Oink if you love BBQ

Great quotes rose like blue smoke during the Southern Foodways Alliance 15th annual symposium recently, which focused on barbecue in all it’s glory. I thought I’d randomly share some of what I gleaned from my notes, but to hear the full real things – including novelist Monique Truong’s lovely tribute to Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge in Shelby, N.C. and North Carolina writer Randall Kenan’s great essay – visit here for podcasts.

“Industrial food production has been wildly successful in making copious quantities of food very cheaply. But in the last 10 to 20 years, sophisticated consumers have focused on the unintended consequences… The expenses are reapportioned. Food is cheap in the shopping cart, but the expense is borne on the backs of animals, the air and water.” – Will Harris of White Oak Pastures, an industry leader in sustainable livestock farming, speaking during the panel “The Politics of Protein and Tomatoes.”

“Consumers are stupid.” – Comment during Q&A after the panel.

“Consumers aren’t stupid, they’re struggling.” – Me, when the previous statement ticked me off.

“Pigs domesticated themselves. If you need meat in a hurry, pig is for you…Pigs can’t be driven and could be fed on garbage. It gave (poor people) meat outside the economy. Pigs gave them freedom.” – Mark Essig, author of the forthcoming “Pig: A Nose-to-Tail History of Civilization,” in a talk on the history of the pig. He also pointed out that we now have fewer farms but many more pigs.

“I AM the pitmaster!” – Helen Turner, proprietor of Helen’s BBQ in Brownsville, Tenn., in an oral history film about her. She received the Ruth Fertel Keeper of the Flame Award. Folks are often surprised to see a woman at the helm of the pit.

“The south of Mexico is coming to the south of the United States…with southern Mexico barbecue. Raleigh is the Ellis Island for Mexico. Types of (southern Mexico) barbecue there that are impossible for me to find in southern California…There’s a shared love of fiddle music….(Southern Mexico) is sort of the Mexican version of Appalachia.” – Gustavo Arellano, editor of the Orange County Weekly in California and author of “Ask A Mexican.”

“I’m going to have to get me a second Spanx,” – comment reportedly heard on the bus after Raleigh chef Ashley Christensen’s luscious all-vegetable lunch.

“America hates an eyeball. We don’t like our food looking back at us.” – Alton Brown, author of the “Good Eats” series of books and TV personality, speaking on “The Science of Whole Hog Cookery.”



Mother Earth Brewing

beer at mother earth brewing, kinston n.c.

The Hub and I used the Southern Foodways Alliance BBQ Field Trip as an excuse to finally visit Mother Earth Brewing in Kinston, N.C. I’ve enjoyed the brewery’s Weeping Willow Wit at spots around Raleigh and was interested in tasting more. We had 90 minutes to kill between one meal and another. Hey, SFA, if someone had asked me, I would have told you there was nothing to do in downtown Kinston on Saturday afternoon except hit the brewery. So nearly 100 thirsty food fans poured in. The lone bartender was slammed but good natured.

We ordered a tasting flight. “You want all of them?” he said. You bet, we answered. That meant six on the regular printed card with little spaces for the glasses, plus four on the bar to the side.

the rest of the flight

This could be a really short post: I liked them all. Except the Sisters of the Moon IPA, of course. IPAs and I do not play well together. I handed that sample to @DurhamFoodie to help her wash down the ears of corn she snarfed at lunch.

The samples included both a conventional on-tap version of Dark Cloud, a Munich-style dunkel lager, and a nitro pour version, and it was interesting to compare the two. When nitrogen is introduced, the beer typically becomes less carbonated in texture and less acidic in flavor. I certainly noticed both qualities – the beer was as smooth and soft as water, but with a whole lot more flavor. We also compared the conventional and cask-conditioned versions of Second Wind, a pale ale.  Cask conditioning is a process in which a beer retains yeast for a secondary fermentation in a cask in the brewery. The beers are usually unfiltered. The difference in mouthfeel was striking, with the cask-conditioned version being ultra smooth.

The Hub thought a stout using cocoa nibs from Raleigh’s Videri Chocolate Factory in Raleigh, N.C. might be too heavy for a hot June day, but he quickly admitted his error.

The brews change frequently as the brewers experiment and explore flavors. If it wasn’t a 90-minute drive, I’d hop over there regularly to see what’s on tap. Although the taproom doesn’t serve food, it was recently announced that Mother Earth will team up with Chef & the Farmer to open an oyster bar this fall.


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.

Sing a song of collards

A lot of you are cooking them for the big feed tomorrow. Take a break and watch a tribute to the Southern collard: “Leaves of Greens: A Southern Oratorio in Three Parts.”  Yes, a collard opera. The opera, which was inspired by poems from the Ayden Collard Green Festival in North Carolina, was the rousing close to this year’s Southern Foodways Alliance symposium in Oxford, Ms. Find out more about this fabulous organization after you get your dose of collard culture here.

The Cultivated South

The single true thing in the romanticized “Gone With the Wind” is the image of Scarlett O’Hara clutching a hunk of Georgia clay as if she would squeeze life from it. Southerners grab onto the soil – literally or figuratively – and only reluctantly let go. Talks at the recent Southern Foodways Alliance symposium in Oxford, MS., all came down to that link – often broken, sometimes rewoven, frequently emotional – between Southerners and the land. “The Cultivated South” was the theme for this group, whose events mix challenging ideas with a lot of pork products and bourbon. Read more about SFA here.

The land facilitated a desire for connection in Elizabeth Engelhardt’s talk about women who exchanged plants and information via letters in market bulletins in Georgia. Talks by Ragan Sutterfield and Eleanor Finnegan brought up what guidance concerning use of the soil and producing food comes from religious views. Finnegan pointed out that a tenet of the Nation of Islam involves healthy eating.

