Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Robert St. John: Eat Local

Every day of my life I wear a small button on my shirt, jacket, or vest— sometimes all three— that reads, “Eat Local.”

 It's a professional philosophy and an outward statement of personal conviction. I have dozens of Eat Local pins. They stay on my jackets and suits that don’t go through a regular one-wear wash cycle. If I'm attending a funeral I’ll take the button off of a suitcoat, but otherwise, whether I'm in a t-shirt or a dress shirt, I always wear an Eat Local button. It's who I am and what I believe.


I believe it so much that I painted an 18-foot tall “Eat Local” mural on the entire back wall of one of our restaurants. 


When I opened the first restaurant in 1987, I wasn't worried about people eating locally. In those days there were only a few full-service restaurants open in my hometown of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Most of them were independently owned local restaurants. There were several fast-food chains, but when it came to full-service restaurants none of the national corporate chain restaurants had arrived yet.


I opened on the border of 40th Avenue, which, at that time, was the edge of town. In the early 1990s, as people began moving westward into gated subdivisions, massive strip centers sprung up and national chain restaurants began popping up along the main business corridor. 


There is a world of difference between locally owned restaurant concepts and national chains. Chain restaurants are cookie-cutter concepts developed by a corporate team of designers and executives in some faraway city, most of whom have never visited— and will never visit— that particular city or small town. The chain restaurant at the interstate off-ramp in my hometown looks, feels, and tastes exactly like the chain restaurant just off the interstate exit in the next town, and the next, and the next, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and all points in between.


We are becoming a nation of homogenous and characterless cookie-cutter concepts that serve food on the level of the lowest common denominator because they have national buying power and must answer to stockholders at an annual meeting in New York, Chicago, or Dallas. Most could care less about locally sourced ingredients from farmers and fishermen in the backyards of the towns and cities in which they are located. National chains are like seed-packet retail. It’s as if someone flew over an interstate exchange that is located near the newest part of town and threw out a bunch of corporate-chain seeds, and the same stores that sprout up in other cities group together and start sprouting up there.


There’s nothing original there. There’s nothing specific to that town and its people, unless there are a few photos on the wall awkwardly trying to relay local color.


At one time, in the not-too-distant past, all we had in local towns and cities were locally owned and independent cafes and diners. They were owned by people that lived in our neighborhoods and operated by still more people that lived in our neighborhoods. They assumed the character and personality of the city or town in which they were located. 


Hardly anyone is opening a local café these days. It’s sad. Community diners disappeared and we barely noticed. We all got enticed by the shiny theme restaurants with national advertising and studio photography that looks nothing like the result that winds up at the table. We have become a seed-packet society that wishes for the next hot national chain to come to town. When it does, we realize that it doesn’t have the charm and character of the local places. But— without access to the capital available to the national chains— the locally owned restaurants begin to close.


National chain restaurants do not make a city better and more livable. Locally owned, independent restaurants do, almost every time.


I am not talking about fast-food franchises. While I am not an enthusiastic advocate for fast-food, there are several of those that are owned by friends of mine who are locals. The greater food/chef community would totally disagree with the following statement, but I stand by it. Fast food franchises (especially those that are locally owned) play a part in the make-up of a town. They are affordable and accessible to many who can’t dine in a full-service restaurant. And a couple of them are pretty good. I have a few friends who own fast-food franchises, and I consider them small business owners, too. 


It’s the national full-service chains that I believe have invaded our culture and robbed many towns of their character and identity.


I write this column in New Orleans. My Eat Local button is sitting on the dresser in my bedroom. I always take it off when I come down here because it’s redundant. New Orleans is a city that revolves around— and celebrates— independent, locally owned restaurants. Sure, there are fast-food chains, and a few national full-service corporate chain restaurants in the suburbs. But what makes New Orleans one of the great food cities in America (#1 in my book) are the independent locally owned restaurants— from the corner dive bar that serves oysters on the half-shell, to the fine-dining stalwarts that have lasted over a century.


