A Taste of Home: Southern flavors—and Michiana ingredients— at Bacon Hill
As a new transplant to Michiana, I felt a little beat of joy in my Southern heart when I saw my first lightning bug on a warm summer South Bend night. There’s something so comforting about finding that connection with home when you’re in a new place. It was akin to hearing “Sweet Home Alabama” in a disco during my junior year abroad in Italy, or finding the one dive bar in all of Manhattan where I could play Brooks & Dunn on the jukebox and two-step the night away.
The most recent in my string of Midwest-evokes-the-South experiences was brought on by a dish of grits at the new Southern-inspired restaurant, Bacon Hill Kitchen and Pub in Elkhart, Indiana. I’ll venture to say that chef Zach Lucchese, who opened Bacon Hill with his brother, David, in June of this year, has a nostalgic bent similar to my own, and his Southern roots (the brothers were born in Athens, Georgia) clearly anchor the restaurant’s menu.
Case in point: a grape soda and whiskey cocktail special (click here to see the recipe). What’s even more compelling about Bacon Hill, however, is Lucchese’s genuine desire to connect with the roots of the local community. The choice of name for the restaurant hearkens back to the farm that originally stood on the land, complete with its own meat market—an area the locals fittingly called “Bacon Hill.”
Lucchese sought to bring together his family traditions with the traditions of the local community by blending Southern-inspired dishes with a commitment to sourcing as many local ingredients as possible. While talking to Lucchese about his menu, he repeatedly referenced local producers such as DC Meats (Osceola, Indiana) and Kruse Farm (Bristol, Indiana). This locavore mentality extends beyond the food menu to include the bar as well. That grape soda–whiskey cocktail I mentioned? It’s made with Journeyman Distillery’s (Three Oaks, Michigan) W.R. Whiskey and Sprecher Brewery’s (Glendale, Wisconsin) craft Gorilla Grape soda.
Two of the most exciting, authentically Southern things I spotted on Bacon Hill’s menu were their fried catfish and their cheddar grits. In the intersection of Midwestern and Southern that reflects the ethos of the restaurant, Lucchese sources his catfish locally through DC Meats; the grits, however, are straight up Southern (Anson Mills, to be exact).
Fried catfish was a staple of my childhood. My two younger brothers and I would spend entire Saturdays fishing with my dad and competing for who could land the biggest catch. A hard-won, fresh, delicious fried catfish dinner was our reward. Lucchese said he grew up with similar experiences fishing in the Gulf off of Florida and in the rivers of Indiana. He told me that his catfish dish has been the biggest surprise seller at Bacon Hill—a whopping 60 pounds per week. It’s no shock to me given that the fish is marinated in buttermilk and a housemade hot sauce and then crusted with cornmeal and rosemary.
Though Lucchese pairs his dish with potato salad and hush puppies, my dad always made up a big batch of cheese grits to go with our fried catfish. So you can imagine my excitement to see cheddar grits on Bacon Hill’s menu.
When I asked for details, as a skeptical Southerner, on his technique, Lucchese recounted the story of his instruction in the fine art of grits making. During his time as chef of the restaurant at Swan Lake Resort (Plymouth, Indiana), he was approached by an older woman attending an event. She escorted herself into the kitchen, informed the chef that he was cooking his grits all wrong, and graciously imparted her knowledge, which he then relayed, verbatim, to me: “You’ve gotta whip the hell out of ’em!” Needless to say, I couldn’t leave without giving them a try, and he graciously whipped me up some. Proper Southern cheese grits are hard to come by, and these passed the test—the addition of buttermilk added a unique tang.
Though I’m a long way from the Deep South, there’s so much I’m finding to connect with and appreciate in Michiana, and I’ll be planning on a future dinner at Bacon Hill. Chef Lucchese even promised to serve me grits with my catfish.