About a week or so ago, a small group of friends had a little going-away shindig for us, and the end of that gathering marked the beginning of The Official Unraveling of our life in Athens. I was sad that night, and have been weaving in and out of that emotion between bouts of organizational fury. Tim and I have both been waking early in the morning, tossing and turning for the final hour or two before daylight. Everyone has done this, so you know what it’s like: loose ends to be tied, final errands to be run, endless boxes packed, trying to picture what it’s going to be like up there in the mysterious Midwest. Will the kids like it? Will we like it? Will our house ever sell?
During all this, I’ve had time to think long and hard about the things in Athens we’ve enjoyed. I’ve been writing for over two years now about what a great food town this is. And good grief — it’s such a great food town. When I find myself worrying about Indianapolis, that’s what I worry about. That the food won’t live up to its predecessor. Silly, I know. But such is the place good food has in my meager heart. As a final toast to the city we’ve called home for 7 years, I give to you my personal top ten; these are the things I will miss most — the things I definitely won’t find in our new place.
9) Terrapin Beer
Loyal to the local microbrew, I am. I was a rabid fan of Highland, too, when we lived in Asheville (there is still a special place in my beer-loving heart for their Oatmeal Porter — but only in cold months). Terrapin has given me both the Rye Pale Ale and the Big Hoppy Monster. In the summer, I’m a hops-lover, and both of those hit the spot. I can only hope Indiana can hold its own in the microbrewery department; and if not, here’s hoping for a local beer store that can rival the selection of our own beloved Five Points Bottle Shop. Am I asking too much to also have a pub that has the atmosphere and selection of Trappeze? Whoops — looks like #9 is actually three things. Good thing I make the rules here.
When we first moved to Athens, there was an outdoor restaurant on the west side of town, called Caliente Cab. It was described as “Cuban,” but it was really more generically Central and South American. The menu was unique; but the reason you went was because it felt like a nonstop party. It was BYOB, and somewhat lackadaisical ID-enforcement meant that it was usually packed with beer-slopping college students. Not the atmosphere I’m typically going for, but I distinctly remember being there one night with a group of girlfriends — the place was packed, the music was loud, the food and beer were good. I turned my head to see what everyone was looking at, and saw a man standing on top of a schoolbus (it was always parked at the restaurant… ???), blowing fire into the night sky. Yes, actual flames, shooting 20 or so feet into the air. That, my friends, is Athens for you.
Anyway, Caliente Cab shut down. But the owner took up restaurant residence at a new place near campus, and renamed it Cali-n-Tito’s. In my humble opinion, the food is better. Most of the seating is still outside, and it still has a party feel, but a little more family-friendly (they actually do check ID’s now). Our favorite dish is called the Ricky Saltado: sautéed steak (or chicken), onions, peppers, and french fries (yep), served with sweet plantains (maduros) and a couple of fried eggs on top. Eat it with rice, or scoop it all up in a corn tortilla.
7) Jittery Joe’s
Our local coffee roaster. I know that there are plenty of local coffee roasters in these United States, and there’s no reason to think we won’t find one in Indy. But we’ve become big fans of Joe’s, especially since Tim started roasting our coffee. The guys at the roaster not only sell him green coffee beans, but they will also talk to him at great lengths about roasting coffee. They love what they do, and do it well. As a side note here, there was a troubling letter to the editor in this week’s Flagpole, from the owner of Jittery Joe’s. He claims that he has been systematically shut out from participating in the Athens Farmer’s Market (he offered a pretty convincing argument, blaming the cold shoulder on the fact that the head of the market also happens to be part-owner of the only coffee brand sold there). I can only hope it’s a misunderstanding, and that JJ’s will be allowed to have a booth in the near future. They were local before local was cool.
6) The Grit
Oh, Grit. Can’t live without you, but man do you make the relationship hard. Yes, we continue to overlook your bad service and irritating policies (why, oh why, would it be so hard to split a check?). All because there’s no other place like you. You’ve given us a new perspective on tofu, one we’ll take with us for the rest of our lives. You’ve satisfied my pregnant cravings, from my first-trimester insatiable desire for a chili cheese dog, to the meal I was picking up to-go while in labor with my third (yes, I sat at the bar with a glass of water, waiting for my order and timing my contractions). A mental image of your cake display will make my mouth water, and you’ve given me recipes for wonderful vegan desserts to feed my dairy-free 3-year old. You are truly quintessential Athens, and I can’t leave this town without feeling a Grit void. Long live, indeed.
5) Earth Fare
Granted, Earth Fare isn’t exactly a local dive. It’s a regional chain of health-food grocery stores; ours in Athens just happens to be right down the street. But even before we moved within a half-mile radius, we still shopped there weekly. For about 3 years now, I’ve been taking my children grocery shopping every Monday. The great thing about Earth Fare is that it’s a small store, and there’s not a lot of employee turnover. So my kids have made friends. ‘Mr. Dan’ is the guy who runs the bulk department; ‘Ms. Emily’ used to be in charge of store samples, and is now a cashier; ‘Ms. Tammy’ runs the vitamin and health/beauty section; ‘Ms. Cheryl’ slices up our lunchmeat and cheese. All of these people have entertained and doted on my children; they have cheered them when grumpy, and soothed them when injured. They give them stickers and samples of all kinds, and keep up with their goings-on. I will miss the feeling of having a neighborhood grocery store, and will miss these 4 lovely people in particular.
