words by Jennifer Tatler
photography by Cindy Kunst with Clicks Photography
On New Year’s Eve, my husband surprised me with the promise of an upcoming gastronomic getaway, a secret supper club two hours from home. So secret, in fact, that the precise destination remained shrouded in mystery until moments before we were to depart. So it was with wanderlust and a taste for adventure that we set out to trip the light fantastic in Asheville, North Carolina for the clandestine culinary experience that would be Blind Pig’s Women on Top event.
I wasn’t sure what to expect of the monthly themed collaborations featuring different chefs in various, undisclosed locations around Southern Appalachia. I was aware of Blind Pig’s reputation for boundary-pushing fare. I’d heard the terms “ghetto gourmet,” “anti-restaurant,” and “rebel cuisine” thrown around. One of the more notorious and eyebrow-raising Blind Pig events was their “Offal Experience.” Offal, for the unfamiliar, refers primarily to organ meats and entrails. This particular menu boasted cockscomb, bull testicles, pickled beef tongue, veal brains, local ox heart served rare, fried pig ears, duck heart and tongues, and tripe. I’d even heard talk of beaver, snapping turtle, and nutria (that’s river rat, my friends). Rumor has it the big hit of the evening was the bull penis (the penis de résistance, if you will) with horseradish and dill, served on a Ritz cracker. My identity as a fearless foodie was so shaken that when we arrived in time for cocktail hour, I was feeling decidedly less courageous and welcomed a stiff Prohibition-style cocktail in order to bulwark my confidence.
The tipples did the trick and mellowed my inner fuddy-duddy. The cuisine, however, was comparatively tame by previous offal standards. On this particular evening, three very badass women were calling the shots and bringing to the table a family-style fusion of Middle Eastern, particularly Lebanese and Armenian, and Southern American comfort food. Suzy Phillips of Gypsy Queen Cuisine fame and Chef Terri Roberts of The Southern provided the night’s sustenance, while Marin Mitchell, a connoisseur of confections, punctuated the evening with exquisite desserts tinged with the same Lebanese flavor profiles (think Ma’amoul-pecan cookies with cardamom whipped cream, dark chocolate olive oil cake, and sticky pudding with dates and toffee sauce).
It was a night of women doing it for themselves, to be sure. The female power ante was upped further with Blind Pig’s resolute insistence on showcasing local art and entertainment in tangent. Textural porcelain artist Heather Knight was featured while The Swayback Sisters, a siren’s trio specializing in old-school, Appalachian country soul, provided the evening’s soundtrack.
The term “blind pig” originally referred to establishments, mostly dive bars, in the 1920s and 30s that illegally sold alcohol during Prohibition. In essence, they were low class speakeasies that cleverly bypassed Prohibition laws by charging customers for a spectacle or curiosity, usually an animal attraction, and then including a “complimentary” adult beverage with the price of admission.
In a similar spirit of defiance, Asheville’s Blind Pig invites underground adventure and becomes its own gastronomic speakeasy. And, because of the avant-garde, multi-disciplinary approach to its presentation, the event feels as much like a theatrical happening as it does a gloriously decadent bohemian dinner party.
Now to the meat of the matter, or in this case, the charcuterie, because that is where it all started. A first mixed course of basterma and soujouk, Armenian cured and spiced beef sausages, were paired with a Southern sausage composed of chicken and pork. The heat perked up the tongue and readied us for one of my favorites of the evening, the madras lentil soup studded with black pepper bacon which was immediately followed by the chicken liver buttermilk biscuit. Salata was the fourth course and we were served not one but three different salads: Brussels sprouts and candied kumquat, arugula and fennel, and haloumi fattoush. By the time the fifth course of Carolina shellfish pirloo was presented, I was beginning to doubt my ability to finish. With the arrival of the sixth and final course of lamb and grits with fennel red wine gravy and Gruyere, I’d officially come undone.
What strikes me as truly unique about the not-for-profit Blind Pig experience is that beneath the superb cookery and passionate gourmandism is a conscious, deliberate, and prevailing sense of mission. More than farm-to-table fare, Blind Pig wanders outside the fields to forage and root for the wild delicacies beyond. It showcases regional, seasonal, sustainable, and often primitive foods that have been forgotten, neglected, or completely overlooked. It celebrates both the mundane and the rustic exoticism that is the American South. Beyond their maverick gastronomic derring-do and their genuine intention to elevate innovative food craft, Blind Pig is ultimately about honoring tradition and community. In the end, they give as good as they get with proceeds from each event supporting various local charities. The interest that has been generated has been overwhelming and made Blind Pig a wild success and Asheville a culinary destination.
Women on Top Menu
Chefs Terri Roberts, Suzy Phillips, and Marin Mitchell
Basterma, Soujouk, Buffalo Chicken and Pork
Madras Lentil Soup
Black pepper bacon
Chicken Liver Buttermilk Biscuit
Chevre butter, citrus, scallion, sumac gastrique
Brussels sprouts with candied kumquat, pepper bacon, red onion, mustard vinaigrette
Arugula and Fennel with olive, Gouda, artichoke vinaigrette
Haloumi Fattoush with pita, roast beet, olives, mint, sumac vinaigrette
Carolina Shellfish Pirloo
Tomato, fennel, Highland Gaelic, Freekah Hoppin’ John, Lamb Merguez
Lamb and Grits
Cumin, bacon, olive, fennel-red wine gravy, Gruyere
Desserts by Marin Mitchell
Dark chocolate olive oil cake
Southern sticky toffee pudding with dates, toffee sauce, and vanilla
Ma’amoul-pecan cookies with cardamom whipped cream