By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, MSJ
As folks in Chicago prepare to go on or come back from family reunions down South, the Rail Passengers Association recently held an event, which sponsored a culinary intern on a 50-day rail trip to see and taste America.
During “Summer by Rail 2019,” Chef Madison Butler, or Chef Madi, travelled by train to 21 cities between June 29 and August 18 to explore eclectic tastes across the country and to work beside local chefs. Chef Madi graduated from the Auguste Escoffier School, and she was able to show just how easy it is to connect to some of the country’s top food cities and their amazing restaurants using Amtrak and other forms of public transit.
“Cooking and experimenting with foods is my true passion, as it brings people together in ways I could never imagine,” said Chef Madi. “I also have a strong interest in the country’s passenger rail system, as it too can bring people together. I grew up in Kentucky, which does not have a robust public transit system and driving was the only way to get around. Traveling nationally, however, via passenger rail, really inspired me to change my travel habits due to its accessibility, sustainability, and a station’s proximity to the sites and tastes of a city.”
Chef Madi visited many towns, including New York, Atlanta, Boston and Chicago, but two of particular interest were Memphis, Tennessee, and Greenwood, Mississippi.
My folks sometimes take the City of New Orleans route to get to Shaw, Mississippi, the town where my parents were born. Shaw is also the birthplace of David Honeyboy Edwards and, according to research, in 1971 a group of local residents led by Andrew Hawkins sued the town for violating their 14th Amendment rights in the case Hawkins v. Town of Shaw.
Residents claimed the town had discriminated against Black neighborhoods in the way it distributed public services, particularly around water access. The Fifth Circuit Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and ordered the town of Shaw to provide equal access to public services such as fire hydrants, water mains, lighting, sewers and street paving.
Chef Madi didn’t visit Shaw, but she visited Greenwood, Mississippi, which is close by. She noted the characteristics of the region. “There are small quirks to etiquette, flavor profiles, serving styles in every place.”
Chef Cameron Shaw of the Giardina Restaurant at the Alluvian Hotel in Greenwood, Mississippi, received great accolades from Chef Madi. The boutique hotel is located in “the Delta,” and “he mixes Southern, French and Italian inspiration into a menu that encompasses all tastes.”
The Crusader reached out to Chef Shaw, who goes by the name Chef Cam, to discuss his career.
He began as a dishwasher with no formal culinary training and encouraged other aspiring chefs to stay committed. “I’m actually a self-taught chef that embraced the culinary world and learned from my family as well as mentors in the industry. Passion is what made all of this a possibility,” Chef Cam said. He added: “It doesn’t matter where you start, as a dishwasher or as a prep cook, as long as you put in the hours, stay dedicated and strive for excellence, you’ll eventually reach your goals. Stay humble, stay driven and stay on that grind.”
Chef Cam was born in Greenwood and worked at other eateries before coming to the Giardina Restaurant. Among them were the Turnrow Bookstore Café, The Blue Parrot and Honest Abe’s Donuts. “Each one gave me unique experiences that helped me grow my cooking skills as well as my customer service background, so that when I finally made it to Giardina’s, I was ready to make an impression.”
And while the restaurant is a bit upscale, Chef Cam has been able to merge cooking styles. “I love making traditional fare more upscale and accessible to all of the people that come through Greenwood looking to experience our food and culture.”
A bit to the north of Mississippi, the legacy of people who fed Civil Rights champions is honored at the Four Way Restaurant in Memphis, which has been around for more than 70 years. “While the team is still very much in touch with their roots, they are an active participant in the Memphis food scene welcoming people from all walks of life to the table. The fried green tomatoes and rotating specials harken back to childhood for me. There is something on the menu for everyone,” said Chef Madi.
“Summer By Rail 2019” showcased many food styles, and Chef Cam was elated that his expertise at the Giardina Restaurant was shared with others. “It was an honor to be chosen. I’m so excited that [Chef] Madi and the rest of the team got to experience our food and our restaurant. I hope they all come back to join us and that more people are inspired to visit the Mississippi Delta as a result of her visit.”
For more information about this initiative and the train routes used, visit http://summerbyrail.com/.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen is the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood—South Side of Chicago.” For book information http://tinyurl.com/om4hvgo or email: [email protected].