Pre-Covid, Orleans Parish had over 1,200 dining establishments, or one for every 325 residents. I don’t have the exact figure, but if I had to guess, I would estimate that at least 90-95% of New Orleans’ dining establishments are locally owned independent businesses run by entrepreneurs who took great risks to open and operate in that highly competitive city. The result is that those independent establishments are a huge part of what gives New Orleans its character. 


No corporate event planners are selling their conventioneers on New Orleans because it is filled with the same chain restaurants that can be found in Cleveland, Minneapolis, and Orlando. No. People dream about going to New Orleans for the food and culture. It has been my experience that the better the food and culture of a place, the more interesting the character.


And character matters, not only in people, but in towns and cities. The next time you decide to dine-out, please support your locally owned restaurants and businesses. Now, more than ever, Eat local. Shop local. Live local. It matters.



Sautéed Garlic Shrimp

This recipe uses store-bought Italian dressing. That dressing is the only way I would eat a salad when I was a little kid. This is the only application I use it these days. Purists will scoff, but purists can also whip up a zesty vinaigrette and substitute it for the store-bought dressing herein.


2#                   21-25 shrimp, peeled and deveined 

1 tsp                kosher salt

1 tsp                Creole Seasoning

1/2 tsp             fresh ground black pepper

3 TBSP           olive oil

1 1/2 Tbl        garlic, minced

1/4 cup           white wine

1/2  cup          chicken broth

1cup                Wishbone Italian Dressing

¼ cup              unsalted butter, cut into small cubes

2 Tbl                fresh parsley. Chopped



Season the shrimp with the salt, Creole seasoning and black pepper.

Place the olive oil in a large, heavy duty sauté pan over high heat. Heat the oil until it just begins to smoke. Carefully place the shrimp in the smoking hot pan. Allow the shrimp to cook without moving them for 3-4 minutes. Add the garlic and stir the shrimp. Cook for 3 more minutes. Add the white wine and allow it to reduce almost completely. Add in the chicken broth and Italian dressing and cook until the sauce begins to simmer. Cook for 3 more minutes in the simmering sauce. Add in the butter cubes, and blend the butter into the simmering sauce. Remove the shrimp from the heat and stir in the parsley. Serve immediately with a lot of toasted French bread for dipping.


Yield: 8-10 servings



Anonymous said...

I do eat local. It's so local that I can see my own TV. Between the teenage spitters in the fast food places and the understaffed mom and pops....45 minute waits and overcharging's just not worth my time. Even Rusty's in V-burg is slacking these days.

Anonymous said...

I agree. Too many teenaged spitters and lickers gleefully posting on tiktok guaranteed that I will never eat fast food again. I can buy frozen rally’s fries and make my own hamburger even better.

Nothing else is worth the trouble. Covid lockdowns proved to me that I don’t need to socialize with anyone in public. I have everything i need at home including a lightgun shooting arcade, as well as racing and flight simulators in my den. The people I care about are always here so why leave?

Anonymous said...

11:25 : Wow. Who are you ? Tom Cruise. Lol :)

Anonymous said...

We eat local as much as possible and, specifically, from our vegetable garden and fruit trees, and husband's and friends' hunting and fishing skills. The garden currently has collards, turnips, mustard, Swiss chard, lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, brussel sprouts, sugar snap peas, radishes, dill, coriander/cilantro, chives, parsley, rosemary, sage, thyme, and oregano. We already ate all the cauliflower. Half a dozen chickens provide eggs, Wilson's meats in Crystal Springs, Kroger for dairy, flour and other things we can't provide ourselves. Truthfully, we eat very well and are blessed to live here.

Sister-in-law sent us several pounds of Red Royal Shrimp from Florida for
Christmas so I'm thawing a pound of them and using Robert's recipe to make dinner tonight. Yum!

Anonymous said...

@11:25 - LOL. I thought I invented social distancing long before Covid. The ones I love are nearby or in close touch.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with the above.

In the rare case the servers are decent then it seems a guarantee that a fellow patron will be a miserable arse.

Covid just broke society's ability to be decent humans with any work ethic.
I have not dined out more than 5 times since March 2020.