Discussion of how to bring African-Americans back to farming led to how they left in the first place. Shirley Sherrod told her compelling personal story, of how her father in Georgia was murdered by a white farmer over a land dispute in 1965. Sherrod was with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Georgia before being forced to resign in 2010 over a controversial video of a speech, which a conservative blogger edited to make it appear that she had made racist comments. Sherrod, who has a long history of working for civil rights, pointed out in her SFA talk the many ways in which African-American farmers have been cheated out of their land over the decades, and efforts to encourage them to return.

And, there’s the delight that Southern soil provides, from the pimentos for pimento cheese to mirlitons and collards. Lots of collards, leading up to a collard opera and The Hub’s complaints – not a fan of the leaf, he.

I’ll have more details on the goodies placed before us during the symposium later – I know y’all want to know what we ate. But I walked away reminded that the same clay earth stains every Southerners, whether we see it or not.


Daydreamin’ and still thinkin’ of PC

I still can’t get pimento cheese off my mind after this article. People will try to fuss with pimento cheese, but the beauty of it is in its simplicity. I found a recipe in a Charleston, S.C. Junior League cookbook that even included Grand Marnier. I know Charlestonians like their toddies, but liqueur has no place in PC. I had to just lie down for a while after reading that.

However, using classic pimento cheese in a myriad of ways is perfectly acceptable. On top of a burger, sublime. I remembered eating this sort of pimento cheese fritter at a Southern Foodways Alliance event, and the recipe is in “The Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook.” I haven’t tried to cook this, but I imagine it is tricky to make. But having eaten the finished product, it would be worth it. Having experience at frying cheese sticks might help, or perhaps yelling “Opa!” Of course, you could save a step by purchasing good (I mean GOOD, not that orange goo that tastes like caulking) PC instead of making it, but this is bound to be some good pimento cheese.

Pimento Cheese Hush Puppies from John Currence

Makes about 2 dozen

Pimento Cheese:

6 ounces extra sharp Cheddar cheese, grated (1 1/2 cups)

4 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature

1/3 cup chopped bread-and-butter pickles

3 tablespoons pickle juice

1 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon hot sauce

1/4 cup drained and chopped pimentos

1/4 cup homemade mayonnaise

Salt and fresh cracked pepper

Seasoned flour:

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon onion powder

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 teaspon ground cayenne pepper

1/2 teaspoon paprika

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

Egg wash:

2 large eggs

1/4 cup whole milk

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon hot sauce

Seasoned crumbs:

3 cups panko bread crumbs or seasoned cornmeal

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

Melted lard or peanut oil for frying

To make the pimento cheese: Mix the Cheddar cheese, creams cheese, pickles, pickle juice, cayenne, hot sauce, pimentos and mayonnaise, as well as salt and pepper to taste, in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Cover and refrigerate until firm and well chilled. Mold the chilled pimento cheese into scant 1/2-ounce balls that are about 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Refrigerate until well chilled.

To make the seasoned flour: Sift together the flour, onion powder, garlic powder, cayenne, paprika, cumin, salt and pepper into a bowl and set aside.

To make the egg wash: whisk together the eggs, milk, salt, pepper and hot sauce in a bowl and set aside.

To make the seasoned crumbs: Whisk together the panko, salt and pepper in a bowl and set aside. If you use the seasoned cornmeal instead of the panko, the final product will be more like a traditional hush puppy.

To form and cook the hush puppies: Dredge the pimento cheese balls by coating them in the seasoned flour, then the egg wash, then the seasoned crumbs. There must be no bare spots. Fry at once, or cover and refrigerate for up to several hours. The pimento cheese must stay cold and firm.

Pour melted lard or peanut oil into a deep, heavy skillet or Dutch oven to a depth of at least 3 inches. Heat the oil to 325 degrees. Carefully lower the hush puppies into the hot fat. They must be submerged. Don’t move them or poke at them; otherwise, they will spring a leak and all the pimento cheese will ooze out, ruining both the hush puppies and the oil. Transfer with a slotted spoon to drain on paper towels. Important: Let the hush puppies cool for several minutes before eating or you will end up at the hospital needing a skin graft in your mouth. And we all know where they get that skin for grafting.

Headed South

The pit was dug, the fire department appeased, a row of old theater seats set up for the all-night pitmasters, the wood burned down to perfumed embers. All that remained on the night before the final feast of the Southern Foodways Alliance’s annual  symposium was to add the future centerpieces of the meal: Cow heads. Pit-cooked Barbacoa de Cabeza, if it sounds better to you.

The leap from Mexican barbacoa to the South’s beloved barbecue is but a small one, and that was the point of the Oxford, Ms. event. The symposium, “The Global South,” showed once again that the South is not an easily characterized mass of fried chicken and pecan pie. As a talk by Tom Hanchett, historian of the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, N.C., put it in his talk, we’re more of a salad bowl than a melting pot. Vietnamese fishermen in Louisiana, Chinese grocers in Arkansas, Southern food embraces it all while allowing each to keep their own identities.

But what y’all really want to know is: What did the beef taste like? (No brains, just lovely cheek meat.) It was the smoothest, most tender beef I’ve ever tasted. The shreds sat on top of corn tortillas with a drizzle of crema and an avocado-tomatillo sauce. It was so good, I almost didn’t mind missing the tequila tasting (the line was too long), but considering my past history with the beverage, maybe that was good. There were lighted candles on the tables.

During the weekend, I also traveled culinarily to Florida with lunch by Miami chef Michelle Bernstein, a one-woman salad bowl herself who blends Argentinian and Jewish ancestry. Her lunch menu ranged from fried chicken to Shrimp and Sweet Potato Ceviche, something I think of as being very Miami but with the curve ball of the Southern spud.