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Coffee Cans and Bacon Fat

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Malcolm Bedell/

Paul Fehribach isn't interested in coffee that comes in a can but he certainly knows how to use a coffee can. At Big Jones, his bustling Chicago homage to traditional Southern cuisine, he is recreating the type of homestead cooking that his great-grandmother pioneered at her family farmstead along the Buffalo Trace.

She used to store bacon fat in those old coffee cans and with that fat she would fry potatoes or make biscuits but she never threw it away. At Big Jones we spend a lot of time doing things the old-fashioned way. We make our own breads, biscuits, pickles and preserves, make dumplings with chicken fat and simmer our collard greens with ham bones and vinegar.

Sounds like home to me but how did this native of Indiana become a practitioner of such Southern goodness?

I've always been a Southerner at heart and I love the Southern way of doing things. When we opened Big Jones almost five years ago we sort of danced around what you could call modern Southern cuisine but after about two years I made a concerted effort to focus on farmstead cuisine, food that my grandmother or great grandmother would recognize. When I was younger and really started to notice what I was eating, there was no traditional dining. Great restaurants served familiar Continental cuisine because that's what we all thought fine dining should be. Now I look at where we are and what diners are interested in and we're serving foodstuffs that my great-grandparents would be proud of. At Big Jones we're even using whole hogs, maybe five or six a month. The cooking techniques we use day in and day out are the same techniques that every pioneer family employed in order to survive.

And he's right. The Buffalo Trace traveled from Kentucky through Illinois and was a utilized by pioneer families as they made their way west. Many of those travelers left their calling card in the form of recipes traded with one another as they slowly headed west; recipes that eventually ended up in informal cookbooks as part of our lore and history. And in so doing they brought the cuisine of the Lowcountry and Carolina Piedmont across the Buffalo Trace leaving a breadcrumb-like trail of unique Southern dishes in their path. And now Paul credits many of his recipes to those ladies such as Martha McCulloch-Williams whose Dishes and Beverages of the Old South was first published in 1913.

My grandmother used to make so many wonderful things like persimmon beer and wild cherry wine. She was the one that started my love affair with food but she was inspired by her mother. Cooking like we do is a way that keeps me connected to those great women and honors their past.

Paul will cook alongside chefs Edward Lee and Jason Scholz in conjunction with Greenville's food, wine and music festival, Euphoria. Paul is excited, this will be the first outside Chicago event he has participated in as chef/owner of Big Jones. And the food at Stella's fits into Paul's discipline nicely. Jason Scholz cooks with the mindset of someone that has survived lean times. At Stella's he utilizes every scrap of meat and vegetable that comes into the backdoor. Trimmings from a duck's carcass become duck burgers, scraps of pork confit are turned into fritters, watermelon rinds become a crunchy accompaniment to charcuterie and even the green tomato trimmings become a zesty chow-chow that adorns crab cakes.

What would our grandmothers would think; celebrated chefs cooking a meal created from recipes and techniques as predictable as the early morning mist that rises off of the Smoky Mountains? Surely our grandmothers and great-grandmothers are smiling down on us, nodding their approval as we top off another coffee can.

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