Food & Drink

The meat-and-3 is a classic Southern tradition. But sometimes you can mix it up.

Meat-and-threes emulate the serving style of old-time Southern home cooks. Here at CrossTies Barbecue in Carrboro, the Pulled Pork is served here with a side of hush puppies, bourbon smoked baked beans, and collards.
Meat-and-threes emulate the serving style of old-time Southern home cooks. Here at CrossTies Barbecue in Carrboro, the Pulled Pork is served here with a side of hush puppies, bourbon smoked baked beans, and collards. jleonard@newsobserver.com

For those who don’t know – recent arrivals to the South, raw food fans, vegans, etc. – meat-and-three refers to a particular type of Southern restaurant.

Meat-and-threes emulate the serving style of old-time Southern home cooks, who laid out hearty meals that everyone sat down and ate. There was no lingering over cocktails first.

I was raised by one of those cooks, who was raised by one of those cooks.

You pick one meat, such as fried chicken, meatloaf, chicken and dumplings or pork chops (there’s fried fish on Fridays). Then, select three vegetables from an array of six or more, ranging from fried okra, stewed tomatoes, green beans, field peas, butter beans or collards to deviled eggs and macaroni and cheese.

At a meat-and-three, deviled eggs and mac and cheese are classified as vegetables. It makes perfect sense. They can’t be listed as meats because they contain no meat. Ergo, they are vegetables. There are no “meat substitutes” in the meat-and-three world.

However, the simmered and stewed vegetables on the menu usually include bacon or fatback, so ordering a vegetable plate doesn’t mean you’re getting a vegetarian meal. You might be able to get a tossed salad or sliced fresh tomatoes in the summer, but they may have bacon on top. Pork is to meat-and-threes what oregano is to Americanized Italian restaurants: it’s always there, lots of it.

There are no amuse bouches. No precious little tweezed appetizers. No tasting menus. At a meat-and-three, you get plenty of food, and it arrives all at one time.

I didn’t realize how deeply I’d absorbed the meat-and-three dining style until recently.

My tendency has been that when I make dinner, I make dinner. It’s all there ready when it’s time to eat, because I thought that was how you worked it. Although my menu has evolved way beyond simple meat-and-three – sometimes it’s vegetarian without even a whiff of bacon – my serving style hasn’t.

Fussing with fancy hors d’oeuvres seems like distracting extra work.

But one Friday evening, there was funky music on the radio and I was feeling in a festive mood. During a lull in making dinner, I spied a sopressata in the refrigerator. I sliced it up and put it on a nice plate. When The Hub got home from work, we had a glass of wine, nibbled the sausage and decompressed from the week, about 20 minutes or so. Then I finished preparing the last parts of dinner.

I felt unusually refreshed. Yes, there was wine, but might there be something else going on?

The following Friday, I grilled small bread slices in olive oil, in a frying pan I would use to cook dinner, smeared them with sundried tomato tapenade from a jar and put bits of prosciutto on top. All found in the refrigerator. It took only about 10 minutes to make.

“This is nice,” Hub said, sipping a beer. “It kind of makes Friday special.”

The next Friday: olives from a supermarket olive bar.

Next: grilled bread with leftover smoked salmon (from the bottom of a fridge drawer), the last of my backyard’s cherry tomatoes and capers on top.

The next week: I spied shrimp in the freezer, peeled them and sprinkled them with hot paprika, then wrapped them in bacon and baked, then drizzled them with honey when I put them on the plate – the same plate, by the way. It has become the Friday appetizer plate.

I had been put off by the appetizer idea, both by my meat-and-three style upbringing and magazines full of fussy small plates. But making a few relaxing pre-meal bites doesn’t have to be a lot of trouble. Slice salami or cheese. Stack or smear just about anything on grilled bread with plenty of olive oil.

Except for the time I picked up the olives (I was at the store anyway), I’ve used what’s in the refrigerator. And despite what you might think, my fridge doesn’t look like a Trader Joe’s. Sometimes the most exotic things in there are nondairy butter-like substance (Hub’s allergic to dairy) and okra pickles I made over the summer.

Work with what you’ve got. If all you have is bread, cut it in small pieces, grill it with olive oil and sprinkle it with herbs, garlic, grated cheese, parsley, whatever.

For us, three or four nibbles each is enough, so that we don’t stuff ourselves before dinner or crowd the now-official appetizer plate. It’s a square green piece of pottery with a tree design in the center, about the size of an average floor tile.

When I received the plate as a gift, I thought it was too small to be of any real use and put it in the back of a cabinet, deeming it one of those decorative things that I’m trying to get rid of these days. But that plate was only waiting for the right occasion.

It would hold a few deviled eggs quite nicely. Without bacon, those would be vegetables, right?

Debbie Moose is a freelance food writer and cookbook author. She can be reached at debbiemoose.com, Facebook or Twitter.

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