Hot southern meals on wheels

ABOVE, THERESA Merrill, owner of the Steel Magnolia food truck, leans out the order window. Reagan Zimmerman photo

by Reagan Zimmerman

What sounds better than a Monte Cristo sandwich that is full of hot ham and cheese with powdered sugar and jelly?

A Monte Cristo sandwich served between two slices of a glazed donut.

The Steel Magnolia food truck honored National Donut Day by getting creative and taking a risk through this uncommon concoction.

Owner Theresa Merrill, and her family took a similar big risk three years ago, when they began planning for the mobile eatery that debuted Friday, May 26 at the local farmer’s market in Green Lake.

“My dad bought the Airstream trailer four years ago, with the intention of gutting it and making it into a food truck,” Merrill said.

Why a food truck?

Well, Merrill’s roots are in the military, so it made sense to own a traveling business, since she always was on the road herself.

Her story begins in Ripon, where her parents — Joe and Kathy Merrill — grew up, went to school and got married.

From there, her father entered the military and they began to travel for 27 years.

During that time, Merrill was born in Fort Knox, Ky.

She then spent the rest of her childhood moving from one country to another, including four years in Belgium and Germany early in her childhood.

At 17, Merrill followed her father’s footsteps and joined the military.

“That kept me moving around; I went to South Carolina, trained in Texas, and then moved to Chattanooga,” she said.

Merrill learned how to cook from one of her best friend’s mothers, whom she met while in the military.

She started with homemade breads and grew her recipe file from there.

Soon after her time in the military, she enrolled in culinary school to learn more about her new-found interest.

Merrill decided that being away from her family for 16 years was too much, so she left Chattanooga and came “home.”

Coming to Ripon resulted in an opportunity for her to explore her passion: cooking.

When deciding what her culinary inspiration would be, she decided to get creative, choosing comfort food with a hint of southern roots.

“Kind of like the sign says; Local Fare with Southern Flair; [it] is about honoring your roots,” Merrill said.

Though the theme is dedicated to her time down south, the menu is constantly changing.

“It is nice being a food truck, because we don’t really have to do anything when it comes to what we serve. I can do whatever I want to do,” she said.

Merrill enjoys releasing her creative side when setting and changing the menu.

“It is exciting to see people trying something different and out of their comfort zone,” the owner said.

A few of the popular items will stay in place, like the pimento grilled cheese and banana pudding, which Merrill regards as staples.

Merrill admits to a personal reason for retaining the grilled cheese.

“That is my ultimate comfort food,” she said. “No matter the different places that I have lived, it is one of those things that makes you feel at home.”

Merrill’s goal is to feel at home when she is working, because she is family oriented.

“My dad and his two brothers did all the work on the truck; they built it. After that, is was hands off and now I do all the cooking with the help of my aunt and my mom takes orders,” Merrill said. “My dream come true is working with my mom and my aunt in this small little box. Some of my favorite parts of the week is watching them help because they love me.”

Though the truck has not been open long, Merrill believes that going out on a whim and opening a food truck has been one of the most exciting experiences of her life.

Right now the only concrete gig for the Steel Magnolia is Friday afternoons at The Market, held from 3 to 6:30 p.m. on the lawn of Town Square.

Merrill is looking to expand to different areas soon.