Public House: Southern Comfort Food in Downtown Chattanooga
Public House is perhaps best known as a Southern restaurant, with a menu full of pimento cheese and fried chicken. But what exactly does “Southern cooking” mean in the New South? First and foremost, Southern cooking is comforting. It is also rooted in a sense of place. It is made from familiar ingredients that give anyone who eat them a deep connection to the land. It is about memory and history. It is about family and community. Nora Ephron wrote “What I love about cooking is that after a hard day, there is something comforting about the fact that if you melt butter and add flour and then hot stock, it will get thick! It's a sure thing! It's a sure thing in a world where nothing is sure; it has a mathematical certainty.”
What could be more comforting then than reliable dishes that have been made by generations of trustworthy mothers and grandmothers, proven in cast iron skillet after cast iron skillet? Comfort food is simple and unpretentious, focusing on ingredients and flavors that make us feel good, and that hit the spot. These are foods that we can eat when we are having a bad day and be immediately whisked away to a feeling of security and a sense of home. The very textures and smells of comforting dishes are pleasant in the mouth. They are meals that fill the belly and make the mind peaceful. They are foods that have wide appeal, and can be trusted to please a crowd at a community potluck or wedding banquet.
Not only is Southern cooking comforting, it is leant an earnest authenticity from its close ties to place. When you eat jambalaya, you don’t just taste the mingled flavors of chicken, shrimp, and tomatoes. You also have a mental image of New Orleans, of bayous and Spanish moss. So, too, when you eat pecan pie, or Vidalia onions, you can picture the rolling red clay hills of Georgia, and almost hear summer cicadas chirping. It is real food eaten by real people. It is deeply American, both in ingredients and history.
It’s no surprise that many movies set in the South deal heavily in food. You almost can’t talk about the place without talking about its cooking. Steel Magnolias’ red velvet armadillo cake, Fried Green Tomatoes’ name says it all, Driving Miss Daisy’s scenes of fixing green beans in the kitchen, Elizabethtown’s huge family dinner. The trick these days isn’t cooking the South’s ubiquitous dishes, it’s cooking them with distinction. It’s taking all that history and meaning, and adding something to the conversation.
At Public House we tackle that by starting with the freshest possible ingredients, sourcing local whenever possible and changing with the seasons. We aren’t afraid to invite in other influences, like our French-inspired Duck Confit, or to put new twists on classic dishes, like topping fried green tomatoes with Shrimp Remoulade. We cook foods that remind us of home, but dress them up with professional cooking techniques and presentation. We pay attention to the details, like our own special recipe for Fried Chicken and house-made mixers for many of our drinks. It’s really no different than how every Southern cook has his or her own secret recipes and techniques, though ours are informed by a background in fine dining as much as growing up Southern. We make these favorites our own, without taking away what is essentially comforting about them.