There is little I enjoy more than the bounty of Georgia’s oceans, farms, dairies and vineyards. I’m addicted to the fresh flavors and heirloom varieties of locally grown fruits and vegetables. I could mainline Georgia peaches and not get enough. I grew up on milk-fed beef from the back yard.
When my friend and occasional employer wrote that he would be in town from Beirut, I quickly invited him to dinner. He said he would have two Lebanese colleagues with him. That pleased me even more.
When he accepted, he said, “They think Southern food is gross and unhealthy.” My response? “We’ll have Southern Food, but not Southern Cooking.” Then I went about planning as local a southern feast as I could come up with in January.
With a little advice from my old friend, food historian and cookbook author John Martin Taylor, I pulled together a menu. I decorated the table with acuba leaves and pansies from our yard.
Pre-dinner nibbles—it doesn’t seem right to call them hors d’oevres—were my own pimento cheese on Luna Bakery whole-grain bread, and Phickles carrot pickles, both made right here in Athens. In the pimento cheese—which I make with a little grated onion—I substituted about a tablespoon of my precious Georgia olive oil for some of the Duke’s.
My guests loved their first pimento cheese, but when I explained how to make it, they didn’t believe I used Georgia olive oil. And if there was such a thing, “It could not possibly be better than Lebanese olive oil!” I poured a precious bit for them to taste. Their eyes got big. They insisted on seeing the bottle.
The first course was a blueberry lavender soup, made with local berries I had picked and frozen last summer. It’s a simple combination of blueberries, lavender blossoms, red wine, honey and spices. It’s unusual to get fruit soups for a first course, but this one worked like a charm, a nice follow-up to the sharp cheddar and spicy pickles.
Our main course was fresh Wild Carolina shrimp and Clarke County Red Mule grits. I couldn’t find any Wild Georgia Shrimp, but I figured South Carolina was close enough. Taylor’s recipe for green been and benne salad—from Lowcountry Cooking, his 1991 historical recipe book—and more of that local bread rounded it out. Georgia olive oil, with a bit of lemon juice and roasted sesame seeds, gave remarkably complex flavor to simple green beans. The hot-house grown beans were local, of course.
Dessert was a plate of sugar cookies, the same recipe I’ve used for more than 50 years, with Florida Honeybell orange slices dipped in dark chocolate.
My guests insisted on bringing the wine, or I would have poured Three Sisters and Frogtown Cellars.
We had a grand time, talking about everything under the sun, from growing up Muslim in Lebanon to agnostic in Texas and Methodist in Georgia. We talked about politics and government. Their summary of Lebanese politics is “We have five years of war, then things settle down, but the government can’t function. We then have five years of war and start the whole thing over. You get used to it.”
They were especially impressed by the Georgia Olive Oil and I took great pleasure in telling them the story. The Spanish brought olive trees to our soil in the 1500s, even though their settlements did not survive. Settlers in 1736 found grown trees in the area of what is now the St. Simons Lighthouse. Georgia was a major olive producer until a series of storms and drought almost wiped them out in the 1850s. Four years of war about finished that job. There were only a few trees in production by 1895.
The Georgia Olive Oil Growers Association is working to re-establish olives as a major crop. These guys are agriculture and business professionals. This is no hobby. They are serious as a heart attack, as is their bank note. It is a fascinating story. The product beats the story any day.
The first press of modern Georgia olive oil, 60 gallons of fine EVOO, came from a farm in Lanier County. A food professional and good friend who went to a special tasting at Emory University in November said it was better than any Italian she had ever tasted. We agreed that it surpassed that we had brought home from a French olive mill a few years ago. If memory serves, it is also far superior to the New Zealand olive oil I happily tucked into my suitcase in 2002.
Nothing, however, beats the fact that my new Lebanese friend, a most handsome young man, wanted to know how he could get some Georgia Olive Oil. I smiled sweetly, “You’ll just have to wait until next year, honey.”