Chef Jasen Morin, long time friend and big MoTown Mushrooms supporter, represented us in a cook-off in Shakori Hills, North Carolina. He shared his experience with us:
Hoppin’ John….I didn’t really know what it was until I Googled it a couple of weeks ago…as a yankee living in the south, I had never heard of this good luck dish, eaten on new years day.
One of my teachers(I study sustainable agriculture at CCCC, in Pittsboro, NC) gave me tickets for an “oldtime and bluegrass fiddlers’ convention”, if I was willing to cook in the namesake “Hoppin John” cookoff. I thought about just using the tickets to go enjoy the festival…then felt guilty…I told my lovely girlfriend that I would just cook a pot of this black eyed pea dish, and leave it for tasting…she said,”why would you even try if you didn’t want to win??”. Well, she poked the dragon….
This dish traditionally has black eyed peas and rice and some form of pork. I thought that a great alternative to the meat would be mushrooms…what better way to represent my best friends from Vermont, than to slap their name on my entry? A couple of calls and a quick stop off at staples to pick up a Motown sign and it was on.
Now begins the menu crafting…I had considered just making the traditional hoppin’ John, which seems to be the usual winning entry. BUT NO! I could not let that stand. Of course there needed to be mushrooms. King oysters, Shiitakes, and Portobellos. I had five different types of peppers that I had harvested from the organic farm that I have been working on, sitting in my freezer so naturally those would be in the dish. Then I visited a favorite local farmer who has amazing cherry tomatoes, three different varieties, in they go. I had all of the ingredients that I wanted. What could set it apart? I decided to make a caramelized fennel polenta, deep fried. I had heard that corn bread was served with the HJ, why not polenta???
I show up. Apparently I am the only “team” with just one person….instantly my integrity is called into question. “What is your team name?” I say,”MoTown Mushrooms”….I get the first scoff. “There has never been a vegetarian option that has placed….” Again, poking the dragon… I overhear the people around me making comments about me and my knife sharpening skills, apparently they are worried that there is a “real Chef” here…Unfazed, I begin to prepare a dish that I am completely unfamiliar with, understanding that as a Yank, I will likely never be able to represent the true nature of this southern dish. I hear the people around me saying that they have come from hours away to make their version of this classic dish. I decide that I am just going to make the best food that I can, and hope that people will enjoy it.
Fastforward to the serving part: I served the rice separate…not traditional, there is a “soak” time where the rice sits in the beans(and swells with the bean and pork flavor and basically over cooks). I offered the only vegetarian option in a group of 11 competitors. Generally this dish has some sort of pork, and not to disappoint, I cooked up some maple cured hog jowl, from a local pig that I had processed myself, and of course, Grade A Fancy maple from Vermont, that I offered on the side, just in case the carnivores needed a little something. I also offered an amazing habanero sauce that I had made, for those looking for a little heat.
Mostly I had my head down, scooping rice and beans, occasionally speaking to people eating my stuff. The dragon was on fire, and so was my dish. My food spoke for itself. Aside from the fact that mushrooms are amazing, a little creativity goes a long way. People loved it! I was told that a vegetarian option has never even placed. After the service I told Lorin (my amazing and supportive girlfriend, you know, the one that poked the dragon?) that I just wanted to head back to camp and chill out. She convinced me to stay and support my competitors.
Then came the announcement that MoTown Mushrooms should come to the stage… Second place. A mushroom based vegetarian version of a dish with hundreds of years of history, poaching a place in a local cook off. FUCK YEAH!!
I am thankful for the friends that I have, I am thankful that they plunged me into the fungi world, and I am proud to have been able to represent them at the Hoppin’ John Festival. This isn’t the first time that the North has invaded the South, and it won’t be the last.
See you next year; this time I won’t play around, the dragon will be spitting fire.