have taken place in the past several days.
Here are some random thoughts on a Tuesday morning:
Plum jelly is the most underrated jelly. I grew up a strawberry or grape jelly kid. My mom bought Bama, and as a kid I collected tiny jelly jar glasses. I still have some Archies jelly jar glasses in the kitchen cabinet at home. A couple of decades ago I switched to blackberry jelly, and the kind without added sugar. Blackberry preserves are excellent on biscuits, and when country ham is added to that mix, a simple quick bread becomes a southern delicacy. In this part of the country Mayhaw jelly is one of the top homemade jellies you’ll find in kitchens of ladies who can fruits and vegetables.
Though plum jelly has made a reappearance in my life. If there was a jar of plum jelly around when I was a kid, it would have been stuck on a back shelf in my grandmother’s refrigerator (“icebox” as she called it). She probably would have used it as a component for another recipe and then it— as forgotten products do— made its way to the nether regions of the fridge and was forgotten until she was out of grape and strawberry.
Though plum jelly should never be categorized among the misfit items in a refrigerator or cabinet. Plum jelly is good. It’s damn good. So much so, that I have started buying it and using it on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and on buttered toast and biscuits instead of the longtime frontrunner, blackberry.
While we’re on the subject of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, I catch flack occasionally for being an adult male who still eats pbjs on occasion. I’ll defer to the longtime Grande Dame of the New Orleans restaurant scene, the late Ella Brennan, who said, “You know why kids like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? Because peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are good.”
Apple jelly might be another underrated jelly. But that’s another column for another day.
I was recently in Birmingham on business and visited a unique restaurant. I tend to get a little jaded about restaurants as living in them, working in them, and researching them for the past 40 years has left me in an occasional state of been-there-done-that. Though sometimes I hit on a concept and am literally struck silent. Many times, my dining guests wonder if something is wrong. There is never anything wrong. It’s all actually “right.” I’m just taking it all in. The brilliance of the design, the simplicity of the menu and workflow, and the originality of a concept. I can remember being in Au Cheval in the West Loop neighborhood of Chicago for the first time and my dining companion thought I had become sick to my stomach. It wasn’t that. Not at all. I was just in awe of the brilliance of the design, layout, food preparation, and atmosphere. It was almost sensory overload.
That happened last week in Birmingham when I visited Rougaroux. It’s a dive. As anyone who has read this column for years knows, I love a dive. Most professional surveys of customers rank service as the number one item guests are looking for in a restaurant. Atmosphere comes in second, followed by food in the third spot. I am the exact opposite of that. It’s all about the food for me. I can forgive poor service if I get my food properly prepared. I prefer a dive or joint, as I’m a fairly casual person myself, and spent 30 years of my life doing research and development in, around, and for fine-dining restaurants. I’ve had enough.
That is why Rougaroux put me into my latest restaurant stupor. I just sat there taking it all in. There’s nothing really to speak of that is monumental about the atmosphere, other than it was mostly a don’t-give-a-damn attitude that wound up working out splendidly. There was a limited amount of indoor dining and slightly more outdoor dining, and it was fine. Not comfortable, but OK. The food was stellar. Seriouly, 100% spot on. Stellar.
Owning a restaurant outside of New Orleans and trying to serve New Orleans food is a challenge. As anyone who’s ever done this knows, you always encounter a citizen from New Orleans who is sitting in your dining room and the first words out of their mouths are typically something like, “I am from New Orleans, so you know I know food…” What I can tell you is that as much as I love New Orleans and its cuisine— and I truly love that city and its cuisine so much that I am a part-time resident— but there are a lot of people in that city who don’t really know food. If you are reading this and are from New Orleans, I’m not talking about you.
Rougaroux knows New Orleans cuisine. The chef, Ryan Champion, worked under Frank Stitt at Bottega and Ella Brennan at Commander’s Palace. But he obviously wasn’t making pb&js and delivering them next door to Ella. He knows his way around a fine dining kitchen. But there’s nothing fine dining here. Proudly so. And I love that. What he knows is Creole New Orleans cuisine. The gumbo was spot on, very okra forward with plenty of seafood. The red beans and rice were a 10 out of 10. And the Ferdie special— the classic po-boy from Mothers with ham and debris— was infinitely better than the original, and was at least an eight-napkin indulgence.
Future visits to Birmingham will always include a trip to Rougaroux.
So, my idea of covering a wide array of random topics didn’t quite work out. I covered two. What have we learned today, kids?
1.) Plum jelly should be on the top shelf in the front of the refrigerator and not relegated to the back by the jar of pickles that is two-years old
2.) Rougaroux in Birmingham might not look like much, but it could very well be the best lunch destination in that city, if not all of Alabama.
1 cup plum preserves or plum jam
2 Tbsp rice wine vinegar
1 Tbsp onion, minced
1 tsp honey
1 tsp fresh ginger, minced
1 /2 minced garlic, teaspoon
1 /2 tsp jalapeño, minced
1 /2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
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In a small saucepan, bring all ingredients to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring often, until preserves are melted (approximately 5 minutes). Remove from heat.
Let cool to room temperature before serving.
Sauce will keep refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week.
Yield: 1 1 /2 cup
(Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur and published cookbook author who lives in Hattiesburg, Miss.)
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