We gathered awkwardly in the front lobby of Honey From the Rock Café, clustered around two menus with the day’s buffet offerings. Five pairs of wondering eyes looked at me as I suggested fried chicken, mac and cheese, collard greens and field peas as some of the classic “Southern” dishes they should try.
I could have been speaking a foreign language – and I was. The Augusta Chronicle recently became involved in the Ukraine Media Partnership Program and several staff members had already traveled overseas to observe newspapers and culture there. Now it was our turn, and while the visiting Ukrainians had already been to several Augusta restaurants, they hadn’t yet sampled true Southern cuisine.
Open for lunch only, Honey From the Rock Café is run by Whole Life Ministries, offering real Southern cooking prepared fresh daily, according to its Web site.
The service is buffet style, with your choice of a meat and two sides, meat and three sides, veggie plate (three or four sides), and extras, including soup and a variety of cakes, pies and homemade ice cream.
On a typical day, there might be five to seven meats, 10 to 12 sides, daily chef’s choices and several dessert options.
After the translators went rapid fire through the menu, I thought I sensed some doubt. As they gathered their trays and we went through the line, Margaryta (one of the translators) asked, “What is a Southern dessert?”
I suggested the banana pudding or coconut cake, but after taking a careful look, the group decided to demur.
For my meal, I thought I’d set an example with classic Southern dishes: fried chicken (dark meat), rice and brown gravy, green beans and a corn muffin. After some consideration, the Ukranian group as a whole chose the baked chicken and a round of starchy sides: mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, corn muffins, and I was glad to also see that some chose the mac and cheese.
As we sat down, speaking through Margaryta, and then later translator Olena, Olga said smilingly, “I like cakes, but I’m not sure I could handle it after all this,” gesturing to her plate.
As we dug in, I was fascinated as they tried and tasted, and talked about the differences between the typical dishes in each of our cultures – and the similarities. Iryna and Olga sampled one of my husband, Sean’s fried green tomatoes and said, “It’s completely different because it’s heavy food.”
In the Ukraine, they said, there’s a movement toward eating more healthily. Even though items like chicken liver are common (also on Honey From the Rock’s menu that day), they wouldn’t necessarily be battered and deep fried like they are here. Their fried foods tend to be in the form of what they call a cutlet: chopped meats (similar to our Salisbury steak, perhaps?) or shredded potatoes formed into a patty and fried (like hash browns). Eggplants and tomatoes are also popular there.
When they talked about another popular dish – white pork fat, smoked, salted and seasoned with garlic, salt and pepper, sliced thin and eaten with dark rye bread to help keep warm in the winter – I couldn’t help but grimace. But then Emily, one of the Chronicle’s copy editors, chimed in with a story about how her grandmother’s neighbors used to eat Crisco sandwiches. And someone who enjoys bacon fat in her Southern veggies really doesn’t have much to grimace about.
As for my meal, the fried chicken was moist, with a nice crispy crust; the deep brown gravy on the white rice had a rich saltiness; the green beans were definitely Southern; and the corn muffin just a tad dry. I offered the ladies a bite of coconut cake, but they shook their heads. The cake itself was light and a bit cottony, and while I wasn’t quite sure about the lemon filling, the sweet and creamy coconut icing was spot on.
They’d cleaned their plates, and Iryna approved of the baked chicken, with its moist interior and its garlic flavor. “My compliments to the chef,” she said. The corn bread, which they don’t have in the Ukraine, and the mac and cheese also got a thumbs up.
Although the mashed potatoes were familiar to Olga, we couldn’t pin down for her why they tasted so different from what she was used to, even after I ran through how we typically make mashed potatoes here with plenty of butter, milk and often sour cream. “The products are very different here,” she said, mentioning that they also don’t fry pickles or tomatoes in the Ukraine. They do fry cauliflower, but their version of frying is boiling the cauliflower, then coating it in bread crumbs and herbs and baking it.
Yegor also thought the meal was good, but “Too fatty,” he said. “And there are big portions in America.” When we described to them that other buffet staple in America – the all-you-can-eat buffet – they shook their heads vigorously; nothing like that exists in their country. “We do have McDonald’s though,” said Iryna with a smile.
As we talked, they shared tales of the wild food they have in the Ukraine, including a layered salad tastily named “herring under a fur coat,” made up of herring, potatoes, onions, carrots, apples, lightly dressed with mayonnaise and topped with bright purple, shredded beets.
It made me think how strange and wonderful that food as common to us as mashed potatoes or collard greens could seem so different and unique to another culture. And how brave they were to try and taste (braver than I might be when faced with “herring under a fur coat”!) and to find something new to appreciate.
ON THE MENU
WHERE: Honey From the Rock Café, 2621 Washington Road
HOURS: Monday-Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
SECOND HELPING: (706) 434-1098, honeyfromtherockcafe.com