“My four food groups are pie, salt, bourbon and bacon,” explains Navy Lt. Cmdr. Morgan Murphy within an hour of returning to the U.S. from a tour with the U.S. military in Afghanistan.
Like other soldiers fortunate enough to return home, Murphy, who as Dir of Media Outreach for ISAF - the International Security Assistance Force helping to keep the peace in Afghanistan - briefed General David Petraeus daily, is deciding from which group to choose first, now that he's home. If he could have anything, muses the Birmingham, Alabama native, “I’d have to say a beignet. If I could drive off this base I’d go to New Orleans to Café Beignet.” No only are the irresistible sugar-coated pastries the official doughnut of Louisiana, they are he points out, great for hangovers.
But the fried shrimp at Doc’s Seafood Shack & Oyster Bar in Orange Beach, Alabama tempt him sorely, too. “You can’t go to the Cordon Bleu and learn how to make fried shrimp better. Repetition makes good cooks,” Murphy says. “The people who make it the best are the ones who do it the most.” Which explains his yen for Faidley’s Seafood crabcakes. Mr. Faidley was stunned when Mrs. Faidley gave Murphy her recipe. “He said, ‘I’ve been sleeping with her fifty years and I don’t have the recipe,’” chuckles Murphy.
Murphy is more than a military man waxing poetic about good old American chow. He’s the author of "Southern Living’s Off the Eaten Path: Favorite Southern Dives and 150 Recipes That Made Them Famous." Part travel book (GPS coordinates for each restaurant) and part cookbook (recipes), his only criteria were, exceptional food, good ambiance and outstanding service.
Despite his travel writer and food critic background (and an Oxford MBA) -- or perhaps because of them -- Murphy prefers down-home food. “This book is about what real people eat and truly want to eat. I don’t worry about the avant-garde,” he laughs.
Food gives you a sense of people and place, he says. “It lingers in the memory. Ninety-percent of taste is smell and smell gives the strongest memories.” Food is the last thing cultures give up - Italians who haven’t been to Italy and don’t speak Italian have their grandmother’s tomato sauce recipe. “Slavery took everything from a people that could be taken. But it didn’t take cooking and it didn’t take spices,” he says of South Carolina’s Gullah cooking.
His book shows how, with a little effort and guidance, you can experience the South like a true Southerner. Like eating Red Rice in Savannah. It’ll take you back in time to what peoples’ ancestors ate, he says. “It’s a way of connecting with a people that you can’t do if you’re only having fast food.”
The only thing greater than Murphy’s passion for food is his passion for service. He is the third generation of his family to serve in the military. He swapped cookbooks for newspapers when he knew he was going to be called up. Afghanistan was portrayed as the war we were losing, the war people didn’t care about, that people had forgotten, he says. When he got there he saw brilliant military thinkers implementing a brilliant strategy and effecting positive change. “We’ve left a lot of blood and treasure there,” he says, adding, “I have great faith in what we’re doing there.”
Bin Laden’s death has been “incredibly positive.” Not just for personal reasons - he lost six friends on 9/11 - but because “it’s highlighted the work and sacrifice of the 150,000 people in the theater. It’s a much bigger story than Bin Laden,” he says.
Murphy carries with him the obituary of a fellow staff officer who was killed the week that Murphy left. He died, says Murphy, helping to stabilize the regions for us and for democracies worldwide; “I will always carry it with me.” Of his service in Afghanistan Murphy says simply: “It has been one of the greatest gifts of my life.”