How many times have I looked at a plate of food and thought: If this is the last thing I eat, I can die happy. It happened over sausage gravy and biscuits at Skyway Jack's in St. Petersburg, beignets and cafe au lait at Panini Pete's in Fairhope, grilled shrimp and onions on sweet cornbread at Upperline in New Orleans. I do not like to think too much about a last meal or how many hymns it might take to sing me into the hereafter (my wife says 16) when that last chicken liver puts me in my grave. Still, I wonder. What would my dream plate be? The doomed man in Grisham's The Chamber wanted coffee and a bowl of Eskimo Pies. I have a good bit more ambition than that.
Fried Chicken, Gus's, Memphis: It was my Last Supper the night before my wedding to a woman who insists on low-fat and no joy. Even my mother and Aunt Juanita, who mistrust restaurant food, loved it enough to forgive Gus's for serving beer (while quietly lamenting the fact so many in the wedding party were going straight to hell).
I asked mama what made it good. "It's cooked right," she said.
Most restaurant chicken is still pink in the thigh, while the breast is cooked to the consistency of a Baptist hymnal. Gus's chicken comes hot enough to burn your fingers and seasoned to singe your tongue, but never too much. The thin crust cracks between your teeth. The flesh on every piece is juicy but done. "They got people," my mother said, "who know."
White beans flavored with ham shank, Betsy's Pancake House, New Orleans: This is cheating, since "flavored with" really means a molten pool of creamy beans poured around a fist-sized shank of roasted pork. But this is my dream plate, so we will call it a side. I like to just look at it, at the fat that trickles down, down to mingle with perfectly seasoned beans. It is not for people who slice fat and gristle off their meat and push it delicately aside. It is pure love, on a melamine plate.
Collards, Niki's West, Birmingham: I have had bad collards, just boiled weeds. I have had collards that were turnip greens, cooked by people who didn't know. At least it wasn't poke salad. They know better at Niki's. Here, the collards taste like the soul of the South, the essence of home, dense but tender, leaf after dark leaf. No overpowering pepper sauce, no sugar, masks the flavor. I was disappointed to learn they were good for me. "They're probably salty," my wife later told me. I was happy again.
Potatoes au gratin, Crescent City Steaks, New Orleans: They make a fat rib eye merely a ride-along, an after-thought. Molten cheese bubbles through a crisp, brown top as thin-sliced potatoes steam in cream. It is a dangerous dish, so hot you can only pick at the crust as it cools. Staring at it, waiting, might be the longest five minutes of my life.
Jalapeno cornbread from the long lost Morrison's Cafeterias: Once, it was as much a part of us as pulling over to let a funeral pass by.
Coleslaw, Mike Anderson's, Gonzales, Louisiana: The best dish on Earth served in a Holiday Inn. Fresh, simple, shredded cabbage in a seasoned mayonnaise, this is an antidote to a lfietime of slaw that should have been thrown out before it got close to us.
Leroy Hill tea from the Gulf Coast: I am not a tea snob. My family's iced tea is as dark as night and strong. Leroy Hill is crisper, cleaner. What a bell sounds like ringing is what that tea tastes like going down.
Tres leches, Versailles, Miami: Plain yellow sheet cake cooked in a puddle of three milks, with light, whipped vanilla icing and a cup of cafe con leche. Simple. Perfect.
I guess I could die happy. I would rather just take a nap.