Getting to know Atlanta, fork in hand

If this column had a dateline, today’s would read “Somewhere between Paducah, Ky., and Nashville.”

It’s midnight, and I can’t decide which need is greater: food or caffeine. The pickings in the vending machine at this rest stop along I-24 are pretty slim, but the alternative is the soggy ham and cheese sandwich that I packed for the road. I shouldn’t have put the tomato on it, but how could I not? I grew that Big Boy. It was perfectly red, round and unblemished.

This is not the time to think about the rest of the tomatoes ripening in my garden back in St. Louis. It’s my turn at the wheel, and I need a clear head. I pay $1.25 for a coffee beverage dubiously labeled “cappuccino.” At least it’s hot. I look around at the scattering of big rigs, RVs and minivans and wonder if those drivers also contemplate the meager food and beverage choices at highway rest stops.

I’ve been thinking about food and drink since four hours earlier, when I bid goodbye to the Gateway Arch, the muddy waters of the mighty Mississippi River and a job as the executive editor of a culinary magazine called Sauce. In fact, the promise of fabulous food and drink is precisely why I’m heading south.

My tummy is rumbling, and it doesn’t help that I can’t get my mind off collard greens seasoned with fatback and the magical elixir that is potlikker. There’s creamy grits and sauce-slathered ribs and other seemingly typical Southern staples that I envision heaped on my plate as soon as I arrive in Atlanta.

And peaches. I really want a Georgia peach. I hope they’re still in season, otherwise I’m going to have to wait a whole 10 months to bite into the best pitted fruit on the planet. Fresh peanuts, too. What about boiled? I don’t have an opinion yet. Actually, I don’t understand why they boil peanuts in the South. Good question for folks at the Georgia Peanut Festival in October.

When not packing moving boxes, I’ve been asking a lot of questions about Atlanta’s scene and admittedly comparing it with the one I come from. St. Louis is a town generally known for beer and baseball. We like our pork steak and pride ourselves on toasted ravioli, an Italian delicacy deliciously bastardized by breading and a dip in the deep-fryer. There’s also every reason to save room for dessert when gooey butter cake is on the table. I wonder which among Atlanta’s iconic dishes will become my favorites.

As the new food and dining editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I’m excited to get to know Atlanta with fork in hand. And, being bookish, it’ll be fun to sift through annals to understand the city’s culinary history and traditions. Whatever the latest fooderati destinations may be, those are informed by what came before.

Among everyone I’ve chatted with about the local landscape, it was my predecessor at the AJC, John Kessler, who, besides graciously sharing his vast knowledge bank of the dining scene (and a few tips on reviewing restaurants), got me revved up about Atlanta as a food city.

“The energy of the South percolates through Atlanta,” John said. And he’s right. That energy is especially strong right now.

Culinary eyes around the country are on the South, and on Atlanta in particular. They should be, considering impressive projects like Krog Street Market and Central Food Hall at Ponce City Market, along with the lineup of notable chefs that these developments have attracted.

In the case of Ponce City Market, it’s mind-blowing to think of Hugh Acheson, Sean Brock, Linton Hopkins, Anne Quatrano, Hector Santiago and other talented toques under the same roof. Get ready to loosen your belt this fall, people. We’ve got 300,000 square feet of food and shopping to do!

I’ll fit that in while eating my way through a hit list that grows longer by the minute. Go to Holeman and Finch for a burger, Luminary for French that’s still comfortably American, Buford Highway for ethnic everything. Atlanta’s food scene is so vast that you can get your fill of virtually any cuisine from around the world, much like food-tropolises New York, San Francisco and Chicago.

Every town has its go-to joints for pizza, Chinese, barbecue or beer. What makes Atlanta different from any other city is the people. Food is food, but dining is an experience that comes to life because of the faces involved. Everyone from the front to the back of the house to the farmer who grew the food on your plate has a hand in making eating out special.

And cooking at home is all the better when you’ve provisioned your kitchen with foodstuffs from local growers and purveyors you know by name. I’m looking forward to getting acquainted with this food community and the journeys that led them to where they are today. Their stories are as relevant to Atlanta in 2015 as a century-old pecan pie recipe.

Now that you know what I’m excited about, I hope to whet your appetite for what’s in store with the AJC’s food and dining coverage. Food is fuel, but it can be fun, too. So look for lively content, in print and online, that enables you to eat and drink well in Atlanta.

We’ll give you the 411 on highly anticipated openings and the pop-ups everyone’s buzzing about. We’ll dig deep for the hidden gems — dishes too tasty to share and cocktails so delicious that the whole table ends up ordering a round. And we’ll continue this newspaper’s tradition of excellence with restaurant reviews. Quality, engaging prose can and should live on the page with criticism that is fair, accurate and unbiased.

In short, we want The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to be your source for food news. It’s a tall order and, like low-and-slow ’cue, it’ll take a bit of time to cook, but we’ll make sure it’s worth the wait and that you come back for more.

Meanwhile, I just turned onto a street called Peachtree.

Hello, Atlanta. Let’s eat!