Summers in Meridian, Miss. are hot. Sometimes ungodly so. The Southern city is hours from the coast, and closer to Alabama than Jackson directly east. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t fresh seafood there, or access to water.
Just about every Friday night, Jody Morphis’ family would have a shrimp boil or catfish dinner. Jody’s dad had a catfish operation, catching and selling about half his spoils nearby and bringing the rest home. Those dinners were just about the only time Jody’s whole family — including four siblings — all came together, which is part of why these childhood memories are among his favorite.
The other reason is obvious: the food.
Morphis has been a fixture in Greensboro’s restaurant scene for more than a decade. He opened Fincastles — a downtown burger joint — for nine years, working in other restaurants before that. He’s sold his sauces and Bloody Mary mix under the moniker “Seersucker Chef,” and less than two years ago he opened Blue Denim restaurant next to the storefront where Fincastles used to be.
But more than any specific project, Morphis is known for delivering the flavors of his childhood in Meridian and later New Orleans-style chef training to the Triad. Looking for a Mardi Gras menu in Greensboro? He’s the guy to see. Want a straightforward yet delicious shrimp boil? Blue Denim is the most obvious stop.
I first encountered Morphis’ shrimp boil conducted neighborhood-style last summer, set up on a table in front of a dive bar. He’d been called in by another downtown restaurant for a staff appreciation event, and Morphis swilled a beer while standing behind his spread, offering me and a friend some of the surplus when the workers had their fill.
But trying his shrimp, potatoes, corn and sausage doesn’t require a personal connection or lining Morphis up for a catering gig. He’s offering a half-pound full every Wednesday night until Aug. 16.
It might’ve been his dad who brought home the catfish and shrimp, but Morphis said he learned to cook from his mother before apprenticing under someone for three years in the Big Easy.
Morphis recounted his trajectory as he worked in the Blue Denim kitchen — a signature light purple bandana tied around his neck and a Brown Truck Brewery shirt visible underneath his black apron— with Ethan Archer chopping away at a rack of ribs to Morphis’ right. Archer’s basically been at Blue Denim since it opened, and is recognizable through the slit window into the kitchen at Corner Slice up the street as well.
As Morphis dumped mustard seed, coriander seeds, black and white pepper, bay leaves, cayenne pepper, garlic and red pepper flakes into a bubbling pot that would soon hold the potatoes, he added that he also gleaned his culinary education from reading vociferously, thumbing through books at Barnes & Noble that he couldn’t afford at the time.
“S*** man, I still have to do that,” Archer said, in a tone that could’ve been taken as a joke or a serious lament.
A pot as big as Morphis’ torso stood next to the shrimp boil on the stove, a chicken andouille gumbo cooking inside it. Archer and Morphis took turns minding both as a couple other cooks worked diligently and quietly in an adjacent part of the small kitchen, mostly out of sight. Dinner service hadn’t begun yet, and preparations moved at a steady-yet-casual clip, at least with a reporter trying not to stand in the way.
The shrimp boil didn’t take long to prep. Once he dumped the potatoes in, the corncobs didn’t need to long, and it took less time to boil the shrimp than to plate it. After adding the andouille sausage, some house cocktail sauce on the side and a piece of bread Archer grilled, the plate was ready.
Cookouts are undoubtedly one of the greatest parts of summer. But that spirit shouldn’t just be restricted to the Fourth of July, or burgers, or even backyards. It should blossom into restaurants, especially ones with a live band playing inside. And while pulled pork barbecue is certainly our state’s signature food, cookout-style or otherwise, the Cajun, Creole and Southern cooking that Morphis provides is one of those quintessential summer experiences that can’t be missed.
Visit Blue Denim at 217 S. Elm. Street (GSO) on Wednesday nights for the shrimp boil until Aug. 16. See bluedenimgso.com for more information.