Tour de Food
On a Wednesday evening in mid-September Mary Charles Jordan is eating at not one, but five, Athens restaurants. This despite the looming pressure of fitting into a vintage gown for her wedding this coming weekend.
As the founder and owner of Athens Food Tours, Jordan (BLA ’08) can’t be held back by rain, sun or lace. On this night she is hosting seven hungry women from her hometown of Sandersville, Ga., in Athens to celebrate a 40th birthday. The tour begins at the Arch, a must-see for visitors and a convenient meeting point, where Jordan explains the history of Athens Food Tours and distributes the itinerary for the evening.
A landscape architecture major at UGA, she moved to Chapel Hill, N.C., after graduation, where she worked three part-time jobs to pay the bills and keep busy. One job was with Taste Carolina Gourmet Food Tours, a concept she didn’t initially understand.
“I didn’t think I’d get the job, because I didn’t even know what a food tour was,” Jordan says. “And I still get that today. People are like, ‘A what tour?’”
But it’s much more than just food. What Jordan offers is an in-depth walking tour of Athens that uses food as an ice breaker. She knows her Athens history, from stories about the Civil War memorial at Broad Street and College Avenue to the architectural quirks of different buildings, and is quick to enlighten her guests as they move from eatery to eatery.
The first stop is La Dolce Vita, an Italian restaurant, where the group is greeted with fresh bread and red wine. After La Dolce Vita’s sommelier describes the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, a fruity Italian red, the interrogation of the bride-to-be begins. It starts with the dress, an altered version of her grandmother’s wedding gown, and moves onto how she’ll wear her hair and then to the planned honeymoon in Aruba. The waiter lingers, looking for a lull in conversation that never comes.
Eventually Jordan has to shift the group’s attention to the Gorgonzola and pear crostini that was delivered to the table. The toasted bread, smooth Gorgonzola and ripe pear has a nice textural contrast that everyone seems to enjoy, but the next dish—a creamy asparagus risotto—is the one that really gets them talking.
“I could eat a whole bowl of this,” Helen Tarbutton says. But the tapas-sized portion is perfect for the rich dish, especially when the dessert course—an equally decadent “chocolate soup” with hazelnuts—arrives.
Amidst the chatter Jordan explains how she has gotten 34 restaurants to sign on to her tours, 13 alone in the downtown area.
“I just read people’s personalities—and if they’re excited about it, I know it can work,” she says. “There are so many restaurants that are doing great things.”
Athens Food Tours offers five standard tours, grouped by neighborhood, and Jordan also plans specialty events such as a “Bride Guide” and a “Pizza, Beer and Crepes” tour.
The downtown tour, which visits different restaurants each time, has been the most popular since Jordan started the business in April. As the group leaves La Dolce Vita and heads east on Broad Street, she explains how she relies on social media and word of mouth to build her customer base.
At the next stop, Jittery Joe’s roasting house, Jordan slips back into tour guide mode. The building, she says, was used to distribute Budweiser in the 1920s, but now its aged tin roof and iconic coffee sign are beacons of hope for thousands of caffeine-dependent students. Friendly and knowledgeable roast master Charlie Mustard (MS ’97) explains the science behind coffee roasting, the expansion of Jittery Joe’s and shares how he started roasting partly for the free coffee that he wanted while writing his graduate thesis.
Mustard leads the group into the back of the building, which serves not only as a storehouse for coffee beans, but also as a disheveled garage for bicycles, oversized puzzle pieces and various knick knacks. He can identify seemingly identical burlap sacks as Sumatran or Rwandan beans and explains the organic and fair trade options that Jittery Joe’s has. He also explains that farmers can use chaff, the discarded outer membranes of the beans, as compost and gives tour guest Jennifer Wright a bag to take home for her family’s vegetable garden.
This concept of using everything for something is what Jordan most enjoys sharing.
“I wasn’t really that into the food,” she admits. “I liked the sustainability and the local aspect.”
Over miniature Reuben sandwiches and pickled okra at Farm 255, Jordan urges the guests to read the mission of the restaurant as she talks about visiting a local free-range chicken farm and continues to stress her passion for locally owned businesses and local food.
This continues at The National, where Sandersville gossip mingles with a refreshing pomegranate fizz and platters of fresh shrimp and bacon wrapped dates. Chef Peter Dale explains the “Mediterranean ideas, but local ingredients” concept behind the restaurant. As guests enjoy teacups of warm chicken noodle soup, Dale explains that since the free-range chickens are so expensive he takes care to use the whole bird. An otherwise useless chicken carcass becomes the base for a rich stock that is used in a chicken soup so comforting it tastes as if it could cure any ailment.
“We’ll crank this out for flu season,” Dale jokes.
The last stop is Yoguri frozen yogurt, brought to Athens by shop owner Vena Kim, who first spotted the frozen yogurt trend on the West Coast. Kim now wakes up at five every morning to make and freeze her all-natural yogurt flavors ranging from chocolate to mango to taro.
The women sample each flavor and analyze the toppings, which range from fresh fruit and granola to chunks of Oreo cookies. They each get a cup of yogurt with three toppings, which they pass around and sample. The three-hour tour has gone over by almost an hour, but none of the guests seem to mind as they continue to nibble, chat and grill the friendly tour guide on everything from bacon to bridal registries.
For more information on Athens Food Tours, go to http://www.athensfoodtours.com.