Second Helpings

Courtesy andrewc; flickr

In the first several pages of Thomas Pynchon’s novel “Gravity’s Rainbow,” we find a description of one Geoffrey “Pirate” Prentice, who is famous for his “banana breakfasts.” Banana fritters, frappes, waffles, pancakes, flambés: none of these treats escape Pirate’s banana-obsessed prowess. Yet the concept of a vast and complex recipe repertoire based solely around one ingredient is much more than a product of postmodern absurdity.

Jimmy and Harold Ferguson, who share a similarly obsessive penchant for sweet potatoes, have turned their yam fantasy into a commercial reality at 95th and South Longwood Drive as Jimmy Jamm Sweet Potato Pies.

Upon entering Jimmy Jamm last Saturday, I was immediately welcomed by every single employee. One came out from behind the counter to offer me and my companion a sample of their sweet potato ice cream, which, doubtful though I was about the entire concept of a store devoted to one tuber alone, delicately encouraged my taste buds out of their fearful hesitance. After staring at the impressively long menu–every item on it, I believe, including some form of sweet potato–for about ten minutes, we finally decided on the sweet potato stew, with a side of sweet potato fries.

I hadn’t really scrutinized my surroundings before sitting down to wait for my food, as I had been fixated on the menu from the moment I walked in. The shop space in front is fairly large, but instead of having several smaller tables, two rather large round tables are arranged in the middle of the room. Lining the edge of the room is a small army of comfortable-looking chairs, standing curiously at attention (it was only later that I came to understand their function). Directly opposite the two large tables sits a massive refrigerator in which several ornate cakes–one shaped like Barbie, another a warped ziggurat–chilled, presumably special orders waiting to be picked up. Several highly imaginative and colorful paintings adorned the walls; customers are afforded the rare opportunity to gaze upon President Obama, clad in Napoleonic garb and brandishing a sword, and a horned cave-knight dismissing a would-be apprentice (who can also be found swinging across a canyon in another painting) in the same place. As we waited, we watched the chefs in the back of the restaurant frosting cakes, baking pies, and loading up baked sweet potatoes with all sorts of wonderful-looking stuff.

Our food was just as wonderful and eclectic as the artwork on the walls; my stew, with its slightly unusual combination of flavors, beckoned me to follow up each bite immediately with another, and the fries, covered with sugar and cinnamon and accompanied by tureens of barbeque sauce, smacked a smile across my face that took almost twenty minutes to wipe away. Yam-packed though we were, we opted for a slice of sweet potato pie, covered with honey cream cheese frosting–c’mon, how could we have forgone the dish that appears in the restaurant’s name? Each bite made us forget the pain that the previous gorging had caused as it found its way into our stomachs.

After finishing our food, we sat back, quasi-comatose. “How was the food?” asked one of the chefs. I tried to respond, but only a grunt escaped my mouth, so I nodded my head to clarify. “Why don’t you have yourself a seat in one of those chairs and take a nap,” he replied, smiling and gesturing to one of the many chairs along the back wall. “That’s what they’re there for.”

Jimmy Jamm Sweet Potato Pies has been around since 2007; in a mere three years, it has managed to establish such a fan base that many nearby restaurants commission pies from it. During the hour that we visited, a steady stream of customers came to pick up orders for Thanksgiving–apparently Jimmy Jamm receives so many special orders for Turkey Day that one must call a month in advance. How many sweet potatoes do they go through in order to fuel their bakery/café/restaurant, you ask? “This month, I’ve gone through about 100 40-pound boxes,” says Harold Ferguson, co-founder and chef. (That’s two tons of sweet potatoes).

Don’t be dissuaded by the distance you may have to travel or by skepticism of tuber-centric cuisine–both provide a worthy premise for an adventure that’s well worth the trip. (Alec Mitrovich)

by Alex Abbott Boyd

The turkey never became the national emblem of the United States like Benjamin Franklin wanted, but when it comes to seasoned poultry it’s still the all-American bird. Tragically, it becomes the shining centerpiece of the dining room table only once a year, late in November, on a day defined as much by gluttony as by thankfulness. Juicy and golden turkey is the star of Thanksgiving dinner, but its glory disappears as quickly as the last mayonnaise-slathered leftover sandwich. Well, until next year, that is.

At a seemingly ordinary strip mall in Avalon Park, however, an eatery mysteriously fronted with tinted glass provides year-round solace for the scorned turkey-lover. Just Turkey was conceived by two brothers as a restaurant that could provide new and slightly healthier alternatives to barbecue staples. Forget about cows or swine: here, turkey stands alone.

The bird at Just Turkey is a shape shifter, morphing into various shapes and sizes to win the affections of customer’s taste buds. At times it’s undisguised, left as a brilliantly succulent leg glazed with a sweet and tangy honey barbecue sauce. At others it’s veiled as a work of master artisanship–and the downright innovative turkey ribs are by far the best example.

The ribs are, in fact, not ribs at all. These finger-licking-good slabs of flavor are actually pieces of meat butchered from the shoulder in such a clever way as to preserve some of the bone. As a result, not only do they look identical to pork ribs, but smoking the meat on the bone adds an extraordinary, unheralded taste that turkey often lacks due to its characteristic leanness. The sweet sauce that coats them has a pleasant kick to it and spills lovingly onto the beautiful golden bed of fries that lies beneath.

Many factors play a part in making these dishes special. For one, there’s the aquarium-style smoker fueled by hickory chips, which patiently cooks the poultry, while providing it with a deep, meaty flavor. More importantly, the menu shows remarkable creativity and resourcefulness. Monotony is avoided by offering up traditional fast-food staples with one major difference–turkey is always king.

Curiosity begs to be unleashed when it comes to items like the turkey Polish or the turkey nachos, which both attempt to satisfy your grease cravings while cutting the grease. Unfortunately, the concept is much better than the execution: both dishes are the culinary equivalents of tourist traps: mediocre executions of junk food standards with a bird thrown in as a mere afterthought. The “succulent” turkey spaghetti, for example, is a misdemeanor against pasta that should only be ordered for a laugh.

One of the only impressive reinterpretations of a classic meat dish is the butter-crusted turkey burger. As far as fast-food burgers go, this one is top class. The turkey patty has a mild, sweet flavor on its own, but when endowed with a wonderfully rich exterior that’s crunchily caramelized in butter, this sandwich becomes a textural force to be reckoned with. If you and your cholesterol are on good terms, splurge on the double butter crust.

Just Turkey’s concept as a restaurant is so unique that it doesn’t really matter that the interior of the restaurant looks a bit like an Avis car rental shop. Customers don’t typically stop and eat at the tables but the in-and-out traffic is bustling as people pick up orders on their poultry pilgrimage. Just Turkey isn’t a dining experience, it’s a food experience, and the two are very different. There’s something honest and provocative about the latter and that’s why it feels worth it to invest in take-out that breaks the humdrum of pizza and Pad Thai.

Just Turkey provides a chance to take your relationship with the bird past the point of a mere annual fling. Turkey is no longer just something to be stuffed or sandwiched; from ribs to burgers, the possibilities for turkey are endless. I think the poet Usher summarized it best when he said “Baby, let me love you down. There’s so many ways to love you.” (Luca Servodio)