The other day I wrote about signs of home outside Appalachia, and that got me to thinking. Our quirky mountain culture has been exported to nearly every corner of the globe. You can hear bluegrass in Japan and learn how to cook ramps on The Food Network. We’ve influenced food, music, literature, and language far beyond our mountain borders, and frankly, I don’t think we get nearly the credit we deserve.
Well, here’s my small attempt to correct that. It’s a new blog series called Appalachian Influence. When I bump into signs of home outside the mountain fold, I’ll share them. I hope you’ll do the same. If you spot a way we’ve influenced the big, wide world, drop a line. I’d love to hear about it and consider it for the blog.
This past week, I was hanging in Savannah. While cruising through the town’s famous squares on my own, my belly began to rumble. I’d passed plenty of restaurants–sushi, subs, greasy spoons–but I’m notoriously ill-content when it comes to meals. I can walk a city for hours, be on the verge of a hunger coma, and still turn down a top-rated filet mignon if I’m not in the mood.
Crossing Madison Square, I spotted a regal sign. The word Gryphon was printed in gold on black, and as I approached, I could see dark panels and sparkling glass inside. This wasn’t johnny-come-lately decor, so I pressed my nose against the window to get a better look. Old wood shelves lined the walls, chock full of antique books. Stained glass domed above the diners and across the bar. With my hand over my eyes to block the sun, I made out a familiar pattern in the colored glass–a mortar and pestle. This was an old pharmacy turned restaurant!
I am a preservation geek, so there was no resisting. Without looking at the menu, I knew I’d found my place. The host seated me at the dark wooden bar, which was, no doubt, a lively soda fountain in its prior life.
Wiping drool from my chin, I managed to force my eyes down, away from the room’s beautiful details to the menu. Though it was well appointed, Gryphon had some reasonably priced options, which was a relief since I’d lost sight of my travel budget when faced with an opulent dining room. I scanned the sandwiches (any menu’s economy section) and two words popped out–apple butter.
I did a double take. A sandwich with apple butter?
The combo didn’t compute, but there it was. Turkey was listed to apple butter’s left, and wheat bread was on its right. Reading the accompaniments–brie, arugula, Granny Smith apples–I tried to imagine the taste. Cool. A mix of smooth and crunchy. A little sweet. A little meaty.
Did I mention that it was hot as a coal-fired boiler in Savannah?
A cold sandwich would be just right, but truth be told, I’d have ordered this one even if it were parka weather. A quirky menu item with Appalachian overtones–really, this was a predetermined lunch.
I tapped the counter and rubbed my growling belly while I waited. It wasn’t long in real time, but hunger time works differently. I felt like I could have written a novel, built a house, or ended cancer at that bar.
When the sandwich showed, it had cucumber salad on the side, and, true to my Southern roots, I’d ordered a big iced tea. I wish I could say that I took time to admire this ideal summertime meal, but not really. The hunger took hold. My plate was barely stationary before I shoved half the sandwich into my mouth.
It was exactly as I’d pictured. Turkey was the first filling to hit my tongue, providing the perfect cold base. Then the salty brie and the tangy lettuce piqued my taste buds. Finally, a wave of sweet and tart followed. The apples and apple butter were related but not identical, like two fun cousins who livened up a family reunion. Honestly, they made the sandwich. Without this fruity twist, I would have just been eating a turkey club sans bacon, but this was something special–a taste of home when I least expected it.
After this first bite, I forced myself to pause. I left the sandwich on the plate long enough to take a picture. That’s it at the top of the post. I knew that I wanted to share this treat with you, but I barely held out through one shutter snap. As soon as I had the shot, the sandwich was back at my mouth, and I was chowing.
The bartender didn’t have a chance to refill my tea before I’d cleared my plate. She laughed and asked, “In a rush?”
My fickle belly was sated, so I smiled and asked for the bill. A few photos of the restaurant, and I was back on Savannah’s steamy streets. Spanish moss and palm fronds insisted that I was in the coastal South, but I couldn’t deny the sweet lingering taste of apple butter. It reminded me that, no matter where I travel, the mountains are with me, down deep in my gut.