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‘Off the Eaten Path’ author and ‘Southern Living’ food critic reveals life on the culinary road

Posted on Tuesday, June 25, 2013 at 12:51 pm

Staff Writer
John Coffelt

Morgan Murphy , author of "Off the Eaten Path"

 “Off the Eaten Path: Second Helpings” is the second installment of Southern Living travel editor Morgan Murphy’s hugely popular culinary travelogue that captures some of the most distinctive eateries of the South.

Murphy, who lightheartedly claims to have eaten at practically every restaurant in the south, recently shared with the Manchester Times some experiences researching the book.

The original concept, Murphy describes, was to take 60 of his best restaurants from Austin to D.C. and ask them for their best recipes.

No simple task – to get a restaurateur  to come off with her best and most guarded recipe.

“To really get a recipe from a restaurant owner you have to be there in person,” Murphy said Friday via phone.

The project called for a three-way bond of trust among proprietor, author and finally the reader. That bond is built by actually getting boots on the ground, meeting folks and eating their food.

“My book is literally researched the old fashioned way by pounding the pavement – 12,000 miles across 17 states in more than 50 cities.”

“It’s important,” Murphy says, “that the reader trusts that the author has been to the restaurant and knows that the item is a truly great choice.”

He calls choice recipes the bedrock of any restaurant.

“So the real challenge of putting the book together is getting their best recipes.”

He said basically that the research for the first book was more of a challenge because not being proven, he was all but was asking them to give up their babies to a stranger.

He recalls a Maryland restaurant, Faidley Seafood of Baltimore, where the owner finally parted with her famous crab cake recipe, a mainstay dish in the family for five generations.

Murphy recalled Mr. Faidley, who’s about 80 years old telling him, “ ‘I’d been sleeping beside Mrs. Faidley for 50 years and she hasn’t given me that recipe.’ ”

The proof is in the pudding, or in the print as it were.

“When the owners saw how careful we were with the recipes and how great the images looked, they were more willing to give us their best recipes,” Murphy said.

He explained that getting a prized recipe is only a first step. Next, the Southern Living Test Kitchen, which analyzes 14,000 recipes a year, tested each, scaling and converting them from what would serve commercial kitchen to a home-cook could use.

“All of these recipes are written so that someone can make them without needing any type of restaurant equipment or say going out and getting 20 gallons of chicken stock,” Murphy said.

According food critic Morgan Murphy, Miss Hudson of Birmingham, Ala. diner, Niki's West, has been making some of the area's best banana pudding since 1957.

The recipes in “Off the Eaten Path” are only part of the experience that Murphy has sought to capture for the book. The other side of the book is to tell the restaurant’s sense of place.

Murphy said that it’s actually the recipe, or more accurately, the story of the recipe that leads him to capture the feel of a place.

“Every recipe has a story,” he says.

“I’m a storyteller, that’s what I’ve spent my career doing, so I love telling the story behind each of these dishes.”

One that stands out is the Family Wash in Nashville.

The Greenwood Avenue restaurant, where the signature dish is a mac and cheese entrée, takes its name from the Laundromat that was there.

“The owner told me that when he bought the place he didn’t have enough money for a sigh – signs are expensive – so he just left it The Family Wash. And that’s how it got its name.”

Murphy says, “People like that sort of authenticity. In this day and age, when you can literally have the same exact meal on opposite ends of the country.

“People like being able to go somewhere and experience something that’s unique – that tells the story of where they are.”

Some restaurants don’t so much define the place as much as they are more of an expression of the people of that place. Those places are the ones Murphy looks for.

“As you read about the places in my book and try their dishes, you’ll understand the culture of the South more.”

Murphy says that culture and food go hand in hand.

“The best way to get to know a culture is by eating their food. Food is the last thing that a culture gives up.”

Murphy suggested that third-generation Italian immigrants might not be fluent in Italian, be Catholic or have visited Italy.

“But they damn-sure have great-grandma’s marinara recipe. We, as a people, just don’t give those things up.”

He also cites African cuisine.

“Slavery took everything from a people – took their language, their freedom and imprisoned them, but it did not take their food.

“You go to Savanna and you eat red rice, you’re tasting the culinary history of Africa on a plate.”

Murphy likens trying the dishes in the book to eating generations of history and storytelling.

“That to me is what’s so exciting about putting all of this together.”

“Off the Beaten Path: Second Helpings” in addition to being a cookbook with 150 recipes (shared here for the first time), can also stand as a travel guide to great dining locations.

Murphy includes his favorite hotels, resorts, and inns across the south in the Where to Rest Your Head section.  He’s also sprinkled suggested song picks for each destination, so you can get in the local spirit with a hand-picked soundtrack and some great overheard lines from local patrons.

One gem is “He can charm a dog of a meat truck” from the Homestead in Winchester, Ky., or “It’s so dark you have to light a second match to see if the first one lit.”

Murphy said that many of the restaurants are rich on ambiance but are often not expensive locals. Scouting restaurants is sometimes a challenge.

He describes a three-prong approach to finding the diamonds in the rough: the quality of the food, authentic ambiance (a sense of place) and service.

For the food, freshness counts, along with inventiveness.

“When a restaurant owner starts naming his farmer by name, I know I have found a great place. A great cook knows where his food comes from.”

Food and ambiance aside, service is what allows the cream to rise, so to speak, but great food and wonderful atmosphere are easily tainted by mere mediocre service.

“Restaurants have to have a sense of theater. It is a performance when you go into any restaurant,” Murphy said.

“More often than not the people who work [at the book’s diners] love their community, love talking to people and love being a part of where they are.

And that always comes across on the plate.

“Southern Living Off The Eaten Path: Second Helpings” is available from Oxmoor House publishers for $22.95.

The author is a former Southern Living executive editor, has written for Forbes, Vanity Fair, Esquire and The New York Post, and during his time in the Navy was the Director of Media Outreach for the International Security Assistance Force where he briefed the then US Commander in Afghanistan, General David R. Petraeus.