I have gone for drinks and live music because I am not scared of a cold and have not had the rona yet.

But food, atmosphere and service, not worth it.

Krusatyr said...

I've been saving enough by not going out to budget better ingredients and higher end cookware for preparing meals at home. New Orleans was a filthy, perverse pit of puke and pestilence before the Chinese Virus, so I have avoided it for 25 years.

Kingfish said...

Dang. Seems like I might should call this website Hermit Jambalaya since apparently only hermits read it.

Anonymous said...

Y’all just never struck me as the fast food type. Wow.

Anonymous said...

I'm not at all proud of my hermit like status.

I hope things improve. I very much want to enjoy fine dining in the near future and remain hopeful!

Anonymous said...

When USM and MSU played football in Jackson years ago, we always ate at Red Lobster on 55 and looked forward to it because Hattiesburg didn't have a Red Lobster. Now Hattiesburg has had a Red Lobster for years and I think we have eaten there maybe twice.

In fact, I cannot tell you the last time we dined at any of the chain restaurants in Hattiesburg. I can tell you the last time we dined at our favorite local Mexican restaurant (last week) and I think our favorite local sushi restaurant has reopened its dining room so we will be adding it back to the rotation.

No doubt local restaurants are invested in the community, but it's worth noting there are local franchisees of restaurant brands and those local owners support the community as well.

Anonymous said...

Building a good racing and flight simulator are infinitely less expensive than buying an actual race car or airplane.
And the lightgun set up is because we all loved Cabela’s Dangerous Hunts and House of the Dead in the arcade!

Anonymous said...

11:49 KF . As I said, if Rusty's customer service is down then everywhere else has to be shit. I was in the FSI for years. I got no time for bad service and over priced "scratch" meals.

Anonymous said...

Local this : Forgot my lunch a couple days ago and decided to gets me some Sonic......the mushed mouthed server informed me rudely that all I ordered could not be made. No root beer. No hot dog buns and no tots. NO TOTS at Sonic ! Then all the sudden I noticed a democrat enjoying tots beside me. The mushed mouthed server didn't want to serve old white guy ! Local that.

Anonymous said...


So you're saying said mush-mouthed kid singled you out for no service. I highly doubt that. I haven't run into that a single time at Sonic. When did democrat become the new code word/dog whistle for a non-white person? Is it entirely possible Sonic could have been out of tots when your ordered? They proudly display that some items may be in short supply on their displays.

Get over yourself. Mush-mouth is probably the only person they could hire for the minimum slave wage.

Anonymous said...

1:12 : The mushed mouthed server was a fat white girl who thought she was from Compton.

Anonymous said...

wow. these are some comments.

my wife and i dine regularly at locally owned establishments: even in jackson or on the road.

the staff and owners just care more about the food and atmosphere.

Anonymous said...

2:29 : I bet you tip well .

Anonymous said...

I prefer to eat local and strive to at every opportunity. One reason "local" has a hard time in various areas is for the most, people are too cheap to eat local. Look at any of your "Let's Talk XYZ town" Facebook pages and people constantly hoping and wishing for national chains and complaining about local restaurants being too expensive. I literally saw someone on the Brandon one talk about $60 for a family of 4 being too much for an all you can eat seafood buffet. Mississippi simply doesn't have the population with the expendable income to support a plethora of locally owned eateries. We are lucky that we have the ones we do and multiples in some pockets.

Anonymous said...

A St. John article leads to a discussion about Mush-Mouth.

Now that is instant gratification.

Anonymous said...

This St John he the same eat-local guy who constantly writes articles about his world travels and eating fabulous dishes abroad? Or is it just a name similarity?

Even the slowest of bloggers knows he only wants you to eat local because his restaurants are, well....local.

Anonymous said...

I only eat local wherever my travels take me and I must say that currently it can be difficult. Food is always hit or miss, but service is at an all time low. Either way I’ll take crappy local restaurants over chain food anytime. Pardon my English I don’t speak or type well. How much longer on the Ed’s burger in fondren ?

