Everything old is new again

barbecue from skylight inn in ayden, just chopped

As The Hub and I rolled from Ayden, N.C. toward New Bern on the Southern Foodways Alliance High on the Hog Carolina Field Trip, we talked about how foodies didn’t invent “eat local” or heirloom foods. People who care about their food have been eating local and looking for the best for years. The whole weekend illustrated that fact.

In Ayden, we feasted on barbecue from the Skylight Inn – the place with the replica of the capitol dome on top – and sublime sides (plus barbecued chicken)  from Bum’s Restaurant: mashed rutabagas, sweet potato muffins and collards. Bum’s collards were so good, even The Hub liked them. Ate them all. I haven’t been able to get the man to willingly  touch a collard in 30 years. The restaurant grows the cabbage collards it cooks, right at the place. Why? Because the owners couldn’t find collards good enough in the store. They save the collard seeds to plant every year. Been

bill smith and his sisters and nieces serve honeysuckle sorbet

doing it since they opened in 1963.

Sam and Jeff Jones of the Skylight, which has been in business since the 1940s ,  bemoaned the new world of leaner pigs. “Fatter hogs make better barbecue,” Jeff said. So they’re looking for heritage breeds that will keep the barbecue tasting like it should, like the old times. “You can’t make chicken salad out of chicken shit,” Sam said, flatly.

“This is just what everybody was raised up on,” said Larry Dennis of Bum’s.

Same thing with the crab stew and fish muddle that night, both traditional eastern dishes. It’s right out of the water, and you do something good with it. Bill Smith of Chapel Hill’s Crook’s Corner, who was raised in eastern North Carolina, prepared the crab stew: crabmeat and a whole crab in a gravy-like liquid, all of which is served over a slice of white bread to soak up the juices. Sam McGann of The Blue Point in Duck made the fish muddle. It’s a thick, stew-like blend of

barbecue, fried chicken and sides from grady's barbecue, at grainger stadium

whatever fish is fresh. Ours had snapper and rockfish, and a huge shrimp on top.

Our lunch at the acclaimed Chef and the Farmer in Kinston spoke the same language, just with a different accent. Thankfully for our pork-soaked systems, chef Vivian Howard had decided to go veggie…mostly: watermelon with feta-poblano vinaigrette, fried whole okra with ranch ice cream, ears of corn with ginger-bacon butter, Cherokee Purple tomato sandwich with smoked corn mayonnaise, a small pattypan squash stuffed with a Sea Island Purple Cape bean salad, and buttermilk sorbets with three different toppings (blackberry, peach and what seemed to me strawberry-rhubarb). I do not generally hold with fancifying the classic tomato sandwich, but the mayo accented with tomato without competing with it, which is usually my problem with “gourmet” tomato sandwiches.

The lunch was sublime. But so were the other meals. They all had the same aspirations, whether they were served on Formica counters or sleekly modern tabletops: To find the best flavors and prepare them in the best ways.

Postcards from the field trip:

– Dessert for breakfast: Pig picking cake, coconut cream pie, chocolate pie, peach cobbler with blackberry sorbet, banana pudding and fig cake with buttermilk ice cream. This all before Chapel Hill author Sheri Castle’s talk on desserts for Southern pig pickings. They need to feed a lot and are sweet because Southerners like sweets, Castle said, and the sweet balances the spicy barbecue. Banana pudding became a Southern classic because the South’s ports attracted ships from the tropics, and there’s no season to bananas. Pig picking cake is a, well, more recent development. “I can assure you that no actual food was harmed in the making of this cake,” Castle quipped. The classic cake is made from yellow cake mix, pudding mix, canned mandarin oranges and pineapple, and Cool Whip.

– Dessert after the crab stew and fish muddle was a lemon pie with a crust made from saltine crackers and butter. Smith said people used to think “if you ate dessert after seafood, you’d die. Unless it was lemon. My mother still thinks that.” He was kind enough to bring his signature honeysuckle sorbet from Crook’s as well.

– Johanna Kramer of Durham (@durhamfoodie to Twitterites) is obsessed with corn. Lock up your ears.

– In his talk on sauces, Raleigh author Fred Thompson confessed to affection for both eastern and western barbecue sauces. A brave man, he.

– Having kegs of Mother Earth Brewing beer at home plate, first base and third base did not improve my softball abilities.

See a slideshow of photos from the field trip on YouTube here.

These things must be done delicately (J)

Humor – like beauty and the best choice in upholstery fabric – is often in the eye of the beholder. I have committed humor enough times to know that some people just don’t see it. As my friend Bob Langford used to say, sometimes a writer should insert (J) next to the funny stuff to give the humor impaired a hint. (If you are really humor impaired and have to ask, J is for “joke.”)

And other times, (J) doesn’t work. Because the writing really isn’t that funny.

Exhibit A: this in The News & Observer today. From the cliched headline to the ignorant catalog of every tired stereotype about Southern food, it’s lame. Yeah, yeah, I know – I should say what I really think. As The Hub always says, “You have so few opinions, dear, and you are so loathe to express them.”

I did think before commenting on this column. There have been cases where I wrote something that I thought was funny or funny but biting, only to get comments from readers that made me wonder if they’d read the same piece. But I don’t think that I just “didn’t get it” here.

It’s not that the column criticizes Southern food. There’s plenty to criticize – mock, even – about Southern food. That we would feed our infants bacon-flavored formula if we could get it, for starters.

But, as the Wicked Witch of the West said, it’s how to do it. That’s where the magic of writing comes in. Oh, yes, I know how difficult it is to conjure that magic. But I hope that I have never resorted to beating my subject with a shillelagh, and hope I never will.


Oink for ‘Pig’

North Carolina native James Villas has written several books on Southern food in knowledgeable, graceful

'pig: king of the southern table' by james villas

'pig: king of the southern table' by james villas

style. He brings the same qualities to his newest cookbook, “Pig: King of the Southern Table” (John Wiley & Sons, &34.95).

The title says it all – this is the complete book on the South’s love of pork. Despite the current popularity of bacon, “Pig” is refreshingly free of trendiness (no bacon ice cream here). From bourbon-glazed pork chops to pig pickin’s, from spoon bread with country ham to Mississippi Crusted Pigs’ Ears (yes, ears), it goes whole hog. Villas does not flinch from writing about the less attractive parts – chitlins, hog’s head, pig liver – that sustained Southerners in earlier days. They’re all part of the history in a land where, during many decades of deprivation, folks really did eat “everything but the squeal.”

The book is a classic that I can see dipping into over and over. I tried the Sullivan’s Island Bacon and Shrimp Bog last night, and the clearly written, simple recipe was the perfect mid-week meal. And Villas had the good sense to dedicate the book to my buddy Kathleen Purvis. What more do you need?