Southern food critic goes ‘Off the Eaten Path'

Last summer, Morgan Murphy set off on what he still calls "the mother of all road trips."

He traveled three months and 10,000 miles in a 1955 Cadillac, through 17 states in pursuit of the South's best dive eateries.

Murphy, a Birmingham-based journalist with more than a decade of experience as a travel editor and food critic, details his adventure in Southern Living's "Off the Eaten Path" (Oxmoor House, $22).

In addition to listing the best eateries of the region, the book also gives not-to-be-missed sights in the towns, the dishes you must try at each restaurant and recipes, just in case you want to make them at home.

Having just returned from an eight-month tour of duty in Afghanistan, where he served as director of media outreach, Lt. Cmdr. Murphy, a U.S. Navy reservist, was glad to be home. He has a lot of catching up to do, but spent some time chatting with us about his passions: food, culture and the South.

Q: In the book forward, you say any great restaurant stands on three legs: the food, the service and the ambience. The first two are self-explanatory, but elaborate on what you mean by ambience.

A: I am not a food snob. Ambience can be any number of things. It can be elegant. It can be a total dive. It is theater in the broader sense. You could make the dish at home, but there is a lot to be said for going out when you want atmosphere. There is nothing like going to Whitey's Fish Camp in Jacksonville and having some fish caught right off the dock. I love being in Savannah at B. Matthew's Eatery and soaking up great Spanish moss. It is also wonderful that someone else is doing the dishes.

Q: How does Southern cuisine differ from state to state?

A: We have a lot of different cultures in the South. We think of the South as one place, but the food tradition is very rich. Scottish, Irish, African and Mexican ... that is very popular in Mississippi, and it has been for many years. In Georgia, you have the Gullah tradition that dates back to Africa with red beans and rice. Out of every dish in Georgia, that has got to be my favorite.

We have a perfect mix of agriculture and seafaring cultures. The South has fantastic seafood and cattle, beef and pork, all of those things have come together in a perfect storm to create a culinary tradition unique to the South. I've eaten all over the world -- goat in Afghanistan, tagines in Morocco, kimchee in Korea, but there is nothing like the food of the South. It is rich and delicious.

Q: Why did you include GPS coordinates with the restaurant addresses?

A: We want people to use the book. I wanted to make a tool that people would find useful and actually take with them. When I recommend a restaurant [as a food critic], people would walk in a year later with a copy of the article, and that is what I want them to do with the book.

Q: You seem to have a love for independent restaurants. Why?

A: The independent restaurant is a subject very near and dear to my heart. I love restaurateurs because they have dedicated their lives to food. I have talked to hundreds over my career, but when you visit someone's restaurant, it is like going into someone’s home.

Chain restaurants have their place, but if you really want to experience a town and not just be a tourist, you have to eat what the locals eat. It is a snapshot of the South and our food, but more important, it is a snapshot of our people. When you support a local restaurant, you support a town.

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