Anonymous said...

@6:27 Are you insinuating he ate at a Whattaburger or Cheesecake Factory in Tuscany?

Anonymous said...

It takes a miserable person to rant about a blog post asking people to support locally owned businesses. I feel sorry for some of the people posting on here. Apparently neither Rusty’s nor Sonic can satisfy you. THAT is an example of miserable old geezer because Rusty’s and Sonic pretty much represent the best of both worlds.

Anonymous said...

RSJ has had a fantastic and fulfilling career and I enjoy his positive columns. A truly happy and accomplished person can write such things. As for the the rest of y’all, not sure what went wrong but it hurts to think about how you turned out so bitter and nasty.

Hopefully next year they will have tryouts for Scrooge at New Stage The competition will be fierce!

Anonymous said...

I sure do miss the ole “Cherokee”.

Anonymous said...

I can understand why many of you commenters don't go out much, as it's likely difficult to lug your oxygen tanks around.

Anonymous said...

6:27, if you weren’t so dense, you would read this to mean eat local no matter where you are. As opposed to Sonic at all of the geographies you visit.

Anonymous said...

You have clearly succumbed to the logical fallacy that the half dozen vocal posts on social media are somehow representative of millions. Please reevaluate your critical thinking skills.

I stopped going out because every restaurant either has an illegal alien or a has saggy britches mop top working the kitchen.

Anonymous said...

The best meals I've had in the past few months:

Rusty's Riverfront in Vicksburg - fried green tomatoes were amazing
Casita Linda in El Paso - best authentic Mexican in an old school setting
Amerigo's in Ridgeland
Ruth's Chris in Albuquerque (miss the one in Ridgeland)

And breakfast at Cracker Barrel in NE Jackson - biscuits and white gravy

Anonymous said...

Watching a fat kid eat local right from his nose as I type this. Should I intervene ?

Anonymous said...

2:40. it’s 2:29. yes. i give at least 20 percent. i worked my way through college doing various restaurant jobs and have lived that reality. i know what a 20 percent tip feels like..and now that i can afford that, why not spread a little happiness?

Anonymous said...

Before this thread gets bumped down too far, Shuckers has some of the best food in the area. Great staff and real people eat there.

burton39110 said...

So is he against national chains except the ones his friends own? Also he is opening places in Jackson so is he not “local” there?”

Anonymous said...

These types of establishments fail in MS because they are strategically placed in pockets that cater to their own tribes. One tribe is seen as least desirable with a superior product, and the other tribe abandons their location when the prior starts to frequent.

Cause and effect

Anonymous said...

"And breakfast at Cracker Barrel in NE Jackson - biscuits and white gravy"

That ending sentence right there blew your credibility. But, if you fancy gravy that you stand up a fork in...go for it. And if you enjoy the experience presented at North Jackson Cracker (lol) Barrel, happy eating.

Speaking of 'tribal', The 'white folks welcome' sign is not hung out at Jackson area IHOP and Cracker Barrels. Yes, Karen, Mississippi has the fattest tribes in the nation.

Anonymous said...

10:10 : Even if the service is bad ? I worked the industry as well. I refuse give a good tip to a bad server. It just teaches them bad behavior.

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Trollfest '07 was such a success that Jackson Jambalaya will once again host Trollfest '09. Catch this great event which will leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Othor Cain and his band, The Black Power Structure headline the night while Sonjay Poontang returns for an encore performance. Former Frank Melton bodyguard Marcus Wright makes his premier appearance at Trollfest singing "I'm a Sweet Transvestite" from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Kamikaze will sing his new hit, “How I sold out to da Man.” Robbie Bell again performs: “Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be Bells” and “Any friend of Ed Peters is a friend of mine”. After the show, Ms. Bell will autograph copies of her mug shot photos. In a salute to “Dancing with the Stars”, Ms. Bell and Hinds County District Attorney Robert Smith will dance the Wango Tango.

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If you get tired come relax at the Fox News Tent. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both will entitle you to free drinks.Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required, just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '07 is for EVERYONE!!!

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