10 | Dec | 12

Richard Johnson

Finger Lickin’ Good

I still remember the time I ate at Ashbells, a London restaurant serving up the cuisine of the American South. The chef, Ashbell McElveen, learned to cook in Sumter, South Carolina, where the portions were always “generous enough to satisfy a field hand”. I was expecting a mixture of plantation cooking (that was patient and bountiful) and trailer cooking (that was fast, recycled, nasty and delicious). I was imagining big flavours. And I tucked in my napkin under my chin in anticipation. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The big flavours just didn’t materialise. There was no taste of pecan wood in the Carolina-style pulled pork. The mechanically-chopped strips of pork looked mean. And the special BBQ sauce was a colour – not a taste. I know that South Carolina is the sort of place where the secrets of your sauce are protected by state law. (“Forget about the FDA, we don’t have to tell anyone what’s in it” etc). But where was kick? The bite? The oomph? I could have created something a lot better at home.

I’ve just got back from Charleston, where I have been making a Food Programme for BBC Radio 4 on the new Southern Cooking. I was blown away by what I tasted. More of that soon. But I had to wait until I got back to London to taste the best barbecue chicken wings I’ve ever had. At the Red Market in Hoxton — and made by The Food Joint from Brixton. Sweet, sharp, tender and juicy. Wrapped in a pretty little bundle, that rubbed the rich, greasy flavours back into the meat.

It would be unprofessional of me to say that the Food Joint are now a shoe-in for the 2013 British Street Food Awards. Next summer is a long way away and, well, anyway, you know what I mean. They also made me eat — forced me, damn them — a pulled pork sandwich in a home-baked bun that was sweet with fig and vanilla. They didn’t bang on about how they used to like spending the summers riding one of the old farm mules, but their food has more soul than anything that came out of the Ashbells kitchen.