Highly Commended for her Online Feature at this year’s Visit USA Media Awards for her piece on Swamps, Smoke, and Spirituality in the Deep South
Sara Lawrence's memories of the USA will whet your appetite
When I think back to my first Coachella in 2011 it's not Kanye or Kings of Leon who loom largest in my most nostalgic memories of that insanely cool time. Nor is it the clean lines and perfect proportions of the mid-century modern Palm Springs property I rented with some Californian friends. Nope, it's the thought of the 'Double-Double Animal Style' burger from regional fast food chain In-N-Out on the drive back to LA that fires me up most, full of longing for proximity to that iconic red and yellow sign and what lies within. At around $3 for two juicy patties grilled in mustard, two slices of cheese, cooked onions, lettuce, tomato and thousand island sauce crammed into the crispy on the outside, soft on the inside bun, this off-menu (you've got to request it) item has become my very own American dream.
To be fair, it's far from the only one. My idea of holiday heaven is always a food crawl and thinking about the many and varied US locations I love, it's the meals, snacks and eating-related pit stops which stand out.
Crab cakes in Charleston, fish tacos from an unassuming roadside stand in Los Feliz, pizza all over NYC, fried green tomatoes in the South, a food truck serving the king of grilled cheese sandwiches in Massachusetts, the perfect egg custard tart from a Chinese bakery in San Francisco. Hash browns, over easy eggs and bottomless coffee in unpretentious, down-home diners around the country. Long dinners featuring fancy tasting menus, sustainable farm-to-table lunches in a succession of rural idylls, mouth-melting ribs and brisket at mind-blowingly brilliant BBQ joints - two things you can be sure of with these is that A) all will claim to be best in the business and B) whilst you're eating there you will wholeheartedly agree. Until you hit up the next, of course.
Last summer I was commissioned to take an epic road trip from Nashville to New Orleans through the Deep South and write about it afterwards. The highlights, from visiting the birthplaces of my favourite music, exploring the childhood homes of big-league writers and being amongst extraordinary scenery, were legion. But, true to form, it's the food I'm still salivating over. Amongst the many sensational eating possibilities this all-encompassing journey offered, it's dinner at the Highlands Bar & Grill which I will never forget. 'America's most outstanding restaurant' according to 2018's James Beard Awards (the Oscars of food in the US, these are a very big deal) is found in the somewhat unlikely location of downtown Birmingham, Alabama, a bustling city which played a crucial role in the Civil Rights movement.
The Southern-accented French cooking is exquisite and the service, décor and sophisticated-yet-relaxed vibe add up to a sensational dining experience. The stuffed squash blossoms with farmer's cheese, tomato relish and basil aioli are next level and there simply aren't enough superlatives available to describe their pheasant two ways with baked grits. Not only did they clinch the big award but pastry chef Dolores Miles also won in her category - it would be crazy not to leave space for pudding because the memory of her dense yet light, strongly flavoured yet strangely subtle coconut cake dazzles long after the event.
The current absence of travel and restaurants has me yearning for all sorts of food in all sorts of places, but top of my list, now and forever, is always America. The endless variety and strong sense of place all this eating offers makes it easily my most aspirational foodie destination. I can't wait to get back and greedily resume consuming the joy.