The beauty of ugly food

The AJC Dining team covers all facets of Atlanta’s robust restaurant scene. Catch the latest at

I’m not sure when it started, though I know it was years ago.

I think I just wanted to make a nice dinner for my girlfriend. I wanted it to taste nice, of course, but I wanted it to appear nice, like something I’d really taken my time with. I didn’t want the side salad to look thrown together, I wanted it to look composed. I asked a cook friend to give me a little advice on how to garnish a plate.

And, then, on some recent night I found myself watching YouTube at 2 o’clock in the morning, trying to perfect my brunoise tomato technique. It isn’t that the cut makes a tomato taste so much better, it’s just that it looks so nice when a round, ripe tomato becomes flawless 1/8” red cubes. It is, for lack of a better word, pretty.

Somewhere in the years between those moments, I’ve found myself surrounded by pretty food. So many chefs in this town really know how to dress up a dish like it’s going out on a Friday night, whether it is Zeb Stevenson’s colorful quenelles at Watershed or Jarrett Stieber’s “pretentious flowers” at Eat Me Speak Me or the artful arrangement of eggs and greens at Bread & Butterfly.

I certainly can’t blame them. It is such a pleasure to meet a pretty dish, to come across a plate that tells you how much care has been taken in every last step of the process before you even taste it.

Yet, I think I’ve become a little exhausted with pretty. So many plates feel colorfully balanced, precisely composed, chopped, trimmed and tweezered to the accuracy of 1/16th of an inch. My thumb scrolls through an Instagram feed overloaded with these dishes every night. They’re lovely, sure, and a lot of them taste good, too.

Plenty of them don’t. A pretty dish sometimes sacrifices flavor for presentation. You could guess that. I’ll spare you the moralizing.

I’d like to blame this situation on the Internet, on the visual currency of Instagram hearts and Facebook likes and social media-eager food writers like myself who love to lavish praise on magazine-ready dishes and tweezer-equipped cooks. Let’s be honest, everything is the Internet’s fault these days. And, so what if everything is pretty these days? Is it really such a bad thing?

Well, I do wonder what will happen to our homely dishes: the plates of biscuits drowning in pools of pale gravy, the lumpy, brown slow-cooked cassoulet, the pile of pot roast, the rusty-colored bowl of Brunswick stew. When I describe them that way, I know they don’t sound pretty. They aren’t. Yet, they’re enormously delicious.

Cassoulet is such an amazing and humble and enriching dish that it makes up for every unwatchable art film the French have ever produced. But I can’t remember ever seeing chefs in Atlanta brag about making cassoulet on social media. Why would they? It’s an ugly thing, too dark to photograph correctly — all of its deliciousness would be lost in translation.

Just the other night, I chopped up two pasture-raised chickens and braised them in a pot of homemade chicken stock so rich that that it stood up like Jell-O at room temperature. It was the best thing I’d made at home in months, so simple and concentrated in flavor that it tasted like pure chicken. Of course, it looked like a pile of leaves, something I’d raked up in the yard. I didn’t post it on Instagram. No one wants to look at that.

I worry about the message this sends. Chefs are just like us. They’re hungry for likes and retweets and all of the other Internet-age forms of acceptance and recognition. If they know they’ll never get that kind of response for making a big vat of delicious, ugly pork and beans, will they be less inclined to ever do it? More inclined to make an origami arrangement of flavorless but colorful root vegetables?

Despite my worrying, I am reminded, on occasion, that there is still plenty of ugly, good food in Atlanta.

You should go to the Silver Skillet. The ladies there aren’t putting airs on for anybody. When you order the country ham, the waitress will probably ask, “You know that’s the salty one, right hon?” And when she slaps down the plate, that slab of pork will have gristle a half-inch thick, a bowl of oil-black red-eye gravy balanced on top. It’ll taste like a salt-lick made of pork and coffee. On certain mornings, there is no greater breakfast in the world.

Or, how about Eddie Hernandez’s turnip greens at Taqueria del Sol? They look like a bowl of green sadness, but taste like a dream — like a leaf and a hog had a child.

Over at Home Grown, Kevin Clark has earned a following for the concoction he calls the Comfy Chicken Biscuit. It’s a couple of open-faced biscuits topped with fried chicken tenders and covered in a pale sausage gravy. He puts a wedge of orange on the side to add color, but he isn’t fooling anyone.

It sure isn’t pretty. But it isn’t quite ugly, either. Every time I take a bite, I think, “Beautiful.” Which is another thing altogether.