Many Americans now live in a long winter of discontent during the tenure of President Donald Trump. The United States is so highly divided in the political sphere that historians and political philosophers are concerned about the outcome.
Food has always been used in times of trouble as a way to heal, but can the act of sharing a meal bring liberals and conservatives together for conversations leading to better cooperation?
Southern food culture may have an advantage in the U.S. (in terms of having the potential to create a “safe space” where people can gather around a table to discuss their differences with open minds and good manners) simply because so many of the foods of the South have already crossed borders of income and race to create a shared history with deep roots. These foods are part of a culture shaped by many diverse groups with different traditions, yet “Southern food” remains recognizable and distinct. One of the interesting shapes Southern food takes is the meat and three.
Meat and threes are restaurants featuring home-style cooking where customers are offered a choice of one kind of meat, along with three vegetable sides (often local/seasonal produce prepared by traditional cooking methods). The list of sides is often extensive, with so many things to choose it can be hard to pick just three. Sometimes Meat and Threes are set up as buffets while others have traditional restaurant service. One thing is certain, though: Meat and threes are a beloved part of the Southern dining experience.
The Bitter Southerner claims “The meat & three is to the #South as the bistro is to Paris. Are we right?” Jane and Michael Stern write in “500 Things to Eat Before It’s Too Late that the name implies “glorious vittles served with utmost informality”. John T. Edge says “These restaurants brought the flavors of the country to the city, providing the foods people longed for.” Southern Living offers good advice: “For those who weren’t fortunate enough to be raised around this Southern staple, a meat ‘n’ three is a cafeteria-style restaurant that serves a rotating or seasonal menu of meats and vegetable, which often changes daily. The premise is fairly simple: Take a tray and load up.”
In Atlanta, the tradition of the meat and three is strong. The tables are waiting for those conversations to happen—the ones that might save us all. There are no barriers in place. At meat and threes, everyone is welcome.
Southern Food Community
Here, a few restaurants following this great tradition:
Mary Mac’s is the only one left of 16 historic Atlanta tea rooms. Famous for its home cooking, it’s also one of those places where if you stay there long enough, sooner or later you’ll see everyone you know. The Georgia House of Representatives created Resolution 477 in 2011, in which Mary Mac’s was officially declared to be “Atlanta’s Dining Room.”
In 1971 the restaurant was written about in the Time-Life Foods of the World series in American Cooking: Southern Style by Eugene Walter: “I found two survivors of an older Atlanta era. One was an unpretentious restaurant called Mary Mac’s Tea-Room. The service was friendly and old-fashioned, and Mary Mac herself, with no sense of haste or fret, showed people to tables and handed out menus. She was laconic about the merits of her place. ‘Well..’ she smiled. ‘I eat here myself three times a day. I wouldn’t serve you anything I wouldn’t eat…’ I had one of the best chicken pies I have ever tasted.’”
We asked Taylor O’Sullivan of Mary Mac’s what it’s like at the restaurant today, almost 50 years after it was written about for Foods of the World. He reports that “Between people traveling through the city to our regulars who have been coming for over 40 years, we have all walks of life come to the Tea Room. There are a handful of people who come multiple times a week. There is a group of Georgia Tech professors who come in on the same day at the same time every week and their table is always ready for them when they arrive. Food is a universal language that everyone speaks. Multiple times a day we will have tables ask other tables what they order and if they are enjoying it or not. Sometimes we have customers that will let other tables know what they need to order. Our regulars make sure to always give the tourists the right recommendations.”
About meat and threes in particular, Taylor has this to say: “Meat and Threes originated in the South along with Southern Hospitality. Once again, good food is a universal language so it brings people together not only in the dining room but also outside. The word has been spread all over the world about Mary Mac’s and people have heard it calling loud and clear, as they come from all over!”
We all need some of that spirit, right now in 2018.
Kim Severson of The New York Times lists The Busy Bee in her 2016 “Places to Eat in Atlanta” as “a lunch spot that has been making food since 1947, and anyone who knows anything about Atlanta politics and Southern cooking has paid a visit. It’s a meat and three to love. And it’s almost always busy.”
A newer addition to Atlanta’s Meat and Threes, JCT serves a Sunday Supper described as a “fancy meat and three.”
Open weekdays only, Fred’s demonstrates, eat and threes can be places that stay the same yet break down boundaries—as shown in this story in Saveur on owner Fred Razzaghi, an Iranian immigrant who makes traditional Persian yogurt in his kitchen as well as collards and potlikker.
Header image courtesy of Pinterest/johnnyshomewood.com.