4) The Athens Farmer’s Market
I’ll admit I was a bit turned off by the accusations made in this week’s Flagpole (see #7 above). I was all set to buy a t-shirt souvenir this past Saturday, one that sported the Farmer’s Market logo and supported the cause. But I changed my mind after reading the paper; it made the atmosphere seem a bit hostile. But I know that the participating farmers don’t have much to do with those types of political riffs; they are just there to sell their stuff. And I’ve enjoyed seeing many of them every Saturday, and shopping from the same ones weekly. There is something so rewarding about taking food from the hand that grows it, and it was a lovely Saturday morning event, something I looked forward to every week. Yes, some of it is more expensive than shopping at the grocery store; but not everything, and if you’re like me, when you buy something at the Farmer’s Market, you are much more likely to make sure it gets eaten. There will be several farmer’s market options for us once we get to Indiana, but I will still miss the Athens crew; for example, the great family at Sundance Farms:
If you see them, buy something, and tell them I sent you. Ok, no — because they won’t have a clue who you’re talking about (unless you tell them it was the strange woman who asked to take their picture last weekend). I did shop from them regularly, and we chatted about everything from my due date last fall to the intricacies of garlic varieties. They have good selection, too — the best sun gold tomatoes I ever tasted.
3) Athens Locally Grown
We have loved participating in this, and it is such a fantastic setup. Many of the farmers who sell their wares at the Farmer’s Market also sell through Locally Grown (plus many more who don’t setup a booth on Saturdays). More than the vegetables, though, I have loved having access to local dairy products — everything from unpasteurized cow’s milk to goat’s milk fromage blanc. Not to mention the eggs, plants, and meat. All you do is order online early in the week, and pick it up on Thursday. A fantastic way to shop local in one place (and great for those folks who don’t want to hit the Farmer’s Market at 8am on Saturday in order to get the best selection).
2) Our garden
We didn’t plant much this spring, only tomatoes. But we got them in late, so they are late turning red. The photo at the top shows our first 3 tomatoes — Tim brought them in a couple of days ago, just barely turning gold. They will ripen nicely in the window, but they might be the only 3 tomatoes we eat from our own garden. Heartbreaking, isn’t it? The primary casualty in this scenario is my annual Tomato Pie, which hasn’t happened yet this year (and it will be our first summer in about 6 years to not share one with our friends Jeff and Caroline Thompson). Yesterday, we bartered some vegetables from a farmer friend, in trade for some baby things we won’t be taking with us. We ended up with a bagful of plum and cherry tomatoes, and I was mentally set to make a Tomato Pie, even among our boxes and packing tape. But then realized that all the pie plates had been packed; and I was actually able to conclude that it would be just plain foolish to dig out a pie plate to make a tomato pie. They will have tomatoes in Indiana. Won’t they?
1) The National and 5&10
Big surprise, I know. I even tried to come up with something else to take the number one spot, just to avoid being so darned predictable. But I can’t. When I think of Athens, and eating, these are the places I will think of. Tim and I were able to eat a ‘farewell dinner’ at 5&10, a week or so ago. They happened to seat us at the very same table we sat at six and a half years ago, at our first dinner there. Our server was a girl we had met at The Four Coursemen, and she made the evening everything we could ask for in a farewell dinner. We tried new wines (gewürtztraminer? Loved it.), ate new and old favorites (this year’s take on the watermelon/feta salad was no disappointment, and we tried a pork belly appetizer that I’d like to dream about tonight). Hugh and his team have changed the way we eat out; they inspired us to stop settling for expensive, yet average food. Expensive food should be really, really good.
The National — well, that place is a little coming-of-age story, isn’t it? Our farewell at the gorgeous dining room next to Ciné was actually a breakfast. The best-kept secret on an Athens weekday morning is The National. They serve coffee, juice, pastries, and slightly heavier egg dishes, all at the bar. An unbelievable deal, this food is shamefully inexpensive, especially considering the quality. The empanada, rumored to have been written up in The New York Times Magazine, is alone worth a trip back to Athens. Rich, filling, and somehow also delicate, it put us out $2. Seriously. The juice was fresh-squeezed (we were eye-witnesses), the coffee perfect, and the pastries so good I couldn’t help ordering an extra to-go. Like 5&10, it just feels good to be there; in my fantasy world, I am the girl behind the bar making people happy with delicious breakfasts.
Over the past few years, when we’ve been traveling and have been asked where we’re from, the answer Athens, Georgia, elicits a typical response: Oh, Athens — great music scene. Or perhaps it’s the football team that people assume we’d be cheering on. While both of those things are crucial to the identity of this town of 90,000, they haven’t defined the place for us. Too old to appreciate the late-night shows, and too invested in other southern schools to care much about UGA sports, our story here will be defined by what we ate. It’s always been hard for me to say goodbye; so instead, I’ll say: Cheers, Athens. We pledge to raise glasses in your honor for